While al Qaeda is seen as a skilled user of the Internet for propaganda and recruiting, they are actually minor league players in this area. Currently the most skillful users of the Internet for rumor mongering are found in China. Corruption and viral marketing provides the Chinese government with a powerful tool for controlling public opinion.
It all began when Chinese companies realized that they could hurt competitors by planting damaging rumors on the Internet. This, even in China, is illegal. But the corruption in China being what it is, there was little risk of the police hunting down and punishing the perpetrators. This was partly because the marketing firms, hired by companies to burnish their image or defame competitors, was careful to have other small outfits get on the Internet to actually do the work and were careful about not being traceable. So the cops, when forced by companies to do something (often because the owner of the offended firm was well-connected politically), were stymied at first. But the police, declaring it a national security issue, eventually discovered how this was done. But this did not stop all these negative campaigns. To defend themselves, companies that were attacked by these Internet disinformation campaigns fought back.
This use of negative tactics soon fell out of favor, as all those tarnished companies lost sales. So the Internet-based opinion manipulation turned to praising your own products. About this time, the government discovered what was going on and began to use these marketing companies, and their subcontractors, to change opinions towards government policies. There was a pressing need for this because all this Internet opinion manipulation had started out, over the last decade, as a popular uprising against government corruption, mistreatment, and media manipulation. This "online army" was not organized, except by outrage at government or individual wrongdoing. For example, many government officials, and their high-spirited offspring, injure or steal from ordinary citizens and get away with it. These officials have enough political clout to make the police leave them alone. But once the online army gets onto these stories, everyone in the country knows and is angry. There are over 440 million Internet users in China, a country with a population of 1,400 million. When a lot of people on the Internet get angry enough, the story, and anger, explodes through the Chinese Internet community. China carefully monitors Chinese Internet use and tries to block unwelcome information or discussions. But when the outrage on a particular item becomes too large, it's better to just arrest and punish the guy whose misbehavior got the online army going in the first place.
Meanwhile, those Internet manipulators who make money (not a lot, they get paid less than ten cents a post to a message board) working for marketing companies, has grown to several hundred thousand people. There are also thousands of people who supervise these posters, explaining the points that must be made and monitoring how posts are composed (to make sure the message is convincing and does not come across as manipulation). Chinese Internet users know this sort of thing goes on and have adjusted their use of Internet communications accordingly. It’s become more important to actually know many of the people you communicate with on the Internet. In response, the marketing companies have adapted. The opinion manipulation is now more subtle and it has become a form of advertising. But for the government, it's another tool to keep an increasingly irate population under control.
If the Chinese want to use this tool in other countries, they require posters who are familiar with the language and culture of the target population. That's a difficult skill to acquire, especially for at least a few hundred posters required (to hit, regularly, hundreds of message boards, chat rooms, and so on). Done right, you can shift opinions among millions of people in a few days. Done wrong, you fail. And if you're operating in a foreign country, you might get found out. But the opportunity is there.
Al Qaeda has little success using the Internet to influence people who are not already fans of Islamic terrorism. Most Moslems will at least read Internet postings by Islamic terror organizations, but the real power of the Internet is to provide a means of communication within the small community of Moslems who do support Islamic terrorism. This is a big help for recruiting, fund raising, and organizing attacks and other atrocities.
Spreading lies and rumors is a long standing practice in wartime. But in pre-Internet days it was developed into a fine art by the Soviets during the Cold War. This conflict, which raged (or simmered) from 1948 to 1989 (or 1991, take your pick) never saw the main antagonists (America and the U.S.S.R). fighting each other directly, but rather it was a war of proxies. Other nations provided the battlefields while other peoples provided most of the fighters. The Soviets were calling most of the shots during this conflict, even if they were not firing them. While both sides used the media and propaganda, the Soviets were enthusiastic users of a particular form of media deception called disinformation. This is the old "repeat a lie often enough and it becomes truth" routine, distributed via press release and planted media stories. On the Internet we call people who do this “trolls” (or worse).
Disinformation is an ancient deception technique, but never has it been used so widely and for such a long time to keep numerous small wars going and generate such levels of hostility towards ones opponent. These fighters were not risking their lives for the Soviet Union but for a myriad of local causes. The Soviet disinformation program was intended to keep everyone in a combative mood and pursuing goals that meshed with the Soviet Union’s foreign policy.
