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Caucasus: Propaganda Warfare Escalates On The Internet

In the past few months, a series of cyberattacks has occurred against a number of Armenian and Azerbaijani Internet sites. Computer hackers, or intruders, sought either to introduce false information to a web page, divert visitors to another site, insert particular political views to a site, and/or block access to the web site altogether. Although determining exactly where the attacks originated is difficult because of the complexity of Internet connections, both sides blame each other. RFE/RL correspondent Julie Moffett files this report:

Washington, 23 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An expert in computer security says the recent exchange of cyberattacks on popular Armenian and Azerbaijani websites is a prime example of how nations are increasingly turning to the Internet to conduct propaganda warfare.

Daniel Kuehl, a professor at the School of Information Warfare and Strategy in Washington, told RFE/RL that propaganda warfare occurs when information is purposefully manipulated to affect how people think and behave. Kuehl says that propaganda warfare, also known as perception management, has been around for as long as human beings have interacted with each other. But he says that because of the "globe-spanning nature" of the Internet, it is possible to instantly reach worldwide audiences and implement sophisticated methods to influence and shape the way these audiences perceive reality.

Just last week, hackers broke into the webpage of the Azerbaijani daily newspaper Zerkalo and inserted false information about the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Zerkalo editors were later quoted in the Western press as saying that the hackers were likely Armenians who had broke into the site in revenge for cross-border attacks by Azerbaijanis last month.

But Armenians are still angry about a series of attacks in which they say Azerbaijani intruders defaced two dozen Internet sites dealing with Armenian issues, including those belonging to Armenian state television and the Armenian Assembly of America, a U.S. lobbying group.

Rouben Adalian, Director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington, told RFE/RL that the cyberattacks against his organization's website and others is a "mistaken approach and counterproductive," to any kind of productive dialogue on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. He said:

"One could hardly characterize [the attacks] as effective propaganda. I think if anything, it has sent a message that this is the wrong thing to be doing. What I sense is that it was a series of misguided individuals, or perhaps no more than one, who thought he was doing something that would alter the nature of ongoing debate on the subject. But to imagine that to disrupt the free flow of information is the way to do so, and to knock out the websites and other mechanisms by which news is disseminated, I think it was seriously mistaken. It just had the opposite effect."

Adalian says that his organization and others in the U.S. have met with the Federal Investigation Bureau (FBI) to try and bring charges against those responsible for the attacks.

"These websites are American organizations. They are based in the U.S. and conduct their affairs in the U.S. But the web is an international medium and is viewed around the world and the two cannot be separated out. In this respect then, there have been crimes committed against American organizations and it was only proper that the authorities be notified and be made aware of the problem on hand, and take measures as needed."

But according to Kuehl, the issue of jurisdiction in such cases is "incredibly complicated," and one the international legal community is currently wrestling with.

"The procedures that the legal community has internationally involving jurisdiction, involving contacts and requests for assistance is much, much slower than the ability of the intruders and actors to operate. So, it's a problem we are going to be faced with increasingly in the future."

Kuehl adds that while propaganda warfare on the Internet is troubling, it still remains a fairly harmless stage of information warfare, more like "painting a mustache on the face of someone on a poster." What is far more harmful and dangerous, he says, is when intruders actually penetrate an adversary's computer network and seriously disrupt or shut down computer or network operations.

But Kuehl says this new kind of propaganda warfare will likely increase as more and more nations "many of them mired in current conflicts," are connected to the Internet.

"I think that what we are seeing now is the increasing use of the Internet for perception management, for what you might call traditionally psychological operations. We are going to see more and more examples of groups, whether they be non-governmental organizations, terrorist groups or whatever, going inside of their adversaries information systems and doing things to them."