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Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do about It

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Disinformation is as old as humanity. When Satan told Eve nothing would happen if she bit the apple, that was disinformation. But the rise of social media has made disinformation even more pervasive and pernicious in our current era. In a disturbing turn of events, governments are increasingly using disinformation to create their own false narratives, and democracies are proving not to be very good at fighting it.



During the final three years of the Obama administration, Richard Stengel, the former editor of Time and an Under Secretary of State, was on the front lines of this new global information war. At the time, he was the single person in government tasked with unpacking, disproving, and combating both ISIS's messaging and Russian disinformation. Then, in 2016, as the presidential election unfolded, Stengel watched as Donald Trump used disinformation himself, weaponizing the grievances of Americans who felt left out by modernism. In fact, Stengel quickly came to see how all three players had used the same playbook: ISIS sought to make Islam great again; Putin tried to make Russia great again; and we all know about Trump.



In a narrative that is by turns dramatic and eye-opening, Information Wars walks readers through of this often frustrating battle. Stengel moves through Russia and Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and introduces characters from Putin to Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Mohamed bin Salman to show how disinformation is impacting our global society. He illustrates how ISIS terrorized the world using social media, and how the Russians launched a tsunami of disinformation around the annexation of Crimea - a scheme that became the model for their interference with the 2016 presidential election. An urgent book for our times, Information Wars stresses that we must find a way to combat this ever growing threat to democracy.

368 pages, Hardcover

First published October 8, 2019

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About the author

Richard Stengel

18 books43 followers
Richard Stengel is the former editor of TIME. He collaborated with Nelson Mandela on his bestselling 1993 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and later served as coproducer of the 1996 Oscar-nominated documentary Mandela. He is also the author of January Sun: One Day, Three Lives, a South African Town. Stengel is married to Mary Pfaff and they have two sons.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 88 reviews
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,686 reviews14k followers
September 3, 2019
3.5 If you are one, like myself, who wonders why our government is slow to act, seemingly taking forever to get anything done, this is the book to read. Chronicling his time in the state department, he shows the many divisions, turf wars, constant meetings where little is accomplished, he shows how hard it is to put any new programs into place. He also shows how disinformation is put in place, ads targeted to specific audiences, who spread these false beliefs. He talks of the dark web and its influence and how difficult it is to stop its influence. One site shut down another quickly opened, taking its place. Exactly how the Trump campaign used social media to great effect, and how Russia spread it's propaganda.

He offers solutions at books end, but explains how difficult it is to get people to not believe everything they read and see, especially when the message aligns with their own beliefs.

"Disinformation will always be with us. And that is because the problem is not with the facts, or the lack of them, or misleading stories filled with conjecture, the problem is us. There are all kinds of fancy cognitive biases and psychological states, but the plain truth is people are going to believe what they want to believe."

The responsible thing to do is to check sources, where are these coming from, whether we agree or not, whether they fit our opinions or not. This book was informative, but also scary in a way. This is a world now where anything in social media can be taken as truth.

ARC from Edelweiss
Profile Image for Himanshu Modi.
183 reviews22 followers
November 12, 2019
Richard Stengel, as a former editor of TIME, sure knows how to put out an headline to grab attention. The title was what drew me to the book in the first place. It was definitely more appealing than the alternative, more accurate title: Richard Stengel (Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy) - A Memoir.

No, I would not have picked a memoir of a government official. Unless he was going to go all-out and put out stories like Snowden or Assange, the book would be a bit of indulgent reminiscing by an ex-government official, or an exercise in Diplomacy and Public Relations itself. Or so I would have assumed.

Regardless, I think the book was quite ok in the end. Stengel's reminiscing is not of the romantic-nostalgia kind. If anything, the Dilbert like damning of the office culture in the US Government was actually funny. A government body putting out a yeah-right kind of a sarcastic video to tell potential jihadists to NOT join ISIS is the kind of grim humor I did not expect going in the book. Or the labyrinthine corridors in the offices of Governments. They definitely had a I-shouldn't-be-laughing-at-that quality to it.

Stengel's background does mean that he knows how to weave a story to capture the attention of a reader. But it felt like he took the task of organizing a whole book worth of material, akin to editing a magazine article. That didn't work very well. For one, there were the constant jumps between Russian, ISIS and towards the end, Trump's disinformation. Plus there were always the personal experiences, since this really is a memoir. While you can follow the train of thought, the book feels like a collection of loosely connected anecdotes.

That perhaps was my biggest gripe. I wanted to understand more about the dynamics of information wars. We get some of it. But because the book is not just about it, it simply doesn't feel comprehensive enough. Perhaps, subconsciously, I imagined more of a Michael Lewis like handling of the subject. As unfair an expectation that might be, I do wish the book was more about Disinformation, and less about Stengel's stint as under secretary. A lot of the material is still relevant, and things that I had no clue about before I read this book - things like cancellation of the Russian students in exchange programs. Heck, how the purpose of exchange programs is to flex soft power by nations. But, by ring-fencing the subject of dis-information by Stengel's job-description, I think a lot of other areas are blatantly absent. Heck, cambridge analytica doesn't get discussed at all. Neither does China find much of a mention. Heck, use of Information warfare in Indian politics has reached staggering proportions. I wish someone would write a book about that!

In the end, as I said, the book did add net value to my over all understanding of the world. But I will have to look elsewhere for more on the subject.
49 reviews
February 22, 2020
I read this book because I was interested in understanding what disinformation looks like, how it evolved, and how we can combat it.

