The Fake News Epidemic has taken a turn for the worse. It has widely been reported that US President Donald Trump had been briefed on the possibility of Russia blackmailing him over a secretly recorded sex tape showing the new President with prostitutes in a Russian hotel. If the allegations are true, the scandal would likely force Mr. Trump from office and represent one of Russia’s boldest attempts to influence the White House. If the allegations are false and simply a brazen example of fake news, as Mr. Trump asserted when he was confronted about the allegations during a CNN interview, it seriously erodes the already damaged credibility of professional news outlets and calls into question the already suspect motives of America’s national security apparatus.
Fake News is a tool in a far broader global Information War being waged by faceless combatants who seek to propagate confusion and distrust in order to hide the pursuit of their own self-serving agendas. Unfortunately, there is not one enemy nor is there one goal behind this threat. The threat can come from anyone while the threat is against everyone. The threat comes from governments, national security agencies, criminals, corporations, and every other sort of actor imaginable. War has also included an “information war,” but the nature of the Information Age and social media has empowered the already influential to operate on a global scale without culpability. To fight this threat, the mechanisms of an information war must first be understood.
Long ago, news outlets, governments, and even Intelligence agencies were trusted. Today, these civil institutions are, at best, doubted. Anyone who associated with them is suspect or presumed dishonest. Because there is a thorough and widespread lack of trust, it is possible to wage an information war to foster doubt and distrust, which prevents people from banding together and addressing serious issues. In waging an information war, the objective is to cast doubt on the credibility of facts, interpretations of information, and/or actors. This, in turn, helps foster, at the very least, confusion. Ultimately, a successful information war will result in the complete distrust of the target. A well crafted information war will also foster misplaced trust in those waging the campaign.
Furthermore, an information war cannot simply be fought with facts, because an information war is waged by manipulating how people perceive facts. There are truths, falsehoods, and unknowns, but perception, including the awareness of related facts and level of trust in a source of information, often determines what facts are deemed true, false, and incomplete. Because people have differing perspectives, their interpretations of the “facts” tend to differ. Unfortunately, people also tend to embrace “truths” that are in agreement with their own perceptions. When people have misperceptions about certain facts or seek to misrepresent other facts, those waging an information wage simply have to cast doubt on alternative interpretations.
In other words, the battle is won by strategically reinforcing the target’s own perceptions and using those perceptions to shift the target’s own interpretations of targeted facts to foster misperceptions. For example, Russia’s FSB might seek to use hatred of the Media, Democrats, and any criticism of Donald Trump among Trump supporters to distract from Russian aggression. It would do this by adopting sympathetic pro-Trump stances and reframing US responses to Russian aggression as aggression by the Obama Administration. Doing so would reinforce distrust of Democrats and the CIA, which advocated for actions against Russia and inadvertently questioned the legitimacy of the Trump Presidency, while eventually fostering pro-Russian sentiments.
As a counter example, America’s CIA might seek to use distrust of Russia to bolster support for itself and distract from its wrongdoings.
Unfortunately, information wars are difficult to beat, because the only effective defense appears to be a counter-information war. After all, uncomfortable truths are quickly used to undermine the credibility of a target. Those who control the “facts” will win the war, but the confusion created by the information war is so great that no one can ever control the facts. Even when no one can be trusted, however, there are five defenses that can help safeguard against misinformation and misperceptions.
1. There is a need for transparency wherever possible, because transparency allows for trust building and trust building negates the tactics of any information war.
2. People must always question what the unknowns are and what assumptions are presumed true.
3. The interests at stake must be fully analyzed to uncover any conflicting interests that might undermine the credibility of a conclusion.
4. Patterns always reveal the truth. When facts are true, they align in a logical sequence. When facts are false, there are unknowns, there are misperceptions, and/or there are misrepresentations, the facts will not align perfectly.
5. Even when dealing with a trusted source, verification is necessary when possible, because it reinforces trust.
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