Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation

by Richard Stengel.

“The power to inspire was once America’s greatest asset.” I’ve heard various leaders from Secretary Mattis to professors at West Point describe the importance of America’s ability to inspire. In this book, Richard Stengel attributes the quote to a foreign ambassador, but the key point is the tense – “was.” In Information Wars, Mr. Stengel, former editor of Time magazine, recounts his time as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs from 2013-2016. He argues that the United States government is ill-prepared, and in many ways ill-suited, to compete in the information space. However, because disinformation undermines our democracy, we must figure out how to leverage the capabilities we do have to create positive, truthful narratives that shape victory in the information war we’re already fighting.

Stengel tells an engaging story of the state department, relaying humorous anecdotes about the challenges of bureaucracy and ever-turning carousel of meetings to prepare for meetings to prepare for meetings. He also outlines the challenges of the interagency process, which is critical for a comprehensive information campaign, but difficult to achieve. He offers a few ideas for effective interagency operations: choosing the right leader for the task; creating a digital hub to share, amplify, and coordinate information; and focusing on partnerships, coordination, and guidance.

Stengel discusses two groups established during his tenure – the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) which targeted ISIS communications online and the Russia Information Group (RIG) – and outlines the perils of government engagement in the information space. Provocative social media posts can be useful, they certainly garner more clicks, but if not crafted properly they can cause significant blowback. Information posted too quickly and later found to be false, or attached to the wrong hashtag, can also undermine a message and cause diplomatic problems. Stengel highlighted the importance of working with DoD and the Intelligence Community to better understand the digital and social environments abroad; information from diplomats on the ground was also valuable as the DoS shaped specific messages. Allies and partners play key roles in this information battle; many want to work with the U.S. in the information space, but are concerned we don’t know what we are doing or who is in charge (a criticism still valid today). The creation of the Global Engagement Center (GEC) was meant to provide a single hub for coordination, but it is still struggling to establish clear goals and processes. 

Stengel describes a number ob concrete measures we can take now to improve our posture in the information war based on the need for transparency, accountability, privacy, self-regulation, data protection, and information literacy. He charges that social media companies should be held accountable to the same standards for publishing as other forms of traditional media. They must also be held accountable to both secure the privacy of their customers’ data (which can prevent micro-targeting by malicious actors) and removing obviously false and damaging information from their platforms. This will involve adding rigor to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, although legislators must ensure a reasonable degree of flexibility in enforcement, since social media companies will not be able to remove every false or flagrant violation. The Honest Ads Act, which remains dormant in Congress, would require companies to disclose the source of digital advertising, similar to television ads. Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning will be key to identifying and removing “junk news” from websites and entities like News Guard and the Trust Project can help consumers distinguish between credible and false news sources. Finally, we need to teach both media and civic literacy to the population, including explaining how good journalists do their job, so citizens can regain trust in journalism again.

Follow Up Questions:

  1. How do we create a “digital hub” of information in the MI community?
  2. Read Present at the Creation by Dean Acheson
  3. How do we incorporate media literacy into Army training, and in the current environment is there even space for that? Newsguard required on browsers? Blatant false sites like OAN, Newsmax, and Breitbart blocked?

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