Unlike, say, bullets being fired from a gun, information spread online serves multiple functions at the same time. It can inform, confuse, overwhelm, and alter perceptions simultaneously.
For example, Wikileaks’ Cablegate leaks provided valuable insight on the US war machine in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. But the cache of documents also unfairly exposed many legitimate interests of the state.
Edward Snowden revealed an unconstitutional NSA program that the public would have never known about otherwise. His leaks also recklessly exposed scores of legitimate intelligence gathering programs at great expense to the US taxpayer. Their publication also caused tensions between allies and nations with generally good diplomatic relationships.
Both events are Janus-faced. Looked at through the lens of state power, they appear quite different from a domestic news perspective – but the domestic news prism is the one through which many people consumed the information.
While not questioning the accuracy of the content of the Cablegate or Snowden leaks, the positioning and timing of them appeared devised for maximum impact. Some was purely for publicity, yes.
But they were also time for a sense of crisis and embarrassment for the countries whose secrets these were.
In an alternative reading of recent history, you can see the documents dumps by both Wikileaks and the Snowden functioned also as assaults on the credibility and standing of Western power.
Certainly, that is how the Kremlin would see them and exploit them, even if in the West they triggered an urge for reform.
By 2016, the ‘leaked document’ / ‘documents leaked’ Google search term waves are unmistakably aggressive, employing some of the same channels and outlets. The Google chart linked below shows the term ‘leaked documents’ with a blue line and ‘documents leaked’ with a red line.
In the graph below, the first spike in 2010 is WikiLeaks’ Cablegate documents, the cache of State Department documents released to the world. The second spike, in 2013, is the Edward Snowden leaks of NSA documents. The third spike, is of course, WikiLeaks intervention (with Russian backing) in the US presidential election in 2016.
You can argue about the news legitimacy of the varying surges of “leaked documents” – but you can’t argue with the attention they captured. With a clear Russian hand in the latter two, the pattern is clear.
So why look at this now?
Because it shows what a long-term effort is needed to use information to shift a democracy’s discussion. In this case, the leaks helped drive up distrust in the US government on top of the other stated reasons for them.
But to see the real effect of this “leaked document” offensive, look at the geographical chart below.
It makes sense that they appear in English-speaking countries, as the documents were in English.
But when you consider the global reach of the disclosures from the State Department and the NSA, the interest-level within the US and Five Eyes partners, as reflected in search, is telling. (Driving wedges between members of the Five Eyes alliance and weakening it is a long-standing goal of the Kremlin. )
On this data looking back to 2004, there is remarkably little bleed-over into non-Five Eyes partners, which suggests the target for the information was always the alliance itself, especially in 2013 and 2016.
So when discussing the WikiLeaks Cablegate leaks and the Snowden leaks, look at them in the sweep of recent history. The information serves different purposes, depending on who is doing the consuming. While the disclosures triggered legitimate reforms, they were also a case of doxxing a nation-state.
Democrats are in need of a universalized language of politics that can transcend the hourly flow of events, to frame a larger journey for the party and country. Finding this galvanizing understanding of the politics of the era won’t be a luxury for the party. Rather, it will derive from the emergency American democracy finds itself in today.
It’s essential that the universalized politics offer both a symbol of contemporary American reality as well as way to approach it. Such language won’t offer a veneer of cohesion between many issues competing for the attention of the public and leaders. Instead, it will offer a path in a time when illiberal movements – combined with an illiberal president – have so far, better understood the political possibilities of the moment.
This is not an argument for a one-size-fits-all politics. It’s also not a call to create at a hardened ideology. Rather, universalizing democratic politics is an idea that scales up from the individual, to the community, to the nation, and beyond, to the realm of international relations. And it scales the other way too, from the concerns of the world and nation, back down to the individual.
Democrats have been remarkably forgetful of the need to adjust their communication to the time. Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood it. Taking advantage of the newly popularized radio, the president frequently communicated to the public in the simple language designed to appeal to voters that included many with only high school education. Today, the problem for the Democrats is arguably the opposite: higher education levels and access to endless news detail creates a sense of complexity that is paralyzing for decisive action. The data environment immobilizes.