Instead I got hundreds of pages of autobiography from a very uninteresting person with no real ability at self reflection. The whole time I kept thinking, “did no one edit this to remove the boring parts?” Having worked for the federal government myself, I can vouch that much of the information he discusses—the bureaucracy, the acronyms, the silo effect of different departments—all definitely exist. Having read this book, I can also vouch for the fact that NOBODY CARES. Holy smokes just get on with it!

The amazing irony is that the author was an editor at Time magazine for years before joining the Obama administration. Really? Maybe he thought he could edit his own book and thought he was WAY more interesting than he actually is. 😂

If you’re interested in the topic, just read the first and last chapters where he offers synopses and ideas for combating misinformation. You’ll get everything you came for and can skip the name dropping and endless descriptions of the bureaucracy.
Profile Image for Venky.
928 reviews327 followers
December 27, 2019
Gleb Olegovich Pavlovsky a Russian political scientist and a self-proclaimed “political technologist”) once famously exclaimed that to get people to vote the way you want, “you need to build a fairy tale that will be common to all of them.” Who better to assimilate this fact than Richard Stengel. Mr. Stengel, in his capacity as the longest serving Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in American history (2013-16) spent his entire tenure directing all resources at his disposal to counter the threat of global disinformation.

In a hard-as-nails, quasi memoir Mr. Stengel regales his readers as in a quest to combat the plague of disinformation, he unwittingly locks horns with two of the deadliest purveyors of the tradecraft of disinformation. No.55 Savushkin Street in St Petersburg, four story limestone building with neither razzmatazz nor name was the very motherlode of disinformation. The machines of propaganda were lubricated and greased in this otherwise nondescript building. No.55 Savushkin was Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s “troll factory.” Registered to the “Internet Research Agency”, “a shadowy Russian company that seems to do everything from creating sock puppets to practicing cyber vandalism…every day, in two shifts, a few hundred young people spend their time writing blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, VKontakte posts and much more.” Spewing out thousands of content or rather malcontent at a speed which would put the reproduction of rabbits to utter shame, this troll farm was the veritable synonym of malicious disinformation.

As Mr. Stengel reveals in startling detail, the other most insidious source of disinformation emanated from a less tranquil but unlikeliest of settings. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of the Iraq and Levant (“ISIL” a.k.a “ISIS”) may not strike one as popular mediums of news enjoying stellar ratings. Yet, the two most murderous terror outfits wreaking mayhem across the globe, also double up as genius peddlers of disinformation. As Mr. Stengler, was briefed by a senior intelligence officer, who employed an element of morbid humour for added effect, “ISIS is a distributed network. Al-Qaeda is Yahoo. ISIS is Google.” As Mr. Stengel explains, the twin kingpins of terror while not slaughtering civilians in Syria or reducing cities to a rubble in Iraq, were busy circulating English language magazines. While Al-Qaeda’s online publication was – ironically titled “Inspire”, ISIS’s competing offering was named “Dabiq.” Writing about Dabiq, Mr. Stengel says, “it was a digital publication…it actually had a pretty sophisticated layout and decent pictures…. the two publications debated each other about Islamic theory. They were like the Time and Newsweek of medieval Islamic theology.” Incidentally before accepting a job with the State, Mr. Stengel was Time ‘s 16th Managing Editor from 2006 to 2013.

Attempting to combat the pernicious princes of fake news, let alone conquering them, as Mr. Stengel realised was an unenviable if not an insurmountable task. To add insult to injury, the weapons available in his arsenal was turning out to be woefully inadequate. The State was grossly ill-quipped to deal with the sophistry and chicanery of both the Russians and the reprehensible terrorists. As Mr. Stengel elucidates, the actual canary in the coal mine was not the physical war and bloodshed but the information war that was engulfing and enveloping the digital world in a sweep, all encompassing. When Putin’s special Spetsnaz forces invaded Crimea, backed by a narrative of white lies and brazen denial, they were merely paying obeisance to the principles of Igor Panarin and Alexander Dugin, Russia’s two primary theorists of information warfare. Dugin, popularly known as “Putin’s Rasputin” coined the term “netcentric warfare”, a military line of effort. Hand in glove with the digital propaganda machine was RT the English language Russian TV channel. Conceived by former media minister Mikhail Lesin, and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s press spokesperson Aleksei Gromov, RT in the words of Mr. Stengel, “used all the traditional tricks of tabloid TV: attractive anchors, colourful graphics, wacky guests, sensational chyrons.” Even Julian Assange was provided a TV segment for his hosting. However, at the helm of all this glitz and glamour is Margarita Simonovna Simonyan, editor-in-chief and master orchestrator of the disinformation campaign.

Similar was the strategy adopted by ISIS. Their suave imagery, magnetic resonance and the affiliation towards a cause acted as an irresistible lure to the youth to either join them in their homicidal escapades or to essay the role of Lone Rangers in wreaking havoc through individual acts of mindless mass shooting and suicide bombings. Someone even termed ISIS the Muslim version of the Baader-Meinhof gang.

With a view to countering the “Russification”, and radicalization of the world, Mr. Stengel undertakes some bold and ingenious steps. In addition to creating and overseeing the Global Engagement Center, the United States’ only stand-alone anti-ISIL messaging entity., he also co-opted foreign allies in establishing the Sawab Center in Abu Dhabi. Initially nursing honest ambitions, the Sawab Centre has become a model organization for disseminating anti-ISIL messages and campaigns. The Under Secretary also oversaw the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program is a competitive. This was a merit-based scholarship program funded by the U.S. Department of State. FLEX students who pass multiple rounds of testing earn a scholarship to spend an academic year in the United States living with a volunteer host family and attending a U.S. high school. Unfortunately, Russia prohibited its students from enrolling in the FLEX programme following a false allegation of the abduction of a Russian boy, who was part of the FLEX programme.

