Editorial – Information Wars – Information or more broadly belief-based wars seem to multiply right now, relayed by many official declarations, articles and analyses, although fortunately not all. This is a worrying phenomenon because it leads to direct polarization (enhancing feelings of threat, fear, “all because of an evil other that must be fought”) and to inaccurate analyses, which in turn also fuel polarization.
Information wars: propaganda, biases and conspiracy theories
We can see this phenomenon at work regarding Ukraine, Iraq, or, in a lesser way because the spotlight is not right now directed at this issue, China and the various disputes in the East and South China Seas. In Iraq, the way the al-Maliki government accuses Saudi Arabia to support ISIS, when actually a more objective but also complex reality (see among others Elizabeth Dickinson, “ISIS advance in Iraq forces Gulf donors to rethink their patronage” CSMonitor) is at work is a case in point. We can also see it at work in this fascinating video (see it also here) of Sunday Times journalist Mark Franchetti describing his experience and work in Eastern Ukraine, underlining that people who end up being targeted by the Ukrainian Anti-Terrorist Operation are in majority neither terrorists nor Russian troops but everyday Ukrainians to a shocked public on a live show on Ukrainian TV. This video seems to be true and neither a hoax nor crafted propaganda, all the more so that its content fits with many other accounts and videos.
Most of the time when thinking about information wars, we associate it with ideology and propaganda, usually used by “the other side” (the enemy) and that must be fought as we (our side, the “good guys”) might be deceived. It is less frequently associated with biases, i.e. “cognitive errors”, that may impact each and every person and bend their understanding of a situation. In the first case there is a purpose, an intention to deceive. In the second case, there is none, but a recognition of our fragilities and imperfections. Actually, the first one may sometimes be engineered, while the second is always at work. However, and in an often confusing way, unintentionally (false or not fully true) held beliefs are often then spread intentionally as the real truth, and thus perceived by others, either more objective or with different beliefs, as propaganda.
Interestingly, Richard Evans just published an excellent article (“9/11, Moon landings, JFK assassination: conspiracy theories follow a deep pattern“) on Conspiracy theories related to the research programme he leads at the University of Cambridge (UK), Conspiracy and Democracy, and reflecting how people can become prey to biases, without any propaganda being at work. Trust or rather lack thereof, as he emphasizes, is an important element in favouring conspiracy theories, as well as other biases as described by Heuer (Psychology of Intelligence Analysis). Evans, in the examples he chooses, also points out that shocking events, and highly tense and violent periods seem to be a favourable ground for the spread of conspiracy theories. Thus, considering the current high level of tension worldwide we should not be surprised to see untrue, unreal or ideological beliefs spreading. Indeed there is not such a difference between inexact beliefs held (whether spread intentionally or not) and conspiracy theories.
How can we actively struggle against biases and potential propaganda?
The traditional way of intelligence services evaluating information, according to the value of the source, then of the piece of information, should be applied.
We should absolutely try to use falsification rather than confirmation when testing mentally our hypotheses (see “Useful rules for foresight from Taleb’s Black Swan” for more details). Indeed, one of the force of conspiracy theories is that it cannot be falsified, while any element or fact becomes “circumstancial evidence”, as very well emphasized by The Interpreter: “The inevitable problem of trying to pin down specific evidence of Russian involvement is that Russia’s highly competent intelligence services are unlikely to leave overt traces. Instead we must work with heavy circumstantial evidence.” In other words, for the author it seems that the less evidence the more we can be certain there is Russian involvement because we are dealing with highly efficient secret service. Here, there is no possible falsification, but only confirmation, which takes us from the realm of science and rationality towards faith and beliefs, emotions as well as collective psychology. This emphasizes again the importance of trust as underlined by Evans.
Finally, we need to put our hypotheses and understanding through the test of various red teaming methodologies, as explained among others by the excellent Red Team journal and redteams.net, and as we endeavour to do here.
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Featured image: Teheran US embassy propaganda gun – After the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1981), the walls of the former US embassy were covered in mostly anti-US-murals by Phillip Maiwald (Nikopol) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.