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This article describes how Social Media warriors - mainly backed by China and Russia - are engaging in a strategy of schismogenesis against Western civil society. These adversarial actions create divisive policy debates that polarize and fragment civil society in Western democracies (e.g. US, Europe, Australia, etc.). What makes this so different from previous forms of warfare (e.g. political, informational, sociocultural, etc.) is that hostile outsiders can create a 'fake' issue that appears to be homegrown, leading to citizens to choose sides on a highly contentious issue. CITATION: Buddhika B. Jayamaha and Jahara Matisek, "Social Media Warriors: Leveraging a New Battlespace," Parameters, vol. 48, no. 4 (Winter 2018–19): 11-24.
Social Media Warriors:
Leveraging a New Battlespace
Buddhika B. Jayamaha and Jahara Matisek
©2019 Buddhika B. Jayamaha
ABSTRACT: This article explains modern efforts to create a
new battlespace within the civil societies of Western countries.
This battlespace consists of the internet, social media, and other
technologies that can be used to foment social and political
discontent. The article includes recommendations for countering
such efforts.
Civil society presents a fundamental blind spot in the
American military understanding of warfare. Long associated
by philosophers as a bulwark against tyranny in liberal
democracies, civil society has been weaponized by hostile actors, such
as Russia and China, and violent nonstate actors, such as the Islamic
State. The adversaries’ strategy involves in ltrating Western civil
society in order to foment dissent and create breaches along ethnic,
racial, religious, and socioeconomic lines. These actions generate and
intensify hyperpartisanship on both sides of the political spectrum for
the purposes of deepening societal divisions. Such new tactics differ
from their historical antecedents in which hostile adversaries (Cold War
Communist states) supported one side of Western civil society (left-wing
political movements) in hopes of shifting political attitudes.
The new tactics create ideologically sympathetic individuals who
desire policy changes that align with the adversarial state’s ideology or
that promote detrimental and self-destructive views; these views, in
turn, can undermine societal cohesion while disrupting foreign policy
choices. This approach accentuates attacks on Western civil society
across multiple dimensions by using social media warriors who indirectly
receive orders from, and are secretly paid by, Moscow, Beijing, and other
Western adversaries. These social media warriors and their handlers
regard the internet as an unguarded, undersurveilled, and ill-de ned
human-to-human interface that can be easily manipulated. Subsequently,
social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter become a battlespace
of ideas, injected with disinformation in hopes of in uencing individual,
societal, and political behavior.1
As a consequence, the discourse of Western civil society is shaped
in ways fundamentally hostile to the effective functioning of pluralist
1 Ashley Hoffman, “Here Are the Memes That Russian Operatives Shared To In uence
2016,” Time, November 1, 2017; and Timothy P. McGeehan, “Countering Russian Disinformation,”
Parameters 48, no.1 (Spring 2018): 49–57.
48(4) Winter 2018–19
liberal democracies.2 Fomenting dissension by spreading divisive social
media posts and polarizing memes leads citizens in Western societies to
like, and to share, the messages as well as to advocate for the ideas, thus
creating a destructive civil discourse. In a homogenous society, such
as Iceland, this type of campaign has less impact because the societal
differences are primarily economic. But in countries with a variety
of cultural and historical cleavages, malicious civil discourse deepens
existing divisions that make social relations more acrimonious.
Disinformation tactics against civil societies in the United States
and its Western allies are not particularly new.3 The novelty, however,
is the use of free and open civil discourse, which is traditionally a
Western strength, as the center of sociocultural strategy aimed at
manipulating civil society into a new battlespace. The rst component
of this strategy relies on the existence of the internet and the use of
social media. With the internet as the medium, individuals conduct
essential societal interactions through a variety of apps and platforms
that provide instantaneous, uberef cient, daily social contacts without
the boundaries that affected civil interaction during the twentieth
century. Anti-Western actors use these virtual networks to produce and
to breed ideas degenerative to stable societal norms, which ultimately
impact policy debates and elections.4
The second component of this strategy involves the exploitation of
the rules that govern pluralist-liberal democracies. When an adversarial
state recruits an informer, it is an act of espionage. But a private group
providing material, ideational, rhetorical, and inspirational support to
a community, industry lobbying, or religious group is squarely within
the protected legacy of free speech. In this manner, adversaries search
for and capitalize on the weaknesses available to them. Many virulent
Sala -Jihadists preach Western destruction in Western capitals and large
cosmopolitan cities where their dialogue is legally protected. But such
liberty is nonexistent in their tyrannical home regimes.
