Ten Things You Need to Know About the Infowar

March 16, 2011 / Carolyn Sortor Share


  The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops.

  John Perry Barlow, co-founder, Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a tweet re-posted by Wikileaks to its 300,000-odd followers

This essay further explores some thoughts I first broached in a series of posts on c-Blog beginning Dec. 13, 2010.


"Knowledge is power" (Sir Francis Bacon, Religious Meditations, Of Heresies, 1597).

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" (Lord Acton, Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 1887).

So, whether or not Barack Obama or the kids running Google have good intentions is not the only issue. It's not enough to just elect or appoint a "good guy" as your leader; you have to also not crown him – you have to not also afford her/him the kinds of temptations to abuse that few humans can resist. Or as Chris Hedges put it, "we forgot that the question is NOT, how do we get good people into power. The question is, how do we limit the damage the powerful can do to us?" ("The Failure of the Liberal Class in the United States," address to the Poverty Scholars Program, April 10, 2010). If we don't want the kids to steal the cookies, we have to stop leaving them alone with the cookie jar. We have to change the rules that make good people either leave the field or turn bad; we have to fix the system.

There are two main ways of restraining corruption. One is through regulation, some measure of which is usually necessary; this is part of what John Adams meant when he wrote of "a government of laws and not of men." But laws alone are not enough; law makers and enforcers can be co-opted.


Another, sometimes more efficient way is structural: by carefully defining various constituencies, granting them measured powers, and prescribing procedures for the exercise of their powers, all in such a way as to create a structure in which each of the constituencies, by virtue of its own self-interest and nature, is inherently qualified and motivated to restrain the others in the exercise of their respective powers. This approach is called a separation of interests and powers; and it, together with regulation, constitute "checks and balances." James Madison studied other nations' systems of government before authoring the US Constitution; that's why he engineered checks and balances into the US's DNA (and it held up pretty well, for pretty long . . . it's also why it can sometimes work to give people the ability to file class action suits, etc. . . . but those are other stories).

So here are the Ten Things:

1. A balance of power requires a balance of information.

In the US and elsewhere, we've developed a serious imbalance, in that governments and big businesses know everything about us, and we know less and less about them. The power of knowledge has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of relatively few, powerful elites.

Like I've long said, a balance of power requires a balance of knowledge.

Generally, US law recognizes that when one of two parties to a transaction has information that the other would probably consider material in deciding whether to agree to it, and the party possessing the info fails to disclose it, such failure by the party possessing the info to disclose it to the other party is deemed a fraud. The party that had the information knew or should have known that the other party would probably want to have known it, and is deemed to have had a duty to disclose it, which duty was breached. There's no need to prove that the party that had the info had any actual intent to cheat the other party (proof of intent is often difficult), because the effect is the same regardless: the party lacking the info has in fact been manipulated into something to which s/he would probably not otherwise have agreed.

At a recent symposium, Wikileaks: Why It Matters. Why It Doesn't?, Daniel Ellsberg explained some of the reasons why allowing governments to know everything about us is a problem. He began by referring to the film, The Lives of Others, which is set in the pre-unification G.D.R. and which stated that the goal of that country's secret police, the Stasi, was "to know everything." Ellsberg noted that the Stasi couldn't even dream of the kind of access to citizens' private information that the US government and others now enjoy, thanks to corporations such as Google, Facebook, and AT&T.

But there's a lot – including some of the things we care about most intensely – that isn't shared on the telephone or in e-mails; things that are said only in bed, or to a relative, or to a friend during a walk in a forest. How do governments get that information? They use the power of the knowledge they've already acquired through wiretaps, data mining, etc. to blackmail people into revealing it. As Ellsberg put it, you want your daughter to go to college, you want this or don't want that; they find out what you want and what you fear, in order to make us into a nation of informants, which is what the G.D.R. was.

I'd add that, through the cloud-based surveys and questionnaires we fill out and games we play on Facebook and elsewhere, the government and others also have access to a great deal of info that can be used not just as leverage but also to manipulate us psychologically and without our even being aware of it.

At the same time, as Ellsberg pointed out, the government wants opacity as to its own operations; it wants us to know only what it wants us to know. And as the US government has classified more and more information, and as ownership of the media in the US and worldwide – the media that should ideally have been functioning as the "watchdog of democracy," monitoring those in power and exposing any abuse – has become more and more consolidated in the hands of a few megacorporations, government has in fact become less accountable, and more and more opaque.

Wikileaks fired the first shots seriously puncturing that opacity in quite a while, thus triggering what John Perry Barlow called "[t]he first serious infowar." (For more about the case for Wikileaks and similar facilities, see "The Case for Wikileaks.")

