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EU-HYBNET partners co-edit ICONO 14 journal issue on “Digital Communication and Hybrid Threats”

Hanna Smith, Hybrid CoE’s Director of Research and Analysis, and Ruben Arcos, lecturer and researcher of communication sciences at Rey Juan Carlos University co-edited vol. 19 no 1. (2021) issue of the ICONO 14 journal: “Digital Communication and Hybrid Threats”. The special issue supported the EU-HYBNET project’s research component. Among the contributions were submissions from ICDS (Estonia), University of Tromsö (Norway) and National Institute for Intelligence Studies (Romania) – all EU-HYBNET partners. The special issue aims to address hybrid threats from a digital communication perspective, understanding the strengths and the vulnerabilities to hybrid threats of our digital ecosystems and societies, the processes, methods, and tools by which they can be exploited in coordinated campaigns and activities, and how to counter malicious strategic communications and influence.

Malicious information activities by state, non-state and state-backed actors are an essential part of hybrid threats and operations. Political warfare, proactive measures and covert action are not new, but ICTs and digital communication tools and channels offer unprecedented opportunities for coordinated hostile activities that exploit the vulnerabilities of our democratic societies for different purposes.

Cyberspace is recognized as a domain of operations in which digital communication channels can be exploited in campaigns directed against individuals, institutions and societies through information and influence in decision-making. While the content of the communication of symbolic interactions on social media platforms has varying degrees of visibility, coordinated inauthentic behaviors and the use of cyberproxies challenge detection and attribution. The militarization of information by hybrid threat actors can take multiple forms and raises the question of how to prevent, counter and respond to it without undermining the democratic rights and freedoms of our societies.

This special issue of ICONO 14 aims to address hybrid threats from a digital communication perspective, understanding the strengths and vulnerabilities to hybrid threats of our digital ecosystems and societies, the processes, methods and instruments by which they can be exploited in campaigns and coordinated activities, and how to counter malicious strategic influences and communications.

Capture

A Framework for Cross-Domain Strategies Against Hybrid Threats

TNO and HCSS have worked together to draft a background document for cross-domain strategies against hybrid threats.

Authors Tim Sweijs, Samuel Zilincik, Frank Bekkers and Rick Meessen present a strategic framework that describes and explains relations between strategies and counter-strategies in dealing with hybrid threats and offer considerations to select those dominant strategies that are to be part of the Dutch strategic posture.

The framework presented in the report consists of two escalation axes. The vertical axis consists of five general strategies: (1) cooperation, (2) persuasion, (3) protection, (4) coercion, and (5) control.

The horizontal escalation is comprised of the well-know DIMEL categorization of instruments and measures of state power.

The above-mentioned five strategies can be employed simultaneously or sequentially in order to counter hybrid threats. Additionality, these strategies can be exercised through and across the six DIMEL-domains of diplomacy, information, cyber, economy, military, and legal.

These theoretical propositions however, need to be further developed and tested. In light of this, these insights will be refined in a simulation environment in the form of a table-top game. By doing this, further light will be shed on how the strategies presented in this report function in a (simulated) competitive setting and subsequently help refine and inform the crafting of effective cross-domain strategies in real world scenarios.

Landscape

Hybrid CoE and the European Commission published the Landscape of Hybrid Threats

The events of 2020 have reminded us to always be prepared for the unthinkable, and that, in times of crisis, science and robust evidence must be at the heart of the decisions we take to protect citizens’ lives and livelihoods.

The Landscape of Hybrid Threats
Foreword by Commissioner Mariya Gabriel

The European Commission, by means of its Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (JRC) and the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE) in Helsinki have joined forces to develop a conceptual model for characterizing Hybrid Threats accompanied by a framework for analysis.
The proposed conceptual model’s analytical framework is developed around four main pillars:

  • Actors (and their strategic objectives)
  • Domains
  • Tools
  • Phases.

This structure enables us to grasp the time variable of Hybrid Threats and identify the way in which an actor can employ a series of tools to affect the targeted country in order to achieve a series of objectives.

The proposed framework is not the mere listing of the above-mentioned pillars, but aims at identifying the links between them as well as providing a flexible framework, a blueprint, that can be adapted to the needs of each EU and NATO member state.

The proposed conceptual model’s analytical framework is validated against a number of real case studies in order to assess its validity and its analytical value. Although it would be convenient to establish the analytical framework on the basis of past experience, we refrained from doing so in order to deliver a concept for Hybrid Threats and analytical framework that is future-proof, handles the test of time and that describes the concept of Hybrid Threats against the background of current security environment dynamics, while taking into consideration the evolving nature of the threat.

In particular, the conceptual model puts much emphasis on actors. It aims at understanding their drivers by studying their motives, doctrines, open source intelligence and literature, which duly provide pieces of evidence for their objectives and strategic culture. A deep understanding of actors’ objectives is an excellent proxy for forecasting possible future activities. The conceptual model focuses on state and non-state actors and the case studies demonstrate the diversified nature of their activities and modii operandi.

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Evolution of Hyrbid Conflicts

Hybrid threats are one of the main security challenges Western democracies currently struggle with. Hybrid threats are in the news, mostly framed or wrapped in specific ‘hybrid’ phenomena like disinformation, foreign meddling in elections and cyber hacks. Countering these threats remains a demanding task as they evolve due to technological advances and new ways of hybrid campaigning.

It is for this reason that, Drs. W.R.F. Meessen (TNO), Drs. F.F. Bekkers (HCSS), B. Torossian, MSC (HCSS) have written an article that collects some of the most relevant trends and developments that shape hybrid threats, now and in the years to come, and that pose huge challenges for countering these threats.