.
F

or many in the United States, the concept of information warfare burst onto the stage suddenly with the 2016 elections and Russian interference. Judging by the pundits, this was a novel development and something that no one could have anticipated. In reality, this was simply American exceptionalism and, to a degree, ignorance at work.

The resulting knowledge gap was swiftly filled with books, commentary, and analysis that sought to explain information warfare, propaganda, hybrid warfare, and the panoply of other terms associated with Russia’s influence operations. Standing out in this increasingly crowded field is a challenge. There have, however, been some books that did indeed stand out. Thomas Rid’s Active Measures comes to mind, as does How to Lose the Information War, by Nina Jankowicz.

Central and Eastern Europe have been, and continue to be, on the frontlines of Russian information warfare. They have experienced, first hand, the varieties, types, and flavors of what this type of conflict is and could be. Much as the Spanish Civil War served as a test bed for many of the technologies and tactics that would see service in World War Two, Central and Eastern Europe were early proving grounds for Russian disinformation campaigns that would eventually be deployed against the United States.

In her new book, Ms. Jankowicz takes readers through the experiences of Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic in fascinating detail, offering keen insights into what worked, what didn’t work, and what it means for America in the future. What she reveals is not encouraging—the United States is well on the backfoot in this information war and fails to see the forest for the trees.

How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict by Nina Jankowicz | I.B. Tauris | July 2020.

Defining Information Warfare

Perhaps the greatest challenge is the one found at the beginning—the definition of what the issue at hand really means. Is it disinformation? Propaganda? Hybrid warfare? Misinformation? Fake news? Active measures? Or perhaps all of the above? Where does the line for one tactic end and another begin? If you can’t accurately capture the issue, it makes it exceptionally difficult to counter.

Here, the Czech Republic proves to be an interesting case. While Prague is not necessarily on the immediate “front lines” as the other countries covered in this book, it recognized the insidiousness of misinformation and disinformation as it related to the very small Muslim population of the country. A National Security Audit “identified various types of hybrid threats, including terrorism and radicalization and foreign disinformation campaigns, as serious internal security threats”. In response, the audit recommended the creation of the “Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats”. As Ms. Jankowicz writes, this was partially spurred on by a sense of growing Islamophobia in the Czech Republic, despite the relatively small Muslim population.

While the creation of the Centre was praised by the international community and the West as being forward-leaning and forward-thinking, the Centre initially—and arguably to this day—struggled to find its feet and define its mission. Its social media presence was largely oriented towards the West (e.g., active on Twitter while more than half of the Czech Republic is on Facebook), and it spent a good portion of its time combating skepticism and criticism from the country’s political leadership, including President Milos Zeman. Many, spurred on by rumors (ironically enough), believed that the Center would be a near Orwellian thought police or had a “button to turn off the internet”—their website helpfully tells readers it does not, in fact, have such a button.

Going Beyond Bots

The panoply of tools in the foreign information warfare kit goes well beyond social media and ad-buys. This was vividly illustrated in the Netherlands through the 2016 Association Agreement referendum. The Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine was a step on the path towards Ukraine’s entry into the EU—the crux of the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv, and which direction the latter faced: Brussels or Moscow. Due to a provision in Netherlands law, if a petition reaches a certain threshold, a nationwide non-binding referendum on any measure before the parliament is held. An anti-EU group aggressively hit the ground to generate support for a referendum on the Association Agreement, hoping to use it for its own political purposes.

What followed was a fascinating campaign of anti-Ukraine, anti-EU activities in which Kyiv sought to counter the negative messaging; Moscow sought to encourage animosity towards Ukraine; and, the anti-EU campaigners were convenient proxies and levers for this geo-strategic conflict.

The anti-EU group sought to portray Ukraine as corrupt, violent, and “not European,” messages which Moscow was all too happy to help encourage given its conflict in Donbas. Ukraine, for its part, was limited in what it could to do influence the Dutch public, but mounted a campaign to portray the country in a positive light and beat back negative stereotypes.