The cumulative impact of this dual strategy not only degrades
institutions, norms, and values but also increases distrust toward the
government, undermining Western policy-making capacity and state
p o we r . W it h s t at i s t ic s i n d i ca t i n g p ub l i c t r u st i n t h e A m e r i c an g o v er n m e n t
is near an all-time low and trending downward, the adversarial strategy
of further breaching civil society and democratic processes seems to
be effective.5 In fact, a poll commissioned by former President George
W. Bush and former Vice President Joe Biden found 55 percent of
2 Douglas A. Ollivant, “The Rise of the Hybrid Warriors: From Ukraine to the Middle East,”
War on the Rocks, March 9, 2016; and Jahara W. Matisek, “The Blockchain Arms Race: America vs.
China,” National Interest, March 14, 2018. The Iranians, Turks, Syrians, and many other governments
are relying on hybrid warriors to in uence the Middle East and beyond.
3 Tyler Quinn, “The Bear’s Side of the Story: Russian Political and Information Warfare,”
Strategy Bridge, June 27, 2018; and Emilio J. Iasiello, “Russia’s Improved Information Operations:
From Georgia to Crimea,” Parameters 47, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 51–63.
4 Hoffman, “Here Are the Memes.”
5 “Public Trust in Government: 1958–2017,” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2017.
COERCION: NEW MEANS & METHODS Jayamaha and Matisek 15
respondents thought democracy was “weak and 68 percent believe[d] it
is getting weaker.”
The process of creating societal rifts to expand existing divisions,
and to generate self-destructive behaviors was called schismogenesis in
1935.7 The Of ce of Strategic Services, an institutional precursor to
the Central Intelligence Agency, used this theory in the South Paci c
during World War II to sow disunity among enemy ghters and to
create schisms in communities supportive of Japanese rule.8 Likewise,
the recent rise of extremist politics in the United States and in western
Europe provides growing evidence that schismogenesis appears to have
been fueled by Russia, China, and numerous other hostile actors who
can bene t from the cost-effective method of weakening the rules-based
international order without directly confronting the West.9
The internet, formed by multiple layers of human-to-human
and machine-to-machine interfaces that are neither malevolent nor
benevolent, was intended to be self-governing. The permissible legal
architecture guarantees individual and community freedoms, especially
in liberal democracies that are easily exploitable by hybrid actors who face
few mechanisms of enforcement. Moreover, the ubiquity of connected
devices and Western dependency on them makes it easier for adversarial
powers to penetrate systems and create social media chaos.
The value of freedom to liberal societies further complicates efforts
to detect hostile attempts to create schismogenesis because recognizing
the activity requires substantial domestic surveillance. Three years into
the con ict in the Donbass, for example, scholars in the Ukraine nally
began to document the various ways in which Russia had achieved
schismogenesis.10 Thus, the decision to let the internet be self-governed
has inadvertently meant agencies that are supposed to protect the
citizenry are unable to, save for exceptional circumstances. Moreover,
the conceptual and analytical void created by these protections prevents
operational countermeasures.
Exacerbating this challenge is the informat ional asymmetry bet ween
countries, which enables hybrid actors to exploit their knowledge of
what America and Europe are in the context of the strengths and the
weaknesses of their own countries. Because the average Western citizen
6 James Hohmann, “The Daily 202: A Poll Commissioned by Bush and Biden Shows Americans
Losing Con dence in Democracy,” Washington Post, June 26, 2018.
7 Gregory Bateson, “Culture Contact and Schismogenesis,” Man 35 (December 1935): 178–83;
and David Lipset, Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall,
1980), 143–44.
8 David H. Price, “Gregory Bateson and the OSS: World War II and Bateson’s Assessment of
Applied Anthropology,” Human Organization 57, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 379–84; and David H. Price,
Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War
(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 239–42.
9 William M. Downs, “Democracy’s New Normal: The Impact of Extremist Parties,” World
Politics Review, January 22, 2013; William Hague, “Western Voters Are Very Angry—and Extremists
Are One Crisis Away from Power,Telegraph, January 26, 2016; and Mike Lofgren, “Trump, Putin,
and the Alt-Right International,” Atlantic, October 31, 2016.
10 Roman Dodonov et al., “Polemological Paradigm of Hybrid War Research,Philosophy and
Cosmology 19 (2017): 97–109.
48(4) Winter 2018–19
has little knowledge of these factors, external adversaries can hire
inexpensive part-time social media experts to insert polarizing rhetoric
into ongoing political, societal, and cultural debates inside the West.