Even while dealing with a subject as serious as that of disinformation, Mr. Stengel juxtaposes a blend of sardonic wit with dollops of wisdom. For example, while describing the filtering process to which Mr. Stengel was subjected to before being cleared for service as the Under Secretary of State. “For the SF86 and the Senate Foreign Relations Questionnaire, you have to list every foreign trip you have taken over the past 14 years, every significant relationship you had with any foreign national on the trip, and to the best of your ability, an estimate of how much you drank on these trips, Oh, and whether you had any illegal drugs.”

Mr. Stengel also recounts a painfully embarrassing personal encounter while experimenting with 140 characters on Twitter. Tweeting in a fit of fury about the downing of MH-17, a Malaysian Airlines commercial jet with 298 passengers aboard, by Ukraine separatists, who fired a Russian made BUK missile at it, Mr. Stengler overcome by rage, expresses his disgust on the incident. However instead of employing the hash tag #UnitedForUkraine, he falls prey to the auto-complete function and chooses the first hash tag to appear on screen. Thus #UnitedforGaza instead of #UnitedforUkraine. As may be expected, even though he deletes the tweet subsequently, he gets panned on Twitter by Twitterati, of silly and sublime breed alike.

So long as there are warring factions with entrenched beliefs in their ideologies however manic or senseless, the armoury of disinformation will not be lacking in myriad weapons. This has been evidenced in eviscerating detail by the Trump campaign and the Russian involvement in it. However, hope quelling maliciousness is brought to bear, courtesy, the indefatigable efforts of intrepid people, the likes of Richard Stengel.
Profile Image for Karen.
553 reviews2 followers
January 21, 2020
When I shelved Information Wars, I thought it would be a journalistic discussion about disinformation (based on the title). It's not. It's a memoir of Stengel's time at the State Department, with some content about disinformation included.
Profile Image for Cary Giese.
77 reviews6 followers
November 24, 2019
My five star rating of this book is based on the last chapter!

Before the last chapter the book chronicled the goings-on in government as the various interested parties grappled with counter messaging verses ISIS, the Russians, and others. They were struggling to get partners and develope a strategy for global response centers around the world. Bureaucratic ownership of the issue slowed the process but eventually a clear understanding of what to do and who is to do it evolved.

I was reminded that we used Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, etc. as a messaging tool to promote the values of free speech, rule of law, and equal opportunity and our democracy,. So messaging to our adversary’s citizens is not new for us! However, current methods are new for us! And others are now doing what we have done, but with more malevolent intent! In fact, though we may have started it and our country’s companies invented it, our government has not kept up. We were and still are behind ISIS and Russia as they have perfected the process of buying or otherwise acquiring customer group addresses that they are targeting in our country, in Europe and other targets.

The book describes the steps our government has taken to catch up! Our free speech laws and court rulings unfortunately may make us more vulnerable than other countries! But we don’t want to end the open communication that is the basis of our democratic processes. Given that, we will struggle to protect ourselves against the fake news that undercuts our country! Though reports are that we are beginning to catch up!

The last chapter in the book titled “The Problem,” describes the difficulty of dealing with fake news, it’s genesis, and how we can deal with it! The chapter contains a through listing of actions needed to be taken by us all; publishers, technology platforms, individuals, and schools to either limit fake news or at least help readers discern and understand what is fake.

Some efforts are:

1) Amend the “Communications Decency Act” to require platform providers be treated as a publisher and like publishers become subject to liability for their content.

2) Require Platform companies to obtain consent from their users to share or sell their information and to notify users about the collection of their data.

3) Use artificial intelligence systems to detect and label as fake news that do not meet “Trust Standards.”

4) Sensational news ranks high and therefore it is news. “If it bleeds it leads” therefore it goes viral. Platform analysis tools search for popular (viral) stories and list them first, therefore fake news is usually purposely sensational in order to reach the most viewers! Change the ranking system!

5) We need viewers to be educated about how to discern the validity of news. They need to search for provenance of the story they are reading! Sort of a scientist method for validity of facts! Civic classes should teach discernment skills!

Even If these thing are done, cognitive dissonance will still exist when emerging facts disagree with our personal beliefs. As Emmanuel Kant is quoted as saying
“We see the world not as it is, but as we are,.” That’s what helps fake news to succeed! As citizens we need to be open to modifying our beliefs given facts that put our beliefs in question.

Senator(s) Amy Klobuchar, John McCain and Mark Warner tried! They co-authored the “Honest Ads Act” in an attempt to solve the problem. Pages 297-298 of the book describe the bill’s provisions in some detail. It was a good effort and should continue to be pursued. It was voted down by the Republican Majority in Congress.

The book is a must read for those concerned about the weaponization of the.Internet and what response is necessary!

Our democratic system of free press and the free speech is at risk. Taking action is a must!

Read this book!
Profile Image for Anton Sankov.
14 reviews2 followers
December 13, 2019
All in all a good read, and provides a good insight about how the Government works from the inside from the view point of an outsider.

What I did not liked about the book is that it is way too long, and the main topic is only established in the last few chapters.
Profile Image for Brendan Parsley.
16 reviews1 follower
July 10, 2021
I read 53 books in 2020 (see Goodreads account) and this was the worst one
Profile Image for Hans.
837 reviews276 followers
February 10, 2020
He who controls the narrative, controls the minds of the populace. Information Warfare is a battle over reality and most often facts and truth are the easiest victims. Especially pertinent for our times, critical thinking has become not just a 'nice to have' but a 'must have' to survive in the age of disinformation. Adversaries know that they don't have to sell you on their 'facts' or point of view, they just have to get you to doubt yours, often just long enough that it gives them time and space to achieve what they're after.