[Note: People sometimes speak as if there's an insoluble dilemma between transparency and privacy; this is false. Simply put, the more power one has over others, the more transparency one owes them; those with the least power should enjoy the greatest privacy.]

[P.S.: TPTB are more aware than we of our power; but our power extends no farther than our awareness.]

2. What's new about Wikileaks is that it may be the first instance of an institutional system that confers the power that comes from the revelation of secrets on the people rather than their rulers.

The potential to help restore the balance of knowledge and thus the balance of power between the oligarchs and the rest of us constitutes what I've regarded as the most important effect of Wikileaks' revelations.

As with respect to many brilliant innovations, the basic concept of Wikileaks may seem obvious now, but I'm aware of nothing quite like it before.

When the Venetian Empire was at its height, the Venetians had sophisticated systems for manipulating information flow, including a monopolistic mail system that enabled them to spy on, speed up, or slow down communications to and from adjacent nations (see Eric Dursteler, "Power and Information: The Venetian Postal System in the Mediterranean, 1573-1645" (2009), From Florence to the Mediterranean: Studies in Honor of Anthony Molho). (" . . . Napoleon . . . said that it wasn't necessary to completely suppress the news; it was sufficient to delay the news until it no longer mattered" – attributed by PRWatch to Martin A. Lee & Norman Solomon, Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media {New York: Lyle Stuart, 1991}, p. xvii.)

The Venetians also had a network of drop boxes within Venice (known as "bocche dei leoni," or lions' mouths), inviting potential informants to rat others' secrets out to the government. (Wikipedia; see also Google's translation of the Italian Wikipedia entry; photo right by Berthold Werner, at Wikipedia.)

Wikileaks has called itself the "First Intelligence Agency of the People – Working for YOU. Not against" (Salon). It may indeed be the first institutional system conferring the power that comes from revelation on the people rather than on their rulers.

3. The infowar strategy of exposing the secrets of corrupt regimes (which for now I'm calling the "Exposure Strategy"), as described by Julian Assange, is three-pronged:

(a) It gives us the opportunity to redress previously hidden injustices;
It tends to deter injustices in the first place by heightening the likelihood and thus the fear of exposure;
It tends to weaken corrupt organizations by prompting them to tighten security, thus lowering their own
computational I.Q.

Assange has pointed out three benefits to Wikileaks' strategy of publishing the secrets of the powerful. The first benefit consists in that it's only when we know about an injustice that we can do something about it.

He states a second benefit in the SVT documentary, WikiRebels: that "[e]very release that [Wikileaks publishes] has a second message: if you engage in immoral, in unjust behavior, it will be found out." I.e., exposure of past bad acts tends to deter future bad acts. (At least, that is, if such exposure results in bad consequences to the bad actors – a noteworthy qualification.)

The third benefit is revealed in Assange's writings, among the most fascinating I've read on the strategic aspects of the current infowar; in particular, see "State and Terrorist Conspiracies" and "Conspiracy as Governance" (2006) and also Assange's post on his site, IQ.org, "Sun 31 Dec 2006 : The non linear effects of leaks on unjust systems of governance" (unfortunately, as of this writing, the site appears to have been taken down). Assange begins by observing that corrupt governments (or, I expect, other organizations) are inevitably conspiratorial because their efforts to exploit people and interfere with their liberties tend to inspire resistance. So, in order for such regimes to maintain their authority, they must try to keep the nature of what they're doing secret, restricting certain information to those who are inside the regime or otherwise in on the exploitation or otherwise beholden to them. (If they were maintaining their power legitimately, there'd be no need for secrecy; the more secrets there are, it would seem, the more likely that the regimes keeping them are corrupt.)

Assange further describes organizations such as governments as computational systems and proposes that, when their secrecy is threatened, they tend to try to tighten their security, throttling down the flow of information internally as well as externally. In that event, as a result of this throttling down, the system becomes "dumber," since those within it become less able or willing to share all the info and ideas needed in order for the regime to act as effectively in its own behalf as it otherwise could (i.e., as Assange notes, "garbage in, garbage out").