Current conceptions of this kind of warfare typically focus on how
hostile actors best combine kinetic and nonkinetic tactics to degrade US
power and in uence in various regions.11 General Philip M. Breedlove
recently expressed concern for the false narrative affecting the West.12
This is a step in the right direction, but it does not take into account
the depth and severity of schismogenesis created with the intent of
dismantling Western civil society. This oversight is because the West’s
adversaries rely on a strategy of socially embedding hostility into the
political discourse, converting civil society from a constructive force
into a destructive one.
Civil society is the total of nonstate organizations that represent
the collective interests of its members by checking state power, up-
holding public interest, and shaping public discourse.13 In one form,
political parties maintain the republican tradition and pluralistic
form of interest representation in the United States.
14 Other such
organizations include industry lobbyists; civil rights organizations;
ethnic-, racial-, and religious-speci c organizations; and environmental
activist groups. Registered lobbyists, which can advance the interests of
foreign governments, can range from the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee to lesser-known groups that work on behalf of actors such
as India, Armenia, and Kurdistan.15 Other domestic lobbying groups
pro mote nat ion al is sues s uc h as racial equa li ty or prison reform and so me
represent local organizations such as a neighborhood humane society.
Civil society is vital for holding diverse populations together and
is a de ning strength of Western liberal democracies. Liberal, in the
sense of John Locke, means a system that highlights and safeguards
individual freedoms.16 In such a system, citizens have the right to form
nonviolent contractual organizations that sustain economic and political
competition as well as a vibrant civil society.17 These alliances provide
an outlet for political discourse from motivated individuals who pursue
their interests in nding moderate policies and agreements without
11 John J. Kruzel, “ ‘Hybrid War’ To Pull US Military in Two Directions, Flournoy Says,
Department of Defense, May 4, 2009.
12 Jim Garamone, “NATO Commander Breedlove Discusses Implications of Hybrid War,”
Department of Defense, March 23, 2015.
13 Arend Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1977).
14 Theda Skocpol, “Civil Society in the United States,” in The Oxford Handbook of Civil Society,
ed. Michael Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 109–21.
15 John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008); Ashok Sharma, “Behind Modi: The Growing In uence of the
India Lobby,” Conversation, June 27, 2017; Ömer Taşpınar, “The Armenian Lobby and Azerbaijan:
Strange Bedfellows in Washington,” Brookings, March 8, 2010; and Eric Lipton, “Iraqi Kurds Build
Washington Lobbying Machine to Fund War Against ISIS,” New York Times, May 6, 2016.
16 John Locke, Political Writings, ed. David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993).
17 Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast, “Violence and the Rise of
Open-Access Orders,” Jour nal of Democracy 20, no. 1 (January 2009): 55–68.
COERCION: NEW MEANS & METHODS Jayamaha and Matisek 17
resorting to destructive behaviors such as violence. In this manner,
negative and positive freedoms are balanced, rights are not trampled on
by either side of the political spectrum, and the two remain in constant
Communal organizations that constitute civil society are a
necessary foundation for liberty and resisting the tyrannical tendencies
of unchecked executive power.19 Some organizations are goal driven,
and as a consequence, can be utterly uncivil, profoundly illiberal, and
easily manipulated if the organizational objectives align with those of
a patron or patrons. Before the Nazi party took control of Germany in
the early 1930s, the country was dense with civil society organizations
and had more Nobel Prize winners than any other country in the
world.20 Unfortunately, many civil society organizations, to include the
Nazi movement, happened to be explicitly Fascist, or contained Fascist
sympathizers, despite Germany being highly sophisticated and educated.
The strength of American democracy similarly promotes the same
rights for all groups whether they are white supremacist groups in
Charlottesville, Virginia, or Black Lives Matter marches in Houston,
Texas. This equality allows true freedom of thought and expression,
which makes America diverse and interesting—and creates a
vulnerability. Ideas contrary to the opinions of Western authorities do
not lead to harassment and oppression. And Western laws, traditions,
and norms prevent governments from investigating the actions of civil
society organizations without reasonable cause. Hybrid actors, therefore,
work around the edges of this system to nd its weaknesses and achieve
their goals. Consequently, civil society becomes a battlespace as social
media actors pose as insiders to create and to foment societal schisms.
The same concept applies when external actors deliberately use
aspects of the liberal order, integrated markets, and lax immigration
rules for elites and professionals. Each individual has the potential to
undermine the strengths of each aspect of civil society from within,
sometimes with the complicity of individuals, sometimes via inadvertent
foreign threats, and sometimes through soft power in uence such as
China’s educational exchanges through the Confucius Institute.21
Another fundamental distinction in a liberal democracy is that every
citizen has the same rights: each has the opportunity to reach the highest
ranks in public and private life. The late General John Shalikashvili, for
18 Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 162–66.
