How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict
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Since the start of the Trump era, and as coronavirus has become an "infodemic," the United States and the Western world have finally begun to wake up to the threat of online warfare and attacks from malign actors. The question no one seems to be able to answer is: what can the West do about it?
Nina Jankowicz, the Disinformation Fellow at the Wilson Center's Science and Technology Innovation Program, lays out the path forward in How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict. The book reports from the front lines of the information war in Central and Eastern Europe on five governments' responses to disinformation campaigns. It journeys into the campaigns the Russian and domestic operatives run, and shows how we can better understand the motivations behind these attacks and how to beat them. Above all, this book shows what is at stake: the future of civil discourse and democracy, and the value of truth itself.
In the webcast above, Jankowicz delves into the case studies in the book and the broader implications of disinformation for democracy in discussion with Asha Rangappa, Senior Lecturer at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and former FBI counterintelligence agent and with Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute.
“Often Americans talk about fake news as if it is stuff that is just purely cut-and-dry fake. I actually had a conversation with my editor about the subtitle of the book because I really didn’t love that fake news was in it. It is a signpost for people, but the terminology is wrong. The best disinformation is grounded in real, visceral feelings, and the most successful operations use these homegrown actors in order to get them out there.”
“What's changed about [fighting disinformation] today is the tools and tactics and speed at which the info spreads. Part of this is not only building resilience but we have to get the regulatory framework in place so that we can respond more effectively. I know we've done work on this at STIP… We were discussing how to bring about positive, democratic-based social media regulation, and it's an area in which the United States is abdicating its leadership in right now.”
“It’s not necessarily about changing votes; it’s about distracting us and creating that discord.”
“I think to some extent, especially when you look at the historical examples, not only from the Soviet period but you can go back to Ancient Greece and to the period of yellow journalism here in the United States for similar examples, what’s changed about today is the tools and tactics and the speed at which the information spreads. Part of this is not only building resilience, but we have to get the regulatory framework in place so that we can respond more effectively.”
“I also think Americans are very naive about the idea of information as a weapon. This I think is partly a good thing, and it’s because our First Amendment, our constitution, offer so much space for robust disagreement and our freedom of the press. We have been conditioned as Americans to think of speech and information as a net positive. The way that the marketplace of ideas, the way that you combat bad speech is with good speech, We haven’t fully understood how the marketplace of ideas doesn’t necessarily translate into the digital space.”
“There is a sense that the government should be solving this problem. Ironically, I think that the government is really ill-placed to solve the problem, even if there were political will, which as Nina has noted, there isn’t. When I was in the FBI, I worked with what are called perception management cases, and these are foreign intelligence operations that are trying to engage in propaganda and disinformation, and they’re very difficult to work because there’s no punishment that you can really put. You can’t censor them. You might threaten them with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, but what countries like Russia take advantage of is our open society and our free press.”
“...In the digital sphere, there’s artificial amplification of particular ideas, and so it’s cheating in the marketplace of ideas. If digital platforms can’t find an effective way to remove those fake voices, the trolls, the bots, then you’re not actually approximating the true public square.”
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Former Fulbright-Clinton Public Policy Fellow
Science and Technology Innovation Program
The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) brings foresight to the frontier. Our experts explore emerging technologies through vital conversations, making science policy accessible to everyone. Read more
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange. Read more