Here, Ms. Jankowicz highlights the overused phrase and concept of “strategic communications” which means too many things to too many different people. If only you have the right message and the right medium, then you will win the communications battle. In reality, much of what is “strategic” in strategic communications is just tactical action—press releases, talking points, and media appearances, which ultimately do little to affect the broader strategic narrative.

Ultimately, Ukraine’s efforts were unsuccessful and the Dutch voters went against the Association Agreement. In the end, Kyiv did win as a later agreement with a signing statement carrying a number of caveats was approved by parliament. It is illustrative, however, just what an information warfare campaign looks like in miniature. In one incident, a group of individuals claiming to be part of the Azov Battalion—a far-right Ukrainian nationalist hate group—threatened the Netherlands with violence. In reality, it was a Russian-backed fraud that the real Azov Battalion denounced. Information warfare can be a truly strange place.

Information Warfare During and After War

In Georgia, Ms. Jankowicz describes how the country fought the actual war in 2008 and the accompanying information war, both during and after the conflict. From the outset of the conflict who was responsible for its start and its execution were a source of friction and misinformation—Russia blamed Georgia, and Tbilisi blamed Moscow. During the conflict, Kremlin-friendly journalists followed in the wake of the Russian soldiers. These journalists sought to portray the soldiers in a courteous light, as if the invasion and occupation were not all that bad.

Russian-friendly narratives were promoted by Russian-backed Georgian news outlets or outlets sympathetic to, but one step removed from Moscow. Information and narratives were swiftly picked up and circulated as if they were original to Georgia, but were in fact Moscow-backed propaganda. This illustrates another, interesting, development in information warfare—the fundamental erosion of trust in institutions and in the media. Long gone are the days of the trusted evening news anchor or the papers of record. Everything is subjective and every narrative has a home. Few question the provenance of a story and, even after it has been refuted, many cling to their original conception—the first impression remaining the only impression of the story.

RT or Sputnik News find all too willing audiences in the West that believe the Kremlin-backed narratives. In Georgia, a country that is in a frozen conflict with Moscow, pro-Kremlin political parties peddle the Kremlin’s messages, further muddying the narrative waters. The country is also beset by Russian-backed NGOs and its economy is closely tied to that of Russia’s, making it even more difficult to untangle the web of influence.

Looking in the Mirror

This is to say nothing of the fact that combating information warfare necessitates an agreement that it is, first, a problem, and, second, likely requires an acknowledgement that it is not a foreign phenomenon alone. Here, Ms. Jankowicz masterfully captures the dynamic in Poland that emerged after the 2010 Smolensk tragedy—in which the plane carrying the President and a good portion of the senior leadership from Warsaw crashed in a Russian forest killing all 96 passengers aboard. The plane was descending into the airport with dignitaries attending a ceremony remembering the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre of Polish officers by the Soviet Red Army. The swift rebuilding of the political class and the initial first steps towards a moment of national unity in light of the tragedy quickly descended into a conspiracy theory.

The conservative-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, founded by Lech Kaczynski (who died in the crash) and his twin Jaroslaw, and Civic Platform, the center-right party led by Donald Tusk (who served as President of the European Council until 2019), quickly divided over what happened in the crash and who was responsible. While both Polish and Russian investigators concluded that it was human error in bad flying conditions, conspiracy theory and rumor, encouraged by PiS took over and divided Polish society.

Russia, after initially displaying unexpected care and sympathy (Putin flew to Smolensk after the crash and declared a day of national mourning) stoked the fires by refusing to return the wreckage to Poland. This allowed conspiracy theories to run rife in Poland and remains a tool by which Russia can foment unrest in its neighbor. The tragedy became myth and legend, and something on which PiS traded heavily, returning to power in 2015. Its winning campaign, to some degree, weaponized the crash, while the incident was continually used to promote party unity in years out of power.  

Ironically the Poles succumbed to information warfare of their own creation, this despite believing themselves to be immune against foreign interference. Having been on the front lines of, dominated by, and repeatedly subjugated by Moscow, the Poles saw themselves as wiser and cannier when it came to this kind of conflict. Yet, as Jankowicz writes, the tactics to which they claimed resistance, were used with great effect in their own country by their own political leadership.

