Hurd: Promoting Truth in a Distorted Reality
Walking into the lobby of the Old Headquarters Building of the CIA, a visitor is greeted with the biblical quote, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” These words are etched into the wall across from the collection of stars that represent the individuals, many still anonymous to the world, who gave their lives serving this country as members of the CIA. Those brave men and women made the pursuit of truth their life’s mission, because they recognized exposing the truth was the way to liberate humanity.
The members of the National Clandestine Service of the CIA are called the collectors of last resort. They are tasked to seek the truth when all other avenues of intelligence collection have failed. Despite unprecedented levels of technological advancement and the interconnectedness of the world, the pursuit of truth in the realms of foreign policy and national security remains a critical issue. This is because the level of “noise” that must be sifted through has also reached an unprecedented size and scope.
Our adversaries like ISIS are significantly contributing to this noise. One of the scariest things about ISIS is their ability to leverage social media to inspire individuals who have never been to Syria and Iraq. If we are going to stop future cowardly attacks like those that happened in Paris, Beirut, or Garland, then we must understand how our enemies are relying more heavily on propagating disinformation to achieve their objectives than ever before.
Disinformation is more than just lying: it’s the denial and twisting of reality in order to present some desired image to the rest of the world. The tools of the Internet have made disinformation’s creation and dissemination easier and more effective. Unless the U.S. government is more proactive in its efforts to expose disinformation where it is presented, our adversaries’ campaigns to warp reality will prevail. Their images will be strengthened and their messages will be propagated at the expense of U.S legitimacy.
The Disinformation Kings
An analysis of arguably the best practitioners of disinformation, Russia, can give us insight on how newer adherents to this strategy are operating. The Ukrainian Mohyla School of Journalism participated in a project aimed at fact checking news coming out of the conflict in Ukraine and described Russia’s disinformation strategy as a “4-D approach”: dismiss, distort, distract, and dismay. Russia dismisses allegations against it. Russia distorts loosely fact-based narratives to fit its goals. Russia’s accusations against the West distract global attention from its morally-deplorable and illegal actions, and Russian threats against actions it opposes spread dismay among global actors.
ISIS’s Disinformation Campaign
ISIS asserts its own version of the 4-D approach. ISIS dismisses all factual reports whenever it loses ground in Iraq and Syria. ISIS distorts the image of life inside the Islamic Caliphate in order to present the territory under its rule as a utopian society. ISIS blames civilian deaths within their caliphate on coalition airstrikes in order to distract the world from the number of civilian casualties caused by ISIS. And ISIS threats to launch spectacular attacks on Western nations to foster dismay within Western societies.
There exists a key difference between the disinformation campaigns of Russia and ISIS: Russia propagates disinformation to veil its intentions to contest more easily the Western-dominated global order. ISIS has been clear about its objectives from the very beginning: to establish an Islamic Caliphate and eventually wage an apocalyptic war with the West. ISIS’s disinformation is a studio-like production of an entirely new reality.
It is that reality — or fantasy — that poses the most serious threat to U.S. national security. Their media campaign, which spreads lies and false images of life as an ISIS fighter or life under their rule, successfully motivates U.S. citizens and Westerners to join this terrorist organization. The House Homeland Security Committee’s Foreign Fighters Task Force discovered more than 250 Americans and 4,500 total Westerners have attempted to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria. Security officials discovered these individuals were radicalized in some capacity online in about 80% of all documented cases. Furthermore, evidence suggests those individuals are reaching back to acquaintances at home to convince them also to join ISIS in Iraq or Syria. It’s a scary snowball effect. The more Americans who join ISIS in the Middle East, the more will return battle hardened and equipped with the skills to carry out attacks on the homeland.
The genius behind ISIS’s disinformation strategy is that it is self-fulfilling. If successful, it will turn the fantasy it presents to the world into reality. ISIS presents false images that it controls a society of people finally happy to be practicing what they consider to be the correct version of Islam, and radicalized individuals from around the globe are motivated to populate those territories under their control. ISIS claims there is a “crusader coalition” waging war against Muslims, and its spectacular attacks on Western targets succeed in uniting the global community against it. ISIS posts videos of training camps to advertise that recruits can become skilled fighters, and as the war is prolonged, their battle tactics and training improve remarkably. Many of their fighters have, indeed, become skilled fighters.
