Information Wars (Atlantic Monthly Press) is a detailed first-hand account of the inner workings of the State Department that provides unique context to the challenges faced when dealing with disinformation campaigns. By telling the stories of day-to-day fights of the State Department – both internal and external – a narrative emerges about the power of modern information threats and what nations and individuals can do to combat them.The author: Richard Stengel ’77 was the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs from 2013 to 2016. Before working at the State Department, he was the editor-in-chief of Time magazine from 2006 to 2013. From 1992 to 1994, he collaborated with Nelson Mandela on the South African leader’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
Opening lines: The first thing you notice when you walk into the White House Situation Room is how cramped and stuffy it is. There’s so little space that if people are already sitting at the table, you have to slowly snake your way in between them like you’re taking a seat in the middle of a row in a crowded movie theater. Excuse me…Pardon me…Sorry. And try not to bump the National Security Adviser. For some reason, the air-conditioning doesn’t work all that well, so it can get pretty fragrant. And unless you’re the President of the United States, every guy keeps his suit jacket on and his tie tightened.
It was early in 2014, and it was my first time in the room with President Obama. I was the new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. He was in shirtsleeves and came in without greeting anyone—focused, intense, all business. I had known President Obama when I was a journalist and had that chummy, jokey rapport with him that journalists and politicians cultivate. But this was a side of him that I had never seen before.
The meeting was about the role of international broadcasting, which was part of my brief at the State Department. International broadcasting meant the legacy organizations that were better known during the Cold War: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty. You may not pay attention to them anymore, but they still have a $750 million budget—a nontrivial number even to the federal government. Ben Rhodes, the President’s deputy national security adviser, sketched out the topic and then called on me. I started to lay out all the traditional stuff that these entities were doing, and I could see the President was impatient. “I caught the pass, Rick,” he said without a smile. Hmm. In a nanosecond, I pulled back to 30,000 feet and said, well, the real problem was that we were in the middle of a global information war that was going on every minute of the day all around the world and we were losing it.
Then, a different response from the head of the table. “Okay,” the President said, “what do we do about it?”
That is the question. There is indeed an information war going on all around the world and it’s taking place at the speed of light. Governments and non-state actors and individuals are creating spreading narratives that have nothing to do with reality. Those false and misleading narratives undermine democracy and the ability of free people to make intelligent choices. The audience is anyone with access to a computer or a smartphone—about four billion people. The players in this conflict are assisted by the big social media platforms, which benefit just as much from the sharing of content that is false as content that is true. Popularity is the measure they care about, not accuracy or truthfulness. Studies show that a majority of Americans can recall seeing at least one false story leading up to the 2016 election. This rise in disinformation—often accompanied in authoritarian states by crackdowns on free speech—is a threat to democracy at home and abroad. More than any other system, democracies depend on the free flow of information and open debate. That’s how we make our choices. As Thomas Jefferson said, information is the foundation of democracy. He meant factual information.
Reviews: “Information Wars is a gripping insider account of the U.S. government’s struggle to understand and fight back against a new generation of online threats from extremist messaging and Russian disinformation. As a celebrated journalist who moved into the front lines of this fight, Richard Stengel sheds new light on how bad actors leverage technology to undermine trust, and helps us better understand what must be done to protect our democracy.” – Madeleine K. Albright