Consumer Drones Are Propaganda Tools, Not Killing Machines

The Maduro attack shows that the threat of drones in private hands is all smoke and noise.

Venezuelan security forces check a nearby building after a drone attack on President Nicolás Maduro  in Caracas on Aug. 4. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)
Venezuelan security forces check a nearby building after a drone attack on President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on Aug. 4. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

The camera shook with the sound of an explosion and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro looked up, confused. Guards swiftly surrounded him with protective shields; soldiers in the military parade he was addressing scattered for cover. So did everyone else around him, reacting to the sound of a nearby explosion from the sky. Maduro and the Venezuelan government say—and video evidence seems to confirm—that someone tried to attack him with an explosives-laden consumer drone, likely made by Chinese drone manufacturer DJI. Open-source reporting organization Bellingcat and other investigative outlets agree that the attack involved drones, despite early reports claiming otherwise.

There have been fears for years that commercial drones would be turned into deadly weapons. But was this their coming-out party, the incident where death-by-drone moves from the military into the hands of terrorists and assassins? I don’t think so. Neither does European Council on Foreign Relations policy fellow Ulrike Franke, who told me: “To put it bluntly, I don’t think that this was the event that changes the view of smaller commercial drones from good to bad.”

Drones can be indisputably dangerous. They can be used to violate individual and group privacy, they can be used to drop dangerous materials, they can crash into manned aircraft, and they can even harm people physically by crashing into them. A drone is likely to be much more useful to terrorist organizations as a means of quietly gathering information that permits an attack by more conventional means than it is as a flying explosive. Still, the risk of anyone being harmed by a drone is vanishingly small. While no data is available, Bellingcat researcher Nick Waters roughly estimates that the number of casualties from commercial drones is somewhere in the high hundreds, the vast majority if not all of which having occurred in active war zones.

I cannot find any instances of a commercial drone killing someone by intentional or unintentional means in North America or Europe. While it is likely that this will change, so far drones remain a worrisome but still largely theoretical threat compared to, for example, the approximately 10,000 gun homicides in the United States each year. If a terrorist organization’s sole goal is to kill a particular target, it is highly unlikely that they would choose a drone to do the job. Firearms, car bombs, and other more conventional methods of assassination have proven much more successful.

And yet, while commercial drones remain an ineffective means of killing people, the Maduro incident shows they are marvelously effective as weapons of terrifying propaganda.

Propaganda manipulates one’s emotions; it exists outside empirical logic and calm, rational analysis. People’s well-documented distrust of small drones is not rooted in bloodless assessment of risk. There is something both cool and creepy about drones, something ineffably weird about them.

Public opinion polling bears this distrust out. Even though opinion has somewhat softened toward drones in the United States, more than two-thirds of respondents described themselves in a survey last year as either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the presence of drones in airspace. A 2017 survey on technological fears found that, of the 18 new technologies listed, Americans are most concerned about a “swarm of autonomous drones.” Remote-controlled aircraft have existed since the mid-20th century, but pretty much no one was frightened of them then. Why are people today so much more terrified of drones, beyond their actual, mediocre, offensive abilities?

For starters, drones are still associated in confusing ways with large military drones, and the line between “toy” and “military device”—as illustrated by terrorist attacks carried out with explosives-laden consumer drones—getting ever grayer. People are unsure how to categorize small, consumer-designed drones, and that makes them nervous. Small, multirotor drones are denizens of the “uncanny valley,” a concept proposed by Japanese professor Masahiro Mori in the 1970s. Their international computers allow them to hover in place with remarkable stability, a creepily organic motion rather like that of a curious garden hummingbird. While we may know intellectually that drones aren’t alive, they do things that seem to suggest otherwise.

This sense that drones are more clever or organic than they are is encouraged by how we technically describe them. While drone experts and the media regularly talk about how drones are “semi-autonomous,” clear explanations of what that means remain rare. Drone experts know that the term means a computer-controlled, sensor-equipped device capable of performing relatively simple tasks, such as following a preprogrammed route. That isn’t necessarily apparent to the layperson, who might see the word “autonomous” and assume the drone can largely function on its own.