Combine years of marketing psychology, big budgets (often State funded) dialed into common grievances, anger and indignation and you have the recipe for high-jacking the minds of your targeted audience. It's been done repeatedly through out history and is scary how simple and easy it is, that the victims of the manipulation seldom realize their minds have been hacked. Thus you can create your army of mindless and unwitting trolls.

There is an objective reality that can be known and experienced, but disinformationists will deluge the populace with their opinionated toxic waste long enough and with enough sincerity that anyone might begin to question it. Demagogues are the most astute at this, reveling in the confusion they create with a condescending smug grin.

Sadly, though the Russian population has been the victims of disinformation for generations (to the point where it's an accepted part of their culture and experience), their Government has turned it's focus to sowing the seeds of discontent across the West with remarkable success. In a type of Political Ju-jitsu the Russian Government uses the very freedom of speech they deny their own citizens against the West. However, like most demagogues, their day will come when they'll be exposed for the cowardly insecure frauds that they are, even if they've succeeded in making the intellectual world burn.

Critical Thinking, reflection, self-awareness are the individual and collective antidotes to useless white noise being blared 24/7. This was the original purpose of Education in a democratic society, to inoculate the populace against the clever machinations of those who seek to exploit them.
Profile Image for Ned Leffingwell.
467 reviews5 followers
January 11, 2020
This is part memoir about working at the State Department and part informational text about how ISIS and Russia use social media to spread ideology and try to destabilize the United States. The author is a former editor of Time magazine who went to work on countering ISIS and Russian disinformation. The book was interesting and depressing. He offers his opinion on how to fix the problem in the final chapter. I wish more was being done on this issue. He posits that Russia wants a xenophobic, anti-immigration, isolationist United States. That is what they are getting. I would have liked another chapter of how to combat the issue of disinformation. Recommended for anyone interested in post Cold War politics.
Profile Image for Patina Malinalli.
103 reviews1 follower
August 23, 2022
I rate this book 4 stars! It's an excellent read, but not a fast one. This is a very thorough book that provides a firsthand account of what was going on at the State Department during Obama's presidency and the beginning of Trump's presidency. Mr. Stengel led fights against disinformation. It should be noted that it is one-sided, but this is to be expected of any book written by a politician discussing his/her personal experiences.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in disinformation, political science or recent history (2010 - 2020).
Profile Image for gbkMnkii.
206 reviews
May 3, 2022
I cannot really write a deep review about this book as it seems my timing for reading was the worst (best?) time possible. Basically I can check the dezinformation in real-time and it made me extremely anxious.

On the other hand it boosted my curiosity to read and learn more about cyber and OSINT.

[EN - Kindle]
Profile Image for Chrystopher’s Archive.
529 reviews32 followers
March 7, 2020
By turns eye opening, maddening, fascinating, and humorous.

I haven't been sucked in by a book (let alone a nonfiction book) like this in a while. Read in just a couple of sittings.

Highly recommended for fans of memoirs, politics, and current affairs.
Profile Image for Dan Dundon.
323 reviews1 follower
November 30, 2019
I almost didn't pick up Richard Stengel's book on the information (AKA disinformation) wars. Having read many of the news stories about Russia's attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election, I suspected this book was just going to be a rehash of earlier news stories.

However, I was wrong and actually learned a great deal more about Russia's efforts. Unfortunately more information makes Russia even more scary. For example, Stengel describes how Russia Today is a widely viewed television program that is increasingly sophisticated. Even the author admits at one point he mistook it for a regular cable news channel. This is especially troubling because casual viewers will not even understand that this is merely Russian propaganda tool.

I was also interested in learning more about what some news organizations are doing to validate accurate news coverage. For example, Slate uses a web extension called "This Is Fake," which puts a red banner over content that has been debunked as well as on sites that are recognized as "serial fabricators." These are the types of tools that need to be used by more legitimate news organizations.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this book is the excellent job Stengel does in illustrating the scope of the problem with Russia. He explains how Russia's Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg reached 126 million people on Facebook and more than 20 million on Instagram in an effort to sway the presidential election in 2016. No one will every know how many voters were actually persuaded to change their vote, but the prospect of even greater interference in 2020 should be a concern for every U.S. citizen.
2 reviews
May 27, 2020
Both mindblowing and mundane, look at the Info War thats been subtly ruining our lives, now moreso than ever. This is eye-opening while painting a pretty awful picture of our failures in the process. The purposeful weaponization of information, civility, and privacy is something we all need to understand is happening to us before we can do anything about it. This book helps with that.
Profile Image for Ilib4kids.
1,100 reviews3 followers
Currently reading
April 2, 2020
355.343 STE
eAudio
State: 政权
Terms: autocrats and authoritarian governments.

p3 Why does disinformation work? Well, disinformation almost always hits its target because the target-you, me, everyone-rises up to meet it. We ask for it. Social scientists call this
confirmation bias. We seek out information that confirms our beliefs. Disinformation sticks because it fits into our mental map of how the world works. The internet is the greatest delivery system for confirmation bias in history.

