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The Emerging Risk of Virtual Societal Warfare

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The Emerging Risk of Virtual Societal Warfare

Social Manipulation in a Changing Information Environment

Rand Corporation,

15 min read
7 take-aways
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What's inside?

Think the world is a divided, polarized place now? It could get worse – and soon.

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The one-two punch of rapidly advancing technologies and fast-fraying social trust bodes ill for the near future. That’s the disconcerting conclusion from this report by RAND Corporation experts. Building on RAND’s Truth Decay report from 2018, the authors imagine possible paths for the world in the next half-decade. Even the most heartening scenario seems grim: Big tech companies grow far more powerful, and algorithms delve into everyone’s lives to a frightening degree. An even gloomier forecast predicts that a fearful and deeply divided electorate will retreat permanently into their own realities.


Russia and China are using a new form of cross-border aggression.

Russia and China are engaging in “hostile social manipulation” of the world’s democratic societies. Early incursions such as efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election in the United States underscore a fundamental reality: Nations rely on communication networks that are vulnerable to bad actors. The new mode of manipulation targets not the physical world but human minds, by seeking to sway thoughts and beliefs. Bad actors employ Facebook and other platforms to spread lies, sow discord and generally undermine the stability of democratic states.

Citizens of advanced societies might feel that the Information Age has fully arrived. In fact, the societal shifts which have taken place so far are just the beginning. The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and artificial intelligence will change life profoundly in the coming years. Meanwhile, “truth decay” has already taken hold – as evidenced by the ease with which disingenuous actors can spread false but seemingly factual information in pursuit of subversive goals.

The next wave of threats...

About the Authors

Michael J. Mazarr is a senior political scientist at RAND. Ryan Michael Bauer is a defense analyst at RAND. Sarah Anita Heintz is a research assistant at RAND. Luke J. Matthews is a behavioral and social scientist at RAND. Abigail Casey also co-authored the report.

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