Many people are relatively familiar with the super-intelligent drones of TV and movies. Think of Ready Player One, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or even Minority Report, which all feature ultra-intelligent, largely independently operating drones with superb facial recognition capacities. The drones of 2018 are stupider than that by a few orders of magnitude, but how would the average person be expected to know that?

Popular confusion over how smart drones are is coupled with an observer’s inability to determine what a drone is up to. And that, quite reasonably, scares some people, as a Danish study on public reactions to drones demonstrates. There is no established method of identifying a drone’s owner or intention, and there is no well-known mechanism for marking different organizations’ drones. The “uncanny valley” effect, cultural fear of artificial intelligence, and drones’ inherent inscrutability all play off one another; perhaps some people subconsciously assume that a creepily natural or intelligent-seeming drone has intentions or desires of its own, separate from whoever is presumably piloting it.

Conventional methods may kill magnitudes more people than commercial drones, but firearms, car bombs, and other means of killing are something people in the West are (tragically) used to. The public is not used to drones—so they fear their weirdness, their unknowable intentions or provenance, and the uncertainty about how to cope with their threat. And this fear is easy to exploit for propaganda purposes: If the goal of a propagandist is to elicit an outsized, fearful, emotional response, then attack via consumer drone is a marvelous strategy.

Armed non-state actors, including Hezbollah and Ukrainian pro-government volunteers, have experimented with drones since the commercial drone revolution truly kicked off in 2013—and the Islamic State mastered using them to spread fear. Islamic State propaganda, as experts have described it, seeks to make the organization seem stronger and more technically proficient than it really is; it’s the equivalent of a rather physically unimposing peacock puffing itself up with quivering eye-spot covered feathers to attract a mate.

The Islamic State’s communications doctrine articulated the way in which psychological operations complement acts of violence, memorably saying that “media weapons [can] actually be more potent than atomic bombs.” Since 2016, when the jihadi group first killed someone with a drone (albeit while it was on the ground), drones have formed an important part of this strategy. The Islamic State released its first propaganda video depicting explosives-dropping consumer drones in January 2017. For the rest of the year, U.S. and Iraqi troops were forced to contend with unexpected attacks from the sky. While the Islamic State is massively weakened today, with far less capacity for drone attacks and a winding-down propaganda machine, it still exploits the idea of the technology for dramatic effect. Consider its June propaganda video that threatened to attack on the World Cup using consumer drones: While the attack never took place, the international media breathlessly reported on it anyway. Merely threatening consumer-drone attacks helps maintain the Islamic State’s reputation, even while its actual power continues to decrease.

That brings us back to the drone attack on Maduro. If the attackers (whoever they are) truly wanted to kill Maduro or his entourage, there are many better-established means of attempting it. But these expected, pedestrian means of attempted assassination wouldn’t have grabbed the imaginations and the rapt attention of the international media. Meanwhile, the botched drone attack made headlines for over a week, prompting a new round of concern and international conversation about terrorism via drone.

It is quite possible that the perpetrators, whoever they are, took a clear lesson from the Islamic State and other consumer-drone attackers about the best way to get attention and to play on latent and not-so-latent fears of drone technology. For terrorists, the threat of a drone attack is often more effective than the reality of a drone attack—and a drone attack need not accomplish its goals (or even kill anybody) for it to function as a successful propaganda tool. Drones are just another example of how in the world of 2018, the line between what we usually think of as manipulative “propaganda” and what we usually think of as fear-spreading “terrorism” is becoming awfully blurry.

There are smart things governments can do about the actual, limited threat from drones. Ulrike Franke, the ECFR fellow, believes it is important for policymakers to “avoid panic and overreaction” by realistically assessing the risks small drones pose, and then using this information to craft “sensible anti-drone technology and measures, especially around vulnerable infrastructures such as airports, prisons and the like.” States need to devise ways to defend their citizens from the real threats posed by weaponized consumer drones—but people also should not let themselves be manipulated by fearmongering propaganda.

Governments should take attacks from commercial drones seriously and ensure they develop new methods to defend their citizens against them. But they also shouldn’t overreact and jeopardize a promising technology with a range of uses—some of them potentially life-saving, like medical deliveries. The Islamic State, Maduro’s drone attackers, and other groups know the potent symbolic power of drone attacks. We shouldn’t let them scare us.

Faine Greenwood leads research into the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in humanitarian aid work at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Signal Program.

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