The risk of failing to wage a serious, deliberate war on the distorted reality ISIS presents is that it will become less and less distorted. That is why it is critical the United States leads the fight against ISIS’s disinformation campaign. The Department of State’s “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign to expose ISIS’s dissemination of untruths should be lauded for its efforts. However, it falls short of being an effective tool to combat the image ISIS presents to the world. The campaign against them needs to be more targeted and more robust.
Russia’s Disinformation Campaign
Russia is now applying its 4-D Ukraine disinformation strategy in Syria: Russia continues to dismiss allegations its airstrikes in Syria are causing civilian casualties. This is in direct contrast to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports Russian strikes have killed at least 150 civilians thus far. Russia continues to distort facts on the ground, falsely claiming its air campaign in Syria targets primarily ISIS positions. Evidence clearly indicates Russian strikes aim to destroy any faction that contends with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This includes moderate Syrian rebel forces backed by the United States. Russia also claimed Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) representatives visited Moscow to meet with Russian officials and that Russia would happily provide Syrian rebels air support in their fight against ISIS. The FSA completely denied this claim, rejected Russia’s “offer” of assistance, and called on Russia to stop bombing FSA positions. Russian President Vladimir Putin distracts attention away from the negative consequences of their actions in Syria by accusing the United States of backing terrorist groups to overthrow regimes it does not like. Russia’s efforts to dismay have taken the form of prominent displays of air and naval capabilities around the globe. As an example, recent reports emerged revealing Russian submarines and spy ships were operating in close proximity to vital undersea Internet data cables.
Few in the United States deny the reality of Russia’s actions in Syria. The question we must turn to, then, is not what Russia is doing, but why. What do they hope to achieve by supporting President Assad, while veiling their strategy and intentions in the process? Those who study Russian military history are well aware that Russia’s actions are based heavily on calculations surrounding its adversaries’ responses to those actions. In a strategy known as “reflexive control,” Russia deliberately presents its adversaries with information it predicts will elicit a specific response from the adversaries — responses that ultimately serve Russia’s aims. In essence, the goal is to influence their adversary’s decision-making process.
A growing number of people in the United States do not view Russia’s involvement in the Syrian crisis as necessarily negative. They argue we should let them fight ISIS and bring stability back to Syria so that America does not have to. Sadly, these individuals have all been deceived by Russia’s reflexive control strategy. Russia knew that its involvement in the conflict would make the United States more hesitant to enforce the demand that Bashar al-Assad be removed from power. They knew the U.S. would respond by rushing to find a political solution — this time a political solution more on Russian terms than American terms. President Putin also knows the Obama Administration would do almost anything to avoid putting “boots on the ground” in Syria, even if that means deferring some of the fight against ISIS to Russia.
The United States must expose Russia for exploiting the media to paint a false positive picture of its intentions and actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. The failure to do so will have negative consequences for the United States’ relationships with other countries, and the ability to attain foreign policy objectives more broadly. Russia’s aims are more than self-promoting. Russia seeks to challenge the legitimacy of the American-led international system. The system’s image will weaken unless the United States and its partners confront Russia’s media campaign directly.
Russia and ISIS are just two current examples of why America must lead the fight for the truth. We cannot allow our adversaries to present the world with false realities that play into their aims. If we do, we are essentially empowering them to control the reality of events. Today, those who control the narrative control reality. When the battle for the truth lies in the balance, we cannot give them one inch.
A former undercover CIA officer, entrepreneur and cybersecurity expert, Will Hurd is the U.S. Representative for the 23rd Congressional District of Texas. In Washington, he serves as Vice Chair of the Maritime and Border Security Subcommittee on the Committee for Homeland Security, and as the Chairman of the Information Technology Subcommittee on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.