How The West is Losing the Information (and Disinformation) War

Establishing what truth is and isn’t is getting increasingly more difficult in the world overwhelmed with vast quantities of data. Disinformation is regularly used not only to mislead the public and create appropriate audiences, but also as a political tool to pressure the media, the grassroots groups, and even governments into taking particular courses of action, and to influence policy. We can see a clear example of that with the recent refugee crisis in Europe, which to some extent, has been facilitated by the Turkish government, among others, and became a tool of profiteering financially and politically, for the smugglers, bureaucracies, and Erdogan’s otherwise isolated administration. However, other actors and countries have used some of the darkest aspects of the situation to score points against others. They have used realistic scenarios to fabricate specific incidents of sexual violence in an attempt to make their Western counterparts look bad, and to strengthen their own image. With me so far? Worst of all, even when the lie is unraveled, and the story is withdrawn, the damage has already been done. This is the type of media guerrilla warfare that the West is bound to lose. The Western informational strategy is bound by rules of good behavior, and tantamount to the Geneva Conventions in the international law of war. You cannot successfully win asymmetrical warfare armed only with the strategies, weapons, and rules of the old school battlefield.

Information and disinformation (two sides of the same coin) have become modern day ideological equivalents of asymmetrical warfare, no longer controlled by a few key networks in the West, but rather distributed unevenly and with little control over innumerable outlets and providers. For the sake of clarity, I will focus exclusively on the content use, rather than technical control of providers and assorted related security issues. State and non-state actors that employ disinformation against Western countries as a tool of policy and warfare (Western states also engage in some level of intelligence-related disinformation against each other, but on a lower scale and in subtle ways) quite simply do whatever it takes to reach their goals. They send in paid trolls to aggravate keyboard warriors; they produce massive quantities of glib articles that feed into assorted misperceptions, they carefully study

Western conspiracy theories and encourage them, through websites set up to publish this sort of alarmist nonsense. In countries such as Russia, Iran, and China, there are official government media outlets that push forth a central-government oriented message, and that work in concert with other front medias to make sure that the message is consistent across the board. Most Western countries do not have government outlets, though some journalists are ready to sell their souls to gain easy access to government officials. And though conspiracy theories (and theorists) proliferate, and occasionally some government interest may affect the way certain stories are presented and covered, there is no well-oiled machinery aimed at the public. For those of us who firmly believe in the free market of ideas, this works just fine and we would have it no other way. However, having no particular message works best in the context when no one else has a particular message either, and the information flows in all directions approximately the same way.

However, when an actor begins a targeted information attack, and the field is wide open and defenseless, a targeted message has a good chance of ultimately prevailing, even if it is easily debunkable or otherwise harmful. It will disseminate and proliferate without resistance, as such campaigns have succeeded many times before. And for that reason, the message of dictatorial states and aggressive non-state entities frequently dominates where democratic states have no “message” at all. In recent times, several countries including Israel and Morocco, announced that they will pay and/or train young activists to defend against harmful messages by the adversaries. The problem here, is two-fold.

The first mistake here was announcing these programs. Even if somehow a bureaucratic apparatus had what it takes in training young people on how to be “cool” and “effective” activists social media (government institutions and cool somehow don’t quite go together), knowing that these activists may be government paid will turn off any potential open ears even before the message gets out. So at best, these government-sponsored activists should be trained clandestinely. There is no purpose served in letting the world know what is going on. Second, Russia is already paying its trolls and they are doing it better, by having fake accounts, by spending all day online trailing assorted groups and sniping at their opponents day and night, and by being vicious unstoppable. Even if we assume that the young professionals hired by more liberal/Western countries will make online activism their full time job, flame wars will not be part of their training. Civilized debate and fact-based advocacy will – and they will fail. Because trolls don’t listen to facts, and most other people care much more about the emotional message, no matter how base, than to solid treatises on the history of that country and its territories. So much for government-approved response to hateful or disinformative messages. Whether or not governments should fund private initiatives that create disruptive responses to terrorist or dictatorial agendas online, in the media, and elsewhere is a separate matter, but any such funding should, too, be kept quiet.

More interesting and complicated is the question of why the West does not employ the strategy of disinformation with nearly as much scale and success against its adversaries. In pivotal points in history, during important military operations, successful use of disinformation assured victory. And perhaps diversionary tactics are still used in the field of battle. But what about the idea of assymetrical informational warfare? Where are we failing? The first area is failing to understand and acknowledge that there is an ideological war going on and that it is happening on many fronts. The ISIS recruiting effort online is just the tip of the iceberg. The underpinnings of the ideological conflict at play are so far largely being dismissed. Despite the fact that ISIS, Iran, and assorted states supporting terrorist activity or funding groups that have generated terrorist activity all use religious rhetoric in pursuit of their own ambitions and successfully manipulate the public and recruit followers using particular imagery and promises, these radicalizing sentiments remain largely unaddressed. Similarly, Russia’s activity uses a mixture of conservative Russian Orthodox and anti-Western rhetoric to fuel ideological stands of within its own borders, as well as to attack critics and opposition online and in the media. China’s outlets are likewise motivating their proponents with the pro-party rhetoric – and accumulated wealth by party officials and assorted entrpreneurs are no more an obstacle to highly ideological media and messaging content – than similar level of manipulative forms of control in any authoritarian regime that allowed some people to prosper at the expense of others since the beginning of time.

Western ideology itself is faced with a crisis. I will not bore you with numerous examples of platitudes from every imaginable sources from the scores of candidates in the recent US elections, to France’s flailing search for balance between its traditional secularism and accomodating its large Muslim populations and the failing attempts to integrate minorities into its own culture, to the assorted politically correct movements on US and European campuses, which run in stark contrasts to the traditions of free markets of ideas in these countries. All of that is well documented and readily available at the click of a mouse. But suffice it to say, that despite having a very strong tradition of values of freedom, and, in the US, protection of constitutional rights, overall the message that an outsider studying these countries could get is that the Western world is in flux, and what was considered Western ideology is being challenged by outside ideas, not clandestinely, but overtly. Different voices can be heard, but they are clashing with each much more so than confronting outside threats. While in a liberal democracy, there is no truly united front at any one point, but a plurality of options and opinions, even the basic underlying values that were once thought common to most groups are now being questioned and challenged – and not just by the traditionally skeptical college students, but people of all backgrounds. The democratization of access to means of mass communication creates both echo chambers and gives platform to people whose ideas may not have survived otherwise, for better or for worse.

These movements, while certainly galvanizing to public discussions on assorted matters, do little to confront external threats and ideological attacks by non-Western sources. More so, they give and strengthen these attacks, as the lines between Western and non=Western, acceptable and unacceptable, deteriorate and fade into oblivion. Relativism permeates the tone of discussions, because now, ideas that would fifty years ago, been considered publicly shameful are becoming mainstream. Candidates who would have been shunned, or at the very least, exist as an annoying vocal minority, are not only becoming mainstream but affecting the tone of everyone else.

The differences between Russian trolls and US presidential candidate supporters are not as clear-cut as during the previous election cycles, especially when some of the candidates exhibit admiration of the Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, and a number of candidates see nothing wrong with virulent, blatant lies. Our traditional alliances have shifted, and the demagoguery of Iranian Reformists, who have consistently advised this administration on the nuclear deal, have managed to move our foreign policy quite far from where we were even seven years ago. In fact, even with the change in the administration and attempted reconciliation with the Gulf States and others, some of the long-term implications of our move towards Iran will be nearly impossible to undo.   In this shifting, confusing scenario, the nature of adversarial forces is less defined. Asymmetrical warfare, then, begins at home. If we cannot name or define our adversaries, all we are left with are amorphous concepts we must somehow fight. But one does not wage battle on amorphous concepts, and one is not struck down by amorphous concepts, and one’s civilization and way of living is not subsumed and destroyed by amorphous concepts.  Concrete adversaries and faces, concrete ideas and concepts constitute very real threats. And until we acknowledge what they are, we will forever remain at disadvantage. Because those forces have no problem naming and labeling us. There is no question or ambiguity in being called ‘The Great Satan”, for instance. Quite specific, I would say.

