The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2022

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JULY-AUGUST 2022 79 The “Wine-Dark Sea” of the Information Age Information at War: Journalism, Disinformation, and Modern Warfare Philip Seib, Polity, 2021, $24.95/ paperback, e-book available, 240 pages. Reviewed by Vivian S. Walker Philip Seib’s Information at War: Jour- nalism, Disinformation, and Modern Warfare offers an elegant and meticu- lously researched overview of the con- temporary relationship between war and information, and the struggle for narra- tive control of the conflict “story.” In tracing the “long and twisting path from Homer to Murrow to Putin to Xi Jinping,” Seib effectively makes the case that wars are no longer under the exclusive control of “bards and presidents and generals.” Rather, they are won—and lost—as decisively in the public information space as they are on the battlefield. In Information at War , Seib brilliantly depicts the growing competition for public influence between the govern- ment and media, from the Cold War to the present day. He is especially effective in describing how improvements in information technologies, e.g., radio and then television, brought war “home” to the American public, motivating citizens to take an interest in its outcome. In the chapter on “Living Room Wars,” for example, Seib ably demon- strates how the immediacy and emo- tional intensity of Edward R. Murrow’s 1940 radio broadcasts during the Lon- don blitzkrieg “stirred the conscience” of the American people and helped make the political case against isolationism. Seib also persuasively tracks the emergence of the now familiar “mutual distrust” between the media and the government that came to dominate reporting on the VietnamWar, arguing that this mistrust actually originated with the John F. Kennedy administra- tion’s heavy-handed attempts to sup- press press reports about its ill-fated engagements with Cuba. By the time Lyndon Johnson came to power, television reporting—with its capacity to provide graphic depic- tions of military setbacks—challenged the government’s ability to control the narrative. As Seib illustrates, the 1967 Tet Offensive became a “tipping point at which information from the news became ascendant, outweighing the government’s messaging and reshaping perceptions of the war.” In subsequent chapters, Seib assesses the impact of media embeds on objec- tive reporting during the first Gulf war, highlighting the challenge of access- ing information without “excessive government interference.” In his view, instead of questioning the government’s rationale for the conflict with Iraq, the American journalistic establishment “accepted it as gospel.” At the same time, while the acceleration and diversifica- tion of social media platforms mitigated against an information monopoly, it also empowered individual citizens/soldiers whose narrative intent may have been no less subjective. Turning from the media’s role in shaping the wartime narrative, Seib next evaluates the mechanics of contempo- rary information warfare, beginning with a competent overview of terrorist infor- mation tactics as conducted by al-Qaida, ISIS and other extremist organizations. He then takes on Russia’s weaponization of information and its corrosive effects and concludes with the unexpectedly fatalistic prediction that China is well on its way to exerting a “determinative” influence in the global media space. In the closing chapters, Seib effec- tively explores the holistic yoking of journalism and disinformation, and the degree to which the public is both com- batant and victim in the competition for influence. Like most experts confronted with the challenge of combating disin- formation effects, however, Seib falls back on “preventive measures” such as media literacy training as an antidote to influence manipulation. But this is a half measure at best, one that requires enor- mous, sustained investments in educa- tion that are well beyond the purview of government-sponsored counterdisinfor- mation programs. Ultimately, this meditation on the tension between “information democracy” and “information anarchy” is more elegy than handbook. BOOKS