WASHINGTON — Richard Stengel, a former Time editor who became the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy, writes that he was once an information “idealist.” He believed that in the marketplace of ideas, the truth would ultimately prevail.
“I think we all now know that this is a pipe dream,” writes Stengel in a disturbing memoir of his three years on the communications firing line. “Unfortunately, facts don’t come highlighted in yellow. A false sentence reads the same as a true one. It’s not enough to battle falsehood with truth; the truth does not always win.”
This book carries a blunt and frightening message: America is losing the fight for what Russians call the “information space.” The cruel paradox of the internet, once hailed as a liberating force, is that it empowers governments that control information and enfeebles those that let it run free.
Stengel’s account, which will be published in October, is titled “Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It.” Unfortunately, the first half of the subtitle is more convincing than the second. This is a tale of how government bureaucracy, inertia and, most of all, the inherent constraints of an open, democratic society made America so vulnerable to covert action via the internet.
“Let’s face it, democracies are not very good at combating disinformation,” writes Stengel. Authoritarian governments, in contrast, “have gone from fearing the flow of information to exploiting it. They understand that the same tools that spread democracy can engineer its undoing.”
Stengel was Time’s managing editor and a widely respected journalist, so when he joined the Obama administration in 2014 to oversee State Department communications, it looked like laudable risk-taking on both sides. His mandate was to combat anti-American messaging. But it proved to be a case study in why government doesn’t work.
“I found government too big, too slow, too bureaucratic. It constantly gets in its own way,” he writes. “The dream of an outsider coming in to reform government is just that — a dream.”
When Stengel took his job, the big challenge was countering extremist messaging from what became the Islamic State. It’s a painful story. State had a unit called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which had been established by Secretary Hillary Clinton in 2010. “From the moment of its birth, CSCC was a problem child,” Stengel writes, underfunded, misunderstood and mistrusted by the bureaucracy.
While the Islamic State rampaged online, CSCC deliberated. Tasks that should have taken weeks instead took months. Other agencies undermined anything that threatened their turf. During one long meeting, a lieutenant general whispered to Stengel: “I know how to defeat ISIS. ... Get them involved in the interagency process.”
Stengel frankly admits that the Obama administration was slow to react to Russia’s 2016 election manipulation. “The scale of Russian disinformation was beyond what we were capable of responding to,” he writes. He notes the eerie similarity between Russian covert propaganda and Donald Trump’s campaign themes.
But he’s skeptical that Russian intervention was decisive in 2016. “To this day, I’m not sure what impact it had,” he writes. “Russian messaging had a lot of reach but hardly any depth.” And he includes this memorable zinger: “By televising hundreds of hours of Trump’s campaign speeches, CNN did a whole lot more to elect him than Russia Today did.”
Stengel documents our vulnerability to manipulation, foreign and domestic. But in analyzing what to do about democracy’s weakness, he offers only a limited menu. He argues that Facebook and other social-media companies should be treated more like publishers — and retain their immunity from liability suits only if they work to delete false or harmful content. Similarly, he wants to compel search engines to explain their algorithms for displaying content.
“I don’t believe government is the answer,” Stengel writes ruefully. He argues for self-regulation of the ecosystem on which journalists and advertisers both depend. He lauds the growth of news-rating systems, and the use of artificial intelligence to detect and delete false content; and he urges news organizations to avoid mindless “clickbait” and “sponsored content” designed to simulate news.
“Information Wars” ought to be a wake-up call. The message is that open, democratic societies are in retreat. There’s only one force powerful enough to save the day (one too little mentioned these days), and that’s the readers and viewers who consume information. Their choices are decisive.
In the end, people will get the news media they deserve: If they consume false information, they’re certain to get more of it.