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Steve Sin highlights the challenge of combating information warfare

Steve Sin
Dr. Steve Sin

Dr. Steve Sin, a former U.S. Army counterintelligence officer and Director of START’s Unconventional Weapons and Technology (UWT) Division, headlined a June webinar on the power of information warfare to influence political and military events.

Sin is a lecturer in the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice and an adjunct professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany. He previously taught at the City University of New York, and was a Section Chief at SUNY Albany’s National Center for Security and Preparedness. Sin’s research focuses on emerging technologies, cyberterrorism and Northeast Asia regional security.

Sin noted at the beginning of the presentation that, despite information warfare gaining public notoriety as a result of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, it has been practiced throughout history.

“The art of deception has been used by militaries for a long time,” Sin said. “If you think about what we are experiencing today, it is clear that deception remains a large part of the information warfare our adversaries are conducting.”

Sin explained that during the Korean War, the U.S. military was widely accused of using biological agents, a false rumor spread by China and North Korea. Despite the fact that this accusation was completely fabricated, millions of Europeans protested against the alleged biological attacks, and Pablo Picasso painted a mural depicting U.S. forces spreading germs. Large numbers of people were inclined to believe this conspiracy because the United States had already used nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sin is not surprised by the rapid spread of conspiracy theories like these.

“In order for disinformation to work, there has to be some grain of truth in it,” he said. “All you have to do is sow the seed [of an idea] into people and people...will transmit this information to each other. The transmission itself is [done] knowingly, however a lot of people don’t know if this is false information.”

While this process can theoretically be used to transmit specific messages, Sin said that the goal of information warfare campaigns is most often to create confusion, sow internal discord or create distrust of the sources and institutions that provide the public with reputable information. 

The use of these tactics is only becoming more prevalent, Sin said. Internationally, regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly targeted by Russian information warfare campaigns, while a variety of foreign powers have attempted to further undermine the United States by spreading disinformation on COVID-19 and on the protests following the death of George Floyd.

Sin does not believe the situation is hopeless, however.

“If you know that [sources] have their own agenda, if you know their biases, you can check against that bias as you are looking through those materials,” Sin said. “What I usually tell people is that there is actually no single source that you want to say ‘this is credible while others not.’’’

Sin explained that many international organizations and government agencies continue to produce reliable information, and that individuals can protect themselves from deception by “triangulating” a large number of sources. In certain circumstances, such as the public health crisis created by COVID-19, Sin noted that social media companies can play an important role by removing false information.

“It’s easier to fight disinformation when the majority of the general population doesn’t see it as political,” Sin said. 

Potential regulators are far more hesitant to address potentially misleading instances of political speech.

“When it comes to elections and the political realm, that border [between free speech and combating misinformation] becomes very muddy,” Sin said. “That’s what I think companies are trying to really avoid.”

Sin explained that it is incumbent on reputable policy and nonprofit organizations to fight disinformation and educate the public. He was particularly optimistic about the potential for a United Nations inquiry into COVID-19 disinformation.

“At the moment, disinformation campaigns [have] no downside...both state actors and non-state actors are free to act as they desire,” Sin said. “If something like a U.N. inquiry happens, it would be a start for states to think twice about [information warfare]. That would be a very good way to start moving in the right direction.”

To see upcoming START events and to view recordings of previous virtual events, visit https://www.start.umd.edu/events