21st Century Information War: How Should NATO and Democratic Governments Respond?

21st Century Information War: How Should NATO and Democratic Governments Respond?

As part of its ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series, the Legatum Institute hosted a panel discussion, chaired by Peter Pomerantsev, to launch a collection of papers that look at how 21st century warfare is changing and what can be done to react to information warfare.

An event hosted by the Archive programme.

Published 22 Sep 2015

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As part of its ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series, the Legatum Institute hosted a panel discussion, chaired by Peter Pomerantsev, to launch a collection of papers that look at how 21st century warfare is changing and what can be done to react to information warfare.

Mark Laity, Chief of Strategic Communications at SHAPE, and Ben Nimmo, a prominent information warfare and defence analyst based in Scotland, were joined by Laura Jackson, a leading expert on the South China Sea and Chinese political-military strategy who has worked closely with the United States Secretary of Defense, to discuss their papers and the challenges posed to democratic governments by the current information war.

Laity first laid the groundwork of the debate by explaining the importance of narrative for national strategy. ‘If I want to persuade you to do something, I need to tap into your narrative’, he explained, before showing how Putin publically creates a powerful historical narrative around Ukraine for multiple distinct audiences. The panel then went on to discuss how pertinent the narratives of powers like Russia and China have become. Laity added that the Russians themselves describe their tactics as ‘information confrontation’ and that their approach ‘bridges peace and war’. Jackson claimed of the Chinese ‘They’re learning from Sun Tzu in terms of winning without fighting’, before adding that the holistic nature of China’s three-pronged non-kinetic warfare strategy makes it a new phenomenon, and that the artificial islands being built in the South China Sea are just the tip of the iceberg in China’s wider ambitions to manipulate the international order. Later in the discussion, Laity added that we have moved past the information age into the ‘engagement age’, and that profound shifts in technology pose new challenges for democratic governments.

Pomerantsev shifted the debate to how the democratic world can react to the new information war. Nimmo first identified where the power of disinformation lies, and used this as a starting point for building an effective counter-narrative. He stated that ‘in the information age, a lie can go around the world in 20 minutes’, and that within the 48 hours it may take governments to react, disinformation has already had its intended effect. This observation led Nimmo to emphasise the importance of ‘non-governmental, independent and therefore credible’ citizen journalists, living and working in key areas of conflict and tension, in countering disinformation narratives. He added that we need to constantly ask ourselves ‘where is going to be the next Crimea?’, and implied that a constant stream of accurate and reliable information delivered to the citizenry could be democracy’s most powerful tool. Jackson elaborated on the importance of initiatives trusted by the citizenry in the Chinese case, demonstrating how the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) can directly show us that ‘China is not sticking to its word’ via its publically available satellite tracking of Chinese island construction.

The panel all agreed that a strengthening of the democratic, law-based narrative and increased cooperation between democratic governments over pressure on Russia and China is the best strategy moving forward. Towards the end of the discussion, the need to move beyond the Cold War’s East-West paradigm and for countries like Ukraine and Estonia to create their own narratives was put forward. Laity emphasised that countries ‘need to sit down and have a debate about what they are and where they are going’, and that this can only be done by examining shared culture, history and experience. Nimmo then cited the 2010 case of the ‘Bronze Soldier of Tallinn’ being relocated in Estonia and the subsequent reaction of the Russian media as a prime example of the power historical narratives can have in the current information war.

The Beyond Propaganda programme will continue to gather experts from media, government, defence, academia, and institutions promoting democracy, throughout the year to understand how propaganda is changing, how it limits the autonomy of individuals, breaks down trust and undermines democracy.

Video (Interview)​


Full event summary available shortlyFollow the conversation on Twitter #InfoWars

About the Speakers

Ben Nimmo is an analyst of information warfare and defence issues, based in Scotland. His specialisations include the propaganda techniques, networks and themes used by Russia and IS, and the use and abuse of Western freedoms by anti-Western media. He served as NATO’s press officer on Russian and Ukrainian issues from 2011-2014, having spent the preceding decade working as a journalist in the Baltic States and Brussels. He graduated from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, with an MPhil in medieval and renaissance literature. He is fluent in Russian, Latvian, Swedish, French and German, among others.

Laura Jackson has particular expertise in China-US relations, the South China Sea, and China’s political-military strategies. She has provided ongoing research consultancy services as Director of Research for multiple classified reports, prepared at the request of the United States Secretary of Defense, Office of Net Assessment and in association with the University of Cambridge: the recommendations of the 2013 report “China: The Three Warfares” are now under consideration by the Pacific Command in Honolulu. In addition, she has prepared multiple briefing notes and papers on the South China Sea for meetings with former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. She has an MA in Philosophy, Politics & Economics from the University of Oxford and an MPhil in International Relations from the University of Cambridge.

Mark Laity is Chief Strategic Communications at SHAPE, NATO’s military headquarters in charge of Alliance military operations. Previous NATO posts include being special adviser and spokesman to former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson; three Afghan deployments as NATO spokesman; and acting as adviser to Macedonia’s President Trajkovski during that country’s 2001 civil conflict. He joined NATO after 22 years in journalism, including 11 years as the BBC’s Defence Correspondent, when he reported from the frontlines of most conflicts of the nineties, including Yugoslavia’s break-up, and the 1991 Gulf War.

About the Beyond Propaganda Series

The 21st century is seeing a new scale of media manipulation, psychological war and disinformation. The technological capacity of the information age, a more liquid use of ideology by authoritarian regimes, and the West’s own difficulties in projecting democratic values have redefined the threat of propaganda. The Transitions Forum’s ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series investigates these challenges and aims to identify solutions.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.

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