2040 An information Odissey, Nicole Matejic

2040: An Information Odissey 

Nicole Matejic

This essay is part of the author's contribution to the NATO Operations 2040 study by the NATO Innovation Hub.

(Read more about the study)

Information operations (IO) has been experiencing something of a renaissance alongside the continuous evolution of the internet and social media. When compared with conventional warfare, IO based campaigns are cost effective, particularly suited to being delivered via proxies and activated long before the target realises an offensive against them has begun. No longer isolated to the theatre of war, modern IO campaigns embed themselves within civilian ecosystems and technological architecture to test the boundaries of national tolerance and response capabilities. Capitialising on the opportunities a noxious digital economy creates, the West is experiencing a fait au complet as our adversaries destabilise societal norms and undermine trust in democratic institutions by using our information environment against us. 

The future of IO is inextricably linked to the future of the global information environment. Conflicts and instability in the future are likely to arise from present day crises. These crises include the decay of democracy, climate change and resource scarcity. Artificial intelligence (AI) – and the race to AI dominance, will also play a part in shaping the information environment of the future. This essay will explore these emerging crises, the impacts they will have on the information environment and how they will shape NATO’s IO challenges in 2040 and beyond. 

THE MISINFOAPOCALYPSE

By the year 2040 NATO will have been in existence for nearly one hundred years. Witness to the rise and fall of regimes and nations; the end of communism in Europe and a century of relative stability and security in the North Atlantic region; the future relevance and existence of the Alliance depends on how it adapts to the degradation of our natural and information environments against the backdrop of a changing geopolitical situation that will see the rise of national powers traditionally outside the sphere of European security interests. 

It must be acknowledged that we are starting this information environment odyssey from a maturing but inherently defensive hybrid warfare posture. Information environment researcher Alicia Wanless explains that “We now live in what information philosopher Luciano Floridi refers to as ‘hyper history’, where information community technologies (ICT’s) and their data processing capabilities are the necessary condition for the maintenance and further development of societal welfare, personal well-being, as well as intellectual flourishing.” With the information environment now firmly embedded in all facets of our lives, it is difficult to envisage the hybrid warfare model we’ve become acclimatised to changing significantly. However, in looking forward through the next two decades, the developments that unfold in the lead up to 2040 will have cascading impacts on how IO practitioners are able to deliver offensive and defensive campaigns. Accepting that a rigid definition of peace and war existing as two separate states is in stark contrast to the single continuum of war NATO’s current and future adversaries operate in – particularly in modern political warfare, according to scholar Mike Caulfield we are at least three years past day zero in this misinfoapocalyspe where “one group benefits: authoritarians (who) flourish when citizens become overwhelmed (by misinformation) and … give up on trying to figure out the truth.”

2040: WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR

Perhaps one of the most unexpected challenges of our time, and one of the biggest contributors to a fracturing information environment, has been the decay of democracy in the West. Researchers from the Varieties of Democracy Institute in their 2019 report observed that one-third of the world’s population are impacted by autocratization, representing some 24 countries. The study, noting that “democracy is still the most common type of regime,” identifies that Greece, Hungary and Poland have made a full transition into electoral democracies, while other nations such as Lithuania and Slovakia remain on the verge of transition. Countries where democracy is in retreat include India, Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Russia and the United States. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer offers deeper insights with 66% of global respondents declaring they have no confidence in their country’s current leaders, believing they will not be able to successfully address their country’s challenges. Religious and Government leaders along with the very wealthy, are ranked as the least trusted cohorts of all - in favour of scientists, local citizens and community members.

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