In July 1870, France declared war on Prussia after learning the Prussian king had insulted the French envoy during a meeting concerning affairs in Spain. Unknown to the French, Prussian Chancellor Bismarck had fabricated the story about the insult to provoke them into war. Bismarck knew France was militarily inferior and that a declaration would push southern German states to finally unify with Prussia. The “Ems Dispatch” ruse worked and the war was a catastrophe for France, marking the end of the Second French Empire and the birth of Imperial Germany.
Nearly a hundred years later, in August 1964, the United States Navy alleged their ships had been unjustly attacked by North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin in international waters. Some officers contended the reports were inaccurate but before the incident could be fully verified, the President ordered military retaliation. The President then requested and received near-unanimous congressional and public approval for virtually unlimited authority to wage war on North Vietnam. In 2005, declassified documents confirmed the president knew the reports were false. The war, however, quickly escalated out of the president’s control, sparking years of protest and major political divisions throughout the country before ending in an ignominious withdrawal nine years later.
These historical incidents demonstrate how war can result from misinformation and deceit as much as they can from accidents and miscalculation. All warfare may be based on deception but disinformation is poised to destabilize international affairs in an unprecedented way.
What Recent Scholarship Says
Thomas Rid is a political scientist whose latest book, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, provides an exceptional historical overview of misinformation operations and the challenges they present for national security.
Within the counterintelligence portfolio, active measures are unique in that they embed disinformation within an ostensibly legitimate and mostly truthful medium, whether it is a document, audio or video recording, or a digital post.
The Soviet/Russia Case
Rid describes how disinformation marked the origins of the Soviet Union and how its brand of misinformation came into its own in the early Sixties. Soviet leadership devoted considerable funding and manpower and elevated political warfare’s organizational standing. The mission of the new KGB organization, Service A, was to identify and analyze enemy fissures and failures, and then “to exploit the discovered vulnerabilities in a systematic, worldwide effort.”
And the Soviets excelled — “anti-Western campaigns were aggressive, fast-paced, and used innovative methods that evolved quickly and in unexpected, frightening ways.”
The Soviets altered Army Field Manuals, co-opted the nuclear freeze movement, invented rumors of Nazi gold in a Czechoslovakian lake, and, most notoriously, claimed AIDS was an American invention.
After the Cold War ended, Russian intelligence services withered significantly. Misinformation, instead, became a weapon during the power struggles of the Nineties — a virtual information civil war. The period ended when a former KGB agent ascended to the presidency in 2000 and conscripted this new generation of seasoned operators and their sophisticated media skills into a revitalized national security apparatus.
When democratic upheaval finally breached Russia’s near abroad in the form of the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, it began targeting the West.
Russian efforts culminated in 2016 and 2017, when it undertook election interference operations directly against the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
Regarding the 2016 American presidential election, many observers have speculated why Russia interfered.
At the personal level, many allege Russia acted against Hillary Clinton in revenge for her comments during anti-government protests in 2011.
In terms of geopolitics, interference was retribution for democracy promotion in Russia’s sphere of influence, a warning to refrain from seeking regime change in Moscow, or simply a reminder to treat Russia with respect.
Whatever the reason, a few high-profile email leaks and a provocative Facebook campaign resurrected Russia as a great power competitor (despite half the population, half the economy, and half the defense budget of the United States).
In Rid’s analysis, the email hacks and fake social media accounts were entirely ineffective.
However, the campaign underscored how the power of misinformation lies in its indirect consequences.
The Challenge of Modern Media
In the main, Rid contends the media indefensibly exaggerated its impact. Journalistic standards collapsed as reporters failed to scrutinize questionable evidence, published unverified conclusions, circulated unsubstantiated accusations, and adopted an overtly partisan tone. Misinformation had succeeded in inverting reality — what was balanced was derided as biased and what was suspect was declared plausible.
Rid’s conclusions are twofold — neither comforting.
A Weaponized Internet
First, misinformation succeeds because its melding of fact and fiction prompts not contemplation but consternation. Misinformation is essentially anti-information — a weapon bearing facts but concealing an emotionally inflammatory payload.
Second, the Internet accelerates, augments, and amplifies misinformation. Deposited in the obscure corners of cyberspace, seemingly dormant misinformation is instantly animated when it’s discovered. Whether the mark ratifies or refutes it, misinformation’s very acknowledgment unknowingly legitimizes it and initiates its dissemination.
Inexorably, journalists will elevate its visibility, analysts will debate its validity, pundits will argue over its significance, and everyone will share it on social media.
While Cold War forgeries could be exposed, the Internet endlessly recycles misinformation from objective to subjective and back again.
Moreover, the antagonist will then feed the media scrum another fabrication, one designed to exacerbate the original confusion by “validating” one side’s interpretation. The result is a proliferation of heated emotional fissures across the body politic and the inability to separate fact from fiction.
Traditionally, active measures are the product of a bureaucracy staffed by professionals and amply resourced, but, as with many enterprises, misinformation is being privatized and decentralized.
Rid underscores this point by recounting how a mysterious cadre of hackers — the Shadow Brokers — penetrated the National Security Agency in 2016 and stole the country’s arsenal of cutting-edge cyber tools.
The intrusion constituted a monumental security breach and jeopardized signals intelligence operations around the world. The cadre soon overwhelmed IT systems around the world. Ukraine’s national infrastructure, Britain’s health system, a Danish shipping giant, and an American multinational food distributor were among the theft’s many collateral victims.
And no one has figured out who the Shadow Brokers were.
Episodes such as this feed theorists’ speculation that in the future America will suffer a “cyber Pearl Harbor” or a “cyber 9/11” Plausible fears but, at a minimum, decision-makers could take comfort knowing that in each of these precedents, the identity of the aggressor was immediately obvious and the fate visited upon the Japanese and the Taliban (at least at the outset) would deter any imitators.
However, the potential combination of cyber-weapons promising anonymity and anti-information introduces the prospect of manufactured security crises.
The greater threat is a “cyber Ems Dispatch” or a “cyber Gulf of Tonkin” whereby a third party anonymously introduces misinformation to purposely instigate or aggravate existing tensions in a volatile region (e.g. Western Pacific, Eastern Europe, Persian Gulf). The active measure will sabotage decision-makers’ ability to objectively assess the situation and enrage their respective publics. The result is an armed conflict arising from circumstances falsified by a third party — a catalytic war.
Like American national security after a cyber-catastrophe, international security would never be the same after a misinformation-instigated catalytic war.
Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s simple but enduring maxim asserts war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. If the Prussian theorist were alive today, he might concede the duelists may not know the truth behind their post-haste rush to the dueling grounds.
R. Jordan Prescott is a private contractor working in defense and national security since 2002. He has been published in RealClearDefense, The National Interest, Small Wars Journal, and Modern War Institute.