Perception has always played an important, and often understated, role in warfare. Before a nation can wage war on its enemies, it must first convince its populous of two things: the first is that an enemy indeed exists, and the second is that the threat presented by said enemy can only be mitigated through force. We see this song and dance in the United States each time tensions begin to rise with a national opponent: Defense officials, and in turn, journalists seem to devote the entirety of their attention to the unavoidable threat presented by Iran’s aggressive behavior in the Middle East, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Iraq’s hidden weapons of mass destruction, or Iraq’s brutal killing of babies in Kuwait, and so forth.
These media campaigns aren’t inherently nefarious from a national security standpoint: When an opponent presents a clear and present danger to a nation’s security or prosperity, sometimes war is the unavoidable result — and a nation’s government and military needs popular support to win that war. These techniques, however, are as old as politics and storytelling — and what we’re seeing in the digital world of 21st century warfare is another thing entirely.
These aforementioned examples all relate to the American government engaging with the American public by way of its media apparatus. This system, while ripe with flaws, draws strength from its reliance on dialogue and debate: vetting sources, facts, and positions before a piece goes to print and then being forced to defend assertions against broad public scrutiny. Nations like Russia, North Korea, and Turkey, however, have learned the distinct value of engaging with foreign populations directly, circumventing the media’s adversarial approach and instead leveraging information we offer up readily to better engage each of us as individuals through tactics one might find in any Marketing 101 text book.
Sometimes, the approach is about establishing a common ground and incorporating a national position into it (“I really know what you mean about needing a border wall near Mexico, we have the same problem with the Kurds!”), other times it’s about the volume of messages delivered (because of source amnesia, you’ll begin to accept something you see often enough as true). Often, these campaigns involve using bots or computer operatives to pose as Americans in dialogue, whereas other efforts are tailored specifically to suit trending topics, using up-to-date meme templates and hashtags to advance a narrative.
These approaches yield different results depending on the circumstance. It would be hard, for instance, to convince Americans that England is no longer a valuable ally. However, it’s much easier to sway opinions about complex topics that are already politicized and for which many Americans simply don’t have the time to be well versed in. Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria perfectly represents this sweet spot between controversy and ignorance: it’s a topic many Americans feel the need to take a position on, but it’s so complex and politically interwoven that it can be difficult to fully grasp the entirety of the concept. In that confused space, there’s ample opportunity to inject national narratives into personal conversation on social media in a way that can sway perceptions.
If you’re looking for evidence of how powerful social media can be when it comes to conflict, you need look no further than national attempts at curbing their opponent’s ability to post content that would run counter to their own narratives. Turkey, as a recent example, began their offensive into Syria by blocking access to popular social media sites and applications like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp in communities near the border. Blocking these pages limited access to outside news sources and prevented those closest to the fighting from posting images, videos, or experiences as the battles commenced.
Social media is where a lot of Turkish people will [go to] receive reliable news now,” explained Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy at civil liberty watchdog Freedom House. “With everything happening in the southeast regarding the conflict now in Syria, it’s not surprising that the Turkish authorities have resorted to this wide-ranging crackdown on social media.”
That’s not the only way Turkey is working to keep perceptions of their Syrian offensive positive. Turkish police have already arrested 78 Turkish citizens for social media posts that were critical of the Syrian offensive. Turkey’s national police claimed that these posts “incited hatred” toward Turkish officials, military, and law enforcement — echoing language prominent in America’s own heated debates regarding social media as a means to incite violence.
But preventing dissenting voices from being heard is only one piece of the narrative-control pie. In order to be effective, you also need prominent figures making statements in your corner that dominate the news-side of the media and of course, plenty of content posted by regular seeming folks that support your national position. That’s where the infamous “troll farms” or “bots” come in. These are both terms used to describe a concerted effort to create thousands of social media accounts that don’t acknowledge their ties to a formal government and actively try to dominate or sway public conversation regarding the topic at hand.
And that’s precisely what we’ve been seeing out of Turkey. Right around the same time Turkish troops started lobbing shells in the vicinity of American forces on October 10th, the hashtag #BabyKillerPKK saw more than 118,000 mentions on Twitter in just 12 hours. This coincided with hundreds of thousands of more tweets that used the hashtags #PKK and #YPG either together or interchangeably — seemingly intentionally blurring the line between these two groups.
“Some of the accounts were incredibly primitive, with alphanumerical handles and no profiles pictures, indicating that the operators had likely used automation software to generate the accounts without bothering to personalize them further,” Researchers from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, Zarine Kharazian and Alyssa Kann, pointed out.
This is one of those instances where the muddy waters of foreign policy lend themselves well to perception management. There are indeed ties between these two groups, but the Syrian Democratic Forces partnered with the United States in Northern Syria were largely comprised of YPG fighters, whereas the PKK is broadly considered a terrorist group. Part of Turkey’s longstanding media-campaign (in both social and news spheres) has been to construe both as one and the same. Often, Turkish officials have lumped ISIS into this mix as well, acting as though all of these groups are one entity.
The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched #OperationPeaceSpring against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists in northern Syria. Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area.
— Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (@RTErdogan) October 9, 2019
YPG is the same organization as the PKK, in which the world included in the list of terrorists by alliance. Thousands of civilians including innocent childrens massacred by those terrorist groups in Turkey and Syria.#TurkeyisnotAlone#BabyKillerPKK pic.twitter.com/IRE0ghnZVZ
— Eyüp KILIÇ (@anlamayacalisan) October 10, 2019
The reasons behind this are easy to surmise: the world is ripe for a narrative about engaging terrorists in the Middle East — in the minds of most in the Western World, that’s the sort of business as usual we’ve grown accustomed to glossing over. An offensive against America’s partnered Syrian Democratic Forces, however, isn’t quite so easy to sell.
Of course, these efforts are far broader that a single social media platform or military offensive. In a very real sense, war has become a continuous facet of the 21st century digital domain, with each nation working to find ways to leverage their abilities to engage news media and foreign populations in various direct and indirect ways. These Grey Zone operations (or aggressive acts that don’t cross the threshold into acts of war) include infiltrating power grids and other essential forms of infrastructure, using economic leverage to silence opposing views, and of course, convincing you — the American public — of things you might not otherwise have an opinion about.
Because of international public opinion regarding Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds in Northern Syria, the United States established (and then lifted) financial sanctions against the Turkish government, several European nations including Germany, the Netherlands, and France have instituted arms embargoes against Turkey, and Volkswagen suspended plans to build a factory that would provide the nation with 4,000 additional jobs.
You may not think your opinion about Turkey matters, but you and the rest of the country add up to a 330-million strong populous that American lawmakers have to answer to following policy decisions. Russia knows your opinion matters. Turkey knows your opinion matters. It’s time that you realized it too.
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