Information Wars: Book Review

October 23, 2019

Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation & What We Can Do About It (2019), Richard Stengel. Stengel was managing editor of Time and asks by Obama to become Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (during the Cold War this included Voice of America and Radio Free Europe); the post was created in 1999. This is his memoir as Under Secretary for almost three years (2013-16). Emphasis is given to the disinformation campaigns of Russia and ISIS; toward the end are comparisons to the Trump campaign which seemed out of the Russian playbook. The basic point is governments and non-state actors create false narratives that undermine democracy, assisted by social media platforms like Facebook--whee there are no barriers to entry and no gatekeepers. Disinformation is often related to crackdowns on free speech. Democracies which thrive on the "marketplace of ideas," are poor at combating disinformation. The media "quest for balance" is a journalistic trap that Putin and ISIS exploit. "There aren't two sides to a lie" (location 114). Winning is not that important, muddy the waters is good enough. Anyone can launch a tweet. Problem of confirmation bias and other cognitive biases. As Stengel stated: "At the State Department the only public-facing entities in government that countered ISIS messaging and Russian disinformation reported to me" (location 101). The internet and social media were thought to be democratic and emancipating because of universal access, but the autocrats and other adapted (e.g., disinformation fpand blocking access). The basic story was Russian disinformation, ISIS messaging, and weaponizing information in general.

 

Disinformation: deliberate creation and distribution of information that is false and deceptive in order to mislead an audience (L. 4026). Misinformation: information that is false, but not deliberate. Propaganda: information that may or may not be true that is designed to engender support for a political view or an ideology. "Fake news" any information you dislike or disagree with, familiar to dictators or the last century (and Trump). Propaganda a Catholic Church term to "propagate the faith." Advertising is a form of propaganda. Advocating a position. Disinformation often combines truth and falsehood.  

 

"The official description of my job at the State Department was to support U.S. foreign policy goals by informing and influencing international audiences. ... I was the chief marketing officer of brand America" (location 145). Stengel was impressed with the people in government trying to make things better. However, they were ambivalent about confronting Russia. Basically paralyzed about Trump's disinformation (evidence that the election would be rigged?). Key State Department split between realism and idealism.

 

He makes the case that Putin, ISIS and later Trump used communications (messaging) as a core strategy, using the media cycle: specifically, weaponizing information and grievances. ISIS focused on Sunni Muslims who felt spurned by their leaders and the West. Russia and IISIS portrayed the US with hypocrisy, racism and the primary source of global injustice. Trump used the same techniques of information and scare tactics.

 

Part I: Welcome to State. The email at State was clunky, so gmail was often used. State divided into functional bureaus like arms control  and international security and regional bureaus like Europe and Eurasian Affairs, and geography was power. foreign policy mostly what the president and NSC want, and State interprets it by their own standards. "State is an observational culture. ... It was set up to watch and report on the world," monitoring (location 470). Admiring the problem then memos on each theory, task forces, meetings; a passive, risk-averse culture; consensus prized over initiative. Foreign service officers are permanent, political appointees temporary [they are kept busy with everything done for them that they never make decisions]. People generally left at 5.

Part II: Getting There. Global debate on freedom and fairness, democracy and justice. 

 

Part III: The Job. Foreign service officers has specializations and stayed in their "cones" for their careers. His job of "winning hearts and minds versus backfire effect. Importance of "soft power": seen s a success only after fall of Berlin Wall. Problem of "silofication," no cross-promotion. Stengel wanted a digital hub to share, amplify and coordinate social media, etc. (aggregate). Problem of turf rather than good ideas, coalitions needed. Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) created in 2010 by Hillary and CIA chief Leon Panetta, then focusing on al-Qaeda as an information war room. Clearance process optimized for purity over urgency.  