Some of the disinformation was pretty outrageous, such as the planted story that AIDS was invented by U.S. military researchers. Most of the disinformation was more minor, and locally relevant, in nature. The Soviets had a large bureaucracy, and equally vast budget, to buy the services of local journalists worldwide. The stories supplied would generally cause aspersions on the actions or motives of the U.S. government and Americans in general. While the Soviets were generally inclined to shovel out lies and half-truths pell-mell, they also had specific programs to bring down governments friendly to the West or, more importantly, to prop up the morale of rebels, revolutionaries, and terrorists fighting for a Soviet approved objective. Al Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups have tried to use the same tactics but have not been nearly as deft and successful at it as the Soviets were.
What made the Soviet program unique was its global nature. The Soviets were quick to realize that the media in most countries was not as independent as in the United States. In fact, the U.S. media was something of an exception. In most nations the media are, like the first newspapers two centuries ago, the creatures of one special interest group or another. It was in America that the "independent" media was invented, and even the U.S. media is not completely free of biases and favoritism towards special interests. In most countries, the bias and special interest control is much stronger. Yet in all countries the local media is, like it (or agree with it) or not, the primary source of information for the population. Compared to America, the rest of the world's journalists are not well paid (even by local standards). Thus it is common for journalists to accept "gifts" (or outright bribes) in return for writing certain stories or slanting their reporting a certain way. The Soviets took advantage of this and their local agents (who were often not Russians) were liberally supplied with cash in order to buy the media attention they needed. The American CIA engaged in the same practice but the Soviets were much more aggressive, and generous, in this area.
While many journalists worldwide admire the American model for media independence, the Soviets realized that they didn't have to buy a lot of journalists in order to give their agenda sufficient exposure. Most of the Soviet disinformation was purposely developed as sensational stuff. The Soviets knew what kind of stories played best in the media and this is what they provided. This was the importance of the large disinformation staff back in Moscow. Stories that played on local fears were favored. For example, over the years, the CIA was played up as the cause behind just about everything that people feared, up to and including the weather and earthquakes. In typical Russian fashion, the Soviets would plant dozens of stories in different countries all hitting the same invented idea from a different angle. That way, the press in one country could cite a Soviet story planted in another country to back up their local "reporting." The Soviets also made the most of some outrageous story appearing in the Western press (whether it was a Soviet plant or not), by planting more outrageous versions and elaborations via the more pliable journalists of other nations. The Soviets realized that the media had become a global system and that there was a great deal of "follow the leader" (or "steal from another newspaper," depending on how you look at it) going on. The Soviets also knew that correcting an inaccurate story was nearly impossible. Once the lie gets loose, you can never correct the misinformation that then forms in so many people’s minds. Once the Internet came along, these techniques became easier and cheaper to use.
The "Big Lie" was something that was created in this century as media grew in importance. The Nazis get a lot of credit for starting it, but it was actually the Bolsheviks (the earliest incarnation of the Communists) in Russia that first used it so effectively at the end of World War I. Indeed, the term "Bolshevik" is Russian for "majority," a title the Communist minority among the Russian socialists gave themselves as they set out to seize control of Russia at the time of World War I. The Communists kept repeating the term Bolshevik (even when it was obvious they were a small minority of the Russian socialist party) and eventually more and more people just took it for granted that the Communists were the majority, the Bolsheviks. And soon they were in control of the nation. And at that point they were still a minority, which is why they kept on killing off Russians who actually or potentially thought differently (into the early 1950s). Western countries only slowly became aware of what the Soviets were doing. The Voice of America and the BBC World Service radio broadcasts were intended to counter the Soviet disinformation. But these efforts met with limited success. Imaginative lies travel faster and more widely than does the more mundane truth. Politicians in all nations know and take advantage of this fact. "Negative campaigning" is often little more than a disinformation campaign.
The only positive side of disinformation is that, eventually, most people catch on and no longer believe the lies. But this takes time, often decades. And the turnaround has to take place separately in each media area. That is, while people may begin to see through the local disinformation campaign in one area, people in a neighboring nation could still be under the spell of the clever forgeries. The Soviet Union and its East European satellite nations saw their web of disinformation come apart during the 1980s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 will long be seen as the moment when the tower of deceit came undone. But in actuality, the process of disintegration took place over several years. And for many years to come there will still be people in those formerly Communist countries who will continue to believe the lies, even if the majority does not.
The deception technique of disinformation had a palpable effect on dozens of battlefields during the Cold War and after. Thousands of pro-Communist fighters believed, to the death, in the tangle of disinformation the Soviets had created. Without such motivation, many of these wars, rebellions, and uprisings would not have happened. Information is power, even false information. And this translated into firepower for decade after decade. It has happened again and this time the true-believers are Islamic radicals.