In a rapidly changing world where something new pops up every now and then, people can seem helpless trying to process the tons of information they receive all around the clock. Thanks to the breakthroughs in information technology, 4G broadband technology has been introduced, among other top-notch techniques, but there is another 4G, more infamous though, that has hit hard the world in recent years. Fourth Generation Warfare, or 4GW, is a term that has surfaced among American paleo-conservatives and in the writings of 4GW proponent William S Lind.
Co-authoring “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation” in 1989, Lind argued that “the fourth-generation battlefield is likely to include the whole of the enemy’s society.” What are the weapons to be employed? The answer, as William S Lind put it, was that “psychological operations may become the dominant operational and strategic weapon in the form of media/information intervention.” In that war, the media will be manipulated to alter domestic and world opinion and a “major target will be the enemy population’s support of its government,” he said.
So, instead of deploying conventional weapons with their different destructive forms, this weapon, among others, has proved itself, particularly as nations have collapsed in the Arab world, to be a weapon of mass destruction. Here, the heavy-water reactor is a smartphone and fake account, and then you have the enemy at the gates ready to fire precisely worded missiles that have the power to send a whole nation into perplexity and chaos. Or, as William S Lind put it, a “small number of people will be able to render great damage in a very short time.”
Using such platforms as Facebook and Twitter among other forms of social media, 4GW has now got off the ground. A simple touch on a “share” button sends shockwaves to millions that are thirsty for knowledge even if this is false. Banking on altering people’s sentiments by posting well-knit stories, 4GW leaves its recipients completely in the dark and unable to tell the genuine from the fake. Its stories have caused ethnic, racial, religious, political, societal and also economic disturbances, relying on just one thing: the audiences’ lack of proper analytic understanding and inability to evaluate the content.
The problem is that the victims, whose stamping ground is social media, spread the word because they re-share the malware-like content among their friends, fellows and families. They also base many of their opinions on what they read in order to show off as well-educated and well-versed when a point of discussion is being debated. Infected victims act as the vectors of a contagious pandemic circulating on a wider scale the venom to which they have succumbed. Never wonder when you hear the same story over and over again where the source remains anonymous because the recipients have heard it on the grapevine. Reaching that goal in itself is a sign that the expedition has been a success and that the mission has been accomplished.
Unfortunately, 4GW has not been deployed as a medium by bot accounts on social media only; rather, even supposedly prestigious news outlets have joined the line. Take the BBC programme Shadow over Egypt as an instance. Published in February 2018, the Irish news presenter Orla Guerin raised much fuss about alleged killings, torture and enforced disappearances in Egypt, citing a young Egyptian woman as a victim of the last. William S Lind predicted a long time ago that “television news may become a more powerful operational weapon than armoured divisions.” Indeed, this BBC documentary has sustained as much damage to Egypt as any powerful conventional weapon could do. Such damage has not only afflicted the nation that is battling terrorism alone in international circles, but it has also turned the minds of its people drastically as well.
As some regard BBC stories as akin to revelations, they have resisted counter-arguments, branding them as government propaganda. Though it was officially revealed that the young lady whom Guerin cited as having been a victim of enforced disappearance was just a runaway who wanted to avoid marrying someone against her family’s will, nobody would listen. This was because people are used to accepting the authority of the BBC, even if the documentary in question was a malicious blend. The BBC documentary instilled in the minds of unaware victims the goal it wanted to achieve: bewilderment, leaving them in a situation that was as clear as mud.
Though technological advance should be an instrument for turning followers into highly knowledgeable leaders given the uninterrupted flow of information, things have turned out in the worst way. Taking unverified stories for granted may be regarded as the plight of the 21st century. Fake stories do not, unfortunately, only take written forms. Thanks to technological advances like Facebook’s deep-fake application, the genie has been let out of the bottle. It is now a walk in the park for any novice to mix sounds unuttered by a given person with others taken out of context.
The Qatari-based Aljazeera TV network has taken the lead in that department. Making use of the popular rage against autocratic regimes during the codenamed Arab Spring, a glittering and catchy codeword by the way, Aljazeera may have eclipsed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s team by applying deep-fake techniques years before Facebook revealed them.
The Doha-based network may claim intellectual property rights. But unfortunately Aljazeera is infested with cameramen, photographers and technicians who tend to zoom in on little details of the larger picture, giving victims of 4GW the impression that a disaster is in the making in order to raise their sentiments against a given government or even against one another within the same target group. The Qatari flagship TV network has also been caught red-handed many times, mixing old footage with new to get things out of proportion and deceive the public. By hiring well-trained staff, it has managed to destroy given societies from within, building on tensions in such Middle Eastern nations as Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and managing to a certain level to implant a set of misconceptions that have become force of habit.
Take a look at Aljazeera’s logo and think it over: is it a mere coincidence that a drop of water in the form of the Earth falls into the ocean? While the Earth sinks, the only thing that floats safely to the surface is the Aljazeera logo, perhaps referring to the statelet of Qatar. No wonder Aljazeera has been tirelessly working on submerging recipients in targeted societies with repetitive and precisely-guided logic bombs, a set of codes introduced into the system of a programme to malfunction only under certain conditions. Those conditions may be price increases, subsidy cuts and rationalisation policies, among others.
In short, Aljazeera and such like have been putting into practice William S Lind’s words that “actions will occur concurrently throughout all the participants’ depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity.” In fact, through the media manipulation that Lind anticipated, the opponent’s “political infrastructure” and “civilian society” become targets.
In the midst of such a fierce war, an effective firewall has seemingly pulled the plug on 4GW campaigners, however. Fact-checking techniques do serve as an antidote to the venomous means of the fourth-generation warfare. Cutting the Gordian Knot, fact-checkers simply trace the root causes of a story by disassembling it, and, like an updated antivirus programme, quarantine the malware. Here the malware is the venomous volume of lies and deceptions neatly mixed with some facts with the goal of misinforming the targeted groups.
Fact-checkers tend to question the content they read, listen to, or even watch, as long as the story does not meet the criteria of being fact-based. They investigate an issue to verify the facts, paying due attention to the factual accuracy of what is being circulated with the goal of saving the victims of unverified stories from deception and misinformation. Though it seems like ploughing a lonely furrow, the work of the fact-checkers pays off as it has been gaining ground day after day among those willing to receive only fact-oriented information.
Being aware of the risky exposure to partial information and its role in misshaping the minds of recipients, Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-American psychologist and economist who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, coined an important term in this respect, namely WYSIATI, or What You See Is All There Is. In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Kahneman points out that people can fall into the trap of jumping to conclusions based on the limited information they receive, being unaware of the missing part of the story they have not had access to.
In reality, many media outlets tend to perform this mission meticulously. They craft good stories in which the partial revealing of the truth is delivered. Under these circumstances, the objective has been attained, though the thin line between fact and fake is no longer defined. Or as William S Lind put it, “the distinction between war (bad) and peace (good) will be blurred to the vanishing point.”
So, how can average users or audiences employ such techniques to safely receive information? The answer is simple: never take any story for granted unless it has been verified. Question the causes of raising a point of discussion, and do not deal with any media outlet whatsoever as if it were revelation. Most importantly, stop misusing social media by re-sharing unsubstantiated stories and grasp the fact that those stories have been neatly designed for you so that you act like a Trojan Horse.
This was once thought of as a signal of victory, while in truth it led to the demise of a whole nation.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.