But while there is a plurality of information wars and contests with respect to the war in Ukraine and the Russians prosecution of it, none is a global winner. Dr Rogers cites recent research tracking a Russian propaganda campaign on Twitter using the hashtag #IStandWithRussia, which began at the beginning of March. The researchers tracked its strength, not in the Western world, but how it played out on computer networks in Africa, parts of Asia, South America and Central America and found the message was often given widespread, uncritical approval there.
“We as Westerners live and interact within a curated information environment that is very much geared towards our values, and the things that we think are important,” says Dr Rogers.
“So, we get a story that Ukrainians are brave, they're on the verge of winning, and Russia is on the verge of capitulating, and Putin has maybe gone mad. But it's really interesting to watch and learn about the narrative that is pushed outside of the Western world.”
Dr Rogers says we shouldn’t be surprised – that’s just how the internet works and any discussion of information war or contests for narrative has to take that into account. More importantly for the current situation in Ukraine, this understanding sheds light in the growing phenomenon of open source intelligence and how amateurs, professionals and everyone in between have been observing, commenting, and participating in the conflict in Ukraine via social media.
Five problems of open-source intelligence
This presents five problems, says Dr Rogers, with serious implications for democratic nations. The first problem is verification – we need some way of verifying the source of the data – and the second, simulation, makes verification all the more difficult. These days any information can be simulated in inauthentic ways, ‘fake news’ if you like.
The third issue for Dr Rogers is curation. “Algorithmic governance systems structure the information in a way that basically means we see more of what we have seen before,” Dr Rogers says. “That basic structure was developed to effectively manage the information glut problem. So that's just a structural feature of how the internet works.”
This has real ramifications for open-source intelligence. “There's a real emerging industry with regard to aggregation of data, with products and services claiming to tell you something meaningful out of that data, whether it's social media or search data. It has to be viewed with the deepest of skepticism because of all those problems upstream, from verification, simulation and curation.”