19 Michael Mann, “The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results,”
European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie / Europäisches Archiv für Soziologie 25, no.
2 (1984): 185–213.
20 Ulrich Herbert, “Berlin: The Persecution of Jews and German Society,” in Civil Society and
the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue, ed. Anders Jerichow and Cecilie Felicia
Stokholm Banke (New York: Humanity in Action, 2013), 75–83; Sheri Berman, “Civil Society and
the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” World Politics 49, no. 3 (April 1997): 401–29; Michael Mann,
Fascists (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 162–205; and “All Nobel Prizes,” Nobel
Prize, accessed March 6, 2019,
21 Falk Hartig, “Confucius Institutes and the Rise of China,” Journal of Chinese Political Science
17, no. 1 (March 2012): 53–76.
48(4) Winter 2018–19
example, was a refugee during World War II who immigrated to the
United States at age 16 and learned English by watching westerns. He
became the rst foreign-born chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
This uniquely American moment was possible only because of the
country’s liberal democratic tradition. In contrast, an American citizen
immigrating to many other countries might struggle to get a lowly job,
let alone be allowed to achieve the highest military rank. Nefarious
governments, state af liated proxies, and nonstate actors can, and do,
exploit this de ning liberal principle.
In one such exploitation of Western politics, oligarchs af liated
with the Chinese government bankrolled the winning campaign of a
naturalized Australian citizen during a parliamentary election, which
essentially made the politician a stooge of the Chinese government.23
In New Zealand, a naturalized Chinese citizen who had been a high-
ranking military member in a Chinese intelligence agency is an elected
member of parliament; his wife, who is also a naturalized citizen, runs a
civil society organization that explicitly advocates for positions favorable
to the Chinese Communist Party.24 Evidence likewise suggests Beijing
has successfully penetrated both political parties in New Zealand, which
has led allies in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance to question
if China’s in uence should affect New Zealand’s membership in the
organization.25 Liberal regimes, however, have dif culty categorizing
such activities as illicit or licit.
Social media actors also use sharp-power tactics to force subjects to
be complicit.26 There are recorded instances of China using such tactics
to silence critics and to shape debates using state-sponsored groups
registered in liberal democracies, such as New Zealand and Australia.27
And although security agencies in liberal democracies with immigrant
traditions neither hold citizens as hostages for bargaining purposes or
use the familial relationships of naturalized citizens to compel them to be
complicit in treasonous acts, evidence suggests Iran, Turkey, Russia, and
China are leveraging transnational family relationships in this manner.
Displaced populations provide another opportunity for Western
adversaries, such as Iran and China, to in uence other countries.28
22 Shaila Dewan, “Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, Military Chief in 1990s, Dies at 75,” New York
Times, July 23, 2011.
23 Philip Wen, “China’s Patriots among Us: Beijing Pulls New Lever of In uence in Australia,”
Sydney Morning Herald, April 14, 2016.
24 Jamil Anderlini, “China-Born New Zealand MP Probed by Spy Agency,” Financial Times,
September 13, 2017.
25 David Fisher, “Chinese Communist Party Link Claimed,” Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand)
Daily Times, May 26, 2018; and Eleanor Ainge Roy, “New Zealand’s Five Eyes Membership Called
into Question over ‘China Links,Guardian, May 27, 2018.
26 “How China’s ‘Sharp Power’ Is Muting Criticism Abroad,Economist, December 14, 2017.
27 Elif Selin Calik, “A Newly Coined Phrase: ‘Sharp Power’ and Reasons for Attributing It to
China,” Rising Powers Project, January 6, 2018.
28 Timothy Heath, “Beijing’s In uence Operations Target Chinese Diaspora,” War on the
Rocks, March 1, 2018; and Linda Robinson et al., Moder n Political Warfare: Current Practices and Possible
Responses (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018).
COERCION: NEW MEANS & METHODS Jayamaha and Matisek 19
Turkey exploits the Turkish diaspora in France and Germany.29 Russia
sends explicit threats and conducts highly public murders.30 These
realities are further complicated by the democracies’ desires to protect
equality, which causes them to view the mere suggestion of such issues
being a security concern as a sign of xenophobia.
A larger target exists in the integration of markets and the
manipulation or capture of big data from transnational corporations. By
law and tradition, liberal democracies have stringent privacy standards
directing how much data governments can access; illiberal regimes do
not. Therefore, many corporations maintain double standards in their
privacy efforts. The US government, for example, has to go through
numerous legal procedures and provisions to access a criminal’s iPhone.