Divided at Home, Exploited from Abroad

One of the most consistent themes throughout the book is that these issues and schisms are not generated from abroad. They are exploited, to be sure, but core conflicts in these countries are resident within them. This is, perhaps, an uncomfortable truth for readers and certainly for Americans. It is vastly easier to point to some foreign conspiracy led by grim-faced generals and bureaucrats in the Kremlin, than it is to look in the mirror and realize that the fault lines exploited by an adversary were there in the first place—and often from our own sins.

Ms. Jankowicz isn’t alone in highlighting this message. In Active Measures Dr. Thomas Rid explores Russia’s mis- and dis-information campaigns noting that in each case the operations played on very real fears or existing realities—racial conflict within the United States, conspiracy theories about the origin of AIDS, or inter-religious tensions between Christians and Muslims.

Estonia is an instructive example. Here, tensions between the ethnic Russian community and Estonians were mobilized to great effect by Moscow. As in the United States today, the questions of historical memory and statues served as a trigger point in Tallinn.

In 2007, the government sought to remove the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn—a Soviet memorial for the “liberation of Tallinn” and soldiers killed in World War Two. For the Estonians, the statue was a symbol of occupation and a Potemkin victory for the Soviets—Tallinn wasn’t liberated so much as the Nazis retreated, leaving the city open for the Red Army. For ethnic Russians, the statue was viewed as a symbol of their rights in Estonia, a former Soviet republic.

The relocation prompted significant riots in Tallinn, a siege at the Estonian embassy in Moscow with direct threats against the Estonian ambassador, and the 2007 cyber-attacks that took the country offline—a frightening view of future cyber conflict. While the statue was ultimately removed, the underlying issues of inter-communal tensions between the Estonians and Russians remain very much real. Ms. Jankowicz recounts how the government is working to integrate the populations from an early age, and encourage bi-lingual education to enable ethnic Russians to secure jobs and opportunities in the country—the unemployment rate for Russians is higher than Estonians and even higher for non-Estonian-speaking Russians.

Again, Moscow didn’t create the schism (well, at least not directly, as one could argue the fault of Soviets), but Russia did exploit it for its own gains.

The United States and Whack-A-Troll

What emerges from this fantastic book is a vastly more complex picture of information warfare than most appreciate or understand. Right now, the United States is, sadly, paralyzed, in its ability to combat foreign and domestic information warfare. At the top, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, the President is weaponizing information and using a social-media-enabled bully pulpit to advance his political agenda to an unprecedented degree. Proxies echo his messaging, society splits further, and the foundation for moderate or considered conversation rapidly erodes.

As a country, we’ve entered an era of post-truth where facts and information are no longer objective, but entirely subjective. If you don’t like the sound of something, you don’t have to believe it or even acknowledge it. You can just find your own bubble or be pushed to a corner thanks to algorithmic sorting. You are increasingly less likely to be exposed to alternative perspectives or viewpoints by consequence of self- and technologically-driven sorting.

The press and media are incentivized to play to your baser emotions. This goes well beyond the cliché of “if it bleeds, it leads” to a level of emotional manipulation unseen in human history. With so much information and so many outlets competing for attention and engagement, with baser emotions being vastly more powerful (anger, etc.), and the financial incentives that accompany greater engagement, it is not surprising that the current environment is as tense as it appears to be.

This is all, of course, before adding the foreign component to the equation. Russia (or increasingly China) need not foment or fabricate issues. They simply need hammer their wedge in to exploit existing conflicts within American society. In our hubris we believed ourselves to be (like the Poles) immune to this kind of exploitation, choosing to see ourselves as the Shining City on a Hill and the envy of the world. “It could never happen here”, until it did.

Building a More Information Resilient (and Perfect) Union

The path forward is complex and difficult. As Ms. Jankowicz writes, addressing America’s vulnerability to information warfare will necessitate a multi-path, multi-generational effort. Right now, the United States is fixated on “whack-a-troll”, a delightful shorthand for pursuing the social media accounts that pop-up and spread disinformation; a campaign that is ultimately futile as it fails to address the underlying systemic weaknesses of America’s political system.

