"The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a great Measure, than they have it now. They may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange tyrants and tyrannies.” -John Adams
In December of 2016, tensions between Israel and Pakistan were exacerbated due to a fake news story on twitter that Pakistan’s defence minister took as a genuine threat of Israeli nuclear posturing. In October of 2017, CNN reported on a Russian troll farm linked to thousands of fake ads on social media advertising for martial arts trainers to teach self-defense techniques to African Americans for explicit use against police officers. The creation of this fictitious online martial arts group was ostensibly part of a larger Russian informational campaign to exacerbate fissures of social division within the U.S. In December of 2017, the style-guide to the Daily Stormer, a popular neo-Nazi blog, was leaked, demonstrating a highly sophisticated and nuanced advertising and social media messaging campaign. The style guide advised that each post, “should be filled with as much visual stimulation as possible,” in order to “appeal to the ADHD culture”, and that, “the un-indoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not.”
Or, perhaps, none of these events happened at all.
Contemplation of this last point and the seemingly increased precariousness and vulnerability of our shared epistemic world brings us to the central topic of this particular post. Indeed, the instances mentioned above illustrate if not a new problem in kind with respect the defense of liberal democracies, then at least a problem in degree whereby the significance of that degree has taken on a much more pronounced form in recent years. The ‘problem’, more specifically, we can articulate as follows,
In past historical epochs, defense of a shared liberal democratic project essentially meant defense of the three-dimensional physical space upon which that social project supervened as well as defense of the physical perimeter which circumscribed it. Accordingly, physical defense of the external perimeter was wholly commensurable with the free exchange of ideas within that shared democratic space internal to that perimeter.
Given this new informational age, with the advent of the internet, web 2.0., and social media, along with the corresponding increased porousness of our shared epistemic space, we are forced to wrestle with a very serious question-what does effective ‘defense’ of our shared democratic project actually look like in an informational sense?
Put another way, given the ever-increasing proliferation and sophistication of these methods of informational warfare, one has to begin to wonder where the actual boundary between a free democratic space of argumentation and reasons ends and the space of advertising, propaganda, and PSYOP (i.e. ‘psychological operations’) begins.
Brief reflection upon the various and subtle ways in which our epistemic world can now be tampered with, directly or indirectly by way of the internet, is disconcerting if not, at times, mildly paranoia-inducing; clickbait advertising funnels powered by sophisticated personality-based data-mining algorithms, manipulation of popular opinions on social media via weaponized trolling, deliberate and sophisticated ‘fake news’ and disinformation campaigns, hashtags and memes made to trend with the help of hackers and twitter-bots, seemingly innocent humor and entertainment containing Trojan horses with pernicious ideological messaging, ‘false flag’ and ‘fifth column’ narratives, ‘astroturfing’ and other staged ‘real’ events within the actual, three-dimensional social space, etc. And all of this in an age of increased informational overload coupled with what appears to be an accelerated withering of our traditional institutions of knowledge, expertise, and testimony. Consideration of this withering of our traditional institutions of knowledge paired with the sense of the vast groundlessness of the internet can sometimes leave us with the terrifying feeling that the set of epistemic fixed points by which we navigate our common sense social and moral world are becoming increasingly unfixed and vulnerable to tampering.
Contemplation of the various ways in which our shared social and informational space can be manipulated generates a worrisome philosophical puzzle; how does effective ‘defense’ (of an informational sort) on behalf of a liberal democratic project not become incommensurate and conceptually self-defeating with the expressed project itself? When the tendrils of innumerable bad actors, bad information, and bad ideologies can come straight through our smart phones and directly influence our epistemic worlds with increasing surgical precision, how does a political project committed merely to the values of liberal tolerance and values-neutral proceduralism stand a chance in defending itself without having to resort to some degree of paternalism?
Indeed, both the political frameworks of the postmodern far left and the libertarian right, by their own accounts show themselves to be inadequate in generating a coherent concept of offense or defense in an informational warfare sense. For the far left, ideological commitments to ‘post-truth’, rejection of any and all ‘meta-narratives,’ or the reducing all truth claims to mere power relationships renders the very notions truth, knowledge, and therefore ‘bad information’ or ‘fake news’ wholly unintelligible. Conversely, for the free speech absolutist/libertarian right, fake news, bad information, or informational attacks from foreign entities become just more grist for the mill in the grand free market of ideas. May the best ideas win.
Despite explicit claims to mere values-neutral proceduralism, tacit commitments to ‘thick’ notions of objective well-being, virtue, and telos are still smuggled into the DNA of America’s institutions, traditions, and public social practices. Prohibitions against yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded building, laws against obscenity, indecency, libel and slander, and official national holidays and monuments all suggest commitments to some background notions of telos and objective well-being as well as individual and group flourishing within the American project that go beyond mere informational neutrality. Furthermore, the classic professions of law, medicine, clergy, and soldiering, each in their explicit codes of conduct, likewise demonstrate ‘thick’ values or teleologically-laden commitment to notions of health, justice, piety, and honor. Lastly, the writings of the Founding Fathers themselves explicitly acknowledge the absolute necessity for virtue to be present within America’s citizens prior to any formal structure of governance no matter how well-planned. All this being said, some thick conception of virtue, telos, objective well-being, or human flourishing is needed if we are to make any coherent sense whatsoever of the supposed badness of ‘fake news’ or the concept of informational ‘attacks’ or informational ‘defense’ at all.
Absent any such assertive commitment to ‘the good’, moral and prudential worries surrounding the dangers of 21st century informational warfare are rendered equally incoherent either within the open-ended free market of ideas or the post-truth maelstrom. Accordingly, any future Department of Defense initiatives within the informational and non-kinetic domain will not be able to make meaningful conceptual sense of ‘war’, ‘attack,’ or ‘defense’ without some explicit, assertive, and privileged set of commitments to virtue, flourishing, or objective well-being to be defended. Absent such thick commitments, the entire project of informational defense is rendered meaningless and hence all future D.O.D. funding and resource allocation in this regard will be equally rudderless and without purpose. What is therefore needed in the national defense conversation about cyber and informational warfare, before we marshal the applied mathematicians, before we organize the engineers, and before we task the computer scientists is more serious and nuanced conversation about the virtues within shared American project worth defending. That being said, no algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, will be able to tell us that; only human beings, doing, caring, and talking about those things which make us most human.