Exploring Gray Zones and LikeWar

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I picked up two inside-the-Beltway buzzy expressions.

The first was: two finger. As in, “I have a two-finger,” or “I’d like to make a two-finger.”

This expression was used over and over again at the all-day conference I was attending at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). I kind of got the gist of it — basically: I have something to say. But hearing it made me realize: I really am out of the Washington loop. Having left a little over three years ago, I’m no longer current on the wonky conference lingo.

I asked a friend who’s very much still in that loop what this “two finger” business was all about, and she set me straight, “I think it means I have something to say that I think is really pertinent/relevant to whatever was just said. Like, ‘Call on me right now even though I just put my hand up and other people have been waiting to get called on for a longer time.’”

Adding, “99.7 percent of two fingers are perpetrated by men.”

It was no surprise that so many people — men and women — were needing to make a two-finger at CSIS that day. We were have a fascinating discussion about a second buzzy D.C. expression: the gray zone.

Folks have been talking and writing about the so-called “gray zone” for a while, but this is the first time I can remember hearing the term, even though the gray zone and what goes on there is what I’ve been thinking about — along with pretty much everyone else trying to decipher what happened during the 2016 election — for the last few years.

“In engaging in a gray zone strategy, an actor seeks to avoid crossing a threshold that results in war.” This was part of the working definition for gray zone at CSIS. Or, as terrorism expert Colin Clarke describes it, the gray zone is “an area of ambiguity that sits uncomfortably between peace and war.”

Although she didn’t describe it as “gray” then, Nadia Schadlow, who recently served on the National Security Council, wrote in 2014 that it was crucial to understand that the “space between war and peace is not an empty one – but a landscape churning with political, economic, and security competitions that require constant attention.”

Examples of gray zone activity: Russians pretending to be American voters online to foment discord and spread apathy and thereby undermine U.S. elections, the Chinese possibly inserting microchips on computer servers being used by top U.S. companies and government agencies, or Iran spreading its influence via support for proxy forces in neighboring countries. Some of these tactics are age-old and some are brand new, especially those that harness today’s social media platforms, where deception and disinformation have been shown to flourish.

The day-long conversation at CSIS essentially boiled down to: Is the U.S. winning or losing in the gray zone? To compete there, does it require playing dirty? What are the obstacles to doing so as a rule-of-law nation? Are the very norms that restrict U.S. behavior the source of American strength in the same sphere? If we don’t play dirty, what are the costs? If the U.S. is actually getting beat in the gray zone, how much is self-inflicted versus U.S. competitors truly having the upper hand? How can the U.S. strengthen and protect itself against gray zone tactics?

With my head still buzzing with buzzy terms, I boarded my train back to New York City and pulled out the book I had packed for the trip: LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, by Peter Singer and Emerson Brooking.

If ever there was a book to cap off a day of gray-zone discussion, this was it. I immediately dove back into the very same questions and themes that preoccupied us all day, and are clearly front and center for Washington policymakers and those thinking about U.S. national security today.

“This is a book about how a new kind of communications became a new kind of war,” Singer and Emerson write in the book’s opening. The title “LikeWar” suggests that what’s going on online is like war, as in, it bears a resemblance to war, but it’s also a play on the idea that it’s a war for “likes” … and retweets, and followers, and all the rest.

“And in this sort of war, Western democracies find themselves at a disadvantage. Shaped by Enlightenment, they seek to be logical and consistent. Shaped by notions of transparency, they seek to be accountable and responsible. These are the qualities that made them so successful, the form of government that won both world wars and the contest of superpowers in the last century. Unfortunately, they are not the values of a good troll …”

To research the book, the two spoke to everyone from retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (during the period when he was transitioning from the private sector to becoming an outspoken figure on the Trump campaign) to Spencer Pratt, an infamous reality tv star who was quick to understand the power of narrative in this new space.

When the authors spoke to Flynn, he was clear-minded about how the new social media landscape made it harder for governments, companies and individuals to keep secrets. Speaking as a former spy chief at the Pentagon, Flynn was grappling with what this would mean for the U.S. intelligence community.

“Publicly available information is now probably the greatest means of intelligence that we could bring to bear,” he told Singer and Brooking. Mining and harvesting the vast trove of open-source data would mean overhauling how U.S. intelligence agencies approached their jobs, Flynn believed.

After interviewing him, the authors watched as Flynn, and his Twitter account, begin to transform.

Flynn had started his personal Twitter account, @GenFlynn, in 2011 with a tweet linking to a news article on Middle East politics. Not a single person had replied or retweeted it. But as he entered politics, Flynn’s persona changed dramatically. His feed began to push out messages of hate (“Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” he fumed in one widely shared tweet), anti-Semitism (“Not anymore, Jews. Not anymore,” he retweeted to his followers in another, referring to the news media), and one wild conspiracy theory after another. He alleged, in a later-deleted tweet, that Hillary Clinton was involved with “Sex Crimes w Children,” and that if she won the election, she would help erect a one-world government to outlaw Christianity. To wild acclaim from his new Twitter fans, Flynn even posted on #spiritcooking, an online conspiracy theory that claimed Washington, D.C., elites regularly gathered at secret dinners to drink human blood and semen. That message got @GenFlynn more than 4,800 likes.

Sure, these tweets seem unhinged and hateful, but they also revealed an understanding of what is most powerful online: anger.

As part of their research into what makes things go viral, Singer and Brooking looked at a 2013 study by Chinese data scientists who poured over conversations on the social media platform Weibo.

Analyzing 70 million messages spread across 200,000 users, they discovered that anger was the emotion that traveled the fastest and farthest through the social network — and the competition wasn’t even close.

Russian bots and sock-puppet accounts fed on this human impulse during the 2016 election, pumping out disinformation and conspiracy theories meant to confuse and enrage voters, thereby influencing how they might vote on Election Day, but also encouraging them to retweet and share their outrage.

It’s crucial to identify and expose these fake accounts, but just as important is to steel the American mind from such easy manipulation. As the authors write, “Information literacy is no longer merely an educational issue but a national security imperative.”

Governments need to take this new battleground seriously, the authors argue, but it’s also a fight that we each take part in every time we get online, exposing ourselves to disinformation and manipulation from unknown sources. This makes our own personal actions — what we believe and share online — an integral part of safeguarding U.S. national interests.

Singer and Brooking close the book with this thought: “In this new world, the same basic law applies to us all: You are now what you share. And through what you choose, you share what you truly are.”

I thought this was such a great quote, I tweeted it.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).