She outlines a number of fixes that necessitate getting the tech giants involved more than they are and holding them more accountable for that which is found on their platforms. Here, we may be seeing an interesting development—in recent weeks Facebook faced a boycott of over 400 advertisers announcing that they would pause funding on the social media giant, threatening its $68 billion in annual advertising revenue. This is “a growing protest over how it [Facebook] handles hate speech and other harmful content.” Facebook was not motivated to act after Russia and others used the platform to influence the 2016 elections, but it is certainly motivated if its bottom line is threatened.

Yet, identifying misleading information or noting out-of-date information on social media feeds is, again, insufficient. It is a start, but it has unintended consequences. If a piece of information is not labeled as such, then people believe it is factually accurate, when it in fact may not. Here, Ms. Jankowicz outlines the need for creating more informed and information-savvy citizens. This is the generational campaign that will require a much greater degree of effort, time, and commitment. Most students today barely receive a civics class, let alone an information awareness class—something that teaches them how to read the news, understand biases, or identify “fake news”. It is almost assumed that one knows how to do these things, like taxes, or applying for a mortgage, but they sure know the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.

Ultimately, what we need is a more informationally resilient society—one that recognizes its internal challenges or contradictions (and works to fix them) and is educated and savvy enough not to fall prey to foreign or domestic manipulation. Is this possible? That’s the proverbial million-dollar question. In the current environment, both political and social, the outlook is not good. It seems every day the United States is being torn asunder with greater intensity, but that is likely a function of the dynamics that Ms. Jankowicz outlines so well in her book.

America’s experience as a target of information war is not unique. Its response to this conflict is, however, uniquely American, in that Washington has seemed to do precisely the wrong thing at every step of the process: choosing to ignore the broader problem, focusing on minor tactical measures, and kicking the can down the road. Ms. Jankowicz offers an excellent guide on the lessons that should have been learned from our European partners and provides a pathway forward. It can only be hoped that Washington wakes up to the threat of foreign and domestic information warfare and builds a more resilient society for the future.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

How to Lose the Information War

July 4, 2020

How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict by Nina Jankowicz | I.B. Tauris | July 2020.

F

or many in the United States, the concept of information warfare burst onto the stage suddenly with the 2016 elections and Russian interference. Judging by the pundits, this was a novel development and something that no one could have anticipated. In reality, this was simply American exceptionalism and, to a degree, ignorance at work.

The resulting knowledge gap was swiftly filled with books, commentary, and analysis that sought to explain information warfare, propaganda, hybrid warfare, and the panoply of other terms associated with Russia’s influence operations. Standing out in this increasingly crowded field is a challenge. There have, however, been some books that did indeed stand out. Thomas Rid’s Active Measures comes to mind, as does How to Lose the Information War, by Nina Jankowicz.

Central and Eastern Europe have been, and continue to be, on the frontlines of Russian information warfare. They have experienced, first hand, the varieties, types, and flavors of what this type of conflict is and could be. Much as the Spanish Civil War served as a test bed for many of the technologies and tactics that would see service in World War Two, Central and Eastern Europe were early proving grounds for Russian disinformation campaigns that would eventually be deployed against the United States.

In her new book, Ms. Jankowicz takes readers through the experiences of Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic in fascinating detail, offering keen insights into what worked, what didn’t work, and what it means for America in the future. What she reveals is not encouraging—the United States is well on the backfoot in this information war and fails to see the forest for the trees.

How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict by Nina Jankowicz | I.B. Tauris | July 2020.

Defining Information Warfare

Perhaps the greatest challenge is the one found at the beginning—the definition of what the issue at hand really means. Is it disinformation? Propaganda? Hybrid warfare? Misinformation? Fake news? Active measures? Or perhaps all of the above? Where does the line for one tactic end and another begin? If you can’t accurately capture the issue, it makes it exceptionally difficult to counter.

