There is no arguing that words have meaning and are the focal point of how we, as humans, communicate with one another. Words express thoughts and feelings, convey images, give directions, invoke emotions, and provide an understanding of complex issues. Words, however, have also been used to manipulate, coerce, cajole, and deceive. Those with malicious or self-serving intent obfuscate and obscure straight-forward definitions with ambiguous, intentionally vague, or disingenuous meanings, forcing relatively simple ideas into verbal gymnastics arenas. Few places have these distortions of the spoken and written word become more apparent than in the realm of contemporary politics, both on the national and geopolitical stage. Words have become weapons with devastating efficacy.
The terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” have become a part of everyday political vocabulary, but they are not interchangeable, and the distinction is the differences in intent and needs clarifying. Misinformation is the spreading of false or inaccurate information. It predominately is derived from ignorance, incomplete assessments, incorrect analysis, personal opinion, and even the diatribes of “that guy” who wears a colander on his head when he takes a break from screaming obscenities at squirrels. However, disinformation is the dissemination of erroneous information to deceive or mislead the intended audience intentionally. Propaganda and social engineering of cultural and societal norms and mores to conform to a particular ideological perspective heavily utilize disinformation to sway the targeted populace.
Information warfare coalesces semantic redefining of words in common usage, exploiting misinformation, disseminating disinformation, and adds a final component: denial. Denial of information is the deliberate omission of facts and obfuscation of crucial details to mislead or misdirect the attention of the affected audience. Without timely and accurate information, individuals and groups cannot make efficient and effective decisions, forcing them to rely on whatever information they can access. With the combined elements of information warfare, policy and decision-makers can sway public opinion, create civil unrest, crush economies, and even inspire genocidal hatred of an entire subnational identity. The following article will delve a little deeper into each of these elements of information warfare in its contemporary political setting and provide recommendations to help mitigate its effects.
“I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means….”
Language evolves to better conform to changes in societal norms and mores and is itself not necessarily malfeasant or deceptive. “Seek and destroy” became “movement to contact,” “homeless” changed to “unhoused persons,” and “illegal alien” is giving way to “undocumented non-citizen.” These terms and others like “formerly incarcerated person” (read convicted felon) are relatively benign and boil down to semantics. However, they signify a shift in ideological perspective that has begun treading into the realm of duplicity. For example, for almost the entire summer of 2020, ideologues referred to violent rioters as “mostly peaceful protesters.” Half a year later, those same ideologues branded different rioters as insurrectionists, terrorists, enemies of the State, and threats to democracy. There were some pretty significant differences between the two separate rioting groups, the biggest being the ideological demographics of each and the political affiliation of those disseminating information about the respective rioting. This characterization and the affinities of those reporting information are essential elements in this discussion. The subjective contrast in messaging has now blurred the line between “misinformation” and “disinformation.”
Unscrupulous actors can use these buzzwords and phrases to manipulate public information consumption. The January 6 riot provides an excellent example of this form of information warfare. More than six months later, politicians and the news media have referred to the incident as an “insurrection” and the perpetrators as seditious and treasonous. However, prosecutors have not charged a single arrested rioter or protester from that event with treason, sedition, insurrection, or similar domestic terrorism-related offense. One would assume that if it had been an actual insurrection, any prosecutor worth their law degree would be able to present a solid case affirming guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Yet despite the absence of supporting court filings and grand jury indictments, politicians and the media still claim the assault of the Capitol Building was an insurrection. The justification for the claim is that protesters disrupted an official congressional act, if only for a few hours, and lawmakers might have been in physical danger. That begs the question, however, what about the disruptions of the Justice Kavanaugh hearings? Protesters, who interrupt the State of the Union address and congressional hearings with unruly outbursts? These latter incidents undisputedly do not rise to the level of damage or inherent danger of the January 6 riot but are arguably a similar assault on the democratic process. Moreover, they do not account for attacks on lawmakers like Rand Paul immediately following the Republican National Convention in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2020 or generally since the 2016 presidential election. The redefinition of words to become disinformation is perhaps the best example of weaponizing language against a rival.
Stupid or Lying: Chem Trails, Russian Bots, and the Big Lie
“Flat Earthers,” 9/11 Truthers, and ancient astronaut theorists may sometimes present well-thought-out arguments to support their ideas, but one could rationally define their arguments as misinformation. They are not intentionally out to deceive their audience, only to present their perspective on a subject based on their available information. Those examples are extreme but demonstrate the generally benign nature of misinformation. In recent years, however, there has been a more malfeasant association attributed to misinformation that is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. Both the Covid-19 pandemic and 2020 U.S. elections have brought to the forefront whether the spread of misinformation is inherently a benign act or if it has ventured into the realm of constituting a national security and public health threat. Does sharing alternate opinions and research on the treatment of Covid or the efficacy of mask mandates or vaccines pose a danger to the public or democracy?
