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'Meddling' Vs. Information Warfare


So after all of these statements and walkbacks and clarifications, we wanted to try to clarify things or at least try to answer some key questions. So this hour, we are asking, what exactly is Russia accused of doing in the 2016 elections? How did it work? Why is President Trump so committed to close ties with Russia? We'll talk with a Trump biographer about that. More broadly, are closer ties beneficial to U.S. national interests, and if so, why? But first, we're going to talk about the terms of the conversation.

The word meddling has become a term many people are using to describe Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. But now, some are saying a much stronger term is needed. Brian Klaas is one of them. He's a fellow of global politics at the London School of Economics and co-author of the book, "How To Rig An Election." He says the correct term is information warfare. He wrote an opinion piece about this in The Washington Post, and he's with us now from southeast England. Brian Klaas, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

BRIAN KLAAS: Thanks for having me on the program.

MARTIN: Explain why that word meddling doesn't go far enough in your view to describe what the Russians are accused of doing.

KLAAS: The word meddling conjures up images of a man in a mask at the end of "Scooby-Doo." It's something that seems like a nuisance to us. And the Russians think about this in much more military terms. And the reason why I think we need to use the word information warfare to describe this is because it's what Russian military theorists think about and say when they discuss these tactics.

So this is an act of aggression. It's an act that tries to hurt the United States. It is not a nuisance. It is not mere meddling. And the sooner that we label it with the seriousness that it deserves, the sooner that we'll be able to respond to it and to defend ourselves from it because it will happen again in the future.

MARTIN: You're saying that that that is in fact how Russia sees it. And talk a little bit more about the history of this, and how do they see it?

KLAAS: Sure. So there's a series of Russian military theorists basically saying that there is only so much that you can do with bullets and bombs. And sometimes, to defeat a more powerful adversary, you have to use other tactics with information flows. That has become something that people like Igor Panarin, a contemporary scholar in Russia, refer to as information warfare - where they attempt to influence public opinion through manipulation, disinformation, blackmail, et cetera - trying to cause an adversary to inflict damage on itself either by creating a different and more damaging foreign policy or by tearing itself apart through polarization.

And so what the 2016 information warfare effort was, was exactly that. It was trying to polarize the United States and then trying to create a victor in Donald Trump, who would be more willing to advance Russian foreign policy goals on the international stage. And I argue in the piece that he has done exactly that since taking office.

MARTIN: Is this something that the Russians specialize in?

KLAAS: Well, the Russians have perfected this, and they speak about it in scholarship and military strategy more than other countries, but it's not unique to Russia. Russia has weaponized this term of information warfare more effectively than others. And I think what we need to worry about is not just the fact that there will be more ongoing information warfare attacks coming up in the mid-term elections and certainly in the 2020 presidential elections but that this will also spawn copycats because it is clear that there is a playbook to this.

And that's why, you know, with reasonably low financial input and reasonably low military expenditure, you can have a large impact on a much more powerful adversary. Remember that Russia's economy is smaller than Italy's. It's only a little bit bigger than Mexico's. And yet, they are still able to affect decision making in a country that's much more powerful than them.

MARTIN: Why do you think it's important that people see this as an act of war?

KLAAS: Because if they don't, they will think it's not that big of a deal, and it is a big deal. The U.S. was attacked by Russian aggression in this military strategy. The Mueller indictment shows that it was a military tactic coming out of their military intelligence unit. And so if we don't treat it that way, we will under-respond to that threat.

MARTIN: And finally, what can be done to counter this?

KLAAS: Well, that is the million-dollar question in many ways because we cannot simply regulate social media. We cannot simply ban people en masse from saying things in the sort of public square. What we can do a better job of defending against hacking. And we can have more advice and more coordination between people in the security establishment, giving advice to campaigns on both the Democrat and the Republican side on how to defend themselves against the selective information warfare attacks.

Now, beyond that, we're going to have to have a national dialogue about how we deal with social media in the 21st century because one of the things that I'm alarmed about is that the old problem of uninformed voters is being replaced by a new problem of misinformed voters, where people think they know exactly what is happening and they're getting bad information and then making decisions about it.

And that, for democracy, is a core, core problem because the democracy itself is only as good as the value of the information flow coming into voters. And if somebody can manipulate or taint that, then they will be manipulating and tainting the process of electing our officials and therefore the actual decisions that they make once they're in power. And that is the very core of what it means to be a democratic and sovereign nation.

MARTIN: That's Brian Klaas. He's a fellow at the London School of Economics. Professor Klaas, Thanks so much for speaking with us.

KLAAS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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