By Asha Rangappa
The New York Times reported last Tuesday that as the January 6 deadline for certification of state electoral counts drew near, former president Donald Trump exerted increasing pressure on his Justice Department to declare that the 2020 election had been corrupt. “Just say it was corrupt + leave the rest to me,” indicate the notes taken by Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Richard Donoghue. This command echoes Trump’s July 2019 call to the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, whom he asked to make a public announcement that Joe Biden, his then political opponent, was under investigation. In both cases, what mattered most wasn’t the truth, but shaping public perception for political ends. This is the hallmark of information warfare, and Trump has normalized its deployment against Americans.
Information warfare is the weaponization of information to distort reality and confuse a target population in order to destabilize and weaken that society. Although this technique has been perfected in countries like Russia and in other authoritarian regimes -- both against their own populations and others -- we here in the United States find it hard to wrap our minds around such a concept. After all, at first glance, information -- or speech, essentially -- doesn’t seem like the same thing as missiles and bullets. In fact, as a society that places the highest constitutional value on free speech, we have been taught that information functions in its own “marketplace of ideas,” where good ideas ultimately win out over bad ones. The closest concept we have to the idea of information warfare is military deception, or MILDEC, which is the tactical use of disinformation or propaganda to achieve a strategic military objective. But we don’t really think of information, or disinformation, as a weapon that elected officials might use against a civilian population, including their own constituents.