By MICHAEL W. DOMINOWSKI
If it’s all fake news, who can you believe? Who can you trust? Who can you rely on when the chips are down? The answer is no one. And that is just the point. Set aside your political tribal prejudices for a moment and think about what might happen if America’s free press is dismissed as factually unreliable. Actually you don’t have to think about it. We have already seen, in real time, what can happen.
A morning attack
On September 11, 2014, in an act of war astonishing in its boldness, Russia attacked an American city. The assault raged for hours against a confused and all-but-defenseless foe before the intruders, their objective achieved, retired from the battlefield. The attackers in this very real battle were armed not with bombs or bullets, but with fake news.
In the early hours of that autumnal Thursday morning, telephones and social media came alive with the alarming word that ISIS terrorists had struck in the quiet, rural community of Centerville, La., about 100 miles west of New Orleans.
Stories poured in saying the Columbian Chemicals Co. plant – a maker of carbon black for automobile tires – had been hit. There were reports of thunderous explosions and accounts of raging fires and an unknown number of casualties. A huge cloud of toxic fumes was reportedly spreading across the land. People were breathlessly advised to stay indoors, or given contradictory instructions. Communication lines were instantly jammed, officials were confused and people were terrified.
Russian hackers passed off a video of an unrelated fire as proof of the bogus claim of an explosion at a Louisiana chemical plant.
Insistent news updates, from what seemed to be credible sources, included photos and a fake news video of the supposed out-of-control fire. There were a steady stream of eyewitness accounts and comments from hundreds of sources, mostly on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. There was even a video of a thunderstruck man watching the events unfold on live TV.
The disruption, which quickly affected political and media outlets across the country, was quite real. But the attack was not. The incident, which came to be known as the Columbian Chemicals hoax lasted for hours.
But none of it ever happened. It was all fake news.
Fear, and a confused response
Fake news, yes, but the attack was real enough in that it spread disruption and terror, triggered emergency services and perplexed government and media agencies across the country. Confused public officials were all but paralyzed by the assault and were never capable of mounting an effective response, let alone a defense. Indeed, they didn’t know what hit them until long after the attack was broken off.
As the digital smoke cleared it became painfully evident what had happened, and that America was all but defenseless against such attacks.
That is still true today.
The attack, which came right around the time graveyard shift workers at the plant were heading home, was cynically launched on the 13th anniversary of the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks that costs thousands of people their lives, felled the World Trade Center towers in New York City, and left the Pentagon building seriously damaged and four commercial airliners lost.
The purported assault on a remote plant, in a place most Americans have still never heard of, was later dismissed by an embarrassed local Department of Homeland Security official as “a tasteless prank.”
But this was no simple prank.
American weakness laid bare
The Columbian Chemicals incident was in fact a probing attack by a Russian information warfare team designed to discover the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of America’s information infrastructure, and test ways to effectively exploit them. The use of fake news as a weapon was a resounding success.
Adrian Chen, writing for the New York Times Magazine, concluded “The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers.”
Chen continued: “The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.”
As the Columbian Chemical fake news attack demonstrated, information warfare tactics can be so low-tech and distributed that a carefully-targeted bank of fax machines or telephone autodialers could easily disrupt key telecommunications by overwhelming emergency numbers with sheer call volume.
Historic fake news precedent
The gullibility of those taken in by the Russian fabrication is reminiscent of the furor caused by the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast on Halloween night in 1938. Even though it had been clearly announced as a dramatic theatrical production of a famous H.G. Wells novel about a fictitious invasion from Mars, a lot of people missed the disclaimer and near panic ensued. That was followed by genuine outrage over what many decried as fake news. It was a different America then.
Nowadays Americans steeped in social media and tribal politics are being conditioned by none other than their president to accept the dangerous premise that all mainstream news organizations, save a few of his uncritical favorites, are wholly untrustworthy purveyors of fake news.
The Tweeter-in-chief goes out of his way to denigrate news organizations – and sometimes individual reporters – by name. And he’s effusive in his praise for news organizations that toe his line. One of his regular targets is CNN – which he famously dismissed as unimportant, compared to his beloved Fox News.
The insult prompted CNN to respond to Trump: “It’s not CNN’s job to represent the U.S to the world. That’s yours.”
A president playing with fire
But this sort of behavior is not just the unpresidential whining of an easily bruised and possibly deranged personality. It is a dangerous assault on the very underpinnings of the American Republic.
Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of the National Security Agency, is appalled by what he called Trump’s inconceivable behavior.
Hayden’s warning, accurate as it is, has yet to ignite any real public alarm about the White House effort to discredit America’s media. That indifference and tacit acceptance will be useful when the troll farm bots attack to sow chaos during a real crisis or a more-conventional war.
Conditioned to believe the official line
Consider this question, which seems increasingly less hypothetical every day: What if Trump, either deliberately or as Vladimir Putin’s useful idiot, is consciously engaged in a disinformation campaign, aiming to persuade Americans that politically rabid-Right “news” outlets such as Fox, the Republicans’ wholly compliant and complicit TV network lapdog, are the only acceptable media sources of information?
The idea is not farfetched when you consider Trump’s unstinting praise of Fox, and that he watches the Fox broadcasts so assiduously that that lobbyists see Fox advertising as a way of influencing him.
Trump tweets about stories he’s seen on Fox that really are fake news. He quotes the broadcasts in meetings and phone conversations, and even bases policy decisions on dubious TV reports.
If an enemy ever launched a far more massive “Columbian Chemical” style fake news attack, in a truly high-stakes crisis situation, before an America disinclined to believe any but the state-approved Pravda of Washington, our overwhelming defeat might be inevitable .
An old problem, long ignored
Using fake news as a weapons is not a new problem. In 1996 a team of researchers for the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation think tank studied the state of strategic information warfare, and all but threw up their hands in despair. The gist of their long, dry, wonky assessment was that battling information warfare isn’t going to be easy. The authors lamented that “…the more time spent on this subject, the more one saw tough problems lacking concrete solutions and, in some cases, lacking even good ideas about where to start.”
Anticipating a Columbian Chemical-style incident 18 years before it actually happened, the RAND team concluded with a series of recommendations. First among them was that responsibility for responding to fake news attacks should be centered in the White House.
Except that the White House is now actively engaged in its own fake news campaign , undermining public confidence and discrediting America’s free press along with it.
More than two decades later, Bruce McClintock, an adjunct policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and a former U.S Defense Attaché in Moscow, declared that America needs a new response to Russian information warfare.
McClintock understates the case. The old response was to simply muddle through. When it comes to countering the hysteria a concerted information warfare attack could produce, America has no effective defense.
We are on our own
Put yourself in the position of those targeted on social media during the fake news Columbian Chemical incident. How would you have responded? Would you even have questioned the reports?
Most people saw what appeared to be authentic (but actually fake) websites, Facebook accounts or Twitter feeds, and accepted them at face value. Anyone who the time to deliberately check the official pages would have instantly discovered there was no genuine news of the so-called attack. But few did.
Neither social media corporations nor the government, with its preposterously over-weaponed military ready to fight the last war, but not the current one, are going to provide a solution to this problem.
For now, we are on our own. It’s up to us
Michael W. Dominowski is the editor of Not For Hire Media