Deploying reality against Putin | The Economist

TTHE INTERNET, microchips, and semiconductors are all products of US defense spending during the Cold War. Another, less well-known, is a school of social psychology that President Joe Biden has relied heavily on in recent weeks. It has been evident in his administration’s remarkable openness with intelligence both in his diplomacy and in his public messages on Ukraine.

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This effort began shortly after the administration concluded last October that Vladimir Putin’s military buildup was an invasion plan. He began to reclassify supporting intelligence so that it is widely available within NATO. Since early December, when he published an intelligence assessment that Russia intended to invade Ukraine with 175,000 troops in early 2022, he has applied the same tactic to his communications. For example, he released details of an alleged Russian plot to overthrow the Ukrainian government and another to create a pretext to invade eastern Ukraine through a “highly graphic propaganda video” of faked attacks by Ukrainian troops “that they would include corpses and actors to represent the mourners.” Naturally, Russia denied this. The administration also published alleged interceptions of Russian officers complaining that the Americans were passing on their schematics.

A senior administration official explains this “unprecedented” transparency as a lesson learned from previous struggles with Russian disinformation (especially the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines plane over eastern Ukraine in 2014). It seems to have been successful. By publishing Putin’s designs, corroborated by publicly available satellite imagery, the administration prevented him from dividing NATO and the American public and establishing a pretext for their aggression. He may even have delayed his invasion, which began with an early morning assault on February 24.

Security experts are impressed. Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser to George W. Bush, praises the administration’s tactics and believes that only the president could have overturned the intelligence agencies’ usual attachment to secrecy. After years of grim disinformation news, this seems like a remarkable blow to reality, especially given the leading role Russia has played in America’s own epistemological crisis. His misinformation helped elect Donald Trump in 2016. And if the extent of that help is hard to gauge, the former president makes no secret of the inspiration he draws from Putin’s ambiguity. This week, Trump described the Russian president’s false claim that he was advancing into eastern Ukraine to keep the peace — which his subsequent invasion immediately proved false — as “genius.”

The administration’s tactics stemmed from a minor crisis, 70 years ago, over the collaboration of a few American prisoners of war in Korea with their Chinese captors. This prompted agencies to fund research on how such “brainwashing,” a term coined to describe the phenomenon in Korea, could be resisted. Psychologist William McGuire rightly considered the new information to be a form of virus against which the mind could defend itself through a mild version of the pathogen, just as bodies are immunized against real viruses.

This “inoculation theory” was based on two ideas that have become increasingly important in the age of fake news. False narratives, as Trump’s stolen election lie demonstrates, can be extremely contagious. And avoiding them, through a preventive dose of facts, is much easier than deprogramming a mind where the virus has taken hold. Experts like Andy Norman of Carnegie Mellon University call this approach “pre-accreditation,” and the administration’s approach to Ukraine seems to illustrate it.

This success also highlights how much harder it is to counter misinformation at home. The power of the management approach lies in its combination of promptness and clarity about the supposed distinction between truth and falsehood. Both qualities are much more difficult to achieve at the national level. The federal government cannot spy on American social media trolls like it can on Russian military intelligence. The Biden administration also cannot get ahead of the biggest troll, Trump, because half the country would condemn that as a political act.

In a democracy that enshrines the right of people to talk nonsense, politicians may also be reluctant to draw clear lines between truth and falsehood, even, as with anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, when nonsense causes harm. real. And when preventive action is essential, there is no time to hesitate. By the time the 2020 election was held, about 70% of Republicans already believed it had been stolen, and as it turned out, they couldn’t be persuaded with evidence to the contrary. Similarly, when Biden attempted to introduce a federal Covid-19 vaccination mandate, about a fifth of Americans were hopelessly against vaccinations. Fighting against such an ingrained belief is a lost cause.

a chronic condition

To preserve prevention and moral certainty, the truth lobby must be more creative. The rapidly evolving field of disinformation research (which Trump unwittingly helped inspire) suggests a few possible ways. Truth activists in the United States should now anticipate, for example, a tangle of disinformation before every election. The American conspiracy right is even more predictable in this regard than Putin.

To counter this, suggests Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory, which studies online information flows, governments should seek help from trusted partners. Doctors and religious leaders were much more likely to avoid anti-vaccine conspiracies than politicians, for example. But the administration did not make enough effort to organize them for that purpose.

Learning from your recent success, you must do better in the face of the next wave of misinformation. And there will be one soon. Misinformation is an evolving virus. Immunization is possible. But it’s not so much a one-time treatment as it is an ongoing struggle.

Read more from Lexington, our columnist on American politics:

The Fight for Catholic America (February 19)
Screwing up Biden-style (February 12)
United States Unites Against Vladimir Putin (February 5)

For more coverage of Joe Biden’s presidency, visit our dedicated hub and follow along as we track changes in his approval rating. For exclusive information and reading recommendations from our correspondents in the United States, subscribe to Checks and Balance, our weekly newsletter.

This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “The Reality Against Putin.”

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