 

Part IV: Information Wars. Ukraine invaded in 2014 by Spetsnaz, Russian special operations forces. Information war of trolls and bots said they were local militias. New Republic of Crimea, "voter referendum." Backed by Putin Yanukovych rejected EU agreement for free-trade zone. Orange Revolution in in 2004. Corruption protests in Moscow in 2011, Putin blamed Hillary and Nazis. Stengel started tweeting and immediately get trolled. Recruitment adds for ISIS: appeal religious and adventure; had media arm called Al-Hayat. Russian lies against Ukraine: protesters are fascists and hate Russia; Ukraine is historically Russian; America is the source of instabiity. Putin's 10 false claims: Russian forces in Crimea acting to protect Russian military assets. Russian actions within Friendship Treaty. Syria as most dangerous place for journalists. ISIS beheading videos "effective modern terrorism;" focus on possibilities not probabilities. Concern: Ukraine modern, non-corrupt, Western-focused nation. Putin to undermine NATO, "hybrid warfare": economic, military, information. CSCC had social media in Arabic, Urdu and Somali, thus Americans didn't see it. ISIS had thousands of digital jihadis. Jobs at State for 2-3 years, hard to determine if people will be good or not. Use of Facebook (platform for critics, protesters and liberals). 

 

Part V. The Battle is Engaged. Allies wanted US to take the lead but didn't think were doing it right. Baltic: "As with Ukraine, they had been under an information assault for decades. They want tanks over diplomacy.  In authoritarian countries, the information ministry's job is suppressing information, not disseminating it." (L1642). Russian propaganda as creating an alternative reality. "They lie shamelessly. And they do not care if they are caught at it" (L 1686). Try to manipulate history to show Russia as supreme. Russians: "You have your truth; we have outs." Baltic saw Crimea as trial run for the Baltic. Americans don't think anyone lies to you. ISIS: the pull of Sunni grievance and call to greatness; more depth and cohesion than al-Qaeda. General Allen messaging strategy: 1. Shape reporting before the event. 2. Get third-party validators organized. 3. Jam the opposition's media. Use "products on the shelf." Russia and ISIS were writing history before the battle, shaping the narrative; ISIS/Russia wanted to topple the information hegemony and moral authority of the West. ISIS brand: savior of Sunnis as Sunni Islam under attack by the West. Sunni leaders seen as weak and corrupt. US problems: different efforts not hooked up, different agencies with different agendas. Russian messaging is about messaging; the relative truth of the two sides in Ukraine. George Kennan's political warfare: "Employment of all means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives ... overt and covert ... political alliances, economic measures, and white propaganda, clandestine support of friendly foreign elements and psychological warfare" (L 1888). Valery Gerasimov model (Putin's favorite intellectual general). Warfare as nonlinear, no clear boundary between military and nonmilitary campaigns. Gray zone: frozen conflicts (wars that never end, difficult to govern). Information domain: cyber warfare, propaganda, and deception, accompanied by persistent denial. Disinformation a Russian term (KGB) for black propaganda; false stories; American hybrid war led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, then in 2011 Russian protests. Western liberalism to be replaced by a conservative superstate leading a multipolar world; back Putin clones lime Erdogan. Freedom and democracy not as universal values, but peculiarly Western ones. "Putin likes failed states and chaos and so-called frozen conflicts" (L 1931). Putin claimed America interfered in Russian affairs, but Russia did not interfere in US's; hates Western rules-based order. ISIS is a distributed network (al-Qaeda was centralized). ISIS wants to be a state. People of Mosul: see Iraqi government as corrupt and brutal; ISIS as brutal but not corrupt. ISIS other enemy is Shia, the near enemy. West the realm of the unbelievers. RT (Russia Today, from 2005) pro-Kremlin, used traditional tricks of tabloid TV: attractive anchors, graphics, wacky guests, ominous music, tone conspiratorial, antiestablishment, sly. "Things are not what they seem: (L 2040). Guests as "experts" (without expertise). Hoaxes included 9/11, AIDS, every war. Praise of Putin leadership. "Each of the Gulf states had a slightly different reason for disliking ISIS and didn't subscribe to one common narrative. They are dislike and feared Iran more" (L 2192). Disinformation campaign by Russia about Malaysia Airline Flight 17, shot down over Ukraine. Russian disinformation campaign to shift the blame: shoot in every direction. The Russians disguised ther content, adopting personas, fake organizations. Exchange students great return on the money, e.g., Fulbright, FLEX, post breakup of Soviet Union. Trying to harvest information on trolls and bots, problem with Privacy Act of 1974. Troll job, sock puppet: produce a quarrel which offends, a deliberate provocation to ridicule. Ukraine: America behind protests, support Nazis, government corrupt. EU and NATO act on US orders. Problems in US: violence, terrorism, weapons, police excesses, total surveillance, polluting by immigrants, racism.  

