“Russia is deliberately interfering in Western Democracy through the use of disinformation, cybercrime, psychological manipulation and the collaboration of well-placed third parties. This hybrid conflict is live.” – J. J. Patrick, Alternative War
Something a little bit different for the blog this week as I review a book which entered my sphere of attention lately.
J. J. Patrick first appeared on my radar in a series of viral tweets which described a “worst-case” dsytopian vision of Brexit – a vision which later became the topic of a series of articles on Common Space. This vision also tied into a the seeds of his investigation into the use by some in the pro-Brexit campaign of “Big Data” and highly targeted advertising tailored specifically to the end recipient based on their social media profile.
This turned out to be one of the first strands in a larger investigation which would draw in the American far-right, “fake news”, and Donald Trump’s now infamous “last night in Sweden” speech.
Trump was roundly mocked for this speech in which he had implied that a terrorist attack had been perpetrated by one of the many refugees who had been taken in by Sweden in the wake of the Mediterranean migration crisis. No such attack had occurred.
Soon after this speech Patrick was goaded online by a far-right activist who challenged journalists to travel to Sweden to see for themselves what was happening and so Patrick, a former police officer who has no doubt dealt with far worse than the odd keyboard warrior, obliged and organised a trip.
There, he met with local politicians and other officials and discovered that a) many of the stories of “no-go” areas are simply overblown and b) any increases in crime experienced by Sweden at the moment tend to track more with relative deprivation, poverty and structural unemployment rather than immigration per se. Challenges to be overcome, sure, but it would be counter-productive to start from a position of assuming that the migrants and refugees arriving in Sweden are inherently criminal in intent. However, stories promoting this view are on the rise – especially on social media and broadcast media linked to the Russian state.
From Sweden, the story turns back to Britain and Brexit. Here, a tapestry is woven in which the rise of psychometrics and Big Data is connected to the campaign to remove the UK from the EU. With people placing more and more of their lives online and with ever increasing computational power available to harvest and process this data it is becoming more and more possible to create political messages which can be delivered to you (sometimes only to you) in the near certain knowledge that it will appeal to you and that you will be hooked by its message. This is known as psychometrics.
And if those messages are used to manipulate you via “fake news” which plays on your own preconceptions then it can reinforce your prejudices and reshape your view of the world into something more extreme than it was – opening you to agreeing with or voting for people who also hold those extreme views.
Similar micro-targeting was, the book contends, was also pivotal in ensuring that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election and his campaign’s deep links with the groups who collect and use psychometric data, those who create and spread “fake news” and, again, the ties with Russia are explored as are links to far-right political groups in other countries across Europe such as Greece, Germany and France.
Russian connections to all of these seemingly disparate events and brought out again and again and claim that the Russian media proudly uses local experts, willing or unwitting, to create a layer of authenticity on top of a more manipulative message is something which gave me pause for thought, especially in light of my own appearances on outlets such as RT.
And so the central thesis of the book is drawn to the fore. The Russia itself is behind a lot of the subversive and extreme politics being felt across Europe and America at the moment and that their chosen weapon is a highly sophisticated combination of manipulation, propaganda, political front-pieces and outright cyberattacks on government functions and things like electronic voting.
Russia is framed as the great octopus, worming its way into the fabric of Western society and threatening to bring it all crashing down unless we marshal ourselves to win a war that we haven’t quite realised has already been started.
This is a book which paints a dark and sinister warning and it is a tale told in a manner which does not easily let you go. Patrick’s former life as a cop is definitely evident here. His particular strength for identifying the key details first and then tying them together in a concise manner is vital in building the window through which we lay-people can see the world that he’s seeing. Indeed more than a few times I could well imagine Patrick presenting sections of the book from a witness stand aided only by his trusty notebook.
His narrative style is one of someone who is very clearly passionate about their work and his Herodotean admissions of the limits of his knowledge (particularly in areas such as internal political and cultural dynamics in places like Sweden) add to the world-building rather than subtract from it. Again, it is the mark of someone who sees the details that they might have to investigate later rather than that of someone who’d simply gloss over them or miss them altogether.
This said, there are also a few issues with the writing of the book. The highly current and rapidly evolving nature of the topic led to a very compressed writing schedule and it does show in places. There are a number of typographic errors scattered through the book – though only one or two are any more than mildly distracting and I have been assured that they have been corrected for the second edition – and in a couple of places the same turns of phrase repeat themselves in a way which very much reminds me of times when I’ve stayed up past 3am – fueled by far too much caffeine – to finish a report. Such is the life of an writer.
Where the book is perhaps at its weakest is not in the who or the how of the Alternative War but the why. Even if Russia is capable of launching the complex hybrid attack described in the book, the reasons for it to do so are a lot less well explored.
Early on, Patrick makes the claim that the old police and journalist adage of “follow the money” no longer applies in this new paradigm but later hints that a possible motive for the Brexit and Sweden offensives is to fracture and fragment the European Union so that it can no longer out-compete the Russian economy.
This is perhaps the topic of a future book as this investigation would take one on yet another journey that couldn’t be contained within the 300-odd pages of this volume. It’s a story which would perhaps depend on ones analysis of Russia as a state and of Vladimir Putin as a person. Whether he fits the character of the Grand Mastermind bent on world domination, or of the Great Father determined to reunite the Russian people and the lands of Greater Rus (as has been begun in Georgia and Crimea), or of the shrewd and canny politician who is simply doing what he has to to survive NATO aggression and to hold together a fractious Russian Federation.
All of these characterisations have been pinned on Putin at one time or another – the last in particular by Oliver Stone’s interviews with the man himself – and if any of them are correct then it could lead to very different conclusions on the underlying motive and lead to very different ideas on how best to combat such an attack. Perhaps the first step is to turn our understanding of psychometrics back upon those who have used it on us.
Alternative War is published by Cynefin Road and can be purchased directly from their website or from many other major book sellers.
J. J. Patrick can be found on Twitter here.
Disclaimer:- Whilst I know and have frequently spoken to the author via social media, this review was not solicited and I have received no payment or reward for it. The book was purchased by myself at retail price.
Something More:- Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea – Mark Blyth
Blyth also attempts to link together events such as Trump, Brexit and the rise of extreme politics in Europe and America but does so by looking at the economic factors and political ideas which allow such ideologies to take root after their seed has been sown.
Something Else:- Prisoners of Geography – Tim Marshall
Where many geopolitical studies focus on the politics, this book looks specifically at the geography. A highlight for readers of Alternative War will be the study of the geography of Russia and its sphere of influence and the contention that the re-annexation of Crimea was the inevitable result of the Russian naval base at Sevastapol being one of the few bases Russia has access to which doesn’t freeze over in winter. Similarly, the book claims, Russia’s actions in and towards Syria and Turkey are the driven by the necessity of maintaining free access into and out of the Black Sea and that base.
Something Different:- The Silmarillion – J. R. R. Tolkien
An epic tale of world spanning events driven by ambitious men and their desire to reach far beyond that which they can grasp no matter the cost to those around them. But hey, at least it’s fictional.