Information warfare seeks to accelerate the decomposition of democratic societies. Interview with D. Colon

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By  David COLON , Pierre VERLUISE , January 14, 2024   

David Colon, professor at Sciences Po Paris, author of “The Information War. States conquering our minds”, ed. Tallandier, 2023. David Colon is a researcher at the Sciences Po History Center. He teaches the history of communication, media and propaganda there. Member of the CNRS “Internet, AI and society” research group. He previously published “Propaganda” (ed. Belin 2019, re-ed. Flammarion, Champs histoire 2021) distinguished by the Akropolis and Jacques Ellul prizes. He also recently published “The Masters of Manipulation”, ed. Texto, 2023. D. Colon joined the Scientific Council of . Comments collected by Pierre Verluise, doctor in Geopolitics, founder of

How to define information warfare? How have the United States’ adversaries, notably Iran, China and Russia, reacted to the information war led by the United States? What are the functions of news agencies and social media in contemporary information warfare? What are the United States and also the EU member states doing to protect themselves from the information war led by Russia and also China?

Here is a major interview with the author of one of the best works published in thirty years on disinformation, a major issue of present and future times. You will know the major moments and the main actors of a war for which we were not prepared, which became a mortal threat for our democracies.

David Colon, author of “  Information Warfare.” States conquering our minds  ”, Ed. Tallandier, answers questions from Pierre Verluise for . With a bonus video of a conference by D. Colon accompanied by his validated summary.

Pierre Verluise (PV): How could you define information warfare?

David Colon (DC): Information warfare strictly refers to the fact that a State uses information as a weapon, for military, political, economic, cultural or diplomatic purposes. It is based on the use of information not only as a source of power, but as a power in itself, in other words as a lever of power in international relations . In the broad sense, information warfare corresponds to “political warfare” as defined by George Kennan (1904-2005), namely “the use of all means available to a nation, apart from war, to achieve its national objectives. States thus use informational weapons to project their coercive power across their borders without resorting to force . Information warfare is, according to a phrase by Jiang Zemin in 1993, a “war without smoke”.

PV: While the USSR was a major player in the information war, for you it was the United States which during the ending Cold War – in the context of the Gulf War (1990-1991) – opened a new chapter in information warfare. In what ways?

DC: The United States considers itself to have emerged victorious from the Cold War and asserted its military and technological supremacy during the Gulf War. Their informational superiority is first expressed on the battlefield, through the use of electronic warfare and the application of the doctrine of informational domination ( Information Dominance ), consisting for the Pentagon in asserting its superiority in the field. information while denying this capability to the adversary. But this superiority is also expressed in the media field, through the considerable weight of their press agencies, their media – and in particular the continuous news channel CNN – in the production of global media information. At the start of the digital age, their advance in information and communication technologies is such that the United States intends to make it the basis of global domination in terms of information ( Global Information Dominance ). From 1990, the principle of free flow of information and communication was put at the service of American domination of world information and the dissemination of the democratic and liberal model.

David COLON. Paris. France. 07/2023 © david atlan
David Colon, professor at Sciences Po Paris, author of “The Information War. States conquering our minds”, ed. Tallandier, 2023. Photo: David Atlan

PV: How have the United States’ adversaries, notably Iran, China and Russia, reacted to the information war led by the United States?

DC: The Gulf War and the collapse of the USSR (1991) were a shock for Iranian and Chinese leaders, who perceived American superiority in the information field as an existential threat to their regime . Even before 2001, Russia, China and Iran considered themselves at war for the survival of their respective regimes.

The shock was particularly strong in China , where the conservative leaders of the Communist Party had seen the hand of the CIA in the Beijing Spring of 1989 and considered that the end of the Soviet Communist Party was the consequence of American informational interference. From 1993, Jiang Zemin therefore imposed a defensive posture, consisting of keeping Western media at a distance from Chinese citizens, strengthening the means of controlling information in China, then developing what is called the “Grand Pare”. -fire of China”, a digital wall.

In Russia , the strongest resistance to American information hegemony has been expressed among the Siloviki , the intelligence men. Indeed, if the USSR and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapsed, this was not the case for the Russian intelligence services. Military intelligence (GRU) was maintained, as was the KGB, now divided between the FSB (internal security, counter-espionage, collection of electromagnetic data) and the SVR (foreign intelligence). They continued their actions, with the same main enemy, the United States, the same doctrine and the same goals. When Vladimir Putin, from the KGB, took the helm of the FSB in 1998, he extended control of the Russian-speaking Internet, before adopting, once he came to power, a defensive information security doctrine, which pointed to a list of threats, including “manipulation of information” and “the desire of certain countries to dominate and undermine Russia’s interests in the global information space.”

