Sun Tzu and the Art of Fake News

“That is #FakeNews” is one phrase that has rocketed to fame last year. President Trump’s legacy has already been left in Twitter land but why has it come to the fore, is it new and more importantly is it something that individuals or enterprise should be concerned about?  Philip Ingram MBE the editor of HQ Magazine takes a look at fake news, but with a 6th century twist.

There are elements of the press who seem to suggest that fake news is something new, it isn’t, and it has its roots back to the 6th century, but before I delve that far back I want to take a quick look to only 74 years ago. The Second World War shows just how important “fake news” was to the war effort; fake news, when targeted for an effect is also known as Propaganda. William Brooke Joyce, nicknamed Lord Haw-Haw, an American-born, Anglo-Irish Fascist who became the Nazi propaganda broadcaster to the United Kingdom during World War II was probably the most famous mouth of fake news, but the Japanese had English speaking female broadcasters who were nicknamed Tokyo Rose.  

The use of fake news or propaganda was not limited to the Germans or Japanese and arguably the greatest military success of the Second World War, D Day, was enabled by fake news through an operation called Operation Fortitude.  With this being linked to a military operation this is where I want to bring in 6th century teachings.

Sun Tzu the 6th century Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher, arguably the greatest military tactician and strategic thinker ever, said in his book the Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” His teachings have stood the test of time!

Operation Fortitude was a massive deception operation conducted by the Allied Forces to lead the Germans to believe that they would be landing in Pas-de-Calais and Norway, masking the true invasion through Normandy. 

The aim was also to make them believe that the Normandy landings in May 1944 and in the south of France in June 1944 were mere diversions, so that the German army would concentrate its troops in the wrong place. The German authorities clung to their belief that the landing would occur in Pas-de-Calais right until September 1944.  Operation Fortitude held onto the principals set out so eloquently by Sun Tzu. The bluff worked but highlights how a country with extensive national intelligence assets looking at a situation unfolding, can be deceived. 

The Russian term маскировка (maskirovka) literally masking, was defined in the International Dictionary of Intelligence from 1990 as the Russian military intelligence (GRU) term for deception. Vladimir Putin would have “grown up” in an organisation where maskirovka was a normal part of everyday thinking.  At every level of my military training we studied maskirovka, so imagine my surprise when Robert Hannigan, the ex-director of the UK spy agency CGHQ, said of the Russian threat in an interview this year, ‘We didn’t see Russian use of disinformation coming‘.  It clearly demonstrates a naivety with the UK’s senior intelligence officials, charged with keeping our politicians abreast of the threat to that which underpins our way of life, democracy.  

This failure highlights that those self-same senior intelligence officials have forgotten one of Sun Tzu’s most famous quotes. “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles; … if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.”

Should we be worried? Well in my professional opinion, I think we should be extremely worried.  This is not just something targeted country on country, it is being exploited by terrorists and so-called ISIS are masters at it, it is being exploited to gain commercial advantage especially when rumours can be generated in the money markets, huge sums can be gained, or lost.

In May last year many respected media outlets reported concerns by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over false reporting.  The FT outlined that the regulators were concerned that fake news was affecting investment decisions and reported evidence that seemingly independent outlets were being paid to promote stories.  They reported the SEC as saying, “keep in mind that fraudsters may generate articles promoting a company’s stock to drive up the stock price and to profit at your expense.” 

Supporters of so called ISIS are very quick to post across their networks details and pictures from any attack, thereby taking de facto responsibility in the eyes of their supporters even before any official statements are released.  This has the effect of stimulating potential copycat or other attacks as well as giving “oxygen” to their terror message, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher. The manipulation of media messaging is extensively used by todays terror organisations.

The one factor that enables fake news to have such a rapid impact today is control, or lack of it.  Operation Fortitude was a carefully orchestrated national plan controlled at the highest levels, so all messaging was coherent and worked to a common aim. Today, fake news can be delivered to millions of people at the click of a button via social media and the average person in the street can send a message that the President of the US may read personally, without it going through his normal staffing and advisory chain.  The power of social media is phenomenal.

The Russians continue to use maskirovka as part of their global engagement techniques. We are already seeing proof of their involvement in the US elections and likely in the UK Brexit referendum and more.  Sun Tzu highlighted how this works when he said, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”  Remember, Robert Hannigan said he didn’t see it coming and those unexpected routes were Facebook, Twitter, big data manipulation, main stream press and good old fashioned human influence, powered by the internet.

Arguably Kim Jong Un from North Korea knows how to play President Trump using Sun Tzu.  As the 6thcentury tactician said, “If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” It is this last line that is keeping the world’s breath held.  Kim Jong Un’s understanding of President Trump’s temperament is clearly excellent when he applies Sun Tzu’s principal, “If your opponent is of choleric temperament, seek to irritate him.” Trump gets irritated easily by ‘Rocket Man.’

With the ease of spread of fake news and its ability to influence, it is something that enterprise should be concerned about.  The instability caused by state on state activity is one thing but there is clear evidence of state on enterprise actions in cyberspace with the theft of IP. Fake news is another cyber enabled activity and the potential for enterprise on enterprise use of fake news is growing.  

As an intelligence officer looking at a threat you ask 2 questions.  The first, does the capability exist and the answer is yes.  The second, is there intent to use it, and again the proof is that the answer is yes. Now is the time for risk managers in companies to ensure the impact of Fake News is something they plan for, remember it is a cyber enabled threat.

In one of Sun Tzu’s opening statements he said, “If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.” The time has come for preparedness as you cannot evade this threat.