- - Thursday, January 2, 2020

The use of disinformation to deceive one’s adversary to achieve one’s objectives is as old as humanity. When in the creation myth Satan told Eve nothing bad would happen if she bit the apple, that was an instance of disinformation.

In the current period, the worldwide reach of the Internet’s social media platforms has transformed the use of the role of disinformation in information warfare by a spectrum of rogue actors into a pernicious and pervasive threat with significant political and military consequences for the targeted audiences. 

As Richard Stengel argues in his important book “Information Wars,” certain governments, such as Russia, and terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), engage in disinformation to create their own false and extremist narratives, which democracies, such as the United States, are proving to be ineffective at countering.

Mr. Stengel is especially suited to discuss these issues. A former editor of Time and under secretary of State during the final three years of the Obama administration, his department was tasked with tracking and countering the information warfare campaigns by Russia and the Islamic State — America’s primary adversarial opponents. 

What is the nature of the threat? As Mr. Stengel explains, exploiting the Internet’s social media platforms that can reach an audience of about 4 billion people with access to a computer or a smartphone, and where information spreads “at the speed of light,” governments and terrorist groups (and other rogue actors, as well) “are creating and spreading narratives that have nothing to do with reality. Those false and misleading narratives undermine democracy and the ability of free people to make intelligence choices.” 

This is an effective information war because it is “a lot cheaper than buying tanks and Tridents, and the return on investment is higher.” This asymmetric warfare requires only computers and smartphones, and an “army of trolls and bots. You don’t even have to win; you succeed if you simply muddy the waters. It’s far easier to create confusion than clarity.”

What is the substance of information wars spread by Russia and the Islamic State? Russia, Mr. Stengel writes, uses disinformation to discredit the American democratic system, sow internal discord, for instance, over race relations, as well as to justify Russia’s invasion of Crimea in the Ukraine, and overplay the supposedly unpopular U.S. sanctions against Russia.

The Islamic State, Mr. Stengel writes, first gained worldwide notoriety in August 2014 by posting a gruesome video of the beheading of James Foley, an American journalist who had been kidnapped in Syria. This was their “Super Bowl ad” as it “introduced their grisly brand to an audience of millions.”

Such videos are effective recruiting tools because they are “religious and adventurous — if you want to lop off some American heads and go to heaven in the process, come to Iraq and Syria. Violent Islamic adventure tourism. Their proposition was zero sum — join us, or be a kafir (an apostate) and die.”

Also of great appeal was the Islamic State’s portrayal of how “oppressive Sunni states were trying to repress them and true Islam,” with ISIS as the “military wing of Sunni Islam” with their self-declared caliphate serving as a beacon to young Muslims around the world, since, unlike al Qaeda which was more about an “idea,” ISIS was establishing an actual Islamic state.

To the targeted adversary, such gruesome videos represent effective information warfare, Mr. Stengel writes, because the purpose of terrorism is to spread fear beyond a localized incident to an entire society that if it happens in one place it can happen anywhere. 

To counter such information warfare, the Department of State established the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) in 2010, which was part of Mr. Stengel’s portfolio. To counter ISIS’ messaging in social media, which totaled millions of tweets and other forms of messaging, the CSCC produced counter-messages in foreign languages, such as Arabic, with less content in English because less than 10 percent of their messaging was in English. 

In their content, the CSCC published tweets that highlighted ISIS’ violence and hypocrisy, its violation of the Koran and Islamic law, such as “ISIS has betrayed you before, will betray you again,” and “ISIS’s barbarism is its only real goal. It has no religious justification.”   

In another initiative, Mr. Stengel was involved in establishing a coalition of joint U.S. and Muslim countries’ counter-ISIS messaging centers in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and others. 

How effective was the U.S. counter-disinformation effort under Mr. Stengel’s tenure? He concludes that “So much of what I had worked for over the last three years seemed to have taken a giant step backwards” under the new Trump administration’s domestic and foreign policies.

Although one might argue that the challenge of countering information warfare by rogue actors is more complicated than what is presented in Mr. Stengel’s account, this book still provides an insider’s account of how the U.S. government’s bureaucracy has attempted to grapple with this threat, with numerous best practices and worst practices to inform those who seek to understand how to effectively counter such threats.

• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.

• • •


By Richard Stengel

Atlantic Monthly Press, $28, 368 pages

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