This has of course been exactly the US State Department's complaint: that governments that aren't telling their own citizens what they're really up to will also stop telling our government – will, in fact, stop conspiring with our government, at least insofar as secret-sharing constitutes conspiracy. (Note that this amounts to an admission that our government is engaging in a "conspiracy," as defined by Assange, with other governments – that all the governments involved are conspiring with one another at least in keeping secrets from their own peoples. This raises the possibility that authorities' real concern with respect to the publication of the US cables is not in fact re- US interests as against other countries', but rather re- the interests of the ruling class to the extent those are against the interests of those ruled. Basically, the oligarchs of the planet – those who have accumulated enough wealth and/or weapons and/or p.r. facilities (see Thing No. 4 below) to subdue their local populations – are like kids cheating at Monopoly: I'll help you get the better of your peons if you'll help me get the better of mine.)

These writings suggest that part of Assange's strategy of publishing the secrets of a corrupt regime may actually be to provoke the regime to tighten its security, thereby bringing about a degradation of its organizational I.Q. that should render the regime more vulnerable and ultimately hasten its downfall or reform. (Oh, what a tangled web we weave!) (UPDATE: I just came across an excellent piece by Aaron Bady quoting relevant portions of Assange's writings and unpacking this point in detail, at zunguzungu.)

If this is in fact part of the Exposure Strategy as practiced by Wikileaks, the "throttling down" seems to be proceeding like clockwork. Interestingly, Fox News has reported that "Davos expert says hiding less information is best."

(There is, of course, at least a fourth prong, so to speak, to Assange's strategy: his insurance file.)

In numbers and resources, Assange and Wikileaks are "Davids" in comparison to the "Goliaths" they're up against. Inasmuch as knowledge is power, however, the might of truth on their side gives them the potential to trigger gigantic change.

4. The counter to the Exposure Strategy is "public relations," which enlists our most primitive emotions and drives against us, to induce us to disregard truth and our own best interests, at least up to an as-yet-not-fully-understood point. And to the extent p.r. works, it helps corrupt regimes remain in power without having to degrade their computational I.Q.

Truth isn't the only weapon in the infowar, and that brings us to an important part of the strategic picture that Assange does not much discuss: p.r. I believe he does not discuss it, not because he fails to appreciate its importance but because, at least so far, it has not been to his advantage to do so. For p.r. can overcome much if not most of the strategic benefits of the Exposure Strategy.

Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, invented the science of "public relations," together with the name that exemplifies it, in the 1920's based on his uncle's theories. Adam Curtis's documentary for the BBC, Century of the Self (all four parts of which can be seen here or at the Internet Archive) does a terrific job of setting out the history of p.r. and its impact on our society, and I recommend it highly; see also Wikipedia on Edward Bernays. His writings, including Propaganda (1928) and Manipulating Public Opinion (1928), make plain that the science goes far beyond mere touting or other more ordinary kinds of persuasion.

The new, psychoanalytically-derived techniques were innovative in at least two important respects. First, they are deliberately designed to stimulate and appeal to our most basic, powerful urges – fear, anger, greed, and lust. Second, they are designed to influence us without our awareness, with the real message camouflaged as incidental to some other purpose, or coming from a source disguised as a disinterested, objective authority.

For example, Bernays invented the use of front organizations designed to appear disinterested but that really exist only to promote a product or idea for the benefit of a hidden commercial or political constituency. He also invented the focus group, in which those conducting the group pretend interest in our considered opinions but are really looking for clues we inadvertently reveal about our unconscious emotions and desires, feelings we might not admit to or even recognize if asked but which, with or without our awareness, often drive our behavior.

Bernays' techniques were quickly taken up for commercial and somewhat later for political ends, especially beginning under the Reagan administration (and also, as I've noted, by religious leaders – see, e.g., Brands of Faith).

Those deploying this kind of p.r. seek to reach deep into the most primitive parts of our psyches while as far as possible bypassing our more rational, critical faculties. The goal is not to give us what we want or even what we actually need; it is to manipulate us into buying or voting for things or people that we would not otherwise buy or vote for, to the benefit of those deploying the p.r. There'd be no reason for the p.r. if we'd likely buy or vote for the same things or people without it.

(Image left, still from Century of the Self by Adam Curtis.)

In Propaganda, Bernays wrote, "Those who manipulate [the] unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. . . . We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of." He knew, because they accomplished it with his well-rewarded help.

The p.r. industry has grown exponentially since Bernays time (see, e.g., "PR Industry Fills Vacuum Left by Shrinking Newsrooms": "there were more PR people representing those companies [at hearings on BP's Gulf oil spill] than there were reporters in attendance"), because it works. Maybe not on all the people, all of the time, but enough so that the investment pays off.

(Curtis argues further that, after decades of immersion in the p.r. resulting from these techniques, we've gone from being first and foremost citizens who recognize that it's sometimes in our best interests to unite in collective action to make the world better for others as well as ourselves, to – rightly or benightedly – relatively passive, atomized consumers focussed on the marketplace as a main source for our individual identity support and fulfillment and who who secretly feel entitled to prioritize gratification of our every self-centered whim. We feel we are free, but in reality, we've been enslaved through our unconscious instincts and emotions.)