But Apple provides backdoor keys to the Chinese government and hosts
iCloud services on Chinese government-run servers, in effect collecting
and collating data on behalf of the Chinese state.31 Due to market
incentives, Apple actively collaborates to support state surveillance with
China and widely purports to guard data privacy in the West.
The value of this effort becomes clear in the context of an average
citizen generating more than a terabyte of data in a day. Western
governments, by law, have almost no access to this information even
though private companies can freely access, collect, collate, use, and sell
the data. Cambridge Analytica became the posterchild of this emerging
p r o b l e m w h e n i t u s e d d a t a m i n i n g t o h e l p p o l i t i c a l c a n d i d a t e s . 32 More over,
nothing prevents business proxies of foreign states—including the state-
owned enterprises of Russia, China, and Iran—from accessing them.
One can imagine a nightmare scenario in which Chinese intelligence
of cials aggregate data purchased from a social media outlet with the
data hacked from the Of ce of Personnel Management (2014–15).33 An
individual posing as a real estate agent, could use this information and
nancial data legally purchased from a credit bureau to create a near-
complete pro le of any individual that the Chinese government may
want to target. Such an effort could possibly compromise anyone in the
United States who has a security clearance. But the security implications
have rarely been discussed because Western capitalism rarely results
in patriotic fervor towards one’s home country, which is becoming
increasingly problematic in the rising era of the “Davos Man” and the
pursuit of a home with the lowest tax burden.34
29 Zeynep Sahin Mencutek and Bahar Baser, “Mobilizing Diasporas: Insights from Turkey’s
Attempts To Reach Turkish Citizens Abroad,Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 20, no. 1
(September 2017): 86–105.
30 Lucy Pasha-Robinson, “The Long History of Russian Deaths in the UK under Mysterious
Circumstances,” Independent, March 6, 2018.
31 Sherisse Pham, “Use iCloud in China? Prepare to Share Your Data with a State-run Firm,”
CNN News, January 11, 2018.
32 Scott Neuman, “In Hidden-Camera Exposé, Cambridge Analytica Executives Boast of Role
in Trump Win,” NPR, March 21, 2018.
33 Brendan I. Koerner, “Inside the Cyberattack that Shocked the US Government,Wired,
October 23, 2016.
34 Samuel P. Huntington, “Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite,” National
Interest 75 (Spring 2004): 5–18.
48(4) Winter 2018–19
Social media manipulators also directly in ltrate public debates,
interfere with political consensus, and support domestic civic society
organizations, political parties, and individual candidates. With loose
election nance laws that recognize individuals and corporations
equally, nothing prevents foreign corporations with proxy rms from
creating super political action committees to in uence elections. The
rise of cryptocurrencies makes this process even easier. Again, American
defense and security agencies are not allowed to look into the af liations
of these actors without reason due to privacy laws ercely guarding
against such efforts. Such opportunities in Western civil society make
perpetrating schismogenesis easier.
Other technologies also play a fundamental role in new forms of
hybrid attacks against the West. Troll farms contribute to hyperpolarized
debates, further developing schismogenesis.35 Many citizens with access
to social media are subconsciously led to choose one side of a purely
manufactured debate. Interest is often generated and sustained by the
spread of memes that play to each side of a divisive debate in a civil
society, which makes identifying hostile attempts to undermine civil
society even more urgent for the United States and its allies.
Adver saria l states rely on thei r social media ac tors to pose as cit izens
in other states to deepen and to polarize divisions and cleavages, as
well as to turn policy debates into threats to groups on both sides of an
issue. These actors create seemingly genuine domestic movements such
as fake veteran groups that appear American but pursue conspiratorial
grievances in hopes of gaining citizen-advocates for the movement.36
The hope is that the arti cially implanted movement will take on a life
of its own as more such actors encourage duped citizens to ght for both
sides of the fabricated causes.
The problem with these movements is that they encourage
debates about governance while making active calls for violence.
Little investigation has considered how much antigovernment activity
is homegrown and how much is exploitation by foreign actors with
knowledge of divisive issues, which remains within the theoretical
framework of schismogenesis. Although identifying true intellectual
debates between citizens and fabricated divisive discussions among
hybrid actors is qu ite d if cult, evidence does suggest a Russian troll farm
pushed for “Brexit,” hacked the 2017 French presidential election, and
meddled in the 2016 American presidential election.37 The US military,
due to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, however, cannot respond to
such hybrid attacks on civil society. National intelligence agencies and
federal law enforcement must deal with these problems.
35 Dave Lee, “The Tactics of a Russian Troll Farm,” BBC News, February 16, 2018.
36 Craig Timberg, “Russian Operatives Used Twitter and Facebook to Target Veterans and
Military Personnel, Study Says,” Washington Post, October 9, 2017.
