Information warfare is on the rise. Why aren’t more people taking it seriously?
Future conflicts could see conventional fighting take a backseat to online propaganda
Information has long been an important tool of warfare — Homer’s epic poems about the siege of Troy from 1200 BC have influenced military strategies and enthralled audiences for hundreds of years — but modern instruments of communication have transformed how the public consumes news about conflict. The arrival of social media and the internet led to the expansion of the battlefield itself, creating new avenues for governments to advance their national interests.
In the months leading up to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban launched an aggressive social media campaign to promote their agenda and leaned on platforms like Twitter to project an image of calm as American troops exited the country — a sharp turn from the group’s approach to technology in the 1990s when they banned the internet.
Philip Seib is professor emeritus of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California. A co-founder of the academic journal Media, War and Conflict, he has been writing for decades about media and war. In his latest book, “Information at War: Journalism, Disinformation, and Modern Warfare,” Seib charts the role of information in conflicts, including the Second World War, Vietnam, and the war in Syria amid a rapidly shifting media ecosystem. I talked to him about how digital tools have influenced the landscape of war and how the public could take the issue more seriously.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Coda Story: Your book goes back through history to trace the role of information in warfare. What made you want to write it?
Philip Seib: I find that more and more emphasis is being placed on the militarization of information and the use of information as a tool of warfare by various governments. I think this is a very important phenomenon which has not gotten enough attention.
Are you able to pinpoint when you started to see the deployment of information as a weapon of war?
I think what got me most interested in it was a book I wrote some years ago called “Broadcasts from the Blitz,” which is about Edward Murrow’s time in London. He and his colleagues from the U.S. and the UK recognized the importance of information in getting the U.S. to help a very beleaguered Britain. And so that was really my first experience in writing about this topic and my interest in it has grown since then. It certainly peaked by the use of information by Russia against the United States in 2016.
You write that “militaries are finding that information can be a valuable asset to conventional weaponry.” Can you elaborate on that?
The issue exists on several different levels. One level is the fairly traditional use of propaganda to soften up or influence a foreign public. To cite the pre-U.S. entry in the Second World War, the British were very active even within the United States in trying to affect American public opinion. Now the Russians and to a certain extent the Chinese have made information usage an integral part of their military doctrines. An example of that would be the Russian war against Ukraine.
The Russians have said that in the past, wars have been 90% conventional combat and 10% propaganda. Future conflicts might be 90% propaganda and 10% conventional fighting. If that’s really the case, it raises all sorts of interesting questions. Such as, if information is used as a tool of war, how can you legitimately respond to it? In other words, if Russia interferes in U.S. politics using information, do you have to respond just with information, or does that call for military action? I think this question is going to occupy policymakers for some time to come. I would add that policymakers have not really grappled with this effectively to date.
With the increased use of the internet and digital apps, will information warfare take up a more important role in conflicts?
Absolutely. And the reason I feel that way is because the information universe itself has changed so dramatically and there’s so many more ways to reach the public. You don’t have to try to get coverage on the CBS evening news, you can go on Twitter. There are just so many ways to reach the public. And that’s what the Russians did so successfully in the U.S. in 2016. As Donald Trump proved, he didn’t need any of the gatekeepers, he could just tweet and have his millions and millions of followers get the information — often inaccurate but also unfiltered. Militaries can use that for their own purposes as well.
You’ve been writing about this topic for a while. I’m curious if you foresaw the broader role of information in war as the internet came to be?
My crystal ball didn’t serve me well in this case. I’m intrigued by history, and I was thinking about doing another historical analysis of the role of the news media. But then looking ahead became more interesting to me. Especially because of the dearth of information and the lack of a coherent response by nations, by governments, by school systems, everything, to the malignant use of information.
One of the points that I make in the book is that the country that has done the best job of responding is Finland. They have brought critical thinking related to information, they start that in kindergarten. And the U.S. has kind of a hit-and-miss system. In training journalists, we train people to do the medical beat, the government beat, and so on. We need to train future journalists in the information beat. They need to understand how all of this works. And most of them don’t.
What you’re saying raises a lot of questions about what we need to do as individuals and as societies to develop media literacy. But there’s also a role that journalists can play in this process, for better or worse. How is the media doing when covering these issues?
I think journalists and media institutions — publications and broadcasters — have greatly underrated the importance of this issue with sporadic recognition. The U.S. media are well behind the curve. Now it might be with the Biden administration that there are more people in the intelligence community and in the military and the State Department and elsewhere paying attention to this. But during the Trump administration, it was sort of a no-go zone to even talk about it because it implied that his election in 2016 was tainted somehow by Russian interference.
You provide the example of the Rohingya in Myanmar and there are many other current examples of human rights violations and conflict which have been exposed by social media. Do you think we become desensitized when we can theoretically pick up our phones, open Twitter, and see videos and photos of it in real-time? Or is it making us more sympathetic?
I think it’s both. Information overload has a tendency generally to desensitize people because there’s just so much of it. We’ve come a long way from, say 1940, when Murrow’s reporting about the Blitz really shocked people. I think people have become inured to shocking content of news reporting about all this. And even when you think about the planes flying into the World Trade Center, the first time you see that, it’s horrifying. The second and third times you see it, it’s horrifying. The hundredth time you see it, it’s television. I think there’s a tendency that we don’t discriminate enough in the way we progress from news coverage. We just sort of look at it and it’s like being a spectator sport. That’s why I think there needs to be more sophisticated and expanded critical thinking taught in schools.
I find that very hard to envision that happening in the U.S.
I’m with you. One interesting thing about Finland is the amount of trust people have in the news media, it is very high.
One trend I’ve covered is an issue around authoritarian countries closing off access to information during unrest. I mean internet blackouts around contested elections, protests, etc. Is that something that factors into how you think about information warfare? Not just how governments manipulate information, but often make it inaccessible?
Yeah, I think that’s a backdoor way of weaponizing information. Some governments that do that, that block access to certain websites and so on, they’re also simultaneously putting out their own information that they consider more useful to them. It’s part of the same issue. When people first talked about what a great democratizing force this new media would be, I think they tended to overlook the malign ways in which media could be used and controlled, and that is increasingly going to be an issue around the world.
Your book covers a long sweep of history, from the Blitz to the modern era. What do you see as some of the most important takeaways from your research?
I think people need to take information more seriously. We pick up the morning paper still, read it online, check the baseball scores and that sort of thing, and then set it aside. We don’t fully realize just how influential and omnipresent information is, and how it affects our behavior.
The question is ‘will the public become smarter about dealing with this?’ It’s sort of like air pollution. The air keeps getting worse and worse and at some point, you hope the public says, ‘wait a minute. We can’t live like this.’
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