When this kind of p.r. is deployed successfully, the facts simply no longer matter; it's as if we've been immunized against truth. Thus, e.g., revelations in recent years of war crimes and gross violations of Constitutional law by US officials, and even of US propaganda illegally directed at its own citizens (see here and here), as well as many other gross violations of our fundamental rights and known crimes by the powerful, have elicited little outcry. In short, p.r. is info's kryptonite.

(On somewhat related subject, there's the "Nobody Heard What You Said" story, recorded by Jay Rosen at PRESSthink:


In 1984, Stahl had produced an extended report for CBS trying to document the contradictions between what Reagan said and what he did. It showed him speaking at the Special Olympics and at a nursing home, and reported that Reagan had cut funding to children with disabilities and opposed funding for public health. I’ll let [Bob] Somerby tell the rest:


Dick Darman clued in Lesley Stahl—it’s all about the pictures. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Stahl aired a lengthy report on the CBS Evening News; it was broadly critical of President Reagan. In her recent book, Reporting Live, Stahl described her thoughts as the piece went to air:

STAHL (page 210): I knew the piece would have an impact, if only because it was so long: five minutes and 40 seconds, practically a documentary in Evening News terms. I worried that my sources at the White House would be angry enough to freeze me out.

But that isn’t what happened, she says. When the piece aired, Darman called from the White House. “Way to go, kiddo,” he said to Stahl. “What a great piece. We loved it.” Stahl replied, “Didn’t you hear what I said [in the broadcast]?” Darman’s answer has been frequently quoted:

STAHL: [Darman replied,] “Nobody heard what you said.”

Did I hear him right? “Come again?”

“You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.”

Stahl’s critical report about President Reagan had been accompanied by generally upbeat visuals. According to Darman’s theory, the pictures registered more with viewers than anything Stahl had said.

I'd also like to recommend the New Yorker article, "Twilight of the Books," on the effects of the rise in TV watching and relative decline in reading. Among other things, it describes studies suggesting that proficient readers may think differently than people who rely more on visual communication. While both kinds of thinking are probably valuable, it appears that, generally, visual communication involves thinking oriented toward graphic, functional-narrative or emotional content, while reading facilitates abstract reasoning and an ability to compare and contrast subject-matter based on a wider array of kinds of logic. Also, studies have shown that TV has much in common with both addiction and brainwashing – see here, here, and here. TV is unusual in that on the one hand, the brains of people watching it appear much more inert than usual, with their critical faculties turned almost completely off, while on the other hand, they are nonetheless absorbing the commercial and other messages being transmitted. In a similar vein, see the infamous “Nobody heard what you said” story here.)

Note that, to the extent "public relations" is effective, it neutralizes all three prongs of the Exposure Strategy; i.e.,

(a) Injustices exposed need not be investigated, prosecuted, or corrected;
(b) Future injustices are therefore not particularly deterred;
(c) Corrupt organizations need not tighten their security, and thus can avoid having to lower their own
computational I.Q.

As I've also suggested, Assange's insight into the cost of tightened secrecy to organizational I.Q. sheds new light on why Edward Bernays' invention was such a boon to the the powerful – because "public relations" enables them to manipulate populations through their basic instincts and emotions, rather than through secrecy. To the extent p.r. is successful, it helps corrupt regimes maintain control without having to compromise their own systems' computational power.

It would seem that the combination of a moderate level of secrecy with a lot of p.r. might enable a regime to maintain itself longer while still engaging in a higher level of corruption than possible if the regime relied on either secrecy or p.r. alone, and also without relying too heavily on brute force. (Not to mention the fact that since the powers that be now know so much about us, they're well-prepared to take out any troublemakers.)

The US government's efforts to manipulate public opinion about Wikileaks started long ago (see, e.g., Salon) and has been highly effective. Within a p.r. environment as powerful and immersive as ours, efforts such as Wikileaks' to publish truth might well be rendered moot.

So this is an infowar and a p.r. war. The traditional media still reach many more people than do non-traditional media and can nullify the impact of the truth by simply ignoring it – or if that doesn't work, by discounting or even directly contradicting it – and if that's not sufficient, by smearing and attacking its sources – and if that doesn't do it, by inciting our fear and anger to blind us.