Here, the Czech Republic proves to be an interesting case. While Prague is not necessarily on the immediate “front lines” as the other countries covered in this book, it recognized the insidiousness of misinformation and disinformation as it related to the very small Muslim population of the country. A National Security Audit “identified various types of hybrid threats, including terrorism and radicalization and foreign disinformation campaigns, as serious internal security threats”. In response, the audit recommended the creation of the “Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats”. As Ms. Jankowicz writes, this was partially spurred on by a sense of growing Islamophobia in the Czech Republic, despite the relatively small Muslim population.

While the creation of the Centre was praised by the international community and the West as being forward-leaning and forward-thinking, the Centre initially—and arguably to this day—struggled to find its feet and define its mission. Its social media presence was largely oriented towards the West (e.g., active on Twitter while more than half of the Czech Republic is on Facebook), and it spent a good portion of its time combating skepticism and criticism from the country’s political leadership, including President Milos Zeman. Many, spurred on by rumors (ironically enough), believed that the Center would be a near Orwellian thought police or had a “button to turn off the internet”—their website helpfully tells readers it does not, in fact, have such a button.

Going Beyond Bots

The panoply of tools in the foreign information warfare kit goes well beyond social media and ad-buys. This was vividly illustrated in the Netherlands through the 2016 Association Agreement referendum. The Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine was a step on the path towards Ukraine’s entry into the EU—the crux of the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv, and which direction the latter faced: Brussels or Moscow. Due to a provision in Netherlands law, if a petition reaches a certain threshold, a nationwide non-binding referendum on any measure before the parliament is held. An anti-EU group aggressively hit the ground to generate support for a referendum on the Association Agreement, hoping to use it for its own political purposes.

What followed was a fascinating campaign of anti-Ukraine, anti-EU activities in which Kyiv sought to counter the negative messaging; Moscow sought to encourage animosity towards Ukraine; and, the anti-EU campaigners were convenient proxies and levers for this geo-strategic conflict.

The anti-EU group sought to portray Ukraine as corrupt, violent, and “not European,” messages which Moscow was all too happy to help encourage given its conflict in Donbas. Ukraine, for its part, was limited in what it could to do influence the Dutch public, but mounted a campaign to portray the country in a positive light and beat back negative stereotypes.

Here, Ms. Jankowicz highlights the overused phrase and concept of “strategic communications” which means too many things to too many different people. If only you have the right message and the right medium, then you will win the communications battle. In reality, much of what is “strategic” in strategic communications is just tactical action—press releases, talking points, and media appearances, which ultimately do little to affect the broader strategic narrative.

Ultimately, Ukraine’s efforts were unsuccessful and the Dutch voters went against the Association Agreement. In the end, Kyiv did win as a later agreement with a signing statement carrying a number of caveats was approved by parliament. It is illustrative, however, just what an information warfare campaign looks like in miniature. In one incident, a group of individuals claiming to be part of the Azov Battalion—a far-right Ukrainian nationalist hate group—threatened the Netherlands with violence. In reality, it was a Russian-backed fraud that the real Azov Battalion denounced. Information warfare can be a truly strange place.

Information Warfare During and After War

In Georgia, Ms. Jankowicz describes how the country fought the actual war in 2008 and the accompanying information war, both during and after the conflict. From the outset of the conflict who was responsible for its start and its execution were a source of friction and misinformation—Russia blamed Georgia, and Tbilisi blamed Moscow. During the conflict, Kremlin-friendly journalists followed in the wake of the Russian soldiers. These journalists sought to portray the soldiers in a courteous light, as if the invasion and occupation were not all that bad.

Russian-friendly narratives were promoted by Russian-backed Georgian news outlets or outlets sympathetic to, but one step removed from Moscow. Information and narratives were swiftly picked up and circulated as if they were original to Georgia, but were in fact Moscow-backed propaganda. This illustrates another, interesting, development in information warfare—the fundamental erosion of trust in institutions and in the media. Long gone are the days of the trusted evening news anchor or the papers of record. Everything is subjective and every narrative has a home. Few question the provenance of a story and, even after it has been refuted, many cling to their original conception—the first impression remaining the only impression of the story.

RT or Sputnik News find all too willing audiences in the West that believe the Kremlin-backed narratives. In Georgia, a country that is in a frozen conflict with Moscow, pro-Kremlin political parties peddle the Kremlin’s messages, further muddying the narrative waters. The country is also beset by Russian-backed NGOs and its economy is closely tied to that of Russia’s, making it even more difficult to untangle the web of influence.

