Massive Pollution of the Global Information Environment

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Written by Rand Waltzman

Our adversaries around the world have a very different view of Information Warfare and Information Operations (IO) than that of the West – a view that puts us at a very distinct asymmetric disadvantage. Russia provides an excellent case in point. For example, a glossary of key information security terms produced by the Russian Military Academy of the General Staff contrasts the fundamental Russian and Western concepts of IO by explaining that for the Russians IO are a continuous activity, regardless of the state of relations with any government, while the West sees IO as limited, tactical activity only appropriate during hostilities. In other words, Russia considers itself in a perpetual state of information warfare, while the West does not. This situation represents a serious threat that the West is not prepared to face in terms of legal and policy framework, organizational framework and necessary skillsets.

The battlefield of information warfare as conceived of by our adversaries is the global information environment. Rapid advances in communication technologies of the 21st Century have resulted in radical changes to the information environment and the way it impacts populations worldwide. As reliance upon the Internet and social media increases as primary sources of news and information as well as settings where social interactions occur, so does vulnerability to deception, disinformation and mass manipulation (D2M2). State-sponsored efforts at D2M2 have been in existence for as long as there have been states. The major difference in the 21st Century is the ease, efficiency and low cost required for such efforts. These trends, fueled by further rapid technological advances, are likely to accelerate resulting in the democratization of D2M2 capabilities. Players ranging from large, medium or small nation states, to “unofficial” organizations of any size or type, to a single person already possess and will continue to increase the ability to successfully carry out operations in the information environment with severe consequences. As the variety and number of narratives being globally propagated rapidly rises, so too will the level of pollution of the global information environment. This pollution is a threat to the functioning of institutions in democratic political systems and can lead to the erosion of effective governance and potential paralysis of decision-making.

While many fundamental breakthroughs in communication technologies (e.g. the Internet and social media) are publicly funded in the West, their refinement and transition to practice is the exclusive domain of the private sector. And since the private sector is driven by the profit motive, and aimed at easy and widespread usage, these technologies are easily available and can be used by a variety of state, non-state, large, small, international and domestic adversaries against us. With few legal or normative restrictions in place on the use of these technologies, and easy accessibility for our adversaries, the information environment is increasingly a major arena of competition. Moreover, unlike Western nations, our adversaries face no constraints in development and use of these tools resulting in an enormous asymmetric disadvantage. Our adversaries see that as an important equalizer in ongoing competition with the West regardless of the state of their relations with us. When are our leaders going to realize that the time for endless study of the issues has long passed and the time for action is long overdue?