To Win The Information War, We First Have To Understand What It Is—And How We’re Losing It: Book Review
In 'How to Lose the Information War,' Nina Jankowicz outlines the Russian influence operations in Central and Eastern Europe, the major implications for the West, and strategies for addressing them.
This story originally appeared in Forbes and has been lightly edited here.
Since 2016—and consistently throughout the past four years—the United States has contended with the alarming prospect that Russia interfered in its 2016 presidential election. During his testimony before Congress in 2019, Robert Mueller made clear his belief that it would remain an issue for the 2020 election.
"It wasn't a single attempt," Mueller said. "They are doing it while we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign."
With that election less than four months away, this warning reverberates. But limiting the scope of Russian disinformation efforts to U.S. elections is Americentrist; in How to Lose the Information War, author Nina Jankowicz reveals how Russia’s global disinformation campaign is far more comprehensive and far-reaching than most in the West have yet been able to comprehend. The book is both a snapshot of where we are in the “information war” and a manual for beginning the urgent and necessary process of fortifying our defenses.
Now serving as Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Jankowicz has encountered this core problem of Western nations failing to grasp the import of these influence operations in her work since 2013. Rather than identify root causes, governments like the United States rely on games of what she dubs “Whack-a-Troll,” which are “all but unwinnable” because “neither tech platforms nor governments nor journalists can fact-check their way out of the crisis of truth and trust Western democracy currently faces”—resulting in scenarios like what the U.S. encountered seemingly all of a sudden in 2016.
How to Lose the Information War goes in-depth with five case studies in Central and Eastern Europe, examining different tactics Russia has deployed in Estonia, Georgia, Poland, Ukraine (and its connection to the Netherlands), and the Czech Republic to further its aims. It’s important to understand that in this war, Russia’s highest-level goal is simply to reveal how the liberal international order has failed, and continues to fail. To achieve that aim, Russia doesn’t need to put forward a “replacement” ideology, it simply needs to foment division and shine bright proverbial spotlights on each and every instance of it, for all the world to see. Each story in the book shows how, across the past two decades, Putin-led Russia has conducted these sophisticated “influence operations” predicated on a strategy that is strikingly straightforward for its veiled nature: use the mechanics of the Internet to exploit and amplify tears that already exist in the social fabric of its targets.
Jankowicz shows how, as skilled navigators of the architecture of social media and news platforms—and the underlying algorithms that recommend content—Russian entities like the Internet Research Agency (IRA), Russia Today (RT), and Sputnik have used memes, fake accounts and posts, misleading articles, ads, video content, event listings, and social media groups to drive wedges, fracture good will, and diminish public trust. The author writes, “while we in the West have been slow off the starting block, unable to recognize the dividing lines in our societies, and unwilling to admit that our fellow citizens draw them, Russia has us lapped.” Rather than create false narratives whole cloth, Russia has adopted a far more effective strategy: to prey on the darkest, most fearful impulses that already exist among a given population and relentlessly fan those flames.
“Whack-a-Troll” often fails for the reasons indicated above—and because original sources of disinformation are often hard to locate and even tougher to connect to each other. They fail to account for these broader internal narratives that are being tapped in a given influence operation. It’s why Russia has groomed its knack for locating real, local voices and boosting them. “Russia’s disinformation campaigns operate on an undeniably human level,” Jankowicz writes, “often employing local actors to cast a spell of plausible deniability and increase the authenticity of their message.”
In one instance that will hit close to home for Americans, Jankowicz refers to a flash mob that took place before the White House on July 4, 2017, in which a costumed group of protesters sang, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables. As it turns out, this event was bolstered by paid social media promotion from the IRA, through a seemingly aligned group led by what turned out to be a fake IRA profile, Helen Christopherson. Compared to other such events by the usual organizers, attendance soared into the several hundreds. Organizers were none-the-wiser until the author got in contact after learning about this interference in the Mueller complaint, more than a year later.
But if Russia can be presumed to be pro-Trump, why pay to support an anti-Trump demonstration? To sow chaos by amplifying the voices of actual Americans.
Likewise, for a broad, nebulous subject like disinformation, Jankowicz grounds the book in the personal, humanizing each interviewee—even those who contribute to “alternative” news. The effect is that otherwise abstract topics take on the intimacy of human conversation—subtly mirroring how governments and citizens must approach their attempts to curb disinformation efforts.
Whether the U.S. and the West want to grapple with this reality or not, they have been under attack in the information war since Putin assumed power two decades ago. Instead of emerging as a leader in the fight to preserve democracy, the U.S. “has been a tardy, timid, or tertiary player, with the efforts we have managed to establish stymied by domestic politicization.” At the beginning of the book’s final chapter, Jankowicz lays out a scenario wherein the U.S. continues on its current path, and suffice to say the reality doesn’t sound especially appealing.
So what do we do about it? According to Jankowicz: first we need to learn from mistakes that have already been made—the ones outlined in the book. “Central and Eastern Europe may not have a foolproof archetype for how to win the information war,” Jankowicz writes, “but these countries have made mistakes that the West need not repeat. They know how to lose. They have learned lessons that the West is ignoring at its own peril and at the peril of democracy writ large.” Maybe the most egregious mistake Western governments have made is assuming that the information war is just about, well, information. It’s much more pressing than that; it’s about the future of democracy itself. Even if the attacks are largely digital, their effects live in the real world.
Importantly, these counter-disinformation efforts must meet the attack at the source: the citizenry. To defend themselves in the information war, governments will need to develop and commit to long-term strategies to educate and drive down division. As How to Lose the Information War reveals, these efforts likely won’t yield tangible results in the short term. There won’t be big easy victories to rally behind. But if these steps aren’t taken—and soon—the U.S., among many other nations, run the risk of becoming democracies in name alone. As Jankowicz writes, “The United States, along with some of the countries profiled in this book and venerated European democracies, is well on its way to a fact-free version of Democracy Lite, in which the tenets of the process—participation and protest—are under attack from within and without.”
How to Lose the Information War is required reading to understand the shape of the 2020s. It’s a window into a reality we all kind of sensed, but lacked words or understanding to really process. Yes, we need our governments to step in and take definitive, informed action against this threat, but as the book shows: ultimately, it starts with individuals. This affects each and every one of us. We all need to understand the threat we’re up against; your first step is reading this book.
HOW TO LOSE THE INFORMATION WAR
Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict
By Nina Jankowicz
288 pp. I.B. Tauris (Bloomsbury). $27.