p4 The analytical and behavioral tools of the web are built to give us information we agree with. If Google and Faceook see that yon like the Golden State Warriors, they will give you more Steph Curry. If you buy an antiwrinkle face cream, they will give you a lot more information about moisturizers. If you like Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson, the algorithm will give you content that reflects your political persuasion. What it won't do is give you content that questions your beliefs.
First, let's face it, democracies are not very good at combating disinformation. I found this out firsthand at the State Department.. While autocracies demand a single point of view, democracies thrive on the marketplace of ideas. We like to argue. We like a diversity of opinion. We're open to different convictions and theories, and that includes bad and false ones. In fact, we protect them. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously argued that the First Amendment protects "the thought that we hate." And frankly, that's a handicap when it comes to responding disinformation. It's just not in our DNA as Americans to censor what we disagree with. "The spirit of liberty," said Learned Hand, "is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right."
Disinformation is especially hard for us to fight because our adversaries use our strengths-our openness, our free press, our commitment to free speech-against us. Our foes use free media just like political candidates do. They understand that our press's reflex toward balance and "fairness" allow them to get their own destructive ideas into our information system.

p5 Not that long ago, the internet and social media were seen as democratizing and emancipating. The idea was that universal access to information would undermine authoritarian leaders and states. In many cases, it does. But autocrats and authoritarian governments have adapted. They have gone from fearing the flow of information to exploiting it. They understand that the same tools that spread dermocracy can engineer its undoing. Autocrats can spread disinformation and curtail the flow of accurate information at the same time. That's a dangerous combination for the future of democracy.

p8 In fact, our word "disinformation" is taken from the Rusion desinformatsiya, which was reportedly coined by Stalin.' Both ISIS and Russia saw and depicted America as a place riven by hypocrisy. racism, and prejudice, and the primary source of global injustice.

p12 My experience in government changed my view of the information and media industry in a fundamental way. As a journalist, I had always see ininformation as the lifeblood of democracy... Like so many, I saw the rise of the internet as a fantastic boon to global freedom and democracy- the more knowledge people had, the better able they would be to choose how to govern themselves and live their own lives. I still do. But these new tools and platforms are neutral. As Aristotle said of rhetoric, it can be used for good or ill. I came to see that dictators and autocrats and con men quickly figured out how to use these new tools to fool and intimidate people. They used the tools of democracy and freedom to repress democracy and freedom. We need to use those same tools to protect those values.
I had always believed in the notion that the best ideas triumph what Justice William O. Douglas called "the market place of ideas." This notion is found in John Milton and John Stuart Mill and is a bedrock principle in our democracy. But everyone presumed that the marketplace would be a level playing field. That a rational audience would ultimately see the truth. I think we all now know that this is a pipe dream. 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.
In foreign policy, there's the classic divide between realism and idealism. When it came to information, I'd always been an idealist. I believed that sunlight was the best disinfectant. I left office as an information realist. Disinformation, as I said earlier, isn't a new problem, but the case with which it can be spread on social media is. Today we are all actors in a global information war that is ubiquitous, difficult to comprehend, and unfair. It is a war without end, a war without limits
or boundaries. A war that we still don't quite know how to fight. To say the truth is under attack is a beautiful phrase. But the problem is that people have their own truths, and these truths are often at war with one another. We no longer seem able to agree on what is a fact or how to determine one. The truth is, it's impossible to stop people from creating falsehoods and other people from believing them. So, looking back, there was a lot that we saw that we did something about. There was a lot that we saw that we didn't or couldn't do anything about. And there was a lot that we just didn't see. I saw part of the picture but not all of it. I wish I had been able to connect the dots faster. I wish I had been able to do more. And there was always the sense that it couldn't happen here.

p18 Established in 1789 under President George Washington, the State Department was the first cabinet-level agency to be created under the new executive branch. It was responsible-then and now-for managing the foreign affairs of the U.S. government. The first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, had a staff of one chief clerk, three subordinate clerks, a translator, and a messenger. There were just two diplomatic posts, London and Paris. Today, the department has more than 40,000 employees, over 200 diplomatic posts, and a budget of $50 billion. In addition to the high-level diplomacy conducted by ambassadors and envoys, State Department does more prosaic tasks, like issuing passports for American citizens and visas for foreigners traveling to the United State.
Profile Image for Keyton.
185 reviews
November 4, 2020
This was a pretty good mix of inside baseball, a tour of how the sausage gets made, and the view from a front-row seat to some interesting world events. The subtitle implies more analysis and less daily humdrum than the reality ... the analysis was lacking but the tick-tock of events was engaging. It was more TIME and less Atlantic, which I guess makes sense given Stengel's previous position.

And of course, it was utterly disturbing! Both the extent of Russia's and ISIS's mis-/disinformation campaigns, and our ineptitude in reacting to them even when we were willing to try (pre-election), and doubly so when we started to turn a blind eye (post-election).

A few quotes for the memory bank:

p.4 This quest for balance is a journalistic trap the Putin and ISS and the disinformationists exploit. In a fundamental way, they win when an accepted fact is thrown open for debate. Treating both sides of an argument as equal when one side is demonstrably false is not fair or balanced - it's just wrong. As I used to tell the foreign service officers who were working to counter disinformation, "There aren't two sides to a lie."

p.31 In government in general and at State in particular, meetings are not preparation for work, they are the work. People prepared for meetings, they participated in them, and then they summarized what had happened for another meeting. In government, meetings are the product. People judged how they had done that day by hos the meetings had gone."

p. 129 The idea that history is written by the victors was an old-fashioned notion. History was being written in the moment in 140 characters. What was new about ISIS - and Russia - was that they were writing the history before the battle, shaping the victory narrative before there was a victory.

p. 167 There's an old saying in journalism, 'We're faster than anyone better than us, and better than anyone faster.' CSCC was slower and worse.