The Democratic Party must craft and master a long-term message to speak through this.
Part of the challenge stems from the drift of the Democrats, who for years, have conceived of issues, campaigns and constituents in piecemeal items. With each election, the party’s attention then shifts from one constituent group and their perceived core issue to another.
Consequently, the meaning of the party seems to shape-shift so often it’s hard, even for core Democrats, to know what the party stands for. The party suffers from an inability to stitch together the various messages for differing Democrats into a single, meaningful and lasting whole.
In 2018 we’ve reached the limit of ad hoc, poll-driven Democratic politics.
Political life today cries out for unifying understandings of the challenges that surround us, ones that address the splintered nature of the time we’re in. Politics today occur in a cyber-social space utterly at the mercy of manipulation and mania. The economy has created whole strata of jobs that will never, in their current form, lead to prosperity. Partisans, impatient and hostile to liberal values, can now align over borders to make common cause against institutions.
In this chaotic climate, Democrats need to unplug from the daily cycle, to survey this hyper-connected and at the same time hyper-alienating reality. They need to re-conceive their broad political goals independently of political brinksmanship and ‘resistance’.
As political historian Mark Lilla so accurately observes, national politics “will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.”
Lilla is correct to say Democrats have lost sight of the need of a shared vision to aspire to. Instead, Democrats and the political class reporting on them, remain strangely mesmerized by identity subgroups and polls, in which society (and importantly, voters) see themselves not as a whole with shared, unifying aspirations, but as a patchwork of demographics with competing interests.
The tribalizing effect of social media worsens this, encouraging people to divide themselves by shared views and backgrounds.
The experience of social media also obliterates the past, as it diminishes the future in the public’s mind. Media critic Douglas Rushkoff says such “presentism” means:
“The pauses between an event and a response to it—the space in which public opinion was once gauged—is gone, and now the feedback is indistinguishable from the initial action.
“…everything is happening so fast that it may as well be simultaneous. One big now. The result for institutions—especially political ones—has been profound. This transformation has dramatically degraded the ability of political operatives to set long-term plans.”
What’s needed for Democrats is an idea or vision that persists once a person finally switched off their computer or phone. One that transcends the hourly, retail debates.
What motivated the political can-do ism of the Left in the 1960s were future visions of the world for society to advance toward. Post-war peace, the aspiration of the United Nations making war obsolete, the New Frontier.
There were concepts forged from a shared mass experience, exhorting voters on to another shared experience.
The Great Society pushed for a more equitable, more perfect America. The causes meant different things to different individuals and segments of society, but they all offered a shared vision. All of this was built around the notion of a vital state.
Today, the urgency for the Democrats is to find the universalizing messages that can knit together the growing list of pressing political problems.
Independent Bernie Sanders delivered an important lesson in this regard with his broadsides in 2016 against “obscene inequality” that could be refracted back into issues as diverse as healthcare, housing, race and education. All issues could be cast as part of a single, big, galvanizing cause of righteousness.
It was Sanders’ call to action that drew in voters, not his cultivation of identity politics which by default look backward in time.
But Sanders’s call was incomplete, as he sought to right a wrong, rather than describe and then build a new self-sustaining future that motivates people.
Democrats must speak across diverse audiences and be able to speak through the overwhelming complexity of the modern world.
Even as Democrats unplug from the news cycle, they don’t have the luxury to act slowly. The Republican Party is in meltdown, and with it, a large part of American’s political system. The very institutions of the American democracy are being hollowed out from inside.
The answer, then, isn’t more tailored language to individual voting blocks, or more attenuated messaging in an era when all messaging has been personalized. Instead, it’s a vision that can make sense of our time, one that can join individuals feeling atomized by society, into a great whole. This can only happen if the leaders of the Democratic Party agree on the big overarching vision of where the country should be in the 21st Century. That involves a return to the universalized politics of party’s forebears.
