Social media is the machine gun of modern disinformation war

Social media is the machine gun of modern disinformation war
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Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. It was a conflict marked not only by its unprecedented scale, but also a level of brutality and horror which wasn’t necessarily expected in war at the time. It’s hard to imagine, but just over 100 years ago, warfare looked entirely different than it does today.

At the turn of the last century, warfare was considered orderly and honorable. The idea of hiding, or even not marching in formation, was cowardly. But by the time World War One began, the machine gun was forcing the entire method of combat to change. Camouflage, lying on the ground even digging trenches for cover, were all responses to the unprecedented danger of the machine gun.

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That’s because machine guns saturated the battlefield with bullets, hitting anyone foolish enough to step foot from behind cover. It created what German officer Ernst Jűnger called the “Storm of Steel,” a no-man’s land of swirling, constant, and encircling death.

The drastically increased lethality required all sides to reevaluate their strategies and defenses. Today, we’re witnessing an identical change to a different battlefield. Rather than bullets and blood, it’s a change in media and minds.

Last Friday, the Department of Justice charged Russian operative Elena Khusyaynova with running a foreign operation to meddle in our upcoming election. It was an elaborate and expensive operation designed to spread disinformation, sow division, and even undermine the investigations into Putin’s information warfare.

Why, if we have indictments against the perpetrators and copies of their attacks, are we so hesitant to recognize the severity of this threat? I suspect there are three principal reasons. Initially, no one’s dying from information warfare. Secondly, people think Moscow’s attacks are nothing new. Finally, we don’t want to admit our own role in the attacks.

The first point is easy enough to dismiss. Disinformation doesn’t directly kill, at least. The attacks do, however, create animosity, even urging rival protests to “battle in the streets.” The possibility for violence is very real. But the greater risk of information warfare is the degradation of our national principles and identity. It is a direct assault on the integrity of our elections and our democratic ideals. The loss of faith in liberty and democracy is an existential threat to our nation.

The second point is more complex. It’s true that the Kremlin, and other governments, have used disinformation and other information operations to try to influence our politics before. China, for example, has bought full page ads in politically important newspapers. But that’s not the same as the Kremlin’s current attacks.

On the contrary, the weapons of modern information warfare are as revolutionary as the machine gun. Communications technologies, especially social media, have made it easier to flood the zone of combat. The sheer volume of memes, messages, and falsified reports has made it near impossible to dodge, or even discern, the munitions of information war.

Those saying “Russia has always meddled in our politics” are akin to those who would have ordered their troops to march in formation into the field of machine gun fire. We cannot combat the modern form of disinformation with the methods and indifference of the past. As with the “Storm of Steel,” the battlefield is exponentially more dangerous. The Kremlin has created a tempest of text; a monsoon of memes.

Which comes to the final point, that we are loathe to admit the role we play in these attacks. The effectiveness of the strategy hinges entirely on our (often) unwitting participation. Americans validate the false stories and hyperbolic claims by liking and sharing them, further saturating the information battlefield. They overwhelm our networks with disinformation, playing to our own preconceptions and fueling the sense that opponents are enemies. While there is broad consensus that the 2016 attacks helped the Trump campaign, the attacks were targeted at Americans of all political persuasions.

Conservatives, liberals, secessionists, socialists, even Black Lives Matter Activists and police supporters, all were targeted by Kremlin information attacks. Most of us saw their disinformation, and many helped spread it. And at least for the GOP, the battlefield resulted in a political win. It’s hard to admit our own responsibility in spreading a foreign attack, it’s even harder to fault a tactic which might have yielded a win for ‘our team.’ 

No matter our political ideology, we have to recognize the immense danger of information warfare. The flooding of the information battlefield makes us all vulnerable, and benefits a foe who cares little about our political battles, only about dividing and weakening our nation. The weapons of information warfare which help one side today will just as readily be used against them in the future. That’s the power of an information landscape overwhelmed by the adversary’s munitions.

Adapting means a great deal of citizen responsibility. We are, after all, the ones on this front line. If we don’t share disinformation, we weaken it. We also must address information warfare more seriously, and with all available resources. Returning fire with disinformation won’t solve the problem, but applying real-world consequences might deter attacks. Exposing bot accounts and foreign influence operations will also weaken their abilities, making research and federal investigations crucial to protecting America.

There is no single solution, and there is no trench in which to hide. But if we are to win the information war being waged against us. We have to start by recognizing it for the battlefield it is. This threat is real, and it is ongoing. We must mobilize against it, or we will fall victim to it. America’s security, and the promise of liberty, depend on us.

Mike Ongstad is a former speech writer to Sen. John CornynJohn Cornyn Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Trump struggles to reshape Fed Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks MORE (R-Texas) and presidential campaign adviser to Evan McMullin/Mindy Finn. He is currently the communications director for the pro-democracy organization, Stand Up Republic. Follow him on Twitter @MikeOngstad.