p.198 [Russia's Internet Research Agency definition of troll IN THEIR TRAINING MATERIAL FOR NEW TROLLS!] TROLL. The purpose of the troll is to produce a quarrel which offends his interlocutor. It is worth remembering that trolling is not writing articles to order. It is a deliberate provocation with the goal of ridiculing your opponent.

p.202 It was sobering. They were equal-opportunity offenders. They supported liberal causes and conservative ones. There was no particular through-line or ideology in their messaging other than to stir up dissatisfaction and grievance in the audience. In the same day, they created social media that said immigration was polluting America and that racism was keeping down African Americans. ... ... If you engaged disinformationists - which is what they wanted - they won; if you didnot engage them, they won. They tapped into prejudice and ignorance and grievance. They weren't so much creating resentment as aggravating it.

p. 273 All the questions I got were fundamentally the same. People around the world asking, "All that stuff you've been telling us for so long - about democracy and human rights and fairness and diversity - it's not really true, is it?" American public diplomacy is ultimately about values. And now people around the world were saying that this story was a fiction. It's not as though people around the world had never said that before. We'd been called hypocrites long before Donald Trump decided to run for president. But we'd never had someone running for president who so explicitly rejected those values both in his ideology and in his behavior. That was something new.

p. 285 [on a narrative for the 21st century] A few things seemed clear. Strongmen, authoritarian nationalism, and illiberal democracies were all on the march. Brutal non-state actors like ISIS were on the rise. Big systems were under attack from small systems. The politics of force seemed to be trampling the force of politics. Disinformation was growing while free speech was shrinking. Authoritarian regimes were anti-fact."

p. 291 Democracies aren't very good at fighting disinformation. We are too open. We value free speech in an information war. Our Constitution and our laws are focused on protecting speech whether it is true or false. That is in part because we've always believed that truth will win out. As a result, we have very few laws or means for punishing or restricting the spread of speech that is false. That now seems like a design flaw. I'm not suggesting amending the First Amendment, but I do think it's worth examining whether speech that engenders prejudice and hatred should have the same protections as other speech.

Profile Image for Jill.
632 reviews4 followers
December 22, 2019
The author, former editor of Time Magazine who accepted a role in the State Department as Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, offers an illuminating and disturbing view into the seriousness of the disinformation war that has ramped up dramatically in recent years, as well as the excruciatingly ponderous pace at which government organizations address such concerns. He openly admits that the "scale and sophistication of Russian disinformation were beyond what we were capable of responding to" and a truth that we've all come to know by now: "Disinformation doesn't create divisions; it amplifies them."

Soon after Stengel's arrival at the State Department he learned that meetings are not preparation for work, they are the work. Meetings are the work product and State is an observational culture. Every move is thoroughly vetted and thought out, and words are carefully parsed. I could sense his frustration at the pace and constrictions of this type of work environment. It also took a full year for him to be confirmed to take on the role that Kerry had selected him for. At the time, State Department didn't have a single person assigned to tweet or be on social media while the Secretary was speaking, and they lacked a comprehensive digital communications strategy. This, and other shortcomings in their communications, consumed much of Stengel's time while at State.

Much of the text in the book is dedicated to ISIL, ISIS and Russian communications, and the impact they had on the U.S. and on the world. Stengel readily admitted that "we were getting beaten on volume in the information war against ISIS." How ironic that the government of the society that invented the technologies used were unable to harness those technologies as well as our foreign adversaries !

The book is organized into 7 sections: I. Welcome to State; II. Getting There; III. The Job; IV. Information War; V. The Battle is Engaged; VI. Disruption; VII. What to Do About Disinformation. Each section contains various vignettes about meetings and topics, though at times they felt rather free form, disorganized and unrelated. Perhaps this was addressed in the final edition of the book. (I was reading an advanced reader's copy.)

Though the book was filled with a lot of disturbing and fascinating detail about disinformation and the war on truth, the final chapter on what we can do about disinformation was the most useful to me, and I'm sure I'll be reading that section again. This is a broad topic that will consume our culture and our legislators for years to come as we navigate our way through this new information age, and I'm sure I'll be reading a lot more about this. I welcome any additional insights Stengel can provide from his vantage point in both journalism and government service.
1,570 reviews7 followers
May 28, 2020
(3.5 Stars) Not the most uplifting read, but one that has some significant ramifications for the world today. It is part memoir, part educational/current affairs work about some of the key information confrontations the US has faced in the past few years. In particular, when the author was working at the State Department during the Obama Administration. It follows the two biggest international informational challengers that the US dealt with during his State Department time: ISIS and Russia. Both caught the US off-guard, and often saw the most powerful nation in the world playing defense in the information realm.

For Russia, disinformation is a well-established part of their game. The rise of the internet and social media gave them a new platform in which to engage in their form of information warfare against the US and its values, with a higher degree of success than the author would like to have admitted. The US lacked the focus and understanding of Russia and their mindset, thus leaving them unchallenged in their assertions and actions, which still have significant ramifications on international policy.

With ISIS, their recent military setbacks dampened their once formidable on-line presence, but particularly in the early 2010s, they were a significant information threat to the US and its interests in the Muslim World. It also didn’t help that the US had trouble determining the right audience for ISIS and their counter-information strategy.

As for the US, the government mechanisms, especially the ones at State Department, were often not sufficient to counter the rise of social media and the ability for disinformation to spread so rapidly and rebuff the efforts of fact-checkers and accurate, verified information. That the author was once an editor for Time Magazine makes his observations particularly insightful, as a man used to one form of media had to face the impact of newer systems and mindsets.

