Disinformation Week | Where to go for the best info, on disinfo?
Review of Nina Schick, Deep Fakes: The Coming Infocalypse; Richard Stengel, Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation & What We Can Do About It; and Peter Pomerantsev, This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.
Prior to 2016, disinformation was not a common expression, but different permutations of the term — information warfare, information operations, hybrid warfare, and active measures, to name a few — have existed for decades. Simply put, disinformation is an intentionally misleading and often active attempt by domestic or foreign actors to blur the lines between fact and fiction. Given the rise of disinformation in the popular lexicon, publishers have raced to release books on this key international and domestic policy issue.
Some of the books focus on recent history, whereas others go back to the Cold War, but the best authors go one step further and offer substantive recommendations to counter disinformation. Three recent (re-)releases by Nina Schick, Richard Stengel, and Peter Pomerantsev represent different types of approaches to this problem. (This review also gives an honorable mention to Farah Pandith’s How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.)
Deep Fakes, by international affairs journalist Nina Schick, is a breezy read, and also prescient for its focus on emerging technologies’ intersection with disinformation campaigns and a possible dystopian world where seeing is no longer believing. While the book has some excellent examples of audiovisual distortion being used for political ends, such as an alleged coup case in Gabon in 2018–19, it does not offer a cohesive overall narrative.
Schick’s apt anecdotes bring attention to emerging technologies and give the book a distinctive flavor, but the different stories do not point to solutions or a compelling call to action. I would still recommend this book to my relatives to scare them into caring about their social media usage and foreign policy, and thinking twice before sending their relentless Whatsapp forwards before fact checking.
Given its release in late August 2020, Deep Fakes is the only book that covers the COVID-19 pandemic, but in being the first book released on artificial intelligence-enabled deep fakes and disinformation, it misses a key opportunity to offer more than just raising the alarm on manipulated media.
Former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel’s Information Wars is two books in one: memoir and policy proposal. The book connects the evolution of the U.S. government’s focus on countering violent extremism, recruitment, and ISIS’ messaging campaigns, to malign actor influence campaigns in the United States and overseas. Stengel provides helpful background on the history of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, charged with combating disinformation and adversaries’ influence campaigns overseas.
In passages about the frustration of working in a large bureaucracy with interagency partners, the book illustrates the unique challenges of policy implementation and strategic change in response to nimble adversaries. Readers less interested in the State Department’s specific role on countering disinformation or its inner workings should skip ahead to Part VII — “What to do About Disinformation.” Although the book is a quick read given Stengel’s writing style, he could have inverted the amount of time he spent explaining the State Department with more time on the solutions. Building out that last chapter into a separate book or a journal piece would be a worthwhile endeavor.
The standout is Pomerantsev’s This is Not Propaganda. The writer, an academic and renowned expert on propaganda, cared about disinformation before it was hip. While the other books disproportionately focus on the United States, Pomerantsev looks at it through a historical lens, weaving together his own family history with recent events. His use of examples outside the traditional bugaboos are terrifying and elucidating. His case studies from the Philippines and Mexico highlight how the call can come from inside your own home; domestic actors can also manipulate information through social media for their own political ends — a lesson for all established and latent democracies to learn from.
Anti-democratic forces also learn these tactics from one another, and the “playbook” is evolving everyday. Each of Pomerantsev’s chapters delineates and explains key dimensions of disinformation covering tactics and new technology; weakening political movements; non-kinetic information warfare; the importance of clear, cohesive national narratives to support democracy; and segmentation and displacement of identity.
His final chapter includes a set of humble recommendations and realistic caveats to respond to the issues he lays out in earlier chapters. The section on the growing crisis of identity is his strongest. Around the world, citizens face the push/pull of global, cross-cutting identities and what it means to belong to a nation in a country with changing demographics. This hits on one of the fundamental questions all of these books raise: should countering disinformation efforts focus on the supply side or the demand side? Do we play “Whack a Troll” or do we respond to the underlying disaffection that makes citizens a rapt and vulnerable audience?
An honorable mention goes to former State Department Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith. Her book, How We Win, like Pomerantsev’s work, extensively covers the identity crisis facing many new technology users. The key difference: Pandith focuses on countering extremist recruitment from groups such as ISIS and not on disinformation. Yet the numerous solutions she offers, although not all feasible or practical, can also also apply to countering information campaigns from domestic and foreign actors and strengthen citizen faith in democracy and their role in creating common goals and positive national identities. Each chapter poses a problem, and then a possible solution. How We Win is definitely worth a read given the applicability of the lessons to social media literacy and identity issues.
Heera Kamboj is a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service and a Rusk Fellow at ISD. She is teaching a course on disinformation at Georgetown in spring 2021.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government or the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
Interested in exploring this topic further? Take a look at ISD’s new report, “The New Weapon of Choice: Technology and Information Operations Today,” and listen to our podcast interview with Nina Jankowicz:
Check out the recent profile of Heera Kamboj on The Diplomatic Pouch:
Profile | Heera Kamboj, Foreign Service Officer and ISD Rusk Fellow
Chasing “white whales” and “unicorn jobs”
As a part of this series, we will also review other books on disinformation, including:
- How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict by Nina Jankowicz
- LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by Peter Singer and Emerson Brooking
- Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News by Clint Watts
- Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid