« The balance of the Cold War has been replaced by the imbalance of the information war, » writes David Colon in his new book, La Guerre de l’information: les États à la conquête de nos esprits. The researcher in the history of communication, the media and propaganda takes us into the heart of this War 2.0, where people’s minds are the new battlefield. Can our democracies survive being the victims of this merciless war of information?

« Unlike traditional wars, information wars don’t have a beginning or an end, and it blurs the usual distinctions between states of war and peace, what is official and what is secret, between state and non-state operations, given the massive, nearly systematic use of sub-contractors and mercenaries, » David Colon says.

Information has become a weapon like any other, and those that produce, gather and use it for malicious purposes to conduct a soft war « without worrying about provoking an open conflict, so much so that the scope of these conflicts has continued to expand since 1989« .

It may be silent, like a backdrop onto which « illegal warfare operations [take place] within the framework of hybrid conflicts that mix conventional, unconventional…illegal, terrorist and criminal activities, » but information wars nevertheless can have serious consequences. It manipulates minds, using them to defend unjust wars, destabilize societies and reinforce terrorism.

One example of this is when Russia uses « soft power » to legitimize its war in Ukraine and triggers a « strategy of chaos in Europe » by offering an « amplifier for all centrifugal forces« . Another example is when ISIS, which has « understood the new rules of the information battlefield« , uses « modern viral marketing » to « target sympathizers […] to mobilize them for action« .

However, the author’s aim is not to portray the West as being free of blame, but to encourage the reader to question the Western causes of this new kind of « total war« , using our minds as mere means of influence and action. In his view, the « starting point of the global information war » was the Gulf War.

From the Gulf War to total information warfare

When the US-led coalition of some thirty states entered the Gulf War on August 2, 1990, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the world was in a state of flux. There were no more all-encompassing « metanarratives »: it was a matter of imposing one’s own narrative. The United States understood this and did everything in its power to ensure the triumph of « the American narrative« , according to David Colon.

This « triumph » followed a well-oiled process. « For the American high command, which still remembered the trauma of the Vietnam War, controlling the information produced by journalists was an absolute priority, » the academic says. The production and broadcasting of information was carefully controlled.

For production, the US military set up a system of pools whereby only 125 of the 1,400 journalists sent out into the field had access to the heart of the conflict, and then provided information and images to those kept on the sidelines. As for broadcasting, the author shows the extent to which the hegemony of CNN, the first non-stop news channel created in the United States, standardized media coverage of the conflict. Given news programs’ race for immediacy, journalists often found themselves dependent on images provided by CNN and the army.

Since the Gulf War « highlighted the need…to adapt to the new global information order, » the United States has stepped up its quest to dominate the information sphere. In the 1990s, the army adopted several information war doctrines covering « psychological operations to target adversary combatants’ and populations’ morale (PsyOps), operations to change the perception of events (InfoOps), and ‘strategic communications’ (Stratcom) to explain and legitimize the conflict amongst the public« .

To apply these doctrines, the United States has considerable digital and legislative advantages that give it access to vast amounts of global data, « allowing them to monitor, control and forecast major global trends in an ever-growing number of sectors« . But in the face of the US’s dominance in information, « resistances » became organized, imperiling Western democracies, says the author.

The quest for information dominance: the West’s mortal sin?

Given the dominance of America’s narrative in the information sphere, the backlash was swift: a counter-soft power coalesced, using media as a « battlefield in the secret war of information« . In the Muslim world, Qatar created its global influence channel Al Jazeera in 1996. As one of the largest audiovisual groups, it created an alternative narrative by covering « the 2000 Palestinian Intifada in detail« , by making itself « Osama Bin Laden’s spokesperson » and reaching « tens of millions of viewers during the Iraq War beginning in 2003« .

In 2005, Russia founded Russia Today to reach foreign audiences. This channel is « on the front lines » of the information war defined by the Russian military doctrine adopted in 2010 as a tool to allow it to « reach political objectives without resorting to military force« .

The retaliation is also taking place in cyberspace. The advantage of cyber warfare is that « it is difficult to identify those responsible for it, and it takes place under the threshold that could trigger an all-out war: for Iran, as for Russia and North Korea, it is the asymmetrical weapon par excellence« .

Russia, which is « in the big leagues » in this respect, regularly engages in cyberattacks to gather information and damage highly strategic information systems: « In 2014, the NSA discovered that Russia had succeeded in placing implants in the United States in energy, industrial and communications systems. Designed for spying and surveillance, they could have potentially […] been weaponized and taken systems out of service. »

In cyberspace, another kind of information warfare is taking place, so powerful that it short-circuits official media, as in the case of the « Twitter revolutions » of the Arab Spring: « social network share button wars« , as the author calls them. Aware of the effectiveness of social networks in influencing public opinion, many countries, like the United States, are now applying the « network state » theory, which encourages them to use global communication networks to transform societies. This is what Russia is doing with its troll farms engaged in an information war that seeks to « devalue the West and…turn democracy against itself« .

Russia’s information war against Western democracies leads us to believe that the concept has been turned against its instigator, the West. This is why David Colon calls for an « information state of emergency…to shield our minds from interference from authoritarian regimes« .

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