The end does offer some hope and ways ahead in how the US can counter the various forms of disinformation that seem to trip up US foreign policy. However, the current administration is not helping matters in this realm. It is possible, the book is far from optimistic that the US can overcome many of these challenges in a timely fashion.

There is good information, but I probably could have done without all the person recollections. Still, not a bad read, and one that does have some use as a teaching aid/warning about the power of disinformation, and that the US is not all powerful.
Profile Image for NCHS Library.
1,220 reviews19 followers
Want to read
November 1, 2021
Publisher's Description: Disinformation is as old as humanity. When Satan told Eve nothing would happen if she bit the apple, that was disinformation. But the rise of social media has made disinformation even more pervasive and pernicious in our current era. In a disturbing turn of events, governments are increasingly using disinformation to create their own false narratives, and democracies are proving not to be very good at fighting it.


During the final three years of the Obama administration, Richard Stengel, the former editor of Time and an Under Secretary of State, was on the front lines of this new global information war. At the time, he was the single person in government tasked with unpacking, disproving, and combating both ISIS's messaging and Russian disinformation. Then, in 2016, as the presidential election unfolded, Stengel watched as Donald Trump used disinformation himself, weaponizing the grievances of Americans who felt left out by modernism. In fact, Stengel quickly came to see how all three players had used the same playbook: ISIS sought to make Islam great again; Putin tried to make Russia great again; and we all know about Trump.


In a narrative that is by turns dramatic and eye-opening, Information Wars walks readers through of this often frustrating battle. Stengel moves through Russia and Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and introduces characters from Putin to Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Mohamed bin Salman to show how disinformation is impacting our global society. He illustrates how ISIS terrorized the world using social media, and how the Russians launched a tsunami of disinformation around the annexation of Crimea - a scheme that became the model for their interference with the 2016 presidential election. An urgent book for our times, Information Wars stresses that we must find a way to combat this ever growing threat to democracy.
Profile Image for DrAroosa Mughal.
43 reviews1 follower
January 22, 2023
Disinformation is as old as humanity. When Satan told Eve nothing would happen if she bit the apple, that was disinformation. But the rise of social media has made disinformation even more pervasive and pernicious in our current era. In a disturbing turn of events, governments are increasingly using disinformation to create their own false narratives, and democracies are proving not to be very good at fighting it. During the final three years of the Obama administration, Richard Stengel, the former editor of Time and an Under Secretary of State, was on the front lines of this new global information war.
At the time, he was the single person in government tasked with unpacking, disproving, and combating both ISIS’s messaging and Russian disinformation. Then, in 2016, as the presidential election unfolded, Stengel watched as Donald Trump used disinformation himself, weaponizing the grievances of Americans who felt left out by modernism. In fact, Stengel quickly came to see how all three players had used the same playbook: ISIS sought to make Islam great again; Putin tried to make Russia great again; and we all know about Trump. In a narrative that is by turns dramatic and eye-opening, Information Wars walks readers through of this often frustrating battle. Stengel moves through Russia and Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and introduces characters from Putin to Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Mohamed bin Salman to show how disinformation is impacting our global society. He illustrates how ISIS terrorized the world using social media, and how the Russians launched a tsunami of disinformation around the annexation of Crimea – a scheme that became the model for their interference with the 2016 presidential election. An urgent book for our times, Information Wars stresses that we must find a way to combat this ever growing threat to democracy.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
21 reviews
October 25, 2022
The biggest mistake of this century so far was thinking that the #coldwar ended on 1991. In fact it was quickly reconstituted by Putin into a new #informationwar which the West turned the blind eye for way too long. In the US probably thanks to 9/11.


This is my far fetched reading of Richard Stengel's apptly named book How we lost the war on misinformation. 


It's really sad to observe how both Western legislators and media have been played by bad actors time and again in a world shaped a new by social media platforms and fake media. 


The emergence of misinformation has really taken democracies off guard. Despite increased awareness of the battles in the US and Europe, we're still incapacitated by it as demonstrated by the daily coverage of Eastern lies by Western press. 


I can highly recommended this book from Stengel. It sheds some light on what happened on a single front over some 4 years but more importantly, it provides numerous suggestions for building more disinformation resilient democracies.


As I discovered this book 3 years after its been published, it's dismal how little "great democracies" have done to remedy the situation. This is partially because of clearly dismal general understanding of information and modern war fare in general and ways to fight disinformation in the era of social media "#democracy". 

As a book, the delivery could be improved as the beginning is a lengthy introduction to bizarre government structure that to me remains irrelevant to the message.

But I will not let anything come in the way of a favorable review as here the message is everything.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
347 reviews12 followers
November 18, 2019
"There is not much irony in diplomacy"

Perhaps the best sngle line from this well written book. Stengels class as a journalist shines through this book. As a former managing editor at Time magazine and collaborator with Nelson Mandela on Long Walk to Freedom and other books Stengel brought some serious class and clout to his role as under secretay of something or other at the state dept, I don't remember the exact title and Stengel has some exasperated fun with the various acronyms and mysterious ways of the State Dept bureacracy which is something of a shock for a man who has spent his life in the private sector. THe descriptions of his new life at State, the descriptions of the buildings themselves, the security, the peculiar staff and their ways was unexpectedly fascinating. He records his frustrations as tries to build a response to the internet messaging operations of Isis then the Russians in his role leading the US reaction to these threats. He does a good job of laying out why these things are important in the modern world, that open societies are particularly vulnerable as countries like Russia dip back into the old Soviet false-equivalency bag of tricks that essentially say: the West are hypocrites, they're just as bad as us but you pretend you aren't. And finished of course the the US's depressing and shocking slide into the poison of Trumpism and it's denigration of the vital instituions of liberal democracy and appetite conspiracy theories that seem to find a willing audience in a debased but significant minority of Americans.
June 23, 2020
So I wasn't sure what to expect with this book, honestly because I bought the wrong book (I was originally looking for "The Revolution That Wasn't", but I mixed them up, simply due to the common theme).

All that said, I'm really glad I made the mistake of buying this one.

This was a really interesting book. It's the insider's view of the State Department, but told from the perspective of someone who was not a career State employee. I didn't have much of an idea as to how State operated, but thanks to this account, it's just as I thought it was: the epitome of bureaucracy. IWhile that sounds insanely drab, the narrative was the opposite. I was floored with the amount of time it took for a "tweet" to be vetted, and the many "hands" that believed they had a say in the general direction of Stengel's project in the book. I honestly couldn't read the book fast enough.

I appreciate the format the book is written in, jumping from the online battle against ISIS to the Russian/Ukrainian front. Stengel highlights key characters and events from his time at State, and the evolution of the CSCC to the Global Engagement Center (GEC)--and then the sudden halt to progress that was made.

My only complaint is that the book ended so abruptly--much like the progress that had been made over the Obama administration. It's unfortunate that we were unable to see the GEC's true potential after the 2016 election.

I highly recommend this book, even if you bought it by mistake! Very insightful and easy to follow, acronyms and all.

203 reviews1 follower
June 27, 2020
This book sells itself as being all about disinformation, and particularly how disinformation is being used by the Russians and ISIS. And that's sort of true, but sort of not true. The first 30-40% of the novel reads more like Stengel's memoir of his time at the State Department. I'm a nerd for Obama-era D.C. memoirs, so that was fine, but definitely not what the "blurb" says the book is about.

I was reading this book for its suitability as a college course "textbook" of sorts on how disinformation has operated in the last decade. There are definitely parts of the book that could work, but overall I don't know that I'll use as much as I was hoping I would. For a book that was written by a former magazine editor, it really lacked narrative cohesion or trajectory. It often felt very disjointed and it sort of felt like Stengel didn't really know what his point was (other than the government is bad at combatting disinformation).
Profile Image for Bill Sleeman.
605 reviews11 followers
January 10, 2020

An ARC copy from ALA (thanks Anne!) Information Wars: How We Lost the Battle against Disinformation and What We Can do about it by Richard Stengel is a fascinating and scary read. Anyone interested in how information is used, mis-used or ignored should read this book. Stengel provides important details on how disinformation played a key role in the election of President Trump long before Trump was even a candidate. There is so much in this book that it is difficult to summarize in any cogent way so instead I urge those who fancy themselves government policy nerds to READ IT, THINK ABOUT IT, and then try to find ways that all of us as information consumers can improve how we communicate and how we absorb media (and Stengel concludes with some suggestions on how to improve the media landscape for readers). This is an important book.

226 reviews
August 8, 2022
From the author's Poscript: Ultimately, information war is not a battle of technologies or platforms; it’s a battle of ideas. The weapons in this war are new and evolving, but the issues are old and abiding. Do we care about facts and truth? Do we believe that there is such a thing as empirical reality and that we can all agree on it? Do we believe that people and nations are capable of choosing their own destinies? Our adversaries are fighting to prevent people from having agency over their own lives. They are fighting to have autocrats and ideologies make decisions for us. They are fighting to dismantle the infrastructure of truth. They are fighting to undermine the idea that human beings can be moved by fact and reason. They are fighting for relativism, the idea that no idea is worth fighting for.
Profile Image for Ed Barton.
1,298 reviews
June 16, 2020
Of the 300+ pages in the book, only about 40 cover policy discussions and fulfill the title's promise. That doesn't make for a bad book, but certainly a different one than expected. Richard Stengel's memoir of his time at the State Department resonates with bureaucracy, dry humor, and the type of readability that you would expect from a former award winning journalist. Whether it is describing the gloomy offices on the first floor, the Senate confirmation process, or meetings with POTUS, you get a sense for how far behind the US is in propaganda since the end of the Cold War. I wish more of the book focused on the how to fix it elements, but the insights into the "workings" of the State Department alone make it worth the read.
Profile Image for Charles.
64 reviews1 follower
May 24, 2021
I thought the internet would help create consensus on facts, but it seems to have done the opposite. Or both?

Richard takes us through a journey of his time working at the USA's State Department, and focuses on how the USA, Russia & ISIS have used (or failed to use) information as a tool of influence or war.

It gives insight into how government bureaucracy fails to counter nimble social media savvy groups like ISIS, how Russia adapted it's domestic misinformation & propaganda tactics for overseas targets (and why), and how the USA's legal framework sometimes sets the tone for big tech in the world, and why it is the way it is now (eg why social media platforms aren't accountable for the content on their platforms).
Profile Image for Daniel Mala.
538 reviews4 followers
December 30, 2022
This book covers the complexity of flooding the world with disinformation. There is the heavy hitters like Russia and ISIS, but American has its own campaigns to boot. It almost tragic that there is not an equally concerted effort to just tell the truth. The new world of social media leads most people on this planet to have beliefs and ideologies that are based in garbage. Though there are some efforts to correct this it is a near impossible task. Especially when the bulk of the leadership in this country has their own politically motivated disinformation campaigns that they base their election campaigns on. Book in a detailed look at the sick fantasy world we often find ourselves in. Cheers!
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