Analysis | Where to go for the best info, on disinfo? Part II

Heera Kamboj

This review of Nina Jankowicz’ recent book How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict, is part of a series of reviews of books on the topic of disinformation.

How to Lose the Information War (Image: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.)

“Past is prologue” and “History does not repeat, but echoes” are two phrases that students in my Spring 2021 course,“Deepfakes, Disinformation, Diplomacy, and Democracy,” were likely sick of hearing. But Nina Jankowicz’ recent book How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict proves these concepts many times over. The book’s structure is excellent, book-ended by two chapters on the United States: The first chapter connects the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Russia’s influence operations leading up the election, and how many of the same tactics were beta-tested in Eastern Europe starting with Estonia’s Bronze Soldier Crisis in 2007.

The Estonia case study is one of the strongest chapters, in part because the country has done so much to combat misinformation in the 14 years since. Jankowicz writes about both governmental and societal approaches to defense, media literacy, integration, and economic opportunity. Given Estonia is one of the countries furthest along in countering disinformation, this chapter inspired me to teach a whole session on the country using ISD’s case study approach.

[Learn more about ISD’s case studies and how to use them in the classroom]

The book’s later chapters cover Central and Eastern European case studies: Georgia, Poland, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic. Each represents a different facet of adversarial influence operations and assesses what hurdles and successes the governments have had in mitigating disinformation’s effects. Covering Georgia, Jankowicz adeptly highlights how Russia’s state-controlled English language broadcaster Russia Today (RT) launders misinformation by first building an audience through cultural affinity, pop culture, and entertainment, and then mixing in questionable information in support of Russia’s strategic goals.

Expertly tying history back to the present day, Jankowicz describes and dissects a disinformation campaign that suggested that Georgia’s Lugar medical research lab spread infectious diseases or conducted experiments on Georgians. In fact, the lab is a collaboration between the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and the Georgian Ministry of Health and conducted no such experiments. This anecdote echoed the claims made by the Soviet Union’s Operation Infektion, which spread AIDS disinformation in the 1980s, as discussed in Peter Pomerantsev’s book This is Not Propaganda, and again during the COVID-19 pandemic. It appears the echoes of history are reverberating faster and faster than before.

With a certain prescience, Jankowicz uses the analogy of infection and inoculation to discuss Poland and its experience with disinformation. She notes that some Polish people think they are inoculated from Russian disinformation or influence operations due to their history of opposition to Russian interference. However, she astutely observes in this chapter and elsewhere that sometimes political parties within a country can use the same tactics as foreign adversaries to advance their campaign or agenda domestically. Jankowicz succinctly notes that you cannot fight foreign adversaries’ influence operations if politicians utilize the same tactics domestically.

Nonfiction books do not usually come with “twists,” but the chapter on Ukraine did not focus on the disinformation campaigns following the Euromaidan protests, Russia’s occupation of Crimea, or the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17— as others have explored. Instead, Jankowicz introduces the reader to Russia’s efforts to undermine Ukraine’s attempt to sign-on to a Free Association Agreement with the European Union, by encouraging Dutch citizens to vote against including Ukraine in a referendum vote. This case study highlights the limits governments face in combating disinformation overseas, given the Ukrainian government could only respond in the Netherlands with a positive narrative and campaign due to finance laws and transparency regulations.

According to Jankowicz, Russia’s influence operations did not face the same restrictions given they work through quasi-independent trolls and structures for deniability. She also notes the anti-Ukraine referendum campaign used a “cheapfake,” a crudely altered video for disinformation aimed at painting an unstable and authoritarian Ukraine aligned with the far-right. Jankowicz succinctly explains how this one case reverberates more broadly, stating that Russian disinformation will “take something that people are already mad about, pollute the information ecosystem, and get them so frustrated they start to distrust institutions and disengage.” Sound familiar?

The final case study focuses on the Czech Republic, its Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, Europe’s migration crisis, and the exploitation of that crisis for political ends. Jankowicz likely chose this case to connect it to the reader’s common knowledge of migration flows and linkages to policy and polarization in other countries. This chapter also highlights the unique challenges even relatively stronger democracies face between balancing freedom of speech, public opinion, content moderation, and national security. One of the book’s best lines is when Jankowicz admonishes governments to not only focus on the perpetrators of disinformation, but also on the victims of disinformation, while acknowledging that it is easier to focus on one end of the problem than the other. This chapter is not as strong as the preceding chapters, but this is most likely because many of the countries it references are still grappling with how to combat foreign influence operations.

The final chapter is the perfect book end and could essentially be entitled “How (NOT) to Lose the Information War.” Offering several solutions and lessons learned, this chapter could be a book unto itself, and the book is worth buying for this reason alone. Jankowicz connects this chapter directly to the first chapter on the United States and relates it to each of the problems exposed by the other case studies in her book. She discusses governmental and technological solutions among others, but clearly she wants the reader to walk away with the understanding that no solution will be sufficient without longitudinal, societal efforts aimed at addressing grievances — the very issues influence operations aim to exploit.

Heera Kamboj is a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service and a Rusk Fellow at ISD. She taught a course on disinformation at Georgetown in the spring of 2021.

The authors’ views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.

Interested in exploring this topic further? Take a look at ISD’s 2020 working group report, “The New Weapon of Choice: Technology and Information Operations Today,” and listen to our podcast interview with Nina Jankowicz:

For more reviews of books on disinformation, see the other reviews in this series:

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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges