By Col (Ret'd) Pat Stogran
Sadly, just like my article in the last issue of EdeC, I will start off with an expression of condolence to those affected by another terrible mass shooting in the United States. My thoughts and prayers are with the casualties, families and friends of the latest tragedy in Texas.
I love the CBC! Let me qualify that. I love a lot about the CBC, particularly the documentaries. I listen to a lot of radio — The Current, Quirks and Quarks, Ideas, Day Six, The 180, and Q, just to name a few. I also listen to BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle (English) and National Public Radio out of the United States. I don’t watch much television, but when I do investigative documentary shows like the Fifth Estate are tracked closely on my radar, and Vice, Russian Television and Al Jazeera (English) are my regular channel haunts. French language television in Ontario has some tremendous documentaries and investigative news shows, and of course the Internet is replete with reputable and legitimate sources of news, although I will admit that, as a dinosaur, I am relatively inept at tracking them down. Surfing the net feels to me more like trying to catch a wave in a swamp than carving a path inside a breaker that is barrelling to the beach, so I stick to the sites that I know to be credible or are referred to me from people I trust. I subscribe to as many or more noteworthy independent new outlets on the web, like Canadaland, The Tyee, APTN, and the National Observer, to name just a few.
You may wonder why I am offering comment on my news consumption in a column that is supposed to be about war, warfare, and military theory and doctrine. Last month I talked about terrorism, emphasizing that it should be considered an act of war and not just another word for seemingly senseless violence. That article was in keeping with a theme in this column that we must be more sensitive to the revolution in military affairs, that we are in the midst of a revolution that the military-industrial complex is acutely aware of but either incapable or unwilling to deal with. My narrative has entered into a discussion of information and cyber warfare, so I think it is useful to introduce readers to the relevant battlespace. That battlespace is inside your head!
Some people have been critical of the eclectic array of news sources I follow, particularly RTV and Al Jazeera, even CBC, arguing that I am consuming propaganda. I would submit, however, that would only be the case if I was to take anything any source has to say as ground truth. Information is as much a matter of perspective as it is accuracy and honesty of the source, so it requires an iterative process with continuous feedback and course corrections on the part of the consumer to rise above raw data and information to a modicum of understanding and ultimately wisdom and sound judgement (for more on this see my column on the DIKW pyramid in Volume 24 Issue 8).
On CBC, I dismiss everything to do with politics and politicians unless there is corroborating evidence from other sources. However, I find that the vast majority of their programming, particularly on the radio, whether it is economics, culture, crime and corruption, national security, and even the arts, offers their audience tremendous insight into the changes and challenges to our society. I look to Russian Television and Al Jazeera to tell us everything that our own governments and corporate media outlets are reticent to tell us, just as I check in on MSNBC to find out what Russia is up to in their information and cyber operations against the United States. Of course, that information is revealed through criticism of their presidential incumbent and cries of foul against Vladimir Putin. I take everything I see and hear with a grain of salt, and everything that RTV says about Ukraine and the Baltic States is treated with a pound of salt.
I am always on a quest to increase my knowledge and understanding of the issues and therefore ready to modify my opinions when new evidence is presented or when someone points out flaws in my reasoning. Consequently, my opinions and inferences are as fluid and flexible as my sources might appear to be obscure or unorthodox, and often critical of and contrarian to status quo to the point of being considered by some as unreasonable. Mais, c’est la guerre!
From my interactions on social media, particularly Facebook, I like to see what issues are pertinent to my friends, fans and followers. I am grateful for the array of articles they share on various issues, some of which are hugely informative, but a great deal of which is clearly biased and of dubious credibility. The problem is that biased and incredible information is virtually an epidemic in the world today. Indeed, anybody with a smartphone and a Google account can establish a web presence that appears on the surface to be highly credible while, in reality, they are often sources of misinformation and disinformation. The former refers to information that is deemed by the originator as accurate although incorrectly so, and the latter are utterances made knowing full well they are false with the intent to deceive. I admit to having been caught sharing what amounts to “fake news” and recycling old news, but that has become part of the learning process.
