Beyond Bullets and Bombs: The Rising Tide of Information War in International Affairs

Introduction

Today’s wars aren’t just fought on physical battlefields—they are fought online. Strategy is about perception, and cognitive warfare in information spaces is on full display with the wars between Ukraine and Russia and Israel and Hamas. Social media has become the primary means by which the public can engage with war, helping to both spread propaganda and fight false narratives. However, beyond dealing with the veracity of what is shared online, the virality of disseminated content can be key to winning support, particularly among younger generations. Furthermore, the success of campaigns in the information space also relies on the decisions of Big Tech to allow or remove content based on guidelines for hate speech and the like.

In these recent conflicts, it took Israel days and Ukraine almost a year to cede the information high ground. While much of the West instantly rallied behind Ukraine following Russia’s illegal invasion of the region, Russia worked through troll farms and quasi-news outlets, like state-owned Russia Today (RT), to shape public opinion in the Global South. Now, opinion is shifting in Europe and the United States in a public targeted by Kremlin operatives and distracted by inflation and other conflicts. In the Israel-Hamas war, social media influencers outflanked a leading national security and intelligence apparatus to capture the attention of Gen Z globally, weaving together the war with larger themes of post-colonial resistance.

Both conflicts show a stark new reality: cognitive warfare waged in and through cyberspace and information mediums is an essential component of modern strategy. Discussions and divisiveness across digital outlets such as Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly known as Twitter), YouTube, TikTok, WhatsApp, and Telegram fuel public perceptions and influence official decisionmaking. To be successful in conflicts to come, the United States and its democratic partners will need to reinvigorate their fight in the information space by tailoring messages to diverse global audiences, timing counternarratives for key points in conflicts, and fueling Gen Z’s calls for truth and activism.

The Information Space and Cognitive Warfare

Cognitive warfare is a new term applied to an old concept. In writings from ancient strategists like Kautilya and Sun Tzu to modern practitioners like George Kennan, victory is achieved by successfully shaping how a population perceives a set of events through a mix of overt and covert messaging. Framing, psychological distortion, and the speed at which stories circulate through networks are more important than objective truth. Identity and meaning are always in the making and shape social action.

Shaping how a group perceives events can undermine their cohesion, turn latent grievances into acute unrest, and impose political costs from a distance. Social media and the ability to manipulate and distort messages in cyberspace form new combined arms in the twenty-first-century information war. The low cost and low barrier to entry associated with social media and message targeting makes it the ultimate weapon of the weak and tool for contentious politics. Leaders find their menu of options in war reduced as they confront angry crowds, barrages on X, and declining global public opinion polls that show the risks of a simple story turning into manifest political isolation.

We have fundamentally transformed how we express and consume information. The dynamics of online movements reveal a pattern where collective outrage transcends fear, making social media platforms vital arenas for political activism and public mobilization. This new era is also marked by the emergence and growth of computational propaganda to manipulate public opinion, now followed by AI-generated images and videos disseminated on a mass scale. Increasing general anti-war sentiments among the U.S. public, amid dissatisfaction with inflation and government efficiency, are the perfect target for automated content intended to sow division.

The impact of digital content varies across generations, underscoring the complexity of cognitive warfare. Gen Z has a preference for authentic sources of information, such as news organizations with established credibility. These digital natives use social media as their primary mode of online connection and source of news. They approach content with healthy skepticism and less willingness to accept information at face value; they are actively engaged in debunking falsehoods and more inclined to fact-check information they encounter. (It should be noted they still may not be able to easily spot mis-, dis-, and mal-information [MDM] and may be more likely to fall for false stories due to increased exposure.)

Fanning the flames, or dousing the fires, are the decisions of Big Tech companies regarding content on their respective platforms. The debate over whether social media companies like Meta and X censor information has been long-standing, with many Americans believing that these platforms do censor content that they find objectionable. Many have released guidelines as to what content is allowed on their sites, which have allowed for subjective decisions as to what may constitute as “hate speech,” “incitements of violence,” or support for “dangerous organizations and individuals.” In addition to these companies making moderation decisions, nation-states can also submit requests for removal of content that they deem objectionable, further influencing what content is spread in the online environment.

Ukraine-Russia War

In the case of Ukraine, online platforms have been center stage as the main communication tools for cognitive warfare in the first major conflict of the decade. At the onset of Russia’s invasion, Kyiv was masterful in using a mix of emotion, political interests, and even humor to counterattack Moscow online. It created a herd effect as users from across the world shared Zelensky speeches, satirical Darth Putin quips, and videos made by Ukrainian citizens and soldiers as well as inform and influence activity teams across Europe.

The challenge is that this effort, while revolutionary, did not prime the audience to see the war as a global struggle. While a mix of volunteers and government operatives supported Ukraine across the transatlantic community, they didn’t adapt their message to regional concerns across the Global South. Here Putin and his troll army excelled, linking local concerns like inflation to legacy suspicions about U.S. motives and the tragedy of power. From South America and the Middle East to Africa and Southeast Asia, citizens far removed from the conflict started to echo the Kremlin line of Ukraine as a proxy war designed to destroy Russia and echoed Moscow’s call to distrust democratic institutions.

Russian techniques mixed old and new, including employing influence-for-hire firms to act as intermediaries in South America and Africa, which targeted far-right and far-left groups with tailored messages indirectly supporting Russia’s larger narrative about the war. In Africa, the Kremlin used the Wagner Group to take cognitive warfare further and incite unrest that set conditions for coups across the Sahel. These activities included using clusters of Facebook pages to amplify local grievances and destabilize countries.