37 Robert Booth et al., “Russia Used Hundreds of Fake Accounts To Tweet about Brexit, Data
Shows,” Guardian, November 14, 2017; Laura Daniels, “How Russia Hacked the French Election,”
Politico, April 23, 2017; and Dan Mangan and Mike Calia, “Special Counsel Mueller: Russians
Conducted ‘Information Warfare’ against US during Election To Help Donald Trump Win,” CNBC,
February 16, 2018.
COERCION: NEW MEANS & METHODS Jayamaha and Matisek 21
As Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster said, “There are two ways to
ght the United States military: asymmetrically and stupid.”
38 The stupid
way was how Saddam Hussein engaged in conventional battles with the
US military and its coalition allies in 1991 and 2003. The asymmetric way
is combating US in uence and American military power with indirect
efforts. China’s and Russia’s sociocultural attacks on American society
are an asymmetric, nonkinetic method of perpetrating a political and an
informational war within the United States. Such warfare is dif cult for
political and military leaders to respond to adequately, which has dark
implications for how democracies are supposed to work.
In a cruel twist of fate, the same Western culture and civil society
institutions that made America and the West culturally stronger than the
Soviet Union have been exploited by the losing side of the Cold War. It
is almost as if Western leaders never thought the features that enabled
the triumphant defeat of Communism could ever be used to fragment
the United States and its allies. Because Western leaders typically
think of warfare in terms of the Clausewitizian trinity—government,
people, and the military—civil society is often overlooked as a target.39
What Clausewitz did not address in his early nineteenth century writings
was that civil society is the sinew binding the citizenry, military, and
government to one another. Attacking this “glue” appears to be more
successful than targeting each part of the trinity directly.
Strategic Scope
The West has several suspicions regarding Chinese and Russian
motivations for relying on this type of warfare to create schismogenesis
and to weaken the American-led world order. Such in ltration and
disruption of Western civil society undermines democratic institutions,
thereby complicating the policy-making process. More importantly, it
is an asymmetric strategy that weakens Western power and strength
without substantial nancial investments in conventional armaments.
And nally, there is little risk of igniting a conventional military
engagement with a more powerful opponent.
By injecting polarity, divisiveness, and fragmentation into free-
speech debates, hybrid actors can sow political confusion in Western
states to give authoritarian regimes more breathing space, both do-
mestically and internationally. Besides using social media trolls and bots
to encourage division, Russian-backed media and news platforms present
counternarratives and conspiratorial ideas in the West.40 During the
Cold War, the United States actively defended against such political and
information warfare with the US Information Agency.41 Tod ay, however,
38 LTG H. R. McMaster, quoted in Jeff Schogol, “ ‘American War Generals’ a Sobering
Re ection on US Failures in Iraq,” Military Times, September 11, 2014.
39 Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1976), 32, 89.
40 T. S. Allen and A. J. Moore, “Victory without Casualties: Russia’s Information Operations,
Parameters 48, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 59–71.
41 Nicholas J. Cull, The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public
Diplomacy, 1989–2001 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
48(4) Winter 2018–19
adversarial methods are subversive, the amount of threat activity is
overwhelming, and US government agencies are hard-pressed to keep
up with, counter, deter, or defeat adversaries in the information domain.
Civil societies in Australia and New Zealand also appear to be
under assault from the Chinese government. A scholar who identi ed
how the Chinese were buying political parties and public intellectuals
in Australia and New Zealand began to be intimidated by Chinese
agents when she exposed these actions in her published writings.42 This
documented attempt by an adversarial government to usurp civil society
has major implications for the West since it shows China could easily use
transnational connections to pursue similar actions in the United States
and Europe.
Growing evidence also indicates Russian support of various civil
society groups in the United States such as an antifracking group and the
National Ri e Association (NRA).43 Such actions by Russia seemingly to
protect the environment and support constitutional gun rights are not
virtuous. Instead, supporting the antifracking group protects Russia’s
economic interests and supporting the NRA allows Russia and other
authoritarian governments to paint American democracy as a dangerous
experiment that should not be emulated.44
Similar actions by foreign entities to support other civil society
groups indicate American politics are being subverted to foment long-
term instability. If one accepts the idea that such groups are designed
to uphold the rights of citizens, then one should also assume America’s
adversaries understand that idea too. China and Russia likely nd it in
their national interests to fund and to support controversial civil society
groups for the purpose of exacerbating societal tension and violence,
which ts the model of schismogenesis.45 This practice has been best
exempli ed by Russian troll farms creating seemingly homegrown
movements that center on unarmed black men being shot by police
and include one sham group cheering police actions and another
protesting them.46
Cryptocurrency and arti cial intelligence technologies also provide
tools for schismogenesis. With the advent of Bitcoin and similar
cryptocurrencies, covertly funding various civil society groups becomes
much easier for adversaries to do and more dif cult for Western security
42 Matt Nippert, “University of Canterbury Professor Anne-Marie Brady Concerned Break-Ins
Linked to Work on China,” NZ Herald, February 16, 2018.
