Disinformation and Reflexive Control: The New Cold War

By: Annie Kowalewski, Columnist

Photo Credit: NPR

Nearly four months after the election, US policymakers and political researchers remain puzzled by Russia’s potential involvement and the impact of “fake news” and other forms of disinformation that plagued the campaigns. With confusion swirling around “alternative facts,” the effects of disinformation and Russian meddling are just beginning to take hold.[i] This phenomenon may be new to American politics, but it’s an old strategy in the Kremlin. To understand and combat the effects and goals of disinformation, we must understand the concept of reflexive control and how it fits into greater Russian strategy.

Reflexive Control

Reflexive control is a “uniquely Russian” concept based on maskirovka, an old Soviet notion in which one “conveys to an opponent specifically prepared information to incline him/her to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action”.[ii] That is, reflexive control is a sustained campaign that feeds an opponent select information so that the opponent makes the decisions that one wants him/her to. Methods of reflexive control include spreading false information, leaking partial information at opportune moments, and projecting a different posture of oneself than what may actually be the case.[iii] The goal of reflexive control is to ‘control’ the ‘reflex’ of the opponent by creating a certain model of behavior in the system it seeks to control.[iv] The most fundamental way to do this is to locate the weak link in the system and exploit it through moral arguments, psychological tactics, or appeals to specific leaders’ character.[v]

This concept has a long history in Russian military strategy, with the Soviet and Russian Armed Forces studying reflexive control at both the tactical and operational levels.[vi] Reflexive control has also long been taught at various Russian military schools and training programs, and is codified as Russian national security strategy in the Gerasimov Doctrine.[vii] Today, reflexive control is a key component in Russia’s idea of hybrid warfare.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014 offer a recent example of how Russia has employed reflexive control in its military operations. During this campaign, Russia attempted to disguise the presence of Russian forces by deploying men in uniforms without insignia and concealed its goals and involvement by publicly denying Russian participation. On other fronts, Russia simultaneously continued to threaten NATO and the West through overflights and hinting at the use of nuclear weapons.[viii] Together, these acts constitute a ‘denial and deception’ operation consistent with the concept of reflexive control. While the success of these actions is debatable, ultimately Russia achieved what it set out to do: Russia projected the Ukraine campaign as a response to NATO expansion, dissuaded the West from getting involved, and managed to drum up support amongst Russians in Ukraine by framing the violence as bottom-up.

One Piece of the Puzzle

Russia employed similar tactics in the recent American elections. Throughout the general election campaign, Russia produced bouts of false information by utilizing botnets, paid human ‘trolls’, and fake news articles and sites. For example, studies have linked election stories such as Hillary Clinton’s perceived ill-health or that of the ‘fake Trump protestor’ (who was supposedly paid by the Hillary campaign to protest Trump) to Russian fake news sites.[ix] Some argue that these tactics were employed specifically to help Donald Trump win, but that explanation fails to account for the broader role reflexive control plays in Russian strategy. While Trump’s win may have aligned with the Kremlin’s interests, reflexive control in Russian national security strategy is specifically aimed at manipulating and undermining a state’s decision-making process.[x] That is, Russia’s goal is not just to elect a certain candidate in the United States, but to fundamentally undermine the democratic decision-making process to ‘win’ its information war against the West.[xi] Accordingly, Russian disinformation will continue to undermine our political system and act as a direct national security threat to the United States for the foreseeable future.

Distinguishing Truth From Falsehood

Given the ‘rapid, continuous, and repetitive’ nature of Russian disinformation, the United States cannot combat Russian reflexive control strategies through traditional counter-propaganda.[xii] Psychological studies show that when the brain is exposed to the same information continuously, it begins to perceive that information as true—regardless of conflicting or contrary evidence.[xiii] Therefore, merely pointing out inconsistencies or presenting evidence to disprove false claims will be ineffective in countering Russian disinformation.