It's clear Assange recognizes that it's not just information that confers power; it's also the art with which it is presented (see his speech under Thing No. 7 below). The initial challenges faced by Wikileaks are not trivial: not only to get the information while ensuring the confidentiality of leakers but also to verify it, redact it, and get it published. But the next, no-less-vital challenge for WL or those who hope its publications will give rise to reform is – to edit one of Assange's phrases into another – "turning [the information] into an emotionally impactful story" (see his speech in Thing No. 7, below), one that's powerful enough to overcome the p.r. techniques used to hide, distort, and attack it. Wikileaks needs not just leakers, fellow journalists, and publishers, but also literary and other artists.

(Gif right created from stills from WikiRebels at SVT.)

5. How far p.r. prevails over the Exposure Strategy will provide an important indication of the extent to which we now live in post-reality.

The onslaught of p.r. aimed at neutralizing Wikileaks and Assange has been extraordinary, even in our p.r.-saturated times.

An appreciation of the power of p.r. and the extent to which Americans and others are already influenced if not controlled by it may be partly why Assange may have believed it necessary for an infowar to happen more or less now. Because the powerful do not yet fully control the non-traditional media, but they're making excellent progress on it.

And once the powerful have acquired effective control of non-traditional media too, it's not just that they'll be better able to keep their secrets; it's also that there will be no escape from their p.r./propaganda; we'll be fully immersed, à la Altered States. For Assange, a key consideration may have been when to trigger the infowar: it would be best for it to occur when the internet has grown to reach the greatest possible number of people but before it's been converted into the most powerful instrument of mass surveillance and mind control ever created. (UPDATE: Cf. Assange in this interview published May 2, 2011: "Facebook in particular is the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented. . . . " {see also here.})

I gather it may have been disagreement regarding the timing and manner of publication of the leaked US cables that gave rise to the split between Assange and those defecting to form OpenLeaks – that Assange wanted to publish the info sooner and in a more provocative manner. Indeed, one might wonder whether the "split" is real – whether the Wikileaks people may have decided the best strategy would be for the colorful Assange to use WL to draw off the oligarchs' fire and maximize attention to the story, while OpenLeaks continues WL's original, less sensational operations. In a fine irony, the WL people would be deploying one of the oligarchs' own favorite tactics against them: when one organization gets in trouble, senior managers just form a new one and carry on business as usual (similarly, Assange has stated that Wikileaks has "us[ed] every trick in the book that multinational companies use to route money through tax havens – instead we route information"; see his speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum 2010). Unfortunately, I fear this conjecture is probably overly optimistic. But Okke Ornstein has noted other evidence of Assange's "grand strategic thinking." [UPDATE: The split consisted in the defection of Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who took with him leaked information regarding Bank of America et al. OpenLeaks never in fact became operational. “WikiLeaks and other sources later confirmed the destruction of over 3500 unpublished whistleblower communications, with some communications containing hundreds of documents, including the US government's No Fly List, 5 GB of Bank of America leaks, insider information from 20 right-wing organizations and proof of torture and government abuse of a Latin American country.” (Quote retrieved 2015-11-05 from Wikipedia.)]

It's also interesting to speculate about exactly what it is that prompted the powerful to bring out the big guns. Was it the content of the US State Dept. cables? Was it that material leaked from within a major US bank is expected to be published next? Or was it the fact that the info is now being reported not just by a lone, rebel website but by the great newspapers of the world? For it was when Wikileaked stories covered half the front page of The New York Times that citizens began to sit up and pay attention. (Or was it that they, too, recognized that we're at a crucial juncture, a time when a critical mass of the people might actually still sit up and take the red pill?)

But The NYT itself isn't exactly independent from the powers that be. What if sufficient numbers of people won't listen to the truth unless it comes through outlets like The NYT? What if The NYT et al. refuse to continue to publish it (as The NYT has done so often before)? Are we about to find out that we are, in fact, living in a post-reality world?

I've had a few quotations in my head lately:


Only puny secrets need protection. Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity.
attributed to Marshall McLuhan

I am constantly haunted by a quote from Harry Overstreet, who wrote the following in his 1925 groundbreaking study, Influencing Human Behavior: "Giving people the facts as a strategy of influence" has been a failure, "an enterprise fraught with a surprising amount of disappointment."
– David DeGraw, "Wall Street's Pentagon Papers," Global Research

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.". . . "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The source of the term ["reality-based community"] is [the foregoing] quotation in an October 17, 2004, The New York Times Magazine article by writer Ron Suskind, quoting an unnamed aide to George W. Bush (later attributed to Karl Rove) . . . .

(The emphasis in the foregoing and other quotations in this essay is supplied.)

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