Book Reviews

Book Cover: Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It

Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It

by Richard Stengel
New York, NY: Grove Atlantic, 2019
368 pages, $41.95
ISBN: 978-0-8021-4798-1

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Reviewed by Simon Wells

Richard Stengel is the former editor of Time magazine and the former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (PDPA) in the final years of the Obama administration. He served under Secretary of State John Kelly, having been U.S. Senate-confirmed to the appointment immediately after retiring as the sixteenth managing editor of Time, from 2006 to 2013. In this book, Stengel often refers to his extra-governmental career experience, which gives him alternative perspectives, and sometimes, in this reviewer’s opinion, lack of perspective, regarding governmental affairs and practices.

The book takes a narrative form, directly explaining its sub-title, “How we lost the global battle against disinformation,” but it is short on “what we can do about it,” and offers no real conceptual or strategic analysis of the problems associated with disinformation. Mr. Stengel describes his arrival at and onboarding to the United States Department of State, and humbly narrates his confusion with respect to the mechanisms of government throughout his tenure. He provides an intimate witness’s account of the rise of the Islamic State and pro-Russian, pro-Ukrainian annexation disinformation campaigns, and then frankly describes his department’s lack of awareness of, preparedness for, or ability to deal with these activities. Stengel literally explains how the rise of disinformation campaigns came about from a bystander’s perspective, offering no depth of analysis of the grand- or military-strategic forces at play.

A telling moment in the narrative is Mr. Stengel’s realization, upon being briefed by a military intelligence officer, that the asymmetry of disinformation is its key attraction (in this case, for Russia): creating confusion is both a method and an objective. This anecdote alone, no more than a page of text in this book, is the most theoretically-substantial contribution made by Stengel herein. The anecdote’s implication is even more revealing: senior State Department officials appeared to have no substantial understanding of disinformation until well in to its zenith as a strategy. What Stengel lacks in expertise is made up for in strong story telling ability and an affinity for crediting smart, capable subordinates who enabled both him and other principals of the department.

The colloquial voice that Stengel chooses for his narration makes the book entertaining and easy to digest. Therefore, the account of the rise of modern disinformation is well-presented in that sense, but it is notably casual, and at times, this causes the reader to wonder how seriously the author takes his subject. His final section of the book, which outlines “what we can do about it,” is a very abbreviated response to the problems posed by disinformation that would perhaps be appropriate for a memorandum from someone of his stature, had his intent been to brief Secretary Kelly or President Obama. To that end, it might have been expanded into a restructured second half of a book, following up on a more abbreviated narrative to answer the piqued interest in disinformation problems. That said, in this section, more strategic, legal, and technical aptitude is displayed than in the remainder of the book, which provides great credibility to Stengel’s arguments that might have been better tied in earlier in the narrative.

Information Wars… is neither scholarship, nor a practitioner’s expert input, although it presents itself as the latter. It is perhaps more similar to an ethnographer’s notes on the development of a phenomenon, recounting local perceptions and actions associated with it, but not creating a greater conceptual model. The book is a good introductory resource to understanding disinformation, and it is worth the read as a historical account from one of the leaders of the American response to the rise of the Islamic State and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While political scientists or information operations practitioners will probably not benefit much from the book, anyone with a fundamental awareness of disinformation will find its contents informative, and its style engaging.

Simon D.H. Wells is a former uniformed member of 4 Canadian Division Headquarters, a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, and a graduate student at Royal Roads University. He is a certified Professional Logistician and has past experience as an emergency management officer in several domestic operations while employed at Public Safety Canada. Simon has been previously published in the Canadian Military Journal on this field of expertise, and is currently employed with the City of Toronto’s Office of Emergency Management.