To ‘win the information war’ and combat Russian influence in our political process, the United States must invest in cybersecurity, discredit platforms that have been shown to propagate false information, raise awareness on the psychological effects of disinformation, and cooperate with its allies to generate pro-West content. Investing in cybersecurity includes strengthening policies to protect our national databases, better incorporating cyber into our war and national security strategies, and facilitating public-private cooperation to combat disinformation on social media. Discrediting fake news platforms and raising awareness on the psychological effects will be more difficult, because it requires training people to recognize truth from falsehood. Further research should be done by universities and think tanks to distinguish legitimate from fake news platforms and how to educate oneself on the psychological effects of disinformation. Lastly, in addition to clarifying and disputing disinformation, the United States and its allies should actively work to generate consistent, factual content that supports Western objectives and targets the same audiences that Russian disinformation targets. In short, the United States needs to spend more time dissecting reflexive control as a concept to understand Russia’s holistic view of warfare and recognize that Russia’s disinformation campaign is not an isolated incident, but a new Cold War.

[i] David Folkenflik,“Delusions or Deceptions? White House ‘Alternate Facts’ Rile Press,” National Public Radio, January 23, 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/23/511160267/delusions-or-deceptions-white-house-alternative-facts-rile-press.

[ii] Mark Mateski, “Russia, Reflexive Control, and the Subtle Art of Red Teaming” Red Team Journal, October 13, 2016, http://redteamjournal.com/2016/10/reflexive-control/.

[iii] Timothy L. Thomas, “Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies Vol. 17 (2004): p.237-256.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Dmitry Adamsky, “Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy” Proliferation Papers 54 (2015), http://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/pp54adamsky.pdf. Accessed 29 January 2017.

[viii] Maria Snegovaya, “Reflexive Control: Putin’s Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine is Straight Out of the Soviet Playbook” Business Insider, September 22, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/reflexive-control-putins-hybrid-warfare-in-ukraine-is-straight-out-of-the-soviet-playbook-2015-9.

[ix] Craig Timberg, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say” Washington Post, November 24, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/russian-propaganda-effort-helped-spread-fake-news-during-election-experts-say/2016/11/24/793903b6-8a40-4ca9-b712-716af66098fe_story.html?utm_term=.5755f905af81.

[x] Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model” RAND Corporation, 2016, http://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE198.html.

[xi] Andrew Weisburd, Clint Watts, and JM Berger, “Trolling for Trump: How Russia is Trying to Destroy our Democracy,” War on the Rocks, November 26, 2016, https://warontherocks.com/2016/11/trolling-for-trump-how-russia-is-trying-to-destroy-our-democracy/.

[xii] Paul and Matthews, “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model.”

[xiii] Maria Konnikova (2017) “Trump’s Lies vs. Your Brain” Politico Magazone, January 30, 2017, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/donald-trump-lies-liar-effect-brain-214658.

4 thoughts on “Disinformation and Reflexive Control: The New Cold War

  1. Good summary, thanks for sharing. For anyone interested in more information on the Russian perspective, Diane Chotikul’s paper is a great read.


    I’d offer that the idea is not uniquely Russian; Clausewitz calls it “cunning” but largely discounts it. You see the phenomenon across decisionmaking and military theory however, from Sun Tzu to Boyd. The phenomenon is an inherent part of the human condition that everyone is aware of whether they think about it or not. Consider the concept of “managing your boss.” Russia just looks at it scientifically rather than intuitively.

    I disagree with the article on two points. First, and this is minor, I understand “reflexive control” as a theory evolved out of game theory, not specifically maskirovka; deception is merely a way of communicating reflexive ideas. Secondly, reflexive control in terms of domestic group manipulation for political gain has been used in our domestic politics for quite some time; people are just now waking up to it because its the first time a war of information and ideas has been waged so overtly. Russia’s involvement in the election obviously helped raise awareness as well.

  2. Would be good information to share the names or sources of the Russian fake news. Citing the Hillary Clinton health scare, what were the sources that came from Russia?

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