Again, none of this is new. But in a situation when we are busy chasing our own tail, the enemy’s deceptive tactics need not be all that deceptive. We do not know what it is we are fighting or why, therefore we are easy to attack and undermine. We have no authority to make ideological determinations anymore for the simple reason that we have given up the power to make such determinations. Instead, we allowed every imaginable actor to make those determinations and succeed in imposing them on the whole world and on us.  Asymmetrical warfare means that we can no longer expect formal declarations of war, and official press releases announcing attacks. NO one waits until we get our act together. All the declarations of war had been issued by aggressive rhetoric from every sources that seeks to undermine our influence and create tension and problems. Not every anti-Western state has engaged in terrorism against us or our interests directly, but a number of them have taken belligerent steps internally and externally that can only be interpreted as a shift to Cold War mentality – but with 21st century weapons – the Internet, privately disguised outlets, better more emotional graphics, although the message, if one listens carefully, has not changed much. The same rhetoric of alleged aggression, improper influence, imperialism, and bloodthirstiness has been used to attack the Western states, regardless of what they were actually doing, throughout the 20th century. We have not come very far.

The question, then, arises as to how we are expected to fight fire with fire when we don’t even know where the fire really is or what is to be considered “fire” to begin with. On the one hand, the government no longer has any authority to dictate moral imperatives with respect to warfare, on the other hand, the same government apparently has more than enough moral imperative of its own to try to create frameworks of how we should be living our lives.  The government is both not to be trusted with national defense and security, and is paradigm of smarter, angelic people in positions of power who should determine what kind of education everyone receives, how people behave, what kind of speech is acceptable, and what kind of family values are appropriate. With every interest group fighting over imaginable issue, adversarial interests become simply additional interest groups. We cannot conceive of defensive or offensive strategies, or even tactics, if we are far too present in the moment and battles over minutiae to take responsibility for longer-term consequences of whatever choices we ultimately end up making.  From the start, any attempt to make a real go of offensive disinformation is bound to end in failure.  First, any such attempts are bound to be leaked to the press by one concerned citizen or another. We have come to exist in the world, that no one is really our enemy, and therefore deception is only acceptable if it comes from presidential candidates during the election season. Everything else is bad and icky.  Successful disinformation campaigns take a certain level of moral fortitude and disregard for every day ethics and public opinion. Disinformation means intentionally spreading lies for the sake of some greater cause. If, in our minds, no cause is great enough to warrant our taking a firm stand in its defense, such methods, then, are surely not appropriate for something we don’t have a stomach for.

Still, disinformation campaigns have successfully been launched against us in recent days, so it’s no like there is no ability to do so when finally decided. Not the least of them were “the red line” Syria policy, which quite clearly was never intended to be taken serious, especially in light of the negotiations with Iran, the secret talks with the Islamic Republic itself, covered up by a variety of pompous official statements and other meaningless gestures, and much, much more. The best part of it was the misleading idea of “moderates” with whom we were allegedly doing the negotiations. I am not sure whether President Obama was ever naive enough to fully believe in that ruse, or simply did not care about the meas, so long as his goals came to fruition, but that much of the public fell for it is well and fully documented in the multitude of articles and forecasts that have come from the media and assorted organizations. Had we tried to spread disinformation about our own intentions within the Islamic Republic, we would have failed entirely. Why? Because in order to successfully deceive your enemy, you first need to know your enemy.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

We are in a situation where we clearly know neither ourselves nor our enemy. I have already discussed our internal confusion that only plays into the hands of anyone interested in defaming or worse still, attacking us. Equally unacceptable is our lack of understand of our enemies and their motivations and methods of operations, despite having the resources to gather sufficient intelligence to have a comprehensive view of the situation. That goes to Iran,  just as well as to ISIS. That some of the recent actions by some of the Gulf States come as any surprise to anybody with even half an eye on the news is a clear indication of the type of willful indifference and blindness to reality that has led to most surprise attacks in contemporary history (see also the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany for a great example.) The fact that most of the public and even so called “experts” have been so easily misplaced by the illusion of ‘moderates”, much less “moderates” in power, shows a very simple disregard for any alternative sources of information to the ones actively promoted  That “ISIS” is perceived THE major international threat is likewise a result of lack of this administration’s interest in and understanding of the geopolitical situation in that part of the world, which has led to blunder after blunder in foreign policy, persistent embarrassment, and reactive decisionmaking that has us trying to catch up to yesterday’s news while tomorrow’s are already being created – and not by us.

