Information Warfare: Selling Fear For Power And Profit


July 21, 2019: What do different levels of government secrecy have to do with why some nations are more prosperous and attractive to migrants (legal and illegal)? Put simply, more government secrecy indicates more problems the government has and believes trying to keep it a secret will make life easier for those running the country. This explains why there are some countries that many more people would like to be in, and another set of countries that most of the inhabitants want to flee. What causes this? It’s mainly about corruption, and in the 21st century, we have a much better idea of how much and where it is. Even before the Internet and cellphones became widely available at the end of the 20th century, it had already become easier to collect information on how well all nations were doing and why. This was done by monitoring international trade and what was reported in local news media. That led to international surveys of economic conditions and by the 1990s you had groups like Transparency International compiling and publishing “corruption scores” for most of the nations on the planet. It was immediately obvious that the least corrupt nations were the most prosperous and popular to live in and at the other end of the scale, you had war-torn hellholes or oppressive police states where corruption was much more common.

Corruption not only makes life difficult for locals and foreign investors but also has a major influence on military affairs. That’s because corruption in the financing and operation of the armed forces has been around, world-wide, for a long time. In the last two decades a lot more of the details on how this work has become widely known. This has been facilitated by better and cheaper communications, especially cell phones and the Internet, and the end of the Cold War. The fall of so many communist dictatorships eliminated the police state atmosphere that kept a third of humanity cloaked in layers of secrecy.

One of the ironies of the post-Cold War world is that most people get the impression that things are getting worse and worse while for the majority of people on the planet life was getting better. Worldwide poverty and death rates are plummeting while income and reported (via opinion surveys) satisfaction are way up. Many major diseases (like tetanus and polio) have nearly been eliminated and malaria, the disease that has killed more people than any other throughout history, is in decline because of medical advances. War related deaths have been declining since World War II ended in 1945 and that decline continued after the Cold War eliminated most communist governments in 1991. Why do most people think otherwise? You can blame the mass media and their most effective marketing tool; FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

Mass media first appeared in the mid-19th century with the development of the steam press, which made cheap-enough-to-reach-a-mass-audience newspapers possible. Editors quickly learned that FUD sells best. Politicians, rebels, and even advertisers found that FUD was a very effective tool to grab attention and change attitudes. Put another way, excitement sells, and the best way to excite readers is to scare them. Truth is not important to those who rely a lot on FUD for a living or to stay in power. When more details of how the government operates are declared “state secrets”, it is usually an indication that things are not going well and those in charge would prefer not to talk about it. Fresh examples are always available. For example, Russia recently declared that all data on commercial space operations were now classified as varying degrees of secret. The reason for this is not hard to find; corruption and mismanagement has made the Russian space program much less effective. More satellite launches, or the satellites themselves, are failing. The reasons are always the same and the government grew tired of making the same assurances that corruption and poor management problems would be addressed. They never were. There was a somewhat different situation when it came to the human and fiscal cost of Russian operations in Syria and Ukraine. Casualties in foreign wars are very unpopular in Russia and eventually the government declared casualty data state secrets. For younger Russians, all this secrecy is a bad sign, but for older Russians, who remember life before 1991 (when the communists were in charge), Russia is still a much more transparent place compared to the communist past. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, along with the empire the Russians dominated, half the Soviet population left the ancient (since czarist times) Russian Empire and established new countries. This led to an unprecedented revelation of communist-era secrets. The communists had concealed massive incidents of pollution (Chernobyl being one of the last, and most damaging) and resource mismanagement. Younger Russians prefer foreign, preferably Western products, especially medicines and personal care items. During the communist period, such products were often poorly made and sometimes unhealthy to use. China has had similar problems, even though it has had a market economy since the 1980s. Both Russia and China are making massive and expensive efforts to curb the free flow of news, especially via the Internet, because that has made details of product and ecological disasters harder to hide. China has had growing air and water pollution problems because of the economic growth overseen by a corrupt communist police state government. Even in the West, wartime secrets were often found to conceal pollution problems that were left uncorrected because, well, that would be an admission that the problem existed. When the 21st century arrived so did the Internet and widespread smartphone (cell phones with cameras and the ability to email them immediately). This allowed anyone witnessing an incident of government, or commercial, misconduct to quickly document and spread it around. This information bonanza soon became corrupted when large Internet companies that provided information search capabilities or popular forms found that governments were interested in making deals that benefitted the Internet companies while also suppressing news corrupt government officials wanted kept quiet. Even with that, it was still possible to “crowdsource” data on secrets and still provide exposure.

