Review date: 30/11/2023
No of pages:
Year of publication: 20/08/2020
A trio of related books reviewed by Mark Rowe.
First, How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict, one of those double-decker book titles that tells you what you need to know. To spell it out further; there is such a thing as an ‘information war’, that Russia has been fighting for some years, as faced by eastern European neighbours; and the American writer Nina Jankowicz covers Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Georgia and Ukraine; and the Netherlands, which suffered loss of citizens in the commercial jet shot down over Ukraine. First, she covers the United States and Russian interference in its 2016 and presumably 2020 presidential election.
By the ‘losing’ part of her book title, she means that the west or any country whose democracy is undermined by Russian internet trolls cannot hope to stave off the drip or torrent of malicious online chatter, let alone beat it ever or for good; she likens it to ‘Playing Whack-a-Troll’. It’s not a question of fact versus fiction, or ‘fake news’ that can be proven wrong – as if that were possible at the speed of the internet in any case. She argues that Russia is carrying out ’emotional manipulation’, playing on political and cultural feelings already within constituencies.
Most recently during the Covid-19 pandemic, she uses such terms as ‘informational health’ and ‘informational distancing’, to counter the Russians’ ‘disinformation game’. The tools may be computers and social media platforms such as Facebook but the stakes are our democratic way of life and what we think of when we say ‘the British way or life’ or ‘the American way’. Because, Russia is not seeking to present an alternative Communist way, as it was before the fall of the Iron Curtain; instead, it seeks only to discredit the west, a far more realistic and therefore dangerous goal. That Russian influence is far less appreciated than during the Cold War – the Westminster parliamentary report on Russia released last month a step in that direction, tellingly released just before Parliament rose for the summer, to allow for zero debate – makes the ‘information war’ all the more threatening.
How to Lose the Information War, published by IB Tauris, 2020 – visit https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/how-to-lose-the-information-war-9781838607685/.
Prologue – Fake News and the Russian Offensive
1. United States, 2016-Present, Playing Whack-a-Troll
2. Estonia: “Beta” Trolls
3. Georgia: Tanks and Television
4. Poland: When Vaccines Don’t Work
5. Czech Republic: Fighting Lies Means Fighting Opinion
6. Ukraine and the Netherlands: A Disaster
7. Beyond Whack-a-Troll
Similarly, American journalist Barton Gellman’s book Dark Mirror about the Edward Snowden affair shows that the story of state surveillance has to be about the tech – he vividly tells of how his iPad’s screen had white text on black. Someone, he realised, had taken control of the device; ‘blasting through Apple’s security restrictions and acquiring the power to rewrite anything that the operating system could touch. I dropped the tablet on the seat next to me as if it were contagious.’
As that shows, Gellman’s work is at once a first-person adventure story – he cannot avoid that feeling of persecution by the spies it’s his job to report on, including the whistle-blower Snowden and his fleeing of the USA – and a sketching of the play between the ‘dark mirror’ of the ‘surveillance state’ that can see the public without being seen, the federal state’s agencies such as the NSA, big tech firms such as Google, and the rest of us, and the data – and the metadata, the data about our data – that we make; our phone calls, credit card purchases, emails.
Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American surveillance state, by Barton Gellman, published by Penguin Random House. Visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/316047/dark-mirror-by-barton-gellman/.
Last but not least a retired British journalist; Richard Norton-Taylor of The Guardian. He has long campaigned to expose British official secrecy, that in Whitehall’s group opinion aids security, but Norton-Taylor shows that Ministry of Defence (MoD) secrecy can also cause insecurity, by hiding weaknesses, best addressed, from politicians.
Richard Norton-Taylor concludes that we are seeing ‘profound changes’ in the nature of conflict; and the blurring of war and peace. Nations are less important; and it’s remarkable that generals say that they cannot win a war by fighting alone. AI (artificial intelligence) and drones are becoming ever cheaper and can be used by criminals as well as business and governments. He quotes an MoD forecast that by 2045 multi-national corporations will have security forces.
Like Gellman’s book, Norton-Taylor’s is also about the work to uncover secrets, besides those actual secrets, such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as gone over in the Chilcot Inquiry, subject of another book by Norton-Taylor.
The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain, by Richard Norton-Taylor, published by IB Tauris. Visit https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-state-of-secrecy-9781838607432/.
1. Heroes and Hacks
2. Poachers and Gamekeepers
3. City of Myths and Contradictions
4. Culture and Language of Secrecy
5. Secrecy Obsessed
6. History is an Official Secret
7. Spies – 1
8. Spies – 2
9. Provoking Terror
10. Chilcot Redux
11. Defending the Past
12. Defending the Future