A predisposition for or against certain facts or evidence makes a person vulnerable to deception, which is compounded by a propensity for people to make unreasonable inferences. For this reason I find it particularly distressing that ignorance and unreasonableness is widespread when it comes to information consumption. I don’t know how many times I have seen posts that are so biased on the surface that they are not to be believed. More often than not people allow themselves to fall victim to their own confirmation bias by ignoring data and information that might be contrary to one’s extant opinion. Indeed, the human mind has developed some complex mechanisms to protect it from information overload and cognitive dissonance — where one’s reality and behaviour differs from one’s fundamental beliefs. It takes mental discipline to make sure those defence mechanisms do not pervert our perceptions.
While the old garbage-in/garbage-out dictum applies to human decision-making, the quality and diversity on the information feeding the process is not the only critical vulnerability being exploited in information warfare. Unreasonable, illogical thought processes are an insidious and pervasive threat. Indeed, a person should not need a PhD in philosophy to understand that false dichotomies are a type of logical fallacy, one that is at the centre of the Left Wing versus Right Wing divide upon which politics is based. Inductive reasoning abounds, whereby broad conclusions are drawn from specific observations, but it is a process that is far from infallible and much less certain than deductive reasoning. And of course non sequitur logic fallacies fuel governments’ false dichotomies of binary solutions to very complex problems. While the assertion that fighting ISIS on the ground in Iraq will prevent them from launching terror attacks might not be completely false, it is most certainly an unreasonable expectation in the face of the terror attacks that continue to plague Western democracies. When factored in with the phenomenon of confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, it is no wonder that the Vulcan Star Fleet Officer Spock had such a terrible time tolerating the illogical behaviour of his human colleagues.
Another critical vulnerability that information operations seek to exploit is that of crowd behaviour and groupthink. Whether it is a price war that once pushed the per unit price of tulip bulbs to the equivalent of thousands of dollars, or the referendum that compelled the United Kingdom to exit the European Union that was then followed by a flood of enquiries on Google by Britons wondering as a consequence what they got themselves into, it is widely accepted that groups of people tend to act and react irrationally. And with the plethora of information technologies and platforms, it is increasingly easy for insurgents to set up cognition minefields and booby traps in the battlespace of our brain-boxes.
While our presumed adversaries may have had a field day with the last elections in the United States, our politicians are equally adept at exploiting the vulnerabilities in the general population that are posed by crowd behaviour and groupthink. What is alarming in this day and age is that, in order to win, politicians have progressed well beyond from simply twisting the truth to articulating planks for their platforms that are ambitious to the point of unachievable to the point of outright lying and provocative actions.
Military forces have traditionally liked to lay solitary claim to being masters of the battlefield, but I would submit that, today, there are many, many new and very powerful actors in that domain. Mainstream media has in large part been guilty of bias such that they and the digital-industrial complex have become full-fledged combatants in the information war. The U.S. government has also claimed that one of the weapons that Russia used to interfere in the last presidential election was the promotion of propaganda through social media giants within the United States. I would submit that the digital-industrial complex has become so large and adept at dragging for data and sensitive information that, collectively, they pose a critical vulnerability to the security of the United States and Canada. It seems to me that, in the U.S., a major breech of huge private databases is almost as regular an occurrence as the mass shootings of innocent civilians. However, not only do our governments seem to be reticent to regulate those multinationals in order to protect that vulnerability, but in the United States they have established a monstrously huge network of fusion centres to exploit the information themselves.
When you add to that the thousands of computer geeks, who are arguably as inept socially as they are socially conscientious and have set out to defeat government and the corporate oligarchs they perceive are subjugating and exploiting the masses, I think it is reasonable to infer that the information war is raging, and we are all the target audience for those operations.
As usual I look forward to your comments and critiques. Until next time ...