WASHINGTON — A high-ranking State Department official has offered a stark warning about the potential of “computational warfare” to destroy the Enlightenment order that has governed Western society for more than two centuries. And he called for an “Enlightenment 2.0,” one that would bring the ideals of the original Enlightenment — reason, civil discourse, humanism — to the digital sphere.
“We don’t need to say that this is the death of the Enlightenment. We need to create Enlightenment 2.0,” said the official, Matt B. Chessen, who serves as acting deputy science and technology adviser to the secretary of state. He has been at the State Department for more than a decade, with postings in Baghdad and Kabul. Chessen is also a science-fiction novelist with vivid ideas about the future of humanity and technology.
His remarks came at a briefing held on Capitol Hill earlier this week by the Helsinki Commission, a bipartisan agency concerned with international security. The briefing was titled “Lies, Bots, and Social Media: What is Computational Propaganda and How Do We Defeat It?”
Chessen said that “the possibility of a post-truth world actually directly undermines the Enlightenment ideals of a search for truth and reason.” The advent of such a world, in which intentionally misleading news stories jostle with truth, would benefit adversaries of the United States, Chessen said. “They want to see this post-truth world. Because in that world, a fact is whatever you can convince people of.”
It was not immediately clear whether Chessen’s remarks suggested a renewed commitment from Foggy Bottom to countering concerted disinformation campaigns from domestic extremists and foreign U.S. adversaries such as Russia and China. Chessen did not respond to requests to clarify his remarks, but a spokesperson for the State Department said that “the Department is broadly concerned about threats to democracy, including threats posed by state-sponsored disinformation and manipulative information operations designed to undermine democratic processes and institutions.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas who supported Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, has not evinced much anxiety about disinformation. As director of the Central Intelligence Agency, he has sometimes downplayed the extent to which Russian information warfare played a role in the 2016 election.
Trump has discounted that possibility outright. And he has at times appeared to advocate for a post-truth world of the very kind Chessen warned against. In July, he told a gathering of veterans that “what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening. Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.” Although the president’s invocation of “fake news” refers to news reports about his administration he believes to be inaccurate or unduly critical, the way he has framed his complaints about the news media, and the intensity of those complaints, has worried the keepers of democratic institutions. The president also has endorsed conspiracy theories about the Clintons and liberal financier George Soros. These tend to bubble up from the computational warfare swamp.
Trump’s personal attorney, the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, offered what may well become the motto of the post-truth world: “Truth isn’t truth,” he said during an August appearance on “Meet the Press.”
Recent months have made clear that technology giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter have enabled the dissemination of purposefully deceptive news, frequently serving as unwitting participants in the information war waged on the Western establishment.
But in a response to a question from Yahoo News, Chessen said it was too soon to hold hearings similar to those that brought the nation’s top cigarette executives to Capitol Hill in 1994. Their deceptions ultimately led to the unraveling of Big Tobacco. Chessen, who once worked for the technology company Razorfish, said that companies like Facebook and Twitter lack the “malicious” intent of nicotine purveyors.
Chessen did suggest that the federal government may need to create a “new institution” that would treat social media companies like a public utility with a “civic function.” He also expressed some admiration for Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation, which gives Internet users more control over their data. California has a similar law, but Silicon Valley has resisted a push for greater regulation.
Calling for a “national conversation” on technology issues, Chessen said that “maybe Congress needs to convene a commission on data privacy, information security and disinformation.”
In addition to serving as a career diplomat, Chessen is the author of science fiction novel, “Broad Horizons,” described on Amazon as “a satirical, futuristic, cyberpunk novel,” one that “combines self-replicating nanites with temporal acceleration to create a nanotechnology intelligence, with devastating effect.”
On his website, Chessen also writes about the future of technology. In one article, he predicts that artificial intelligence “will facilitate the creation of artificial realities — custom virtual universes — that are so indistinguishable from reality, most human beings will choose to spend their lives in these virtual worlds rather than in the real world. People won’t breed. Humanity will die off.”
Chessen’s fellow panelists agreed that the notion of an unregulated Internet was coming to an end. “There was this idea that this technology itself was pro-democratic,” said Karen Kornbluh, who served as an economic development official in the Obama administration.
Nina Jankowicz, an expert on Russian information warfare at the Wilson Center, seconded that sentiment. “Social media self-regulation,” she said, “has been a failure.”
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