PV: How have the states allied to the United States reacted to the information war led by the United States, then by the adversaries of Washington DC? What were the areas of convergence, divergence, competition and cooperation? To put it more bluntly, have the states allied to the United States been “useful idiots”, at the very least “slow to understand”?

DC: In reality, the United States itself was slow to realize that authoritarian regimes were waging an information war against them. They paid attention neither to the first Russian and Chinese cyberattacks, nor to the construction of a global information ecosystem based both on international state media broadcast in many languages, and even less to the rise at low noise from the Chinese intelligence apparatus. The essential reason is that it is not enough, according to Péguy’s formula, to say what we see. We still have to see what we see . However, all that the leaders of democratic regimes wanted to see in the 1990s and 2000s was the promise of democratization and liberalization of China and Russia driven by their reintegration into the concert of nations. and the conclusion of numerous exchange agreements. It was only from 2014 that the United States Department of State really became aware of the information war waged by Russia and China.

In France, the awareness of political leaders occurred in 2017. In the meantime, the Russian and Chinese intelligence services exploited for their benefit this conviction of Western regimes that the multiplication of economic and cultural exchanges would encourage the democratic transition . The FSB and the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) were able to use these exchanges to penetrate in depth Western societies, capture part of their elites, patiently set up networks of espionage and influence, and lead to quiet a media war through the purchase of advertorial pages and the corruption of public debate through more or less clandestine influence operations.

Today’s information war involves influencing and conditioning perceptions, inserting narratives into the information production chain of the opposing society.

PV: What are the functions of news agencies and social media in contemporary information warfare?

DC: The media is the main battleground in the global information war. Even the most sophisticated digital operations today often aim first and foremost to produce effects in traditional media. The stake in this battle is public opinion, whose perceptions must be influenced and conditioned . States influence media production outside their borders, on the one hand, by resorting to strategic communication and public diplomacy, and on the other hand through the clandestine action of their intelligence services which employ to insert narratives into the information production chain of the opposing society . But this battle for public opinion is asymmetrical , because it is very difficult for democratic regimes to influence the media of authoritarian regimes, which are tightly controlled and monitored, while it is particularly easy for dictatorships to influence open societies, whose media are free and whose information market is easily accessible through the purchase of media, the corruption of journalists or, more simply, the exploitation of the very characteristics of journalistic work. “The Western media,” the former Soviet grandmaster spy Pavel Sudoplatov testified in 1994, “are quite easily manipulated, because they often write their articles based on press releases and tend, on the whole, not to make any distinction. as to the nature and reliability of their sources.” In recent decades, the growing weakening of Western media, subject to imperatives of profitability in a context of weakening of their economic model, has made them more permeable than ever to foreign informational influences.

PV: What are the specific behaviors of post-Soviet Russia in terms of information warfare? You write that Moscow is implementing a “strategy of chaos in Europe”, partly responsible for Brexit. By what means, to what end? Across the Atlantic, how was Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential campaign implemented and to what end?

DC: The specificity of Russia is the application to the information sphere of “operational art”, which can be defined as a multidimensional approach which translates into operational military objectives the strategy defined at the highest level by the political power . In this way, each tactical combat takes on a strategic scope and involves all the stakeholders in the information war (strategic communication from the Kremlin, public diplomacy, international media, troll farms, intelligence services, agents of influence, etc.) , without planned coordination of their action being always necessary. When an opportunity for influence arises, every Russian actor in information warfare knows what to do .

The day that everything changed, in my opinion, was December 5, 2011. Here’s why.

The Kremlin’s strategy, initially defensive, became offensive in the 2000s following the “color revolutions”, in which the Russian intelligence services saw the hand of their American counterparts, and even more so the “twitter revolutions”. » of the Arab Spring, perceived by Vladimir Putin as a direct threat of overthrow of his political regime. The day that everything changed, in my opinion, was December 5, 2011 , when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly denounced “fraud and electoral manipulation” during the Russian legislative elections which saw the party of Vladimir Putin , then Prime Minister, winning by a narrow head. Protests are taking place in Moscow, organized on social networks, notably Facebook. Putin’s reaction was not long in coming: as soon as he was re-elected for a third presidential term, in the spring of 2012, he began to tightly control the Russian information space, which he gradually closed to those he denounced as “agents of ‘stranger “. Then he launched a large-scale information offensive against the “main enemy”, the United States and its allies. All of Russia’s public and private resources are then mobilized with the aim of accelerating the “decomposition” of democratic societies , by encouraging pre-existing dissensions and chaos, by amplifying distrust of established institutions, and by weakening the “regime of truth”, that is to say the framework for stating what is true and what is false, with the aim of depriving Western citizens and their leaders of the ability to make rational decisions. It must be understood that the ultimate goal was not so much to achieve Brexit or the election of Donald Trump – short-term opportunistic objectives – as to weaken citizens’ confidence in their leaders and in the electoral process itself. . If there is no longer any doubt, for example, that the Kremlin strongly contributed to the election of Trump, it is striking to note that barely 4 days after his election, the Kremlin’s propaganda organs organized demonstrations in Manhattan for… and against Trump . Similarly, during the #MacronLeaks in 2017, the Kremlin’s main effort was not so much on supporting Marine Le Pen as on contesting the legitimacy of the elected president, Emmanuel Macron. The creation of distrust and doubt is a long-term task , pursued by the KGB since the 1950s, but which was suddenly accelerated by the possibilities offered by social networks, starting with Facebook and Twitter, in terms of amplification and propagation of content and targeting of the most psychologically vulnerable individuals.

