Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Viral Intelligence

Via Andrew Sullivan comes this Matt Drudge interview:

...We're now in a totally new era where information is information and you just really have to set your own threshold in what you believe.

Just because you get it from an established source doesn't mean it's true.

This is relevant, if somewhat tangential, to a point I've been meaning to make about the evolution in what's known as "actionable intelligence". It used to be that actionable intelligence referred to intelligence that was so unimpeachable that it rendered a military response not only possible, but ipso facto legitimate and justified. (Think the satellite photos of the Cuban missile installations that President de Gaulle didn't even need to see to believe.)

All that has changed in the post-"slam dunk" era. Now actionable intelligence is anything that, by meeting Drudge's standards with enough people, creates the political climate necessary for military action to be possible. (Think Bush's "sixteen words" or Colin Powell before the UN Security Council.)

In practice it means that instead of intelligence generating the necessary course of action, a pre-determined course of action generates the necessary intelligence. Bush and Cheney have been particularly egregious offenders, but in all likelihood they won't be an isolated case. To be clear, this is more than just exagerrating an incident, like Tonkin Bay, or even provoking one. It's a reflection of how epistemology has been effected by the information age. The defining feature, as Drudge says, is no longer the relationship between a source's authority and the truth. It's between an individual piece of information and each individual's belief.

And as far as I can tell, the increased transparency of the information age will do nothing to mitigate the effect of this dynamic. Partly because, as Drudge says, in an information environment devoid of authority, facts don't necessarily get the best of falsehoods. But also because people's sense of what's true is very often based on innuendo and association, rather than information. Mention Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the same sentence often enough and a sizable amount of people will be of the opinion that attacking Iraq is part of the War on Terror. The transparent falseness of the conclusion does nothing to mitigate the propaganda value of the technique.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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