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Tackling foreign manipulation of public opinion

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Janis Sarts

The Yomiuri ShimbunRIGA — Faced with Russia’s alleged efforts to manipulate public opinion and its interference in elections overseas, such as influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Britain’s Brexit referendum, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has started earnest efforts to counteract these moves.

Janis Sarts, director of the Riga-based NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (see below), an organization providing analyses, policy recommendations and related training that holds its annual dialogue conference from June 12 to 13, explains the current situation and prospects regarding this issue. The following are excerpts from the interview.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: What is the idea of strategic communication?

Janis Sarts: Strategic communication is about using all means of communication, from action, visual, talk, in a coordinated way to materialize one’s strategic goals. In a conflict, one of the key elements to achieve is trying to impose the model of behavior that you want on the opponent. Typically, it has been done through force, but the cost of real military confrontation is high.

Meanwhile, people started to realize that you can do it without resorting to force by manipulating information.

Hence this is becoming more and more the preferred instrument nowadays: how you try to impose your will on the opponent by manipulating the society, the leadership into the way that you want them to behave. That’s what strategic communication is about in a military context.

Q: Could you explain what led to the establishment of the center in 2014?

A: Latvia is the founding state of the organization. There was a constitutional referendum in 2012 in Latvia. A very small group started an initiative to make Russian a second official language, which was not popular at all. But the Kremlin-controlled media urged that every [ethnic] Russian citizen has to go and sign [the initiative], and it changed the dynamic in a very short period of time. The Latvian government saw that Russia was creating capabilities to have a significant impact on political processes in Latvia, which was a worrying sign.

From NATO’s perspective, their initial interest was different. Although NATO’s operation in Afghanistan was practically doing quite well on the military front, the perception of what was happening in Afghanistan was pretty bad, mostly in the West. So there emerged speculation that some information control might be taking place.

These were the two interests that came together and how the decision to establish the center came about, which was before Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine in 2014. Then shooting down the Malaysian Airlines [passenger plane] occurred in 2015. All of that contributed to the development of the center.

Q: What is your view on Russia’s infiltration worldwide?

A: It has increased. Russia increasingly has diverted to this tool of influencing operations, such as their actions in U.S. presidential elections and French presidential elections. Recently, we’ve seen their involvement in the referendum for Catalonia independence. We are now seeing some Russian activities in the Mexican presidential campaign. It’s comparatively cheap and in some cases it is a very effective way to make the situation difficult. Thus the international attention toward their activities, especially in Europe, has become bigger.

What we’ve seen right now is that the way humans process information is changing profoundly because of technology. Technology is now driving the way we consume information. In this environment, the Russian operation is actually more effective than it has ever been because it is much more permissive. So all of what Russia does is because there is a profound change in information consumption, which has a big impact on societies. People’s ability to hear the opposing view is diminished.

Q: Russia is taking advantage of the progress of technology, including social media and the internet.

A: Yes. Because Russia is not a real democratic state, it seeks to control internal discourses and internal sentiments. They basically develop most of these techniques for their internal audiences and then they reapply them outside.

Most of the methods are basically the same that were used in the Cold War, with some digital twists.

I draw a parallel between the famous story about the KGB planting the story that AIDS has been developed by the CIA. It took years to plant and grow this story. Now you make up 10 conspiracy theories and put them online. In two days you see which one is surviving, which gets more traction, and then you start nurturing it with your PopNet, with trolls and boost it. In a week’s time, it’s a huge story. In the past, it took a lot of careful planning, deliberate, and years. Nowadays, you are able to have the same effect in a week.

Our research found last year that 85 percent of Russian Twitter [messages] referring to NATO and the three Baltic countries — Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania — was created by robotic accounts. It’s just robots. Then the next layer is the data people leave on social media. Psychological profiles, behavioral habits, incomes, belief systems, all of that can be put together for millions of people. If you know these things, you will have a theoretical possibility to understand those people in great detail. Russia is the one that is most keen to convert such technology into a weapon.

Q: Currently your major target, or area of research and analysis, is Russia.

A: Yes. We look at Russia and terrorist organizations. The way terrorist organizations’ users influence operations and information space is something we research. And we look at specific topics such as weaponizing social media and the malicious use of big data. We’re also helping nations to protect election integrity, which has been topical in Europe for these past two to three years.

China a powerful player

Q: What does the situation in Asia look like?

A: China is going to be the key competitor in this area, not Russia, because their investment in big data is huge, so they’re really going to be a very powerful player. Russia does not have in-house resources. They’re just looking to what others are doing and trying to see how they can transfer it into a weapon. That’s one of their strengths, but technologically, I think China is a really significant player.

The Chinese approach to data sets is different from Western societies. In China it works in a different way, where the state requires their status to be accessible. That gives a good platform for understanding data better, for developing good JavaScript algorithms based on that. They’re investing a lot of money for innovation in this area, while Russia is merely using already established Western platforms that were invented in Silicon Valley.

Q: Japanese is not one of the major languages in the world. Is the so-called language barrier putting Japan in a different situation from English-speaking countries?

A: No. Actually, you have an added problem in my view. I would assume there are these robotic and other networks existing in your social media. If you monitor these systems, after some time you can tell. There is quite a good level of accuracy of who is most likely the owner of those. But what we can tell from our research is that these noncentral languages are most likely being not as well protected.

Our evidence says that, at least in the languages we’ve seen, noncentral languages are less policed and therefore, there’s more infiltration. If I had to judge what is happening relative to any foreign actors, I would look at any of the discussions related to contentious issues, such as the northern territories dispute with Russia or the history issues with China. I would see what is happening in that, and then do the analysis and see whether there is any coordinated activity.

We have received groups of visitors from Japan. With one of the groups, we talked recently about the information and cognitive security of the Tokyo Olympic Games. For any big global event, we have to think about new angles of security, and this information and cognitive security is increasingly a major factor.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun senior political writer Keiko Iizuka, who is based in London.

Janis Sarts / Director of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence

Sarts, 45, was appointed to his current position in 2015. He began his career in Latvia’s Defense Ministry after graduating from the faculty of history at the University of Latvia in 1994. Within three years, he was promoted to director of the Defense Policy Department, where he was in charge of development and implementation of Latvia’s annual national plans for acquiring membership in NATO, a goal that was achieved in 2004. He headed the defense section of Latvia’s delegation to NATO and the EU in Brussels. He was appointed as a special adviser to Georgia on defense reforms and NATO integration plans. As the state secretary, Sarts has led defense reforms, developed a new state defense concept and encouraged regional defense cooperation within NATO and the EU.

■ NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence

One of NATO’s core research institutions, the center was established in Riga in 2014 to deal with issues such as foreign actors’ manipulation of public opinion and interference in elections. While the center is not under the direct command of NATO, it presents policy recommendations and provides necessary training to NATO headquarters and NATO member states. At present, 14 countries participate in the center, including the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Britain, Germany and Italy. Researchers and other personnel from governments, military forces, academic circles and private entities are stationed at the center.Speech

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