We must learn how to deal with the global war on information because the war against disinformation is equivalent to the war with weapons.
It is exactly 60 years since the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the term “the global village.” In his book The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan describes how the world has become ever more connected as a result of electronic networking to the point that people have finally come to live in a global village. The prophets of the technocene have jumped on this notion like fleas on freely flowing hair — flag bearers of the positive message that networking will lead humanity to peace and understanding.
Sometimes it helps to read a book before you start peddling buzzwords. In McLuhan’s case, it shows that he never interpreted the global village as humanity’s dream of peace. Rather, he thought that the warlike societies of the past would be reactivated through comprehensive networking: “As in prehistoric times, today we are living in a global village that we have created in a simultaneous happening. It doesn't necessarily mean harmony and tranquility, but it does mean enormous interference in the affairs of others.”
And since last Thursday, we know he was right.
With the war of aggression against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has exposed himself as the chief of an all-to-distant tribe. Worldwide attention on what is happening in Ukraine, the reactions of NATO and the European Union, the visible and invisible acts of confrontation with physical and virtual weapons show that we have entered a new era. A time when every understanding and misunderstanding on the world stage is simultaneously possible.
It is a time of hybrid warfare in which the free market of information exists side-by-side with the black market of disinformation. A time in which the Ukrainian President Zelensky can speak to the world via video on his mobile phone while cyberattacks repeatedly paralyze parts of the Ukrainian Internet, economy, and government.
This is the first global war of information or “World War Wired,” as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman describes it. It did not begin last Thursday, but eight years ago. Looking back, it appears that Putin's Russia has worked consistently since then to wage a disinformation war against much of the world, especially the West. Ukraine has always been the medium of his efforts.
It began at the end of 2013 with the demonstrations against the pro-Russian President Yanukovych in Maidan Square in Kiev. Yanukovych was forced to flee, and shortly thereafter Russian troops occupied Crimea. Since then, 14,000 people have died in Ukraine as a result of the conflict, a state of crisis that has received less and less attention in recent years. An active disinformation strategy, such as the one rolled out in the aftermath of the Crimean annexation, had not previously existed in this way.
The actions of Russian intelligence became digital propaganda on steroids through social media: comprehensive, invisible, and far from limited to Ukraine. As the FBI laid out in the Mueller Report, a detailed 448-page forensic analysis of the 2016 US election, Russian disinformation was just as consistently directed against the United States. As a result, some eyewitnesses are still arguing about what really happened. It can be rather simply summed up: Putin hijacked the election with the help of his hacker troops and helped Trump win through targeted data leaks.
Even today, many observers lack the courage to call this attack what it was: contemporary warfare. Instead, even the Mueller Report speaks of Russia having “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in a comprehensive and systematic manner.” Manipulating the most important momentum of a democracy is not a game. Nor is it interference, but a violent act to restore an undemocratic, outdated order.
It is not only politics that must deal with this new form of information warfare. Companies also need to know that this won’t only take place during electoral battles and the manipulation of campaigns. It can also hit their own IT systems. In the days leading up to the visible attack by Putin’s troops on Ukraine, many initially invisible attacks with malware occurred on government institutions, the financial and energy sectors in Ukraine, as well as in Latvia and Lithuania.
The most destructive cyberattack to date by the malware “Notpetya” in 2017 also originated from Russian military hackers and was initially targeted at Ukraine. Within hours, the ransomware had spread to other countries and their companies, crippling the ships of the Danish logistics company Maersk, the pharmaceutical company Merck, and the French construction group Saint-Gobain, causing tens of billions of dollars in damage.
“We lack a sense of reality when it comes to our Disney World, which we want to hold on to in the Western world,” Telekom CEO Tim Höttges told Handelsblatt last Thursday. We will have to adapt to this variant of cyber warfare in the global village. The fight for information and against disinformation is equivalent to the war with weapons. Not every attack is immediately visible. But a war is a war. And that is how it should be referred to before a country is invaded.