Some would argue that the few cases of people consuming the wrong type of hydroxychloroquine or spikes in Covid cases would indicate the answer is yes. Similarly, some would maintain that former President Trump’s public questioning of the 2020 presidential election results instigated the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol Building as dangerous misinformation. However, if one statistically examines the respective subjects, the arguments begin to fall apart. Further scientific research and other newly available information in the former cases have shown that the science is not “settled” when it comes to protections and treatments of Covid. Similarly, in the latter case, what has been uncovered by the recent audits shows that maybe there was some validity to the questions he raised that inspired others to violence. Sometimes the difference between misinformation, conspiracy theories, and accepted facts is just time and research.
On the other hand, dissemination of disinformation is a malicious act intended to manipulate, coerce, and radicalize its audience. Therefore, the willful deception of the public using knowingly false information should warrant scrutiny and proactive mitigation. A past example of disinformation revolved around the salacious 2016 Trump dossier that resulted in an FBI counterintelligence probe, FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) abuses, and the Mueller special counsel investigation. Those involved knew the information was erroneous or unverifiable yet continually pushed the inquiry and the Trump-Russia collusion narrative regardless. An example outside of the U.S. domestic arena is the Chinese Communist Party’s claim that Covid-19 originated from a U.S. Army base and an infected soldier brought the virus to China. In the first example, political opponents of the former president used disinformation to sow division and create disruption, and in the latter case, to obfuscate the source of the virus and deflect responsibility.
Misinformation can become disinformation if someone uses it later to mislead the target audience intentionally. Unfortunately, this type of disinformation has become commonplace in public discussions on police officer-involved shootings over the last several years. Police interactions with the public can be very dynamic, and accurate accounting of what transpired sometimes can take days or weeks to determine. What media outlets and bystanders initially reported is not correct and later has to be amended, but, unfortunately, it is often too late to mitigate the damage the initial reporting caused. Slogans like “Hands up, don’t shoot” and claims of law enforcement targeting African-Americans for execution are provably false and not supported by forensic evidence or empirical data but are still propagated and promoted by politicians, celebrities, and other influential parties like media outlets.
Finally, as discussed earlier, manipulating words and language to mean something they do not or invoke specific emotional responses is another form of disinformation. For example, making hyperbolic comparisons to Nazis or Jim Crow when referring to political opponents or legislative acts, especially when one cannot draw clear lines to correlate the two, is intentionally deceitful and has no place in civil society. It would be like calling a platypus a duck because it has a bill and webbed feet and swims in the water.
“I Got Zucked, But We’ll Circle Back to That Later.”
Recently, the Biden Administration announced it was working closely with Facebook and other social media outlets to more actively combat posts and trends they deemed misinformation. However, the move brings about serious questions about the constitutionality of these actions as it appears to be a means of circumventing the First Amendment by censoring or controlling speech through a private entity. Free speech advocates and constitutionalists made similar comparisons when Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency used private defense contractors to collect data as part of a domestic intelligence collection program. The question then becomes, why bother censoring misinformation at all?
The administration argues it becomes a public health threat, but providing ready access to timely and accurate information could effectively mitigate that risk. The actual risk from censoring information is in limiting the discussion that could develop alternative solutions to problems. For example, Socrates, Servetus, and Galileo were all at one point accused, convicted, and summarily executed for heresy (Medieval Era misinformation) or “corrupting young minds.” However, these great thinkers gave modern society a better understanding of political philosophy, pulmonary circulation, and astronomy despite their censorship. Is stifling the free exchange of ideas, regardless of how deranged or ignorant, worth the potential loss of revolutionary theories? Or do the political ends justify the means?
Misinformation is often the benign rantings of the uninformed or chronically gullible, and people, especially those in the institutions of power, should not deem it a national security threat. Disinformation, however, has created disingenuous narratives that have led to massive incidents of civil disorder, demagoguery, and even enacted significant societal changes. Finally, obfuscation and restrictions of the free exchange of ideas have pushed Western liberal democracies closer to becoming the very authoritarian regimes they seek to disrupt and dismantle globally. Government, media, and Big Tech censors label any alternative hypotheses that counter a political narrative as misinformation, even after more substantive investigation later discovers the subject to be factual or at least a viable theory.
Recent examples include the Wuhan virology lab leak theory and the 2020 election discrepancies which have created severe distrust in both the scientific community and the media industry. In today’s society, words have become weaponized against political opponents and advance ideological agendas. As a result, individuals have had their careers destroyed, and people are boycotting businesses and even states. Ultimately, it is the average person who suffers under the yoke of information warfare, unable to seek out new information, formulate unique ideas, or develop improved scientific and social innovations to enrich everyone’s standard of living.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on August 18, 2021.
Ben is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.