 

Part VI: Disruption:  Donald Trump's campaign; early: Mexican's bringing drugs; they're bringing crime; they're rapists... I will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Our enemies are getting stronger. The American dream is dead (L 2854). Fran Lebowitz: Trump was a poor person's idea of a rich person. To global elites he represented every cliche of American gaucheness, bragging, boorishness and bad taste. Stressed anxiety of immigration which fueled white nationalism, supported by Putin. To New Yorkers, a Damon Runyon hustler. Sprint teams: experts taking an intense look at bureau or agency (hyper-accelerated McKinsey analysis). ISIS: tapping into a vast well of Sunni grievance. Government was bad messenger because it was the grievance. ISIS created a tech within a terrorist organization, entrepreneurial and innovative. Need for "radicalization index." Most messaging in Arabic. Media playing up ISIS violence--part of their marketing plan. TV news had no sense of scale, proportionality. Russian information war: 1. state-sponsored media airs fraudulent news, amplified throughout Russia; 2. Russian state official cites bogus report; 3. western media report the story; 4. reaction organized on Facebook etc.5. Russia decries criticism as propaganda (L 3163). Russian espionage activity rising to destabilize Europe and support for NATO. They always accuse your of what they're doing. Russian themes: the West is preparing for war, Ukraine the beginning. Europe is disarray, Russia great. Discovery of protesters using Facebook, the rise of state-sponsored trolls and tapping into cognitive biases. Accuse adversary of what you're doing. Plant false flags. Blame America for everything. Repeat (L 3222). Russia's list described Trump's messaging tactics: a coincidence, some kind of mirroring? Russian trolls started tweeting favorably about Trump. Brexit leave voters focused on immigration, British tabloids stories about refugees committing crimes. RT and Sputnik 250 stories in favor of Brexit and against immigration. Farage: Britain First, made-up stories, Trump formula. Government versus tech: privacy rights, terrorist speech not protected, encryption. No practical path forward. Russia: information on Russian citizens stored only in Russia (state sovereignty on digital sphere). Hybrid warfare: kinetic fighting information ops, cyberwar, and psychology. GRU (Russian military intelligence service) hacked DNC email. Trump accused the DNC of the hacking; that is Russian measures: distraction, deflection projection (L 3717). Trump questioned US commitment to defend NATO. ISIS eliminated in most of Iraq & Syria, became an ideological brand for grievance, hate and psychopathology, a criminal organization (malignant state of mind). Attacks: directed, enabled, inspired. Defense: threats around the world; state possibilities. Authoritarian voters: attracted to "iron fist" candidates, disdain for others. Importance of "objective reality." Trump rejected explicit American values in ideology and behavior. Trump worldview: allies and adversaries playing us for suckers. 

  

Part VII: What to Do About Disinformation: Problem: "democracy depends on free flow of information; disinformation undermines the integrity of our choices" (L. 4020); information deliberately false to manipulate and mislead. Democracies are too open to be good at fighting disinformation. Platforms make money when disinformation goes viral. Social media tools [their business is to sell targeted ads] include behavioral data analysis, audience segmentation, programmatic ad buying; correlates popularity with value--can be used for disinformation; algorithms can boost deceptive stories over factual ones. Social media claim to own data; Europe--individuals own their own data. Regulation of information environment should be transparent, consumer-focuses, and disinformation accountable. Communications Decency Act of 1996 regulates the internet. Need for online privacy bill, especially election advertising. Local election systems should be national critical infrastructure. Possible ratings for trustworthiness. 

