INFORMATION WARS by Richard Stengel


How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It
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Former Time editor Stengel (Mandela's Way: Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage, 2010, etc.) offers a gloomy view of America’s efforts in the “battle of ideas” with Russia, the Islamic State group, and other entities.

We “still don’t know how to fight” disinformation, writes the author, who served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs from 2013 to 2016. “The truth is, it’s impossible to stop people from creating falsehoods and other people from believing them.” In this refreshingly frank account, Stengel describes his stint in the byzantine State Department, where he focused on countering IS messaging and Russian disinformation in the last years of the Obama administration. With great clarity, he recounts the hurdles he encountered: bureaucratic procedures, acronyms and government-speak, endless vetting and turf battles, all of which slowed efforts to bring his print-oriented office into the era of social media. Foreign-service officers with no media experience insisted it was “easy” to create content. He was also greatly hampered by the very openness of American society, which info-savvy IS and Putin used to their advantage. Most of his book details the creation of a messaging coalition with Arab nations to thwart incessant “out-tweeting” by “digital jihadis” bent on undermining the U.S. with messages and videos on kidnappings and beheadings of Americans. “Not everyone can afford an F-35,” writes Stengel, “but anyone can launch a tweet.” Even so, few in government were tweeting. One exception, social media guru and Ambassador to Ukraine Geoff Pyatt, warned, “we are being out-messaged by the Russians….They don’t feel the need to be truthful.” Stengel relates the thinking of participants in the information war in ways that bring the dangers of this global messaging onslaught home. He notes how IS migrated to the dark web as a result of U.S. counterefforts, and he argues that artificial intelligence has great potential to detect and delete false information.

A revealing look at America’s difficult struggle to combat false, misleading narratives.

Pub Date: Oct. 8th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-8021-4798-1
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2019