43 Merill Matthews, “Democrats Dig for Russian Connection and Uncover Environmentalists,”
The Hill, October 26, 2017; and Tim Dickinson, “Inside the Decade-Long Russian Campaign to
In ltrate the NRA and Help Elect Trump,” Rolling Stone, April 2, 2018.
44 Isaac Stone Fish, “How Chinese Media Covers U.S. Gun Violence,” USA Today, February
17, 2018; and Erin Grif th, “Pro-Gun Russian Bots Flood Twitter after Parkland Shooting,” Wired,
February 15, 2018.
45 Philip Ewing, “Russians Targeted U.S. Racial Divisions Long Before 2016 and Black Lives
Matter,” NPR, October 30, 2017.
46 Donie O’Sullivan, “Her Son Was Killed—Then Came the Russian Trolls,” CNN News, June
29, 2018.
COERCION: NEW MEANS & METHODS Jayamaha and Matisek 23
agencies to detect.47 The development of arti cial intelligence will only
make employing social media easier because bots can maintain hundreds
of social media accounts to interact with citizens in a humanlike
fashion, and potentially to recruit humans to support their false causes.
Furthermore, future developments of quantum computing will improve
the ef cacy of such actions to a currently unthinkable level of precision.
Actively creating schisms to undermine societies is a relatively
effortless venture in heterogeneous societies with deep-rooted and
crosscut social cleavages. As a result, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea,
Islamic State, and other illiberal states will likely continue and even
escalate their efforts in hopes of tearing apart the civic fabric in the
United States and other Western nations. This strategy, which was used
to promote Texas’s secession and California’s independence, is meant to
undermine Western societies by making citizens feel that they have no
stake in the system and that their government is no longer working.48
With California initially allowing a radical measure to propose splitting
into three different states on the November 2018 ballot, there is little
doubt Russia and other anti-Western actors wil l support similar initiatives
to weaken American power.49
Strategic Implications
The United States and many of its Western allies lack the legal
framework and the institutional capabilities to deal adequately with this
challenge. Since most democracies have federal laws that forbid their
militaries from operating domestically, the new battlespace falls under
the responsibility of domestic law enforcement. Thus, the challenge
ahead is both conceptual and operational. The threat must rst be
recognized and then countered. Regardless, an active defense and a
strategic offensive by Western governments are required to discredit
hybrid actors and to punish the regimes backing their attacks.50
The internet and the many web-based tools create a separate,
exploitable social dimension within the evolving human-to-human
interface. When external hybrid actors create schisms within this
network, security and law enforcement authorities must evaluate the
jurisdictional limitations of law enforcement, counterintelligence,
or counterespionage authorities. Regardless, any efforts to generate
public awareness of the hybrid activity will have to use the previously
exploited interfaces. Deep-rooted antigovernment sentiments in the
American public’s discourse present an additional challenge for the US
government’s responses. And so, the only way to prevent hybrid actors
47 Jahara Matisek, “Is China Weaponizing Blockchain Technology for Gray Zone Warfare?,”
Global Security Review, September 28, 2018.
48 David Martin Davies, “Examining How a Russian ‘Troll Factory’ Pushed Texas Secession,”
Texas Public Radio, October 23, 2017; and Will Yates, “ ‘Russian Trolls’ Promoted California
Independence,” BBC News, November 4, 2017.
49 Bob Egelko, “Splitting Up California: State Supreme Court Takes Initiative off Ballot,” San
Francisco Chronicle, July 18, 2018.
50 James P. Farwell, “Countering Russian Meddling in US Political Processes,Parameters 48, no.
1 (Spring 2018): 37–47.
48(4) Winter 2018–19
from labeling any public awareness campaign as a covert psychological
operation conducted by the US government against its own citizens
is for the United States to maintain transparent efforts to encourage
civil society groups to behave with civility. Even then, success is
not guaranteed.
Security agencies can deter social media actors by using continual
vigilance and countermeasure efforts resembling those employed during
the Cold War. Western states can also create costs for hybrid activity by
engaging in retaliatory acts that likewise empower civil society actors
to antagonize the adversaries responsible for schismogenesis. This
strategy may be dif cult, however, because of the risk associated with
crossing authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies that exercise
tight control over civil society. Regardless, Western values and traditions
are generally idealized by citizens in authoritarian countries, which leads
many refugees to seek asylum and educational opportunities in the West.