PV: What are the United States and also the EU member states doing to protect themselves from the information war led by Russia and also China? Are we up to the challenge? What is the fate of agents of Russian influence in France? Reading you, the reader may have the impression that after opening a new chapter in information warfare during the Gulf War (1990) the United States was overtaken by the boomerang effects implemented by its competitors. . And that the members of the EU have not understood much. However, disinformation is a “weapon of mass destabilization”. What can democracies do in the face of hybrid threats?

DC: The United States undoubtedly has a heavy responsibility in the situation of global information warfare that we know today. They opened Pandora’s box on at least three occasions  : in 1991 by claiming to impose their informational domination and their political model on the world, in 2003 by resorting to manipulation of the masses to legitimize military action carried out outside the framework of the at the UN and aimed at overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, and in 2009 by launching a destructive cyberattack against Iranian centrifuges at the Natanz factory. Regarding this last operation (called the “Olympic Games”), General Michal Hayden, who had successively headed the NSA and the CIA, publicly expressed his fears about the cyber arms race: “  Someone has crossed the line. Rubicon  ,” he said. How can we expect authoritarian regimes to comply with international law if you, a democratic regime, openly violate it? How can you imagine that they will give up on conquering the minds of your citizens if you seek to influence theirs? How, finally, can we imagine that a computer virus like Stuxnet, once implanted on computers, could one day, like the genie, return to its box?

Belated awareness of Russia’s offensive led in March 2016 to the creation of the Global Engagement Center ( GEC ), an organization attached to the State Department but composed mainly of Pentagon personnel and associating non-state actors, starting with American digital giants, in counter-influence actions. Deprived of resources by Donald Trump, the GEC was only able to truly undertake to counter Russian and Chinese information interference from 2020.

It was only in 2018 that the European Union adopted an action plan against disinformation, in which it defined “hybrid threats” as “the mixture of coercive and subversive activities, conventional methods and unconventional […] capable of being used in a coordinated manner by state and non-state actors […] without the threshold of an officially declared war being exceeded. However, the only concrete measure taken by the European Commission to deal with it was the publication, in July 2018, of a “code of good practice against disinformation”, signed by several American digital platforms but which did not produce the expected effects. Likewise, we can fear today that the regulation on digital services (DSA for Digital Services Act , October 19, 2022) will not have more effects on non-cooperative players like Twitter or TikTok.

PV: How is cyberwar becoming a major field of information warfare for States every day, possibly in synergy or competition with large companies? What does the Russian war in Ukraine teach us about this, particularly the failure of the Russian cyber offensive?

DC: Cyberwar has been global for the past ten years, since Iran, Russia, North Korea and China embarked on large-scale offensive operations against the United States. United and their allies. In these authoritarian states, the distinction between state operations and those emanating from cybercriminals is deliberately blurred, to make it difficult to attribute attacks and reinforce plausible deniability by states. In this global cyber war, the United States will have technological superiority for some time to come, on which it relies to offer its allies a “cyber umbrella”, which is in some way equivalent to the “nuclear umbrella” of the Cold War. Concretely, in Ukraine, this translated from February 2022 into operational support not only from Cybercommand and the NSA but also from American digital giants, starting with Google and Microsoft, who supported the Ukrainian government by helping it to face cyberattacks and protect its strategic data . “The Russian-Ukrainian front actually goes through Redmond [Microsoft Headquarters in Washington State],” Microsoft President Brad Smith bravadoly declares. In 2022, Russian cyber fighters found themselves in the unprecedented situation of having to carry out both offensive actions against Ukraine, defensive actions against cyber attacks from Ukrainian hackers and their allies, and a global cyber war against the NSA. This largely explains the fact that the Russian cyber offensive has not produced significant effects, unlike what happened in 2014 during the annexation of Crimea .

At the start of 2024, we still lack a national strategy to combat foreign manipulation of information.

