How Fake News Can Be An Act Of War

Fake news is a hot topic in the news, not least because of its potential to influence the affairs of other states.  Most of these discussions revolve around the influence on elections held in far flung states, but a recent study by Princeton University found that it can also influence states somewhat closer to home.

The study found that fake news is being used to keep neighbouring countries weak to further larger states own foreign policy interests.  The prime example of this strategy was the fake news tactics deployed by Russia in Eastern Ukraine, where fake news was used to destabilize the region and foment dissent.

The researchers examined the use of media in 78 countries over a 50-year timeframe.  The analysis reveals that a number of countries have attempted to reduce the state authority of a neighbor, with these acts having significant consequences on the security, economic growth and general wellbeing of the weaker state.

The authors argue that policy makers and analysts need to think beyond conflict as being a purely country-to-country act and understand that it is often much more complex, with neighboring states often serving as proxies for other countries.  What’s more, the use of fake news is not the application of force and is therefore not analogous to traditional war.

“Think of this as a replacement for direct force and warfare of another kind. Countries can advance their own interests without using direct force or taking over territory,” they explain.

Robot wars

The research stemmed from an interest in how governments can be destabilized.  Traditionally, international relations theory suggests that state weaknesses persist because of an absence of war, with geography also playing a part in how easy it is for disparate parts of a nation to be governed from the capital.  The research hoped to determine what role bordering states play in matters.

To try and understand things, the study examined 78 countries with 710 unique borders over a 52 year period to 2012.  With factors such as terrain, population density and ethnic demographics accounted for, the researchers were able to hone in on the influence of the neighboring states.

The pernicious impact of neighbors were especially pronounced when ethnic groups are split across a border.  Throughout the world, third-party countries would use subversion and coercion to advance their interests.

“From Ukraine to Pakistan to the Philippines, ungoverned spaces are breeding grounds for crime and illicit economic activity, all of which pulls resources away from the state,” the author concludes. “It is in these quiet places where you can’t always go, like Georgia, where outside actors like Russia can have a supremely powerful influence. And, in some ways, once you no longer have the violence, it’s actually more insidious.”