Wednesday, 23 December 2015

On Agents of Influence

(Originally on 21 Dec. 2015)

Some time ago, I was enquired what are those agents of influence I had written about. Agent of influence is one of the roles in which an agent can work on behalf of a foreign power. The role and working ways of an agent of influence are quite different from those of, for example, an agent provocateur or a useful idiot – two other types often mentioned in texts about information warfare.

An agent can act on behalf of other players also, besides foreign states – companies and corporations, political parties, lobbies, and even civil society organizations use agents. The so called change agents constitute an example of the consult jargon that has spread to civil society. This article deals primarily with agents working for a foreign government in Finland, but the principle is the same also in private sector, and especially so in regard to agents of influence because they do much the same that lobbyists and change agents do – i.e. try to influence matters and affairs in favour of their agenda.

Agents of influence are usually found to be more difficult to expose and counteract, compared with such agents of foreign powers who do things like steal secret documents, bribe officials of railways and the post or the cleaning-lady of a defence institution's IT centre, install explosives, or cultivate a terrorist group to destabilize a country. This is for the reason that agents of influence very often do not need to break laws in any way.

Unlike lobbyists openly working to promote the interests of let's say eastern trade, agents of influence act in a more conspiratorial manner and seek to conceal the fact they work for a foreign power. Their effect is much bigger if they manage to present themselves as 'impartial' or even experts and authorities of the issues in question.

In some occasions they may also use the so-called false flag – meaning they would claim to represent quite different an interest party than the one they really work for. In such cases there may be similarity to the actions of provocateurs, who commonly use the false flag as they seek to foment controversies, incite hatred against a group, or just divert attention and move the gravitational centre of the opinion spectrum. False flag is rarer with the agents of influence. Much more common for them is to present their agenda as 'impartial' and 'pragmatic'. As agents of influence are supposed to be taken seriously, provocateurs take care of the loud barking, which indeed makes the message of the agents of influence appear moderate.

Russia has penetrated all systems in Finland on such a high and deep systemic levels that she can obtain any relevant information available in Finland, if she so wishes. Russia's capacity enables her to analytically or operatively utilize information available in Finland in more effective and focused manner than what Finland's own capacity allows. It is exactly in the analysis and operationalization of information where the Finnish capacities are rather weak. Finland is able to utilize information available in her own country, let alone elsewhere, only to the extent within her limited capacities.

Therefore, Russian agents need not concentrate in traditional espionage. In a country as open as Finland, the main task of Russian operatives is influence, not espionage – however, this does not refute the fact that Russia is overwhelmingly the most active and the most aggressive actor also in espionage. It is nothing new that in Russian information warfare influence takes priority over espionage. This was the case also in the Soviet times, which has been discussed in public for instance by the KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov.

The Finns had better understand especially how crucial role activities of influence have as compared to the illegal methods used in espionage. I am afraid that in the stubbornly legalist Finland this is still not quite understood, as discussion is still centred at the protection from traditional espionage, terrorism, and cyber threats targeting vital infrastructure. Not at the integrity of information content – that is, at knowing things – which is the target of the most intensive efforts of Russian agents.

The targets of the agents of influence include what Finns think they know, which situational understanding they have, what opinions they hold of things, where is their attention – and through the influence in these what is called 'reflexive control' in the terms of Russian information warfare takes place. That means, the target is successfully manipulated to act in the way desired by the manipulator, through compromising influence in his informational integrity.

Finland does not seem to find ways to counteract against agents of influence in any way because the latter are unlikely to commit to anything illegal. The country has a long tradition of exclusion, on purely ideological grounds (the so-called 'general reasons'), those opinions and individuals that were deemed anti-Soviet in the old times or anti-Russian in contemporary terms from the acceptable consciousness. Yet the reverse has proven very hard in Finland. An agent of influence may act however strikingly and yet no control mechanisms for his exclusion take place, not even in the most critical tasks regarding national security and informational integrity.

It is in most cases not illegal to lie and to manipulate, and this is truer still in regard to more subtle methods. Finnish mentality is conditioned to watch over decency and good manners in various, more irrelevant matters, yet when it comes to the 'general reasons', legal offenses need to be rather blatant before anyone deems it appropriate, or even possible, to do anything. It sometimes seems there's no limit to those offenses even at high treason or at support for terrorism, if 'general reasons' are in question.

If Finland does not fix the basic systemic problems in informational interest and informational ideology, there is a risk that new investments in electronic intelligence, costly technological solutions, or information bying from external subcontractors may actually only constitute subvention of the adversary's intelligence from Finnish tax revenues.

What kind of things, then, are the agents of influence engaged with?

It is logical to assume that they do at least two kinds of things: Firstly, they spread information and opinions that support their agenda. Secondly, they seek to prevent the spread of information and opinions that run counter to their agenda.

In the first case their impact is similar to that of propaganda, but it is usually more focused and sophisticated. Agents of influence whisper to the ears of decision-makers and opinion-makers – for example, politicians, civil servants, journalists, and academics. In the second case, they seek to form filters and obstacles to the ears of the mentioned groups, to obstruct reception of correct information and undesired opinions, for example by discreditation, questioning, and conditioning such information and opinions.

Spreading wrong or biased information is typical activity for agents of influence. The information operations they conduct or support are often detectable by their calculated timing. It usually happens in the very situations when Russia has an interest in spreading false information or in changing the topic. An influence agent's informational operation is often also synchronized to coincide with the flooding of similar or similarly inclined content by the media-distributed propaganda machinery and troll factories.

