Communications warfare will define international relations over the next decade. Changing our approach to the public/private dimension of communications technology is now the only winning strategy. We increasingly rely on communications, especially the speed, complexity and accessibility of digital media, to make sense of and participate in the world around us. But as the necessity of expanded communications capacity has become more apparent, so too have the threats. Chief among these threats is the unprecedented proliferation of disinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories.
Academics have suggested that we currently face two pandemics: Covid-19 and disinformation. A toxic combination of paranoia, fear and mistrust is being fueled and capitalized on across the globe. Whether it is Russian troll farms sowing doubts over the U.S. election’s veracity, or Chinese bots propagating anti-vaccine content on social media, the scale and impact of state-sponsored communications warfare is dramatically increasing.
Just as Herakles needed new tactics to fight the Hydra, democratic states need new approaches to fight communications warfare. This is where the concept of strategic communications comes in. It suggests that to be effective in modern communications warfare, planners have to look beyond myopic tactical approaches (the catastrophic combination of military force, short-term objectives, and little local engagement in post-Saddam Iraq spring to mind), and consider methods of bringing in a wide range of resources together to achieve a common strategic goal. In practice, this entails everything from counter-disinformation campaigns, building cyber-defense capability, legislation, surveillance, digital education and cultivating traditional hard power resources. Now, more than ever, defense strategy has to be linked up to broader principles of communication and public engagement.
To be truly effective, strategic communications requires a radical rethink of how we view the relationship between the private and public sectors. Countries like the UK face a losing battle against disinformation in the context of social media platforms. These are underpinned by algorithms biased towards sensationalism and user-content engagement. If traction is to be gained, companies like Facebook and Twitter must be subject to far greater oversight and regulation. Though lawsuits investigating these companies’ monopolies are currently gathering momentum in the US, action will be a long time coming. New digital rights laws in the UK would serve as a good placeholder for more comprehensive change. Meaningful action on state-sponsored disinformation is also required. A good place to start would be to expand the brief of the DCMS subcommittee on disinformation: communications policy needs to have a central role in both domestic and foreign planning. Failure to adapt to the new warfare risks terminal entropy for international democracy.
We must take bold steps now towards a new way of thinking on how to defend ourselves and confront disinformation.