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Information Warfare and the Role of Governments and Military Establishments

CPSR Journal Vol 19, No 4
Volume 19, Number 4 The CPSR Journal Fall 2001

Information Warfare and the Role of Governments and Military Establishments by Nancy Brigham

[ Read the program notes ]

Alessandro Lofaro kicked off this session by asking, “What is Information warfare (IWAR)?” He said the goal of IWAR is to use information like a virus—disrupting normal exchanges, giving misleading input that makes the organism act differently; and giving destructive input. He cited the panicked reactions to the September 11 attack as an example of what can happen under information warfare attacks. Lofaro went on to debunk myths that IWAR is new, cleaner than physical war, or mostly about computers and the military. It is most effective against civilians, he explained, and usually doesn’t generate from a single, central point. It’s important because we are moving from a post-industrial to an information and communication society, where production is coordinated among dozens of countries, Information Management Systems and communications technology are key.

The government’s reaction to September 11 has been to boost the military and the authority of the police, including arbitrary inspections and arrests. Making analogies to the build-up for the two world wars, Lofaro observed that Congress has reacted emotionally, with little debate. Meanwhile economic actors are pushing for government subventions, media self-censorship, internal disinformation, and commercialization/privatization.

Non-governmental organizations can potentially cut the impact of IWAR through education and raising awareness and helping balance stakeholders’ interests. There will always be crazy people and we can’t get 100 percent security, he cautions. Government could play a more positive role by increasing people’s awareness of the world as well as the risks, without saying something different to the public from what they say internally. Lofaro listed many of the myths Americans believe in, and pointed out the huge gaps between those and the reality.

Chris Hables Gray considered both the link between terror & propaganda, and the uses of information warfare on the battlefield. We have to think of this as a new type of war, he said, stemming from the fact that we can no longer have total warfare or we’d destroy ourselves. The low-intensity conflict doctrine involves control of media, and the first target is domestic public opinion. Because the military fears that war can no longer be controlled, they look for technical solutions to political problems, and by 1991 computers had become the real focus of the military. We used to claim that info warfare was bloodless because Americans didn’t die, but that was a dangerous illusion.

We are now into the second cold war, the West vs. Islam fundamentalism, and the core of this war is economic disruption. Both the military and people opposed to the military, including Islamist terrorists, define it as a war of cultures. The leaders of Islamic terrorists are the most exposed to Western culture, and they fear and hate it. Bin Laden said he was happy with how the war is going because “we have set the terms of the debate,” and the U.S. finally knows they’re at war with us, which is what they wanted to accomplish. The more computerized you are, the more the more susceptible you are. The attacks on the World Trade towers were so powerful because they were projected live on TV. The impact is what you seek, not what actually happens.

It can sound convincing when military leaders talk about what we know about information and manipulate through machines, making war “manageable.” But Gray pointed to the limitations of computing. He asked us to think about information not as redundancy in sending signals, or math and algorithms, because math explains just a tiny piece of reality. Reality is made up of energy, matter & information. We know more about energy & matter, but what we know is that we can’t know it all. Complexity Theory is misused: we know more and more all the time, but the first thing is, we can’t know everything. We cannot have perfect information or perfect understanding. If decision-makers understood that, we would all be a lot safer.

For more on the limitations of inforwar, Chris has an article on that very topic at:

His views on September 11 and the Second Cold War are in an article posted in English (and soon German) at:

A bibliography of works on the limitations of computers in terms of Star Wars, which is very relevant to the general issue of information theory, is at: (link to Spring/Summer newsletter article bibliography). This includes many of the references from Chris Gray’s talk.

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