"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones". Einstein couldn’t have guessed our weapon of choice would be memes. In the information age, wars are no longer solely won or lost on the battlefield. Nobody understands that better than Vladimir Putin, who gave the order to invade Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. Rather than aerial assault or artillery, he uses disinformation as the first bombardment, to lay the groundwork for invasion, as seen in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015. This was on the back of being accused by the State Department of weaponizing social media to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. Russia long ago lost super power status in conventional warfare, so has invested in becoming a super power in information warfare. The implications of these developments are frightening. We live in a world where for a few million dollars bad actors can train their own AI in the style of GPT-3, and use it to deploy convincing human-level disinformation at scale. America and her allies need new weapons that work to defend democracy and the right to self-determination.
If Russia is leading the world on info-weapons, then why did the invasion not go to plan for Putin? Ukraine’s president Zelenskyy, a former comedian, was lionised as an international hero, posting defiant speeches from the streets of the capital: “I don’t need a ride, I need ammo”. Regular Ukrainian citizens wielding Kalashnikovs filled social media timelines, garnering support from regular folks in the west. In Russia thousands risk arrest in anti-war protests, and there are reports of hundreds of thousands of Russian troop deserters and draft dodgers. The US, together with EU countries, began to openly arm Ukraine, a move unprecedented by decades of non-interventionist policy. The meme lord himself, Elon Musk, has granted all of Ukraine free satellite internet using his unjammable Starlink system. Even on the brink of potential nuclear war, western media is standing firmly with Ukraine and the Washington consensus, that losing this fight would be a slippery slope towards worse outcomes for the free world, for example opening up an opportunity for China to retake Taiwan. Winning the meme war and getting the western world on the side of Ukraine has translated to tangible wins on the ground, turning what looked like an unwinnable war of attribution into a devastating loss of troops and equipment for the Russians.
Credit belongs to the brave Ukrainian people, and their international supporters, but what makes this time different? One interesting and overlooked factor was that the U.S. actually launched a memetic first strike. They released inteligence that Putin was soon to invade with illegitimate justifications. The U.S. military has been studying memetics since at least 2005, so perhaps this is a sign of increasing capability to wage information warfare. Studies show it can be difficult to de-program someone who has formed a belief, but you can innoculate them from disinformation ahead of time, much like a vaccine works on a virus. Forewarned is forearmed. When Putin actually did invade, claiming his aim was to cleanse Ukraine of Nazification, western populations were primed to disbelieve him. Godwin’s Law — an internet adage asserting that all online discussions eventually end with someone calling the other side a Nazi — was the world’s first intentionally designed counter meme, and its effect was to discredit anyone who calls someone else a Nazi to try to win an argument online. So Putin miscalculated and his opening salvo failed to weaken public opposition, and Ukraine was passed the mic.
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