PV: 2024 will be an election year in many countries. In the case of the EU, the elections for the European Parliament are an issue for citizens… as well as for non-European states which intend to torpedo the EU from within. Are there structures to combat foreign interference in the electoral processes of France and EU countries?

DC: In 2017, France acquired the Cyber ​​Command (Combcyber), responsible for the defensive (LID), offensive (LIO) and influence (L2I) IT fight, in 2021 Viginum , a service responsible for vigilance and protection against foreign digital interference , and in 2022 a sub-directorate for monitoring and strategy within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That same year, the President of the Republic elevated influence to the rank of a new strategic function. Since then, France has won some battles in the information war against Russia, such as in 2022, when army spokesperson Colonel Pascal Ianni foiled an information manipulation operation in Gossi, in Mali ; or in 2023, when Viginum made it possible to unveil and partially thwart the disinformation operations of the so-called “Doppelgänger/RRN” network. However, to date we still lack a national strategy to combat manipulation , while existing organizations, starting with Viginum, still lack the means and staff to be able to deal with the approaching threat. European elections and the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, in the context of the alliance between China, Russia and Iran on the one hand and the rise of Artificial Intelligence on the other.

What is the short term objective? And what is the long-term goal? Answers.

Since 2020, the Chinese Communist Party has thus intensified its offensive operations without restraint, following the Russian example step by step. Unlike the Russian threat, which is very discreet, the Chinese threat is expressed quietly, and is based in particular on a patient reconfiguration of the global information ecosystem , through the dissemination of its own media, partnership agreements with local media, for example African, and the massive recruitment of both digital and political influencers in democratic states. China, in 1993, was the first autocratic state to reappropriate the concept of Soft Power ( ruan shili). Since 2013 and the coming to power of Xi Jinping, she has become a master in the art of Sharp Power , which refers to the manipulative policy of authoritarian regimes which penetrate and perforate the political and informational environments of democratic states. with the aim of influencing and undermining their political system. Like Russia, China is now a major player in informational interference and interference in electoral processes. In Europe, in the context of the 2024 elections, the Chinese Communist Party is working above all to weaken the alliance between European countries and the United States, which remains their main target, in the run-up to the American presidential election. from November 2024.

Since 2022, we have seen a growing convergence not only of modes of action but of infrastructures and contents between the Russian, Chinese and Iranian information ecosystem. The short-term objective is to weaken democratic states, the long-term objective is to replace Western informational hegemony with the informational hegemony of the Moscow-Tehran-Beijing Axis . What makes this objective achievable is on the one hand the economic, financial and industrial power of China, and on the other hand the growing use of Artificial Intelligence, both to massively produce false content, false profiles and fake media that are difficult to detect only to massively amplify the spread of disinformation and to automatically detect flaws both in digital information systems and in the minds of social network users. The scale, severity and immediacy of the information threat represented by AI is completely unprecedented.

Bonus video. David Colon. How do states implement information warfare?

This video can be broadcast in a lecture hall to support a course and a debate. See the summary by Marie-Caroline Reynier for , proofread and validated by David Colon . Watch the video on youtube/Diploweb

PV: The publication of your excellent work, “Information Warfare. States conquering our minds”, ed. Tallandier, received a very warm welcome from the public but also from certain ruling circles. Is it possible to hope for constructive and lasting developments that meet the challenges?

DC: Through this book, I wanted to both alert public opinion, arm people’s minds and suggest ways to deal with the information war while preserving the fundamental principles of liberal democracy. The reception that the book received, particularly among elected officials and French civil and military actors in the informational struggle for influence, exceeded all my expectations. If the book was able to contribute to awareness of the major challenge that information warfare constitutes, I am delighted. From now on, I work in my research and in my action to promote concrete solutions to protect our minds as well as our fundamental freedoms.

Copyright 2024-Colon-Verluise/


. David Colon, The Information War. States conquering our minds . Ed. Tallandier , 476 p.

4th cover

A war for which we were not prepared is taking place before our eyes, largely without our awareness, and constitutes a mortal threat to our democracies.
Since the end of the Cold War and the rise of the Internet and global media, the militarization of information by States has disrupted the geopolitical order. The information war, which pits authoritarian states against democratic regimes, multiplies the battlefields and makes each citizen a potential soldier. More than ever, the power of States – whether their hard power , their soft power or their sharp power – depends on their ability to put their means of communication at the service of their influence, by resorting to cyberwar, to disinformation or the exploitation of conspiracy theories. In the age of artificial intelligence and cognitive warfare, social media is the scene of a merciless, never-ending “Net War” in which our minds are at stake.

In this work, David Colon, specialist in the history of propaganda and mass manipulation, describes the mechanisms of this war which has long remained secret by revealing the strategies of its sponsors and describing the tactics and the path of its actors, whether they are secret agents, diplomats, journalists or hackers.



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