Isolationism does not mean ignorance of the environment in which we are trying to exist. Withdrawing from the Middle East and any other region in terms of policy making (regardless of the merits of such a policy) does not mean turning a blind eye to what is going on and adopting unwarranted optimism. The same attitude has not served us well anywhere else, instead setting us up for surprises, which were never pleasant and were always easily avoidable. Disinformation is meant to be disruptive, but we cannot disrupt anything if we do not know what is happening, and if our adversary appears to shift shape whenever we so much as turn in its direction.

Disinformation could have been well used by the Western intelligence in Iran in order to a) make the mullahs believe we do not possess information we actually do and b) provide them with false perception of our own capabilities and intentions. In truth, at the current juncture this would never work.  First of all, whatever information we do or do not currently possess about the Islamic REpublic, is irrelevant. Our policy has been aimed at strengthening Iran, and so, our actual knowledge of Iranian military intentions and capabilities is of no consequence. As for providing Iran with distorted understanding of our own capabilities – as much as I would like to think that in theory it would still be doable – the fact that the US has been so open, and the administration so easy to manipulate, makes me doubtful that we are capable of doctoring up effective disifnormation and being able to sell it to Iranians. While our understanding of the Iranian society is skin deep, many of their agents have been living inside the US for decades, and our mentality, social trends, and what makes us tick as a society is well known, and does as much harm to us as knowing which airplane is going to be entering our air force next and in what position. Russia, though much better understood than Iran, has presented us with many of the same challenges. China has been somewhat less of a mystery due to defection of numerous high level figures in recent years, and so, at least with respect with some military information , we may have still some room for maneuver. Unfortunately, the fallout from the Snowden fiasco, has left us in a vulnerable position, and no amount of post-factum disinformaton on highly ideological zombified Chinese bureaucrats can hide that fact.

We do best when government policy takes a backseat to straightforward security and intelligence considerations or when the field is fairly traditional and straightforward.  Still, so much of our intelligence focus has shifted on mass listening campaigns, than human run operations, including disinformation campaigns, have taken a back seat. Coupled with an increase in the culture of leaking, acceptance for “whistleblowers”, and increasing paramilitary focus on CIA’s operations, it is little wonder than more creative endeavors that require less brute force and more understanding of local conditions, culture, media, and traditional skills such as deception and manipulation, in order to mislead and demoralize the adversary, have not been particularly prominent or successful from the Western side.  Finally, we do not know what demoralizing the enemy really means. Morale plays little role in contemporary discourse. If no one is really an enemy, and no one is really wrong, how and why would we be attempting to demoralize them? Alternatively, other types of psych ops, such as influencing and strengthening dissidents have been abject failure around the world, as evidenced by the necessity of existing grassroots organizations, such as (a social media platform for human rights activists and those seeking assistance) run by Advancing Human Rights. Human rights have not been a priority for this administration (let’s hope one of the other candidates reminds Hillary Clinton about her infamous statement in China), and therefore very little was done to create any sort of support for the sufferers and strugglers around the world, particularly in the case of political prisoners and human rights defenders. After all, that would be an impediment to sucking up to their overlords, would it not?

Until we learn who we are and what we are fighting for and against, we will not be able to regain much control over own destiny, much less assist in stabilizing and securing the situation anywhere else in the world. I suggest that we, as a society, engage in much self-assessment and reflection in the coming year, and focus on getting past our identity and leadership crises, figure out what it is we stand for, and how best to defend it – and get on with it. Too much time has already been wasted on pointless arguments and shameful debates.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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