News from the Field

The Stanley Foundation examines nuclear risk in a changing media ecosystem

Editor’s note: Last month, MIF hosted a discussion about the film Command and Control, which gives viewers a chilling glimpse into America’s nuclear weapons program. It chronicles a deadly accident at a missile site in 1980, and poses the question: What if the weapons built to protect us threaten to destroy us? It marks the latest discussion in our Documenting Impact series, which offer funders and media makers a chance to go behind the scenes on the making of these important projects and the strategies that helped broaden their impact. Watch the recording. Meanwhile, Devon Terrill of the Stanley Foundation reached out to us about her organization’s work on understanding the connection between social media and nuclear risk. Here, she frames the issues at play.


By Devon Terrill | Media Program Officer, Stanley Foundation

It seems all too possible lately that, after a few taps of the thumbs on Twitter, existing nuclear tensions could escalate to nuclear war. It’s a worry shared, but not well understood, by many nuclear weapons experts.

So how might a nuclear crisis play out in today’s information ecosystem? We posed that question to a roundtable of nuclear weapons experts, political psychologists, and digital media experts at the Stanley Foundation’s 58th annual Strategy for Peace Conference in October. We titled it, Three Tweets to Midnight: Nuclear Crisis Stability and the Information Ecosystem, evoking the famous Doomsday Clock that conveys how closely we are to destroying civilization with our own technologies.

As researchers and media funders grapple with how to combat disinformation and misinformation while trust in mainstream media wanes, widespread use of social media is transforming the global information ecosystem in ways that could have serious international security implications.

We know that social media makes it vastly easier, faster and cheaper to disseminate information to targeted audiences. With those dynamic changes to the information ecosystem as a starting point, the roundtable explored how fake news and social media could put new pressures on decision-makers during crises involving nuclear weapons states.

Participants observed several aspects of the emerging information ecosystem that warrant attention for how they might interact with international crisis stability:

  • The volume, velocity and reach of information is increasing faster than norms, policies and institutions have evolved to manage the consequences of the information. This is going to change dynamics in the interrelationships between decision-makers, constituents and the media during international crises.
  • Professional journalists have a critical role in accurately informing the public, which can have a stabilizing influence during crises. But they are no longer primary gatekeepers for information and have diminishing influence to counter false narratives.
  • Misinformation and disinformation have become highly cost-effective, distributed, adaptive and deniable. Automated accounts on social media—or “bots”—can scale up the effects.
  • Social media combined with the ubiquity of social sensors has facilitated the disintermediation of intelligence. Nongovernment analysts can sometimes rely on this combination to obtain data from nuclear and missile tests in near-real time.

The discussion explored case studies of how these rapidly evolving changes have affected domestic and international crises and potentially widened the arena for conflict. While there are few cases from which to draw conclusions, given the catastrophic impact of a nuclear exchange, a number of pressing questions surfaced that could inform future research on how to reduce these risks.

You can learn more about this discussion and its questions for future research in a policy memo that the Stanley Foundation published in November 2017. A more comprehensive capture of the discussion will be published in January 2018.

The Three Tweets to Midnight roundtable was co-organized by the Stanley Foundation and experts from Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). We plan to build on this initial discussion through more intensive activities in 2018.

If you are interested in learning more about the roundtable or future events and publications, please contact the Stanley Foundation’s Media Program Officer, Devon Terrill, at:  dterrill@stanleyfoundation.org.

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