For information war defense, there needs to be a unity of purpose – pursued by diverse stakeholders. Diverse voices with diverse professional backgrounds – commercial, government, academic, pop culture even – need to be corralled into a unified effort – often with quite short time horizons.
In this way, the defense of the facts and the truth can work to push back on the mass streams of disinformation and conspiracy theory being marshaled through the internet by authoritarian regimes.
American information operations expert Jon Herrmann has laid out valuable ideas in a piece called “Defense and Self-Defense in the Information Age: Collaborative Strategy and Collective Vision”.
Herrmann advises: “News and social media would cooperate with the (US) Department of Education to promote unity on par with diversity.”
He’s talking about the values to promote in education, and yet, the observation points to a broader strategy for democracies to defend and promote truth online, which should be a shared, global goal of democracies.
To look at the example of the United States, it’s clear that a democracy starved of truthful information cannot function correctly. A republic in which the voters have the final say needs factual and relatively truthful information for the public and politicians to play their role.
If the world is awash in misinformation, it makes it harder to know what to believe. Just take a look at the disinformation surrounding Syria today. Not only do Russia and ally Bashar al-Assad contest the events on the ground, they then try to use international fora to further confuse and bamboozle the global public.
In this world, then, Herrmann observes, “The domain shapes the strategy” and unlike land, sea, or air, “arguably, the information environment is the most dynamic, so a strategy that works within that environment must be equally dynamic.”
“The strategy must shape the environment to promote the flow of truth and contest the spread of disinformation and lies.”
But to do so, the US – and potentially any open liberal democracy reliant on good information – “needs a unified strategy to promote free collaboration.”
Herrmann proposes a “joint interagency task force (that) could enhance unity through collaboration across governmental and non-governmental groups.”
Getting this right would take work. A key feature would be for stakeholders to essentially be on-call, and come together in matter of days to counter campaigns aimed at the democracy. Herrmann says “days” but I would almost suggest hours.
In any case, having an open, collaborative, dynamic, on-call approach would be essential. Stakeholders would need to be motivated not by formal structure, as much as shared vision for the world and international relations.
And that shared vision must cut across the private sector, the technological sector (a big ask), the military, intelligence, the political class, and finally, the public. (It’s vitally important that this shared vision is embraced by the public.) The solution would likely be ideals-based, rather than engineered.
In Herrmann’s example, the US State Department: “would encourage partners to enhance the flow of true information (including English education to increase that flow, contrary to tyrannies like Iran). Free flow of information carries risk. Still, the US has a tremendous advantage if true information moves freely and globally. State would also advise partners on increasing capacity to convey truth and counter disinformation.”
Part of the End of History conundrum for Western democracies today is that when history allegedly “ended” (in the 1990s), there was no galvanizing vision for democracies that all people could participate in. Worse, the current exodus from the political center seems to reward a certain level of divisiveness. Social media platforms do as well, as outrage equals engagement equals ad sales.
The notion of “unity on par with diversity”, in fact, could be self-reinforcing, as well, relevant not just for external relations between democracies – but internally, as well.
Internally, for example, the challenge for center-left or centrist parties today is to hold together diverse coalitions of voters.
What if, rather than focusing on a voting segment’s identity and plight, all segments were instead given a unifying focus?
There would still be differences among constituents and plenty of room for them – the day-to-day emphasis of the politics, however, would be on the shared rhetorical goal of party-members, rather than the identity. This is point made by US political scientist Mark Lilla.
I can’t see how a similar effort to draw together various stakeholders in Australia wouldn’t make the same sense.
Why? Because autocracies – even those that Australia trades heavily with – “can often unify and mobilise their governments in ways democracies cannot,” Herrmann writes.
“For example, China can (and does) compel their corporations—and even foreign corporations doing business in China—to censor pro-democracy information and share vast stores of personal information with the ruling Communist Party; the American government cannot.”
“The Chinese model seeks to unify by censorship, myth-making propaganda, and Orwellian control.”
But as Herrmann says in the next line: “A shared vision, with guidelines and a structure to empower that vision, is necessary to unify a democracy.”