Jairo Sousa. Chandan Tiwari. Juan Javier Ortega-Reyes. These are only three of the 53 members of the media that the “Committee to Protect Journalists” says were killed in 2018.
Sousa was gunned down in June by two unidentified men on a motorcycle near his office in Bragança, Portugal, where he covered the local crime beat. Tiwari was abducted and beaten to death in October by four men, with police finding the mutilated corpse in a Jharkhand forest in India. Ortega-Reyes, meanwhile, was killed along with his driver after stumbling onto a group of FARC militants near the Ecuadorian border.
It is likely that one reading this article has not previously heard these names, or those of any of the other journalists who were killed in the last calendar year. Unfortunately, the death of journalists, especially in developing countries, has become a routine event and rarely makes the headlines.
Compare the media’s treatment of the other 52 slain journalists to its breathless coverage of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian national and contributor to the Washington Post, was killed in the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Istanbul back in October 2018. According to reports, his body was cut up with a thumb saw and smuggled out of the compound in several different parts before being buried in an unmarked grave. Ever since his murder, Khashoggi has become a household name worldwide and his murder a major geopolitical event.
With the killers suspiciously close to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, world leaders have demanded to know what the prince’s level of involvement was, and the issue dominated the recent G-20 meeting in Argentina. Fallout from the grisly murder has already led Saudi Arabian King Salman to shuffle his government and install a new foreign minister and National Guard Commander, one who hadn’t previously gone on the record opposing Khashoggi. The formerly unknown Saudi journalist’s stature reached its peak when Time Magazine named him among their “People of the Year.”
When announcing the decision, the prominent magazine portrayed Khashoggi as the face of journalism under attack. “It became clear that the manipulation and abuse of truth is the common thread of so many of this year’s major stories, from Russia to Riyadh to Silicon Valley,” said Time Editor-in-Chief Edward Felsenthal.
The difference between Khashoggi and his media counterparts is astounding. What is particularly fascinating is that despite his image as a man who bravely spoke truth to power, Khashoggi was not a journalist in the classic sense of the word, but rather an opinion writer. Nor was he a champion for human rights and liberal norms. Khashoggi was a fervent believer in the extremist political Islam promulgated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and was described by The New York Times as remaining “conversant in its conservative, Islamist and often anti-Western rhetoric, which he could deploy or hide depending on whom he was seeking to befriend.”
In addition, rather than being the “Arab Bob Woodward,” as some people described him, recent reports indicate that Khashoggi was paid to disseminate anti-Saudi propaganda by Qatar during the saber-rattling between the two Gulf States in 2017. “Text messages between Khashoggi and an executive at Qatar Foundation International show that the executive, Maggie Mitchell Salem, at times shaped the columns he submitted to the Washington Post, proposing topics, drafting material and prodding him to take a harder line against the Saudi government,” the Washington Post acknowledged in December.
Why did Khashoggi merit such glowing press coverage while other journalists remain anonymous?
To understand this mystery, one must appreciate the high-level informational warfare tactics that Turkey utilized to turn Khashoggi’s murder from a local crime story into an international event with geopolitical calculations. Turkey demonstrated a masterful expertise in manipulating the world media to condemn its adversary Saudi Arabia, a move that played a central role in making the incident as well known as it has become.
Following Khashoggi’s death, Turkey leaked sensational developments in the case to the Turkish media in small quantities. Lurid details about the murder were fed to Turkish newspapers, including a recording of the murder from Khashoggi’s Apple Watch, the surveillance footage of his assassins, and details about the chilling way his body was dismembered. In the absence of any other information, world media seized on the slow drip of dramatic details and rushed to publish them without corroborating their accuracy. The consistent and agonizing injection of more details turned the affair into a made-for-television drama, with reporters breathlessly waiting for more information and sudden plot twists.
However, as pointed out by Jerusalem Post Editor Dr. Seth Frantzman, many of the most salacious details were published by mainstream media outlets despite their contradicting earlier developments. “Like the other brutal details of the murder of Khashoggi, the cutting off of the fingers and apparent beheading, are part of a story that involves contradictory leaks from officials,” wrote Frantzman. “For instance, how would an 11-minute audio recording, which is what various newspapers say exists, tell us that a person is being put on a table, injected with a sedative and beheaded?
“Does someone narrate the tape and say, ‘Now we will put him on the table’? The leaks never say that the officials are studying the tape, they always seem to know with absolute clarity what happened.”
In a study of the informational tactics used by Turkey, the Security Studies Group think tank found that Turkey and Qatar methodically used friendly Arab news outlets to inject often false Khashoggi-related stories into the western media.
In the subsequent report, the Security Studies Group concluded that Turkey methodically utilized what the RAND Corporation has called the “Firehoses of Falsehood Propaganda Model.” Broadly put, this tactic involves systematically leaking information about a specific story using a mixture of reports both true and otherwise.