Looking in the Mirror

This is to say nothing of the fact that combating information warfare necessitates an agreement that it is, first, a problem, and, second, likely requires an acknowledgement that it is not a foreign phenomenon alone. Here, Ms. Jankowicz masterfully captures the dynamic in Poland that emerged after the 2010 Smolensk tragedy—in which the plane carrying the President and a good portion of the senior leadership from Warsaw crashed in a Russian forest killing all 96 passengers aboard. The plane was descending into the airport with dignitaries attending a ceremony remembering the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre of Polish officers by the Soviet Red Army. The swift rebuilding of the political class and the initial first steps towards a moment of national unity in light of the tragedy quickly descended into a conspiracy theory.

The conservative-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, founded by Lech Kaczynski (who died in the crash) and his twin Jaroslaw, and Civic Platform, the center-right party led by Donald Tusk (who served as President of the European Council until 2019), quickly divided over what happened in the crash and who was responsible. While both Polish and Russian investigators concluded that it was human error in bad flying conditions, conspiracy theory and rumor, encouraged by PiS took over and divided Polish society.

Russia, after initially displaying unexpected care and sympathy (Putin flew to Smolensk after the crash and declared a day of national mourning) stoked the fires by refusing to return the wreckage to Poland. This allowed conspiracy theories to run rife in Poland and remains a tool by which Russia can foment unrest in its neighbor. The tragedy became myth and legend, and something on which PiS traded heavily, returning to power in 2015. Its winning campaign, to some degree, weaponized the crash, while the incident was continually used to promote party unity in years out of power.  

Ironically the Poles succumbed to information warfare of their own creation, this despite believing themselves to be immune against foreign interference. Having been on the front lines of, dominated by, and repeatedly subjugated by Moscow, the Poles saw themselves as wiser and cannier when it came to this kind of conflict. Yet, as Jankowicz writes, the tactics to which they claimed resistance, were used with great effect in their own country by their own political leadership.

Divided at Home, Exploited from Abroad

One of the most consistent themes throughout the book is that these issues and schisms are not generated from abroad. They are exploited, to be sure, but core conflicts in these countries are resident within them. This is, perhaps, an uncomfortable truth for readers and certainly for Americans. It is vastly easier to point to some foreign conspiracy led by grim-faced generals and bureaucrats in the Kremlin, than it is to look in the mirror and realize that the fault lines exploited by an adversary were there in the first place—and often from our own sins.

Ms. Jankowicz isn’t alone in highlighting this message. In Active Measures Dr. Thomas Rid explores Russia’s mis- and dis-information campaigns noting that in each case the operations played on very real fears or existing realities—racial conflict within the United States, conspiracy theories about the origin of AIDS, or inter-religious tensions between Christians and Muslims.

Estonia is an instructive example. Here, tensions between the ethnic Russian community and Estonians were mobilized to great effect by Moscow. As in the United States today, the questions of historical memory and statues served as a trigger point in Tallinn.

In 2007, the government sought to remove the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn—a Soviet memorial for the “liberation of Tallinn” and soldiers killed in World War Two. For the Estonians, the statue was a symbol of occupation and a Potemkin victory for the Soviets—Tallinn wasn’t liberated so much as the Nazis retreated, leaving the city open for the Red Army. For ethnic Russians, the statue was viewed as a symbol of their rights in Estonia, a former Soviet republic.

The relocation prompted significant riots in Tallinn, a siege at the Estonian embassy in Moscow with direct threats against the Estonian ambassador, and the 2007 cyber-attacks that took the country offline—a frightening view of future cyber conflict. While the statue was ultimately removed, the underlying issues of inter-communal tensions between the Estonians and Russians remain very much real. Ms. Jankowicz recounts how the government is working to integrate the populations from an early age, and encourage bi-lingual education to enable ethnic Russians to secure jobs and opportunities in the country—the unemployment rate for Russians is higher than Estonians and even higher for non-Estonian-speaking Russians.

