Ignatius: Why America is losing the information war with Russia

Ignatius: Why America is losing the information war with Russia

September 5th, 2019 by David Ignatius / The Washington Post Writers Group in Opinion Times Commentary

A power plant in Norilsk, Russia, on Nov. 7, 2017. The United States is stepping up digital incursions into Russia's electric power grid in a warning to President Vladimir Putin and a demonstration of how the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cybertools more aggressively. / File photo by Sergey Ponomarev of The New York Times

Photo by Sergey Ponomarev of The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Richard Stengel, a former Time editor who became the State Department's undersecretary for public diplomacy, writes that he was once an information "idealist." He believed that in the marketplace of ideas, the truth would ultimately prevail. Not anymore.

"I think we all now know that this is a pipe dream," writes Stengel in a disturbing memoir of his three years on the communications firing line. "Unfortunately, facts don't come highlighted in yellow. A false sentence reads the same as a true one. It's not enough to battle falsehood with truth; the truth does not always win."

This book carries a blunt and frightening message: America is losing the fight for what Russians call the "information space."

Stengel's account, which will be published in October, is titled "Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It." This is a tale of how government bureaucracy, inertia and, most of all, the inherent constraints of an open, democratic society made America so vulnerable to covert action via the internet.

"Let's face it, democracies are not very good at combating disinformation," writes Stengel. Authoritarian governments, in contrast, "have gone from fearing the flow of information to exploiting it. They understand that the same tools that spread democracy can engineer its undoing."

Stengel was Time's managing editor and a widely respected journalist who joined the Obama administration in 2014 to oversee State Department communications. His mandate was to combat anti-American messaging.

"I found government too big, too slow, too bureaucratic. It constantly gets in its own way," he writes.

When Stengel took his job, the big challenge was countering extremist messaging from what became the Islamic State. It's a painful story. State had a unit called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which had been established by Secretary Hillary Clinton in 2010. "From the moment of its birth, CSCC was a problem child," Stengel writes, underfunded, misunderstood and mistrusted by the bureaucracy.

While the Islamic State rampaged online, CSCC deliberated. Tasks that should have taken weeks instead took months. Other agencies undermined anything that threatened their turf. During one long meeting, a lieutenant general whispered to Stengel: "I know how to defeat ISIS. Get them involved in the interagency process."

David Ignatius

David Ignatius

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Stengel frankly admits that the Obama administration was slow to react to Russia's 2016 election manipulation. "The scale of Russian disinformation was beyond what we were capable of responding to," he writes.

But he's skeptical that Russian intervention was decisive in 2016. "To this day, I'm not sure what impact it had," he writes. "Russian messaging had a lot of reach but hardly any depth." And he includes this memorable zinger: "By televising hundreds of hours of Trump's campaign speeches, CNN did a whole lot more to elect him than Russia Today did."

Stengel documents our vulnerability to manipulation, foreign and domestic. But in analyzing what to do about democracy's weakness, he offers only a limited menu. He argues that Facebook and other social-media companies should be treated more like publishers — and retain their immunity from liability suits only if they work to delete false or harmful content. Similarly, he wants to compel search engines to explain their algorithms for displaying content.

"I don't believe government is the answer," Stengel writes ruefully. He argues for self-regulation of the ecosystem on which journalists and advertisers both depend.

"Information Wars" ought to be a wake-up call. There's only one force powerful enough to save the day (one too little mentioned these days), and that's the readers and viewers who consume information. Their choices are decisive.

In the end, people will get the news media they deserve: If they consume false information, they're certain to get more of it.

The Washington Post Writers Group

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com