It is the cocktail of both accurate and baseless information that makes this tactic so effective. The justification of true details mixed with sensational yet unproven details makes it alluring to journalists, who are afraid to miss the breaking story in the breakneck pace that characterizes the digital media age.
“What is essential to the model used by the Turks and the Russians is the repeated injection of wild stories, not all at once but in controlled sequence. This creates a building effect similar to the increase of tension in a novel or screenplay,” the think tank published. “The audience comes to see attaining a resolution as necessary to their personal psychic well-being.”
Many nations in history have sought to control the use and dissemination of information as a tool against their enemies. The new age of information warfare, however, marks a radical change from the past. If nations like the Soviet Union strove to release as little information as possible to the public, today’s actors highlight the opposite: Flooding the world with so much inaccurate information, or the mix of accurate and fake news, to control entire narratives and shape international events.
Along with Turkey, another country that excels in these tactics is Russia. While Russia is known for the fake news operations in the U.S. that attempted to sway the 2016 presidential elections, the Kremlin’s strategic use of news stretches considerably beyond that. Russia has its strategic information operation characterized by establishing semi-autonomous media platforms such as Russia Today and Sputnik that excel in spinning stories into narratives with the ability to shape events on the ground.
For example, a 2017 New York Times investigation laid out how Russian-controlled platforms turned a debunked news story about the rape of a Russian-speaking German individual at the hands of Muslim migrants, and Germany’s subsequent “cover up” of the incident. Claiming that political correctness was preventing Berlin from putting an end to a rampant Muslim rape epidemic, a bevy of Russian news agencies such as Channel One, Russia Today, and Sputnik turned the non-existent story into demonstrations by Russian speakers against Angela Merkel’s government.
The rape never happened. Yet within two weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was charging that Germany was “covering up reality in a politically correct manner for the sake of domestic politics.” The German Foreign Ministry began attempting to mitigate the diplomatic fallout. The incident is a prominent example of Russia marshalling different media platforms in a successful informational warfare tactic.
“In the months that followed, politicians perceived by the Russian government as hostile to its interests would find themselves caught up in media storms that, in their broad contours, resembled the one that gathered around Merkel,” reported The New York Times. “They often involved conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods — sometimes with a tenuous connection to fact, as in the Lisa case, sometimes with no connection at all — amplified until they broke through into domestic politics.
“In other cases, they simply helped promote nationalist, far-left or far-right views that put pressure on the political center. What the efforts had in common was their agents: a loose network of Russian-government-run or -financed media outlets and apparently coordinated social-media accounts.”
Russia is not alone. Iran has been investing massive resources to establish informational warfare capabilities all over the world. In November, Reuters released a bombshell report with the Israeli cybersecurity company ClearSky detailing the Islamic Republic’s operation that operated 98 websites in 25 countries to shape public sentiment in a way that favored Iranian interests.
Iran’s bundle of websites spread consistent propaganda across the Arab world and the West, mocking Donald Trump, the United States, and trumpeting anti-Israel material. The expose caused Facebook to remove hundreds of pages it identified as fronts for Iranian information operations.
The websites were highly professional and used advanced graphics. In order to build user engagement, the majority of the stories they published were accurate. The platforms did not commonly disclose their affiliation to Iran, and their connection to the Islamic Republic could only been seen by the virulent attacks launched on Iran’s adversaries.
However, Iran’s chain of websites had some similar characteristics. They all carried content, such as videos and articles, from the Tehran-based International Union of Virtual Media (IUVM). 21 of the websites were also registered at IUVM, whose website says that the company’s purpose is “confronting with remarkable arrogance, western governments and Zionism front activities.”
Iran’s network of disinformation has been operating since 2012, and was only revealed last August following an investigation by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, along with an assortment of cybersecurity firms. Following the revelations in August, Facebook said that it shuttered 82 pages after an internal review found that they served as a front for Iranian propaganda.
Yet the new findings show that Iran’s disinformation campaign dwarfed what was previously assumed about its efforts. Published in over 16 languages, the fake news reached hundreds of millions of people. Iran’s clever tactics enabled its proxy sites to penetrate highly insular societies such as Egypt, where news sites whose editorial line runs contrary to the regime are often shut down.
“What we are seeing here is an unusual effort by the Iranians to create a global shift in the public’s consciousness in order to hide the Iranian regime’s true ambitions,” said ClearSky CEO Boaz Dolev in an interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
It’s important to note that all of the aforementioned countries that invest in informational warfare are characterized by authoritarian regimes. Freedom of the press is sacrosanct in Western and democratic nations; only a country like Russia, with its strict control of the media, can successfully use the dissemination of information in such a strategic way. It’s difficult to imagine a country like the United States establishing an “Information Command” to systematically target its enemies with fake news.
Recent developments, however, should cause western nations to rethink their role in the budding field of informational warfare. An empire that seeks to thrive cannot leave this new theater to its enemies.