Government disinformation in war and conflict

Rhys Crilley and Precious N. Chatterje-Doody


‘The first casualty when war comes’, wrote US Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917, ‘is truth’ (Knightley 2004), and research has shown that through the ages, war and conflict have always been marked by the use of lies, propaganda, and what we now often refer to as mis- or disinformation (Taylor 2003).' The Trojan Horse is perhaps the most infamous early tale of deception during wartime, and regardless of its veracity, it suggests that disinformation was on the minds of those who lived and waged war in ancient times. From these early days of history through the city-states, empires, and countries that followed to the high-tech globalised societies of today, political authorities have sought to harness disinformation to win conflicts. With this in mind, this chapter provides an insight into government disinformation in war and conflict. We begin by setting out why government disinformation matters for the study of conflict and war, before introducing the concepts of propaganda, framing, strategic narrative, and discourse to help make sense of government disinformation in war. We then reflect on what exactly may be novel about contemporary practices of government disinformation in war and conflict. Finally, we explore the limitations of current research and suggest potential new directions for research.

Disinformation matters in war and conflict

In what is considered one of the foundational texts for understanding modern war and conflict, Clausewitz notes that a ‘great part of the information obtained in war is contradictory, a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is of a doubtful character’ (Clausewitz 2017, 46). Yet, despite claims like this in such influential texts and despite the prominent examples of disinformation in wars and conflicts throughout history, scholars have often treated information and communication as though they were peripheral to the study of conflict. In this line of‘realist’ thinking, ‘the supreme importance of the military instrument lies in the fact that the ultima ratio of power in international relations is war’ (Carr 2016, 102). Power is viewed simply in terms of having the material resources and capabilities to wage war, win battles, and use threats of violence to get others to do what they otherwise would not (Schmidt 2005, 528). Despite having an appealing simplicity, such realist approaches are rarely useful for understanding the complexity of global politics (Ashley 1984; Cohn 1987; Enloe 2000), nor are they helpful in understanding how governments attempt to wield power by influencing perceptions — for example, through the use of disinformation. Given that traditional approaches to war do not provide us with sufficient conceptual and analytical tools to make sense of disinformation in war, we now introduce four (ultimately overlapping and interlinked) concepts and their associated bodies of scholarship that can help us understand government disinformation in war.


Following the world wars of the early twentieth century, a new field of study was built around the concept of propaganda (Bernays 2004 [1928]; Lasswell 2013 [1934]; Lippman 2010 [1922]). This was understood to be ‘the technique of influencing human action through the manipulation of representations’ (Lasswell 2013 [1934], 13). At the time it was recognised that this could involve lying, but optimists viewed it as something that would largely be grounded in the truth. Authors such as Bernays viewed it as a predominantly positive tool that could be used to help shape public opinion for the better, viewing propaganda as ‘necessary to orderly life’ (Bernays 2004 [1928], 39) in democracies. Despite Bernays s founding vision to be ‘a propagandist for propaganda’, the term propaganda is now widely regarded as something morally questionable, socially destructive, and politically negative. Even Bernays’s contemporaries saw propaganda as ‘the defilement of the human soul’ (Ponsonby 2010 [1926], 18).

More recent scholarship defines propaganda as ‘the deliberate manipulation of representations . . . with the intention of producing any effect in the audience . . . that is desired by the propagandist’ (Briant 2014, 9). Such scholarship provides an important grounding for the study of government disinformation in war. In particular, it provides rich accounts of the history of propaganda (Taylor 2003), as well as insights into the contemporary disinformation practices of governments in the digital age (Bjola and Pamment 2018; Briant 2014). The research on propaganda demonstrates that government disinformation in war has a rich and bloody history and that governments have historically sought to lie and mislead their adversaries. The concept of propaganda then can be useful, but it is limited by normative ‘baggage’ (Taylor 2003, 2). Indeed, the negative connotations of propaganda are so strong as to immediately delegitimise those accused of engaging in it — even if proponents of the concept believe that ‘what we really need is more propaganda not less. We need more attempts to influence our opinions and to arouse our active participation in social and political processes’ (Taylor 1992).

Even when conceptualised as a positive addition to a state’s wartime toolkit, the concept of propaganda is perhaps too broad to provide specific analytical utility to explain how and why government disinformation in war happens or is effective. It is intuitive, perhaps, that governments will lie during wars so that they may beat their adversaries and win victories, but what explains how that disinformation circulates widely in countries that now have free and fair media?

Various explanations have been offered. Some point towards the shared ideological views of government officials and media elites who are oriented around making profits from audiences who are more likely to accept patriotic coverage of wars than critical reporting (Herman and Chomsky 1995). Related to this is the role of national patriotism, in which journalists ‘rally around the flag’ as national populations have been found to support their leaders during times of national crisis such as wars and conflicts (Stahl 2010). Other factors include how journalists are reliant on official sources for their reporting (Bennett 1990) and are thereby faithful to governments so as to ensure their access to information. Further relevant factors in the digital age include the rapidity of information flows in the contemporary news environment, which commercially incentivises the production of high-speed, low-quality ‘churnalism’ that prioritises sensationalist social media trend reporting over investigative reporting (Chatterje-Doody and Crilley 2019, 84—85) or neglects due diligence in verifying the claims of state-backed sources (Ramsay and Robertshaw 2018, 10—11). In addition, digital factors enable governments to bypass traditional media gatekeepers, using social media to communicate directly with audiences (O’Hagan 2013). For these reasons, propaganda — or government disinformation in war — can circulate widely, even domestically in societies that are supposedly predisposed to valuing journalistic objectivity, facts, and the truth.

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