With more data on corruption being collected by this “crowdsourcing” method, there is enough data to reveal some indication of how and why there is so much corruption in military procurement and within many armed forces. What this comes down to is that excessive secrecy and the lack of any real fear of getting punished makes corruption in the military possible. This is especially true when it comes to procurement. Many countries declare all defense related matters state secrets and thus there is little monitoring of what is bought and from who and at what price. This is a perfect environment for thieving officials. Then there is the realization that for most countries war is rare and you can steal defense funds safely and weaken the military secure in the knowledge that if war does come, you can always find other reasons to explain the poor battlefield performance.

Corruption in military spending is an ancient problem, with some of the oldest known historical records complaining about it. In many cultures, past and present, it was taken as a given that, if you got a government job, you had a license to steal. In the military, this means weapons are built-in substandard ways, equipment is not properly maintained and the troops are often not paid. Military corruption accounts for most of the poor military performance in the past, present and future.

The corruption takes many forms. Mainly it is the idea that everything is for sale, like promotions and assignments. Lower ranking officers and NCOs will often sell weapons and equipment that was reported "destroyed" or "missing." Commanders who are not doing so well can pay to have reports of their performance upgraded. On the plus side, senior government officials tend to be aware of all this bad behavior and the impact it is having on the military. Thus they have doubts about how effective the military would be in another war and are thus encouraged to avoid getting into a war.

These ancient practices are becoming more difficult to sustain. For example, journalists now more carefully report military response to national disasters that employ troops to help out. Troops that have performance problems here will not do any better in combat, and often for the same reasons. This includes decrepit and poorly maintained equipment and low morale because of poor living conditions and stolen pay. Even in countries (like China or Russia) where journalists are not supposed to report such embarrassing events, the journalists discuss it among themselves, and some of these discussions got onto the Internet and into general circulation. While most governments try to keep details of military corruption out of the media, they cannot control the Internet. People love to gossip, especially in a police states. Even with all this new pressure, most governments (85 percent by one count) do not allow much access to what is going on with the defense budget. Can’t let the enemy know how much is being stolen now can we?

Even with all this secrecy, the widespread use of the Internet and cell phones in police states like China has made a lot more details of corruption suddenly visible. For example, Transparency International ranking of corruption in nations showed that China’s corruption remained quite high despite what the government said about its efforts against corruption. International surveys like this are more trusted by most Chinese and a great embarrassment to the government. More worrisome is the fact that the least corrupt countries share characteristics (free speech, free media, fair courts) that are lacking in China mainly because most government officials do not want these things but most Chinese do. This is not just a Chinese problem but a universal one.

Information manipulation also plays a major role in the rise of modern terrorism, which is based on using murderous mass attacks on the public to trigger a flurry of media coverage. The 19th century anarchists, followed by the Bolsheviks (communists), several similar movements (like the Nazis), and many others, all used this media proclivity to jump on terrorist acts in order to scare readers into buying more newspapers or supporting some extremist cause or another. The terrorists got the publicity and attention they wanted, which sometimes led to acquiring political power as well.

Radio appeared in the 1930s and this made it even easier to reach literate as well as illiterate populations. Combining radio and FUD allowed communism and fascism to spread far and fast in the 1930s. The sad fact is that this situation is not unknown among journalists. Many of them have been complaining about it for over a century. No one has been able to come up with a solution. Good news doesn't sell. And the pursuit of scary headlines that do has created a race to the bottom.

It's probably not much consolation but it wasn't always as bad as it is today. For example, see what happens when you report a great historical American military victory, like the 1942 naval Battle of Midway, in the style of today's journalism. Pretty sad compared to how it was reported in the 1940s. There are similar "comic" bits like that (on the web) covering other World War II victories. At the time, those victories were reported quite differently. Journalism has changed a lot since the 1940s. But in many ways, journalism has not changed. Editors and reporters still know that they have to either be good at scaring people or find another line of work. Fear sells but over the generations even scarier stories have to be invented because so many people have built up an immunity to what scared their grand-parents.

The FUD problem is one reason why is terrorism so widely effective these days. Terrorists and rebel movements have become more common and deadly in the last few decades and this is partly because mass media has, since the Internet arrived, become a lot cheaper. Getting the message out was always a problem for those trying to overthrow an unpopular government or even a popular one. For thousands of years, most people were illiterate and the only way you could persuade them to join your cause was via person-to-person contact and creating some impressive word-of-mouth. Over the last two centuries, there has been a huge explosion in literacy. Until quite recently (the 18th century) only a few percent of the global population was literate. What communications did exist were controlled by governments. But once ten percent, then twenty, then more than half of populations became literate, it was easier to spread your message. Those who could read could pass on what your printed, or even handwritten, letters and pamphlets had to say.

The result is that now more people know about bad news than good news, despite the fact that they suffer relatively little from the threats constantly covered by the media, Meanwhile more and more people live longer and happier lives because of all the improvements that are, well, not news.




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