Influence to attitudes and opinions is another form of activity, more long-termed and often more difficult to detect. It consists of manipulation of the opinion spectrum of decision-makers and opinion-makers as well as the general public opinion. Russian information operations targeting attitudes have sought, for instance, to generate negative conditioning towards Moscow's opponents and entire nationalities. This has resulted in unconscious negative or at least suspicious 'gut feelings' towards those peoples who have stood on the way of the aggressions of Russia or her allies – for example Chechens, Albanians, the Baltics, and Georgians. Finns have occasionally been quite eager to resort to condescension and mock at small East European nations, let alone further-away ones, without noticing their attitudes have fallen prey to manipulation.

Individual people are also targeted with similar methods of manipulation: agents of influence seek to generate negative or ridiculing conditioning towards critics of the Kremlin, politicians, intellectuals, researchers, or journalists. Many Finns, who may consider themselves serious and respectable, hardly notice how they add to the choir of mock and undermining, although in regard to someone else, those parts of their brains that call for respect and rational approach would immediately be activated at such. Manipulation of attitudes usually affects through emotional conditioning.

Propaganda is often divided into white and black propaganda, and this is the case also with information operations and influence to attitudes. What is basically true, or meant to enhance positive image, is called white propaganda – it is also practiced by Western countries, including Finland seeking to spread information and reports that are flattering to the country such as the Pisa results, or beautiful and pure ideas of Finland. Black propaganda is more characteristic to actors like Russia: it doesn't shun outrageous lies or smear campaigns. There are naturally various shades of grey between black and white propaganda.

Another standard practice of the agents of influence is to brand certain subjects by stirring controversies. When those topics that are particularly sensitive to the 'general reasons' are branded as controversial, rational conversation on them becomes difficult. Discussion gets polarized and emotional, which in the Finnish culture works particularly well in favour of the manipulators.

Agents of influence are skilled to exploit the cultural characteristics of their target society. Finns are rendered vulnerable to influence by many oddities of our communication culture. As an example, Finns are exceptionally touchy about dissent in opinions, and they generally seek to avoid debate, taking it personal and considering it a threat to the desired consensual state of communication. In contrast, Finns overrate vagueness and purposeless verbosity when it helps to avoid expressing opinions Рoften at the same time at the expense of also content. It is an old clich̩ that Finns ceaselessly wonder what the others think of them, but not a baseless one. Finns consider it wise to remove from topics that risk bringing up debate Рthat is, differing opinions. The Finnish culture is one of avoiding communication and certainly preferring silence to dissent.

Finland also has a culture of avoiding responsibility, although this may be a rather new cultural phenomenon. Opinions are usually expressed in passive form, or otherwise in a way that would make it seem as if the speaker doesn't express his own opinion but rather something 'generally thought', or an idea originating somewhere else. It enables the speaker to avoid responsibility for what he states. This characteristic of the Finnish culture makes the work of an agent of influence easier, as when they spread false or biased information, fellow Finns don't demand them to explicate their personal opinion let alone take responsibility for it.

One of the most important uses of power in a state system is nominations. Democracy tends to decentralize power, which means that each individual only does his or her part in a large machinery of decision-making. Therefore political power at its most practical is to push the right people to the right places in order to make those decisions desired. Seasoned professionals of politics are professional in exactly this kind of machinations. Unfortunately, so are also foreign intelligence organs, with their agents of influence.

In Finland, positive pushing of one's favourites to favourable positions for influence requires existent power positions or the so-called 'good fellow networks', sometimes just a good game-eye in situations where parties distribute seats among themselves, or in other words, reach political compromises. Here I will not comment on the extent to which foreign states may already possess extant formal power positions in this country. It is natural that from such positions it is rather easy to machinate agents of influence directly to key positions.

Negative influence, however, is easy in the Finnish culture also from outside the formal power positions. For example, spreading malicious rumours and disinformation about individual persons has been standard activity for agents of influence since the Soviet times. In Finland, such activity is particularly effective because Finns are in general timid and avoid controversies. They would rather not take the risk than check the veracity of rumours. In such a culture those who do use malicious disinformation to block nominations have an advantage, and further enhance the culture of timidity and harmlessness.

Another method of person-level influence, slightly more radical than the spreading of rumours, is the use of threats. It typically takes place in form of covert threats, which do not fulfil the criteria for illegal threat (a legal offense) and therefore doesn't trigger criminal investigation. Alternatively, it consists of anonymous messages and phonecalls, so that even when the criteria for illegal threat would be fulfilled, the culprit is not known, or finding out the sender would require means that are so far outside of the legal options for Finnish authorities.

Agents of influence obviously also probe for weaknesses and practice stirring of conflicts. In such practices they should not be confused with another category of agents, the talent-spotters, whose tasks include identification of persons as potential targets for the operations of professional intelligence operatives – for example for cultivation, recruitment, or 'kompromat' [compromising operations, usually targeted against a person's reputation by framing the target as pervert, mentally ill, politically incorrect, criminal, or something else that seeks to discredit him/her].

Simply leading – or misleading – discussion is a routine activity of the agents of influence. They will, whenever possible, help Finnish politicians, reporters and audience to fuss about what's irrelevant, and to silence about what's relevant. Once again, the careful timing and synchronization with the narratives offered by Russian propaganda often make such deliberate guidance detectable.

Finally, it is necessary to practice some caution against the other extreme: While healthy suspicion is usually beneficial, all-engulfing paranoia is malignant. Not all information consists of lies, and not all lies constitute deliberate operations of influence. One should not keep his own mouth shut in fear of agents of influence – quite the contrary, one does better in promoting open and honest information culture, where it makes sense to analyse and organize information, and where the existence of opinions is not feared or shamed, not even for 'general reasons'.

If I have managed to raise the reader's level of consciousness in recognizing a relevant dimension of informational influence, it means my own information operation has been successful.