 

Postscript: Global Engagement Center no longer counters disinformation, not engaged Russian disinformation. Russian operations targeted blacks to suppress voter turnout; anti-Hillary operations. Mueller did not prove coordination between Russia and Trump (which required an agreement). Trump Jr. and Conway did retweet Russian trolls; they coordinated but no evidence the Trump campaign knew they were Russians. Trump welcomed Russian efforts to help him and hurt Hillary (L 4359). Russian fighting for relativism, no idea worth fighting for. 

 

Key quotes: "The media quest for balance is a journalistic trap that Putin and ISIS exploit. ... There aren't two sides to a lie" (location 114). I found government too big, too slow, too bureaucratic (location 151).

ISIS, Putin, and Trump weaponized the grievances of people who felt left out by modernity and globalization. ISIS sought to Make :Islan Great Again, Putin Russia, and Trump ... (location 183). 

Disinformation doesn't create divisions, it amplifies them (location 224).

Diplomacy is an 18th century profession, managed by a 19th century bureaucracy, using 20th century technology (location 484).

[State} was a culture of gatherers, not hunters. They didn't like to make mistakes, or ever appear not to know something (location 497).

Curate more, create less (location 962).

Occam's razor school of foreign policy: the solution shouldn't be more complex than the problem (location 987).

Government should do the things it's good at ... satire is not one of them (location 1437). Rick's Rules: We don't do snark.

The State Department is still issuing press releases while Putin is rewriting history (L1513).

It's not an information war; it's a war on information. ... It's America's fault. There is no problem in the world too small to be blamed on the US (L 1840).

RT described me as being part of the 'chorus of Russian-hating Western media' (L 2031).

Controversy machine always trumped the reality machine. ... RT is a distortion machine (L 2058).

Propaganda is not necessarily false information; it can be factually correct information trying to promote a point of view (L 2105). 

[Megan Smith] flipping analogies back and forth like a pinball machine (L 2893).

Russians wouldn't listen [to Western news]. State propaganda was so relentless and comprehensive that there just wasn't an audience for an alternative view (L 3191).

No conspiracy theory involving American power was too far-fetched (L 3210).

Putin is the strongman that Trump plays on TV (L 3904).

Trump had weaponized grievance and vulnerability like both ISIS and Putin--and stoked--the grievances of millions who felt marginalized by modernism (L 3964). So much of what we believed---free speech, freedom of religion, the power of diversity--was challenged by brand Trump ... bit just free speech, but critical thinking, fact-based debate, the marketplace of ideas. Present at the destruction (L. 4009).

Because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must (Garry Trudeau, L 4059).

America doesn't have a fake news problem--it has a media literacy problem (L 4190).

Half the money I spend on advertising is waster. The trouble is, I don't know which half (John Wanamaker, L. 4229).

 

Update: I attended Stengel's talk at the Texas Book Festival (last of six; I may not have been at my best). Coincidence: Samantha Power, who presented just before him, swore him in as Under Secretary of State. He defined collusion as "Someone offers help and you accept it," a broad definition that fit Trump well. He also referred to Trump as "Disinformer in Chief," emphasizing how similar his approach was to both Putin's Russia and ISIS. Stengel stated that the heart of Texas site was actually a Russian troll out of St. Petersburg.  He emphasized the importance of the availability bias and disinformation. Disinformation is protected free speech, promoting violence is not. The Pentagon gets attacked 30 million times a day. There are 14,000 election districts in the US, all independent. The US has to use an "infrastructure of truth." He suggest the need for sate speech legislation. 

 

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