The following are my introductory remarks for a panel at NATO’s Riga StratCom Dialogue. I entitled these remarks “Global Non-linear Memetic Warfare Is Here — Practical Recommendations for NATO Members”
Thanks for the opportunity to be here with you. My name is Jeff Giesea. I’m an entrepreneur by background, living in Washington DC. I’ve written two papers on the topic of memetic warfare. The first, “It’s time to embrace memetic warfare” was published in 2015 in the first edition of Defence Strategic Communications (see pg 68). The second, “Hacking hearts and minds: How memetic warfare is transforming cyberwar,” was published this April by NATO’s Open Publications.
In this brief talk, I’d like to do two things: First, to acknowledge that we are entering an era of global, non-linear, memetic warfare. Much of the talk during the conference today has focused on state-on-state information war. I believe the situation is more complex. Second, I’d like to offer a few practical recommendations for NATO member countries. My main message is to be more proactive. I don’t believe we can afford to sit on the sidelines, so forgive me for being a bit of a provocateur on this topic.
Memetic warfare can be a confusing concept, so let me define it: Memetic warfare is competition over narrative, ideas, and social control in the social-media battlefield. One might think of it as a subset of information operations or psychological warfare tailored to social media. One can think of memetic warfare more broadly as narrative or cognitive conflict — the battle for hearts and minds that increasingly takes place online.
Two years ago when I wrote my first paper on memetic warfare, few understood what I was talking about. Today, phrases like fake news, Russian active measures, troll armies, and memes are part of everyday dialogue. Explaining memetic warfare is easier, but unfortunately the underlying challenges have intensified.
Indeed, the weaponization of memetics is everywhere and seems to be taking place as much within our countries as between our countries. I say memetic conflict is non-linear because the lines are often blurry: What is domestic versus foreign? What is part of a healthy exchange of ideas versus something more nefarious? At what point does memetic conflict become actual warfare?
I know most of us are here to look at it from a national security perspective, so let’s talk about its complexity in this light.
Think about Wikileaks. In March Wikileaks released the Vault 7 files detailing the CIA’s cyberwarfare capabilities. This was the memetic equivalent of a tactical nuke: It was an intentional, massive leak of highly sensitive information. It was weaponized for distribution across social media for a purpose that appears to be to weaken and embarrass the US. How do we think about this? Is Wikileaks a publisher, an extension of Russia (as some speculate), or something else?
Or think about Daesh. Daesh relies on the virtual realm to spread its message, radicalize new members, and coordinate remote-control attacks. It is a hybrid, open-source insurgency. How do we deal with a non-state actor like this — that uses our openness against us, that operates both within and outside our borders, that actively weaponizing memetics to advance its objectives?
Finally, there is Russia. Russia uses memetic warfare as a form of asymmetric conflict to advance its geopolitical objectives, often in a sort of privateering model. Even here the lines are blurry. If a Russian oligarch hires a US PR firm to run an influence campaign promoting CalExit (the separation of California from the United States), what do we make of it? Is this a PR campaign or an act of warfare? How do we think about this?
In the spirit of advancing this dialogue, I’d like to offer some practical recommendations for NATO member nations. This is intended as a conversation starter.
- Recognize the realities of today’s information environment. Based on remarks during this conference, a change of consciousness already is taking place. This is a big difference from two years ago. But there is still work to be done: We must bring our colleagues up to speed and continue raising public awareness. And we must cultivate a sense of perspective and precision in the way we talk about these issues.
- Incorporate memetic warfare into high-level strategic thinking. Memetic warfare is not just a tactical-operational tool but a form of strategic information warfare. Thus, we need to reexamine our defense budgets, training programs, threat assessments, and strategic priorities in this light. In my “Hacking Hearts and Minds” paper, I note that cyberwar is talked about solely in terms of hacking computers and networks. I believe we should be just as concerned about the hacking of hearts and minds, and our democratic systems, as we are about hacking networks.
- Start a dialogue about the proper role of memetics in our democracies. Memetic warfare raises a lot of questions — legally, ethically, bureaucratically, and doctrinally. Different countries will have different answers, but it is a conversation we should all advance. For example: How should our countries update our legal systems to address this? How do we maintain free speech while cracking down on fake news? Today it is easier to drop bombs in Syria or Iraq than it is to run a denigration campaign. Should it be? These topics need discussion.
- Aggressively invest in defensive memetic warfare. In the current environment, NATO countries cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. We must invest in active, tactical defense against memetic warfare. I was talking to an Austrian journalist during this evening’s dinner. He raised an interesting question: In the Austrian election this October, how can they detect whether there is foreign influence? Is there some sort of radar system? This is what we need to work towards. Along these lines, here are five quick ideas for building defensive capacity: 1. Create a “foreign influence commission” to monitor foreign influences on democratic processes. 2. Invest in digital forensics capabilities and related technologies to track influence and identify perpetrators, where appropriate. 3. Develop a sort of digital counter-insurgency force working with hactivists and third-parties like the Lithuanian elves. 4. In the context of broader warfare, consider using kinetic force to seek and destroy foreign memetic warfare cells. The US did this earlier this year when it led an airstrike to kill the editor of an English-language Daesh magazine in Syria. 5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, build relationship with social networks. Their power in defining the parameters of memetic warfare cannot be overstated.
- Develop offensive memetic warfare capabilities. Obviously, this is more sensitive, but here are a few practical places to start. 1. Update training modules for military, diplomatic, and intelligence professionals to help develop related skills. 2. Engage in memetic war-gaming exercises — check out DARPA’s Red Balloon challenge as an example. 3. Build relationships with Internet trolls. There is much to learn from the trolling community, some of which I detail in my “Hacking hearts and minds paper.” 4. Finally, give those in your organizations who manage digital diplomacy more freedom to maneuver and experiment. Sometimes it’s the little things that make the most difference.
- Develop a stronger sense of our selves — a memetic strength and resilience. I like what Matt Armstrong said earlier today: That this topic is really about us and what we want for the future. I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps the deepest and most profound thing we can do to thrive in this era of global, non-linear memetic warfare is to develop a stronger grand narrative. By this I mean a stronger sense of who are we, what it is we are really protecting, and what it is that we want to create and achieve. This — our grand narrative, our identity — is where this dialogue needs to go. It is where we will find both resilience and strength.
There is a lot more I’d like to say, but I will leave it at this.
Let me end with a quote by Victor Hugo: “One withstands the invasion of armies; One does not withstand the invasion of ideas.”
So please, be proactive. Thank you.