Again, Moscow didn’t create the schism (well, at least not directly, as one could argue the fault of Soviets), but Russia did exploit it for its own gains.

The United States and Whack-A-Troll

What emerges from this fantastic book is a vastly more complex picture of information warfare than most appreciate or understand. Right now, the United States is, sadly, paralyzed, in its ability to combat foreign and domestic information warfare. At the top, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, the President is weaponizing information and using a social-media-enabled bully pulpit to advance his political agenda to an unprecedented degree. Proxies echo his messaging, society splits further, and the foundation for moderate or considered conversation rapidly erodes.

As a country, we’ve entered an era of post-truth where facts and information are no longer objective, but entirely subjective. If you don’t like the sound of something, you don’t have to believe it or even acknowledge it. You can just find your own bubble or be pushed to a corner thanks to algorithmic sorting. You are increasingly less likely to be exposed to alternative perspectives or viewpoints by consequence of self- and technologically-driven sorting.

The press and media are incentivized to play to your baser emotions. This goes well beyond the cliché of “if it bleeds, it leads” to a level of emotional manipulation unseen in human history. With so much information and so many outlets competing for attention and engagement, with baser emotions being vastly more powerful (anger, etc.), and the financial incentives that accompany greater engagement, it is not surprising that the current environment is as tense as it appears to be.

This is all, of course, before adding the foreign component to the equation. Russia (or increasingly China) need not foment or fabricate issues. They simply need hammer their wedge in to exploit existing conflicts within American society. In our hubris we believed ourselves to be (like the Poles) immune to this kind of exploitation, choosing to see ourselves as the Shining City on a Hill and the envy of the world. “It could never happen here”, until it did.

Building a More Information Resilient (and Perfect) Union

The path forward is complex and difficult. As Ms. Jankowicz writes, addressing America’s vulnerability to information warfare will necessitate a multi-path, multi-generational effort. Right now, the United States is fixated on “whack-a-troll”, a delightful shorthand for pursuing the social media accounts that pop-up and spread disinformation; a campaign that is ultimately futile as it fails to address the underlying systemic weaknesses of America’s political system.

She outlines a number of fixes that necessitate getting the tech giants involved more than they are and holding them more accountable for that which is found on their platforms. Here, we may be seeing an interesting development—in recent weeks Facebook faced a boycott of over 400 advertisers announcing that they would pause funding on the social media giant, threatening its $68 billion in annual advertising revenue. This is “a growing protest over how it [Facebook] handles hate speech and other harmful content.” Facebook was not motivated to act after Russia and others used the platform to influence the 2016 elections, but it is certainly motivated if its bottom line is threatened.

Yet, identifying misleading information or noting out-of-date information on social media feeds is, again, insufficient. It is a start, but it has unintended consequences. If a piece of information is not labeled as such, then people believe it is factually accurate, when it in fact may not. Here, Ms. Jankowicz outlines the need for creating more informed and information-savvy citizens. This is the generational campaign that will require a much greater degree of effort, time, and commitment. Most students today barely receive a civics class, let alone an information awareness class—something that teaches them how to read the news, understand biases, or identify “fake news”. It is almost assumed that one knows how to do these things, like taxes, or applying for a mortgage, but they sure know the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.

Ultimately, what we need is a more informationally resilient society—one that recognizes its internal challenges or contradictions (and works to fix them) and is educated and savvy enough not to fall prey to foreign or domestic manipulation. Is this possible? That’s the proverbial million-dollar question. In the current environment, both political and social, the outlook is not good. It seems every day the United States is being torn asunder with greater intensity, but that is likely a function of the dynamics that Ms. Jankowicz outlines so well in her book.

America’s experience as a target of information war is not unique. Its response to this conflict is, however, uniquely American, in that Washington has seemed to do precisely the wrong thing at every step of the process: choosing to ignore the broader problem, focusing on minor tactical measures, and kicking the can down the road. Ms. Jankowicz offers an excellent guide on the lessons that should have been learned from our European partners and provides a pathway forward. It can only be hoped that Washington wakes up to the threat of foreign and domestic information warfare and builds a more resilient society for the future.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.