Western governments can consult Cold War era tactics, techniques, and
procedures to combat and to deter hybrid actors from attacking Western
civil society. These governments can also use emerging technologies
such as quantum computing to detect hybrid actors operating in Western
civil society under false pretenses.
If we transcend the optimism surrounding globalization and the
internet as benevolent forces and take account of the reality that they
will be increasingly exploited to undermine the West, then a proper
conceptualization of schismogenesis warrants the development of
deterrent capabilities. Western leaders do not critically engage in
debates about the attacks on civil society nor are deterrent capabilities
credibly mused beyond academic recommendations from the cyber
protection measures outlined in the Tallinn Manual that have yet to be
operationalized into robust security policies in the West.51 As a result,
illiberal regimes act with impunity. It is precisely because authoritarian
regimes fear their own internal weaknesses that they decry the appeal of
liberal democracies. Yet that appeal is the profound reason why refugees
ow toward the West and not toward Russia, China, or Iran, and it is
what compels these regimes to engage in the grand strategic game of
schismogenesis against the West.
Elites within the political and security establishments must
acknowledge and comprehend the nature and character of this threat
to civil society. This recognition will enable the preparation of the legal
frameworks needed to protect the new battlespace within Western civil
societies from being exploited by adversarial states and their proxies.
This effort will likely require an updated twenty- rst century version
of the Posse Comitatus Act that enables the American military to
work domestically to protect civil society from hybrid actors pursuing
schismogenesis. Western governments must balance their efforts to
51 Michael N. Schmitt, Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Operations,
2nd. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
COERCION: NEW MEANS & METHODS Jayamaha and Matisek 25
counter these external challenges with their protection of fundamental
liberal values and principles.
Such equity might be problematic for the nature and the strength
of the American republic, however, when the winner of the 2016
presidential election has reluctantly acknowledged, or outright rejected,
the likelihood of hostile social media activity in uencing that election’s
campaigns.52 Moreover, the future of the United States could be bleak if it
continues denying the information presented by its intelligence agencies
or it remains reluctant to investigate and to punish those who aid and
abet hybrid actors. Without decisive action, American civil society will
likely continue to be fractured by social media warriors well beyond the
2020 election.
Buddhika B. Jayamaha
Dr. Buddhika B. Jayamaha, a former airborne infantryman and veteran of the
82nd Airborne Division, US Army, with numerous deployments to Iraq, holds
a PhD in political science from Northwestern University. After conducting
postdoctoral research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on food
security in fragile states, he joined the Department of Military and Strategic
Studies at the US Air Force Academy.
Jahara Matisek
Maj Jahara Matisek, an of cer and pilot in the US Air Force, holds a PhD
in political science from Northwestern University. He currently serves as an
assistant professor in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the
US Air Force Academy and as a nonresident fellow with the Modern War
Institute at West Point.
52 Jonathan Masters, “Russia, Trump, and the 2016 U.S. Election,” Council on Foreign Relations,
February 26, 2018.
... When viewers encounter ideologically-confirmatory information, they are less likely to validate it Edgerly & Vraga, 2020), and when they encounter ideologically-disconfirmatory information, they are more likely to respond by doubling down on ideologically polarized beliefs and doubting the credibility of the message's source (Anderson & Auxier, 2020;Feldman et al., 2020;Levendusky, 2013;Slothuus & de Vreese, 2010;Taber & Lodge, 2006). Furthermore, social media platforms can be infiltrated by many groups with antidemocratic goals, including authoritarians who harass and censor information (Tucker et al., 2017), foreign states who use troll farms and fake accounts to foment discontent (Jayamaha & Matisek, 2019), and domestic users who spread antimedia rhetoric that calls into question the validity of traditional news reporting (Strömbäck et al., 2020). Social media corporations contribute by exacerbating these hostile behaviors with demonstrably inconsistent applications of community standards (Smith, 2020) and counterproductive content warning labels (Oeldorf-Hirsch et al., 2020;Vogels et al., 2020). ...
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Losing Confi dence in Democracy," Washington Post, June 26, 2018.
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William M. Downs, "Democracy's New Normal: The Impact of Extremist Parties," World Politics Review, January 22, 2013; William Hague, "Western Voters Are Very Angry-and Extremists Are One Crisis Away from Power," Telegraph, January 26, 2016; and Mike Lofgren, "Trump, Putin, and the Alt-Right International," Atlantic, October 31, 2016.