Discourse is not information war; public media are not cyber weapons

The DNC hack has led to some inflamed rhetoric by the American foreign policy establishment and mainstream journalists. Cold War-type accusations about the malign influence of the Russians have been revived, as Russia is accused of “manipulating” US elections. There are constant references to information warfare between the U.S. and Russia. Indeed, one writer claimed that Russia has “weaponized the American press.”

Technical cybersecurity experts seem to have drunk the Kool-Aid as well. One well-known vuln broker tweeted that “Information dissemination platforms are ‘weapons’ in an informatic conflict” and asked journalists to “accept that responsibility” (what responsibility – to self-regulate their stories in line with the needs of their home state?). When challenged to justify this characterization, he tweeted the following definition of information war: “competing narratives attempting to influence the sense making of communities and individuals and thus shape/control behavior.” Facebook Live, he claimed with confidence, is a “cyberweapon.”

Whoa. Time to pause and reflect.  What I want to address here is not so much the nature and scope of the alleged Russian threat, but the definition of cyber war and weapons. In this first post, I argue that over-inclusive definitions threaten freedom of expression. The second post will take up the debate over definitions, and show why it is important to have careful, limited definitions of cyber war and cyber weapons.

Is communicative influence war?

The definition above makes all debate in the public sphere about any consequential topic an “information war.” It makes any and every social media platform – not to mention radio and television broadcasting, newspapers, and even conversations in the hair salon or barbershop – “a cyber weapon.” All are places where competing narratives intended to shape the behavior of communities and individuals take place.

To me, this is an absurdly over-inclusive definition. But aside from its obvious conceptual problems, we need to understand the broader consequences of militarizing the definitions of public discourse. This tendency to define all contentious exchanges of information as war and media as weapons is itself an existential threat – to freedom of speech and the media. War is violent; speech is not – but this definition equates the two. Political speech is supposed to be free and mostly unregulated; the use of weapons for political purposes needs to be carefully controlled – but this narrative encourages us to treat them the same way.

I am an academic, a social scientist. Competing narratives are what we do. The spirit of free inquiry means that for any consequential social or policy issue, critical thinkers are encouraged to explore and debate several different narratives, and to seek new facts that might alter those narratives. Each of these narratives compete for our allegiance within the scientific community and the broader society. The fact that the issues are consequential, that they matter, necessarily implies that alternative narratives would push behavior in different directions. If, to use one common example, you believe that climate change is not influenced by human economic activity, you will behave very differently than if you believe that climate change is primarily caused by humans. We engage in robust debate about facts and their interpretation in order to influence the sense-making, and hence behavior, of communities and individuals.

We have to be free to look at foreign policy issues critically and freely too. But this can’t happen if we define journalists, academics and anyone engaged in online discourse as soldiers in an all-embracing cyber war among states.

The Russians are coming?

Which brings us back to the Russians and the DNC hack. Let’s assume the very worst about this situation:

  • The Russian state is engaged in a sustained, deliberate attempt to influence the outcome of the U.S. election
  • The Russian state was fully and directly responsible for the exfiltration of private emails about the Clintons and their release to Wikileaks

Both of these assumptions, especially the first one, are contestable. But even if they are both true this writer is not particularly frightened, as long as Russia is not relying on violent coercion to achieve its ends. If Russia is assassinating journalists, disabling media outlets and otherwise physically intimidating people engaged in public discussion of the elections and foreign policy, then we can talk of a serious national security threat. If Russia is merely making available to the American public true information that, when known, alters the preferences of some voters, then it’s just another voice in the public discourse. What’s at stake here, really, is whether we actually believe that freedom of expression makes this country stronger. My view is that it does. The U.S. can handle competing narratives, even those promulgated by foreign powers. Indeed, external messages might even help to counterbalance certain forms of media dominance and manipulation by our own state. The fact that our media are open and theirs is not does not alter my opinion; in fact, it demonstrates our strength and their weakness.

During the Cold War, it was difficult to have a reasonable conversation about the American strategy of global intervention because opponents of the extended military posture could always be accused of aligning themselves with the Soviet communists. The current information warfare dialogue seems to have fallen into that familiar but dysfunctional pattern.

Time for the information warmongers to….surrender!

Next week: a discussion of the debate between David Aitel and Ralph Langner on the definition of cyber weapons at the Council on Foreign Relations.

One comment

  1. Deborah Mueller

    I am interested to talk about “War is violent; speech is not” as quoted in your article. It depends on the motives behind speech and that may trigger war. So speech can be as dangerous as war.

    For those who are not as analytical as the intellectuals or academics, it is possible the “information war” would alter their behaviors and preferences.