The Original Sin of the "Anti-Disinformation" Movement
Buried in the history of the Global Engagement Center is a kernel of misunderstanding that may have spawned a generation of false panics
A brief additional note on the Global Engagement Center, one of the subjects of an upcoming #TwitterFiles thread:
GEC was originally formed as a response to the problem of ISIS successfully recruiting away what one source called “well off white kids from the burbs” in both the U.S. and Europe. (The government always starts hurling money in all directions when any serious social problem reaches into the suburbs). Barack Obama’s Executive Order was specific in outlining this mission, establishing GEC to “counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al Qa’ida, and other violent extremists abroad.”
At the time, “information operations” had a specific meaning in the intelligence and counterterrorism realms. One might, for instance, spread a rumor that a certain terrorist had an STD, so that he would rush online to defend his honor just long enough to be geolocated and droned.
Others in the national security establishment had ultimate faith in quantitative information analysis, turning life and death matters over to algorithms that armed and fired at targets in places like Yemen or Syria once enough digital boxes were checked: military age male, used the wrong cell number too many times, spotted by satellite carrying something that could be a gun, etc. “We kill people based on metadata,” boasted former NSA and CIA chief Michael Hayden in 2014.
The original conceit of the GEC was to gather pros from this world, who’d put their heads together and come up with kinder, gentler ways of “disrupting” ISIS propaganda. From the point of view of the Pentagon, which paid most of GEC’s original budget, it was a no-lose play: spending $70-$80 million a year was worth it if it meant even one fewer death in the field, be it of a U.S. soldier or a bystander to a drone strike.
Then 2016 happened, and GEC’s mission changed on a dime.