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Windmills of the Mind: Higher-Order Forms of Disinformation in International Politics

James Shires has contributed a chapter to the proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Cyber Conflict (CyCon 2021), which gathers 20 articles from the law, technology and strategy domains.

James Shires
25 May 2021
Link to chapter (available open access)


Disinformation – the organised and deliberate circulation of verifiably false information – poses a clear danger to democratic processes and crisis response, including the current coronavirus pandemic. This paper argues for a conceptual step forward in disinformation studies, continuing a trend from the identification of specific pieces of disinformation to the investigation of wider influence campaigns and strategic narrative contestation. However, current work does not conceptually separate first-order forms of disinformation from higher-order forms of disinformation: essentially, the difference between disinformation about political or other events, and disinformation about disinformation itself.

This paper argues that this distinction is crucial to understanding the extent and consequences (or lack thereof) of disinformation in international politics. The paper first highlights how political disinformation is often sparked by leaks – the release of secret or confidential information into the public domain. It suggests that disinformation and leaks intersect with conventional cybersecurity threats through the increasingly common phenomenon of hack-and-leak operations. The paper then introduces the concept of higher-order disinformation. This discussion is followed by an empirical example: the case of US intelligence assessments of Russian hackand-leak operations during the US presidential election campaign in 2016. The paper concludes with offensive and defensive policy implications, arguing that the relevance of second, third, and higher orders of disinformation will only increase as more experienced actors draw on the material, successes, and lessons of previous campaigns.

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