The New York Times Magazine recently profiled video editor Josh Owens who offered a revisionist take on Infowars.com’s conspiracy theory celebrity Alex Jones. Slate‘s Aymann Ismail was more sceptical of Owens’ subjugation claims. When I worked for the former Disinformation website its publisher sought (unsuccessfully) to negotiate a book deal with Jones, earlier on in his career. This poses an intriguing counterfactual: what if the ‘meme warfare’ subculture surrounding Jones and conspiracy theories had been more liberal than alt-right in nature? How would that have affected the 2016 United States election outcome?
Richard Stengel was the Obama Administration’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Stengel’s new book Information Wars: How We Lost The Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It (New York: Grove, 2019) is on my reading list for future research projects – in order to understand the United States Government response to disinformation and information warfare.
The Rand Corporation has recently released a directory of web tools to combat online disinformation:
The rise of the internet and the advent of social media have fundamentally changed the information ecosystem, giving the public direct access to more information than ever before. But it’s often nearly impossible to distinguish accurate information from low-quality or false content. This means that disinformation—false or intentionally misleading information that aims to achieve an economic or political goal—can become rampant, spreading further and faster online than it ever could in another format.
As part of its Countering Truth Decay initiative, and with support from the Hewlett Foundation, RAND is responding to this urgent problem. Our researchers identified and characterized the universe of online tools developed by nonprofits and civil society organizations to target online disinformation. These tools were created to help information consumers, researchers, and journalists navigate today’s challenging information environment.
I’ll make several observations on this useful collection of resources. Fighting disinformation has moved from the cultic milieu of the former Disinformation subculture search engine to policy think tanks. The election of United States President Donald Trump and the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote – both in 2016 – has created a secondary market in tools to counter online disinformation. The other thing evident from RAND’s list is the emphasis on gamification as a cognitive strategy to engage the public.
Welcome to my new research program blog, Vega Theory.
My research program is at the nexus of the strategic studies, terrorism studies, political economy and sociology sub-fields. My in-progress doctoral thesis at Australia’s Monash University advances a new analytical theory of strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations, and uses process tracing to examine Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo as a case study.
This blog will advance the new research agenda outlined in my doctoral thesis. In particular, I am interested to further develop a deeper understanding of causal mechanism-based analysis, and to explore the possible existence of strategic subcultures in a range of areas, from other terrorist cells, groups, and organisations to asset management firms and hedge funds. A common theme in all of these examples is how to harness volatility (vega) for strategic advantage.
I also have an interest in developing capabilities for counter-coercion and counterdeception capabilities to deal with fraud, misinformation, and information warfare. This interest draws on my past experience in editing the former subculture search engine Disinformation and in the cultic milieu. In particular, I am looking at insights from interpersonal neurobiology and social neuroscience, and their applicability to identifying causal mechanisms for countering socio-political deception.