Alongside social media initiatives, RT continued via traditional outlets pushing narratives of Russia’s “necessary” engagement and claims of Ukraine’s desires for genocide. The state-sponsored outlet also signed content deals with multiple African media providers, gaining access to local populations across West and sub-Saharan Africa and, in the process, making Putin a hero on African TV networks. Such efforts have only just started involving the use of deep fakes in narrative creations, but that trend is likely to accelerate with the diffusion of generative AI.

The net result: declining global public opinion polls for supporting Ukraine and increasingly vocal condemnation of Western support for the war across middle-income countries. Cynicism replaced optimism and left Ukraine, not Russia, increasingly isolated beyond Europe and North America. In the United States, initial support for Ukraine has waned as Americans feel increasing strain on their wallets with growing inflation. Russia has been able to take advantage, particularly with video media on TikTok, to encourage more divisiveness as the public watches the dysfunction on Capitol Hill and the government deciding to send more funding and resources overseas rather than allocating them to domestic concerns. This trend shows an important aspect of cognitive warfare: tailoring your message to the audience is the center of gravity.

Israel-Hamas War

The contentious relations between both Ukraine and Russia and Israel and Palestine are deeply rooted in territorial, religious, and ethnic disputes. The rise in anti-colonialism and awareness of genocides and ethnic cleansing campaigns should have support for Ukraine and Palestine at the same level—yet that’s not the case. Advocacy for the Palestinian people and calls for a ceasefire have remained unrelenting since the start of the Israel-Hamas war and do not (yet) appear to be as susceptible to counternarratives.

Israel, long adept at using propaganda in the regional conflict and broader geopolitics, skillfully incorporated social media into its communication strategy. Over the years, social media platforms have censored pro-Palestinian commentaries and acquiesced to requests from Israel to remove anti-Israeli content. However, Palestinians have increasingly leveraged platforms like X and TikTok to amplify their voices, challenging Israel’s media dominance. This shift in the information landscape, particularly since the United Nations’ 2009 report on human rights violations, and the growth of counternarratives, particularly from Hamas, has seen a gradual erosion of support for Israel’s narratives.

Israel traditionally framed itself as a vulnerable democracy amid hostile neighbors, justifying its military actions as necessary self-defense. However, Hamas’s strategic use of social media, depicting Israeli violence against Palestinians, has weakened this narrative. The flood ofreal-timeimages and videos of the subsequent violence following the October 7 attacks has been pivotal in this changing perception.

With the rise of image- and video-based consumption, propaganda and MDM campaigns have proliferated on platforms like Instagram and TikTok. The 2021 air strikes on Gaza and ensuing conflict exemplified this, with both Israel and Hamas intensifying their social media campaigns. Notably, in the current war, the backing of Iran in spreading Hamas’s message through bot accounts and the reported involvement of China and Russia in amplifying these narratives indicate a broader trend of social media as a tool in proxy warfare and the shift in military strategy to incorporate communication campaigns in the information space.

The delineation between Hamas and the Palestinian people has become clearer in the social media era. While previously social media companies, particularly Meta, played a role in blurring the line between Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, and Palestine, platforms have since changed their stance on moderation of conflict content. Social media companies are using lessons learned from the Ukraine-Russia war to support humanitarian rights and allow graphic content showing the realities of war. This distinction between the Palestinian people and Hamas, strengthened since the 2021 attacks, has bolstered support for Palestinian rights and undermined Israel’s narrative. Gen Z in particular has played a crucial role in maintaining this delineation, reflecting a generational shift in attitudes toward systemic violence and oppression and antipathy toward spending on war efforts.

Social media actions have evolved from transient trends to calls for enduring movements. Gen Z’s penchant for credible and legitimate information has reinforced a steadfast rejection of Israel’s propaganda and support for Palestine. The global reaction to the October 7 attacks quickly shifted from sympathy to opposition against Israel’s retaliations, influenced by digital activism and stances of celebrities and online influencers. The role of celebrities, amplified by Gen Z’s affinity for digital engagement and parasocial relationships, has significantly swayed public opinion. The majority support for Palestine among Gen Z, particularly in the United States but also in many other countries across the world, coupled with their vocal advocacy for ceasefires and denunciation of pro-Israeli stances, illustrates a profound shift in the narrative of the conflict.

Looking Forward

The realm of cognitive warfare in the twenty-first century presents a complex, nuanced, and evolving challenge. The interplay of technological advancements, social media dynamics, and generational differences has created a landscape where information is both a weapon and a battleground. Recent conflicts demonstrate the shift to an information war alongside military capabilities, stressing the importance of mobilizing counter-messaging in the information space—rapid response in the initial phase of conflicts followed by a long-term campaign, utilizing influencer accounts and official agency communications to erode the legitimacy of foreign propaganda machines.

In navigating the cognitive battlefield, it becomes imperative to adopt a multifaceted approach. This includes enhancing digital literacy across generations, fostering analytical thinking, and leveraging the power of social media for positive mobilization and counter-propaganda efforts. Private corporations still have the power to allow or remove content on their platforms, leaving decisionmakers with the task of knowing how to strategically utilize the information space to optimally shape public perception. As the digital age continues to unfold, the ability to adapt and respond to these challenges will be crucial in safeguarding the integrity of information ecosystems and, ultimately, democratic institutions.

Benjamin Jensen is the senior fellow for future war, gaming, and strategy in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Divya Ramjee is the data fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program
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Divya Ramjee
Data Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program