Global Data Shock
Strategic Ambiguity, Deception, and Surprise in an Age of Information Overload
Robert Mandel



THIS BOOK EXPLORES two intertwined central global puzzles:

• How does information overload generally affect strategic ambiguity, deception, and surprise, and when does information overload seem most and least likely to increase the chances of strategic ambiguity, deception, and surprise?

• How do strategic ambiguity, deception, and surprise generally affect global security, and when do these manipulation techniques seem to have their most positive and negative impacts on global security?

Many public officials and private citizens sweepingly conclude that, regarding data acquisition, more is always better for decision legitimacy and effectiveness, and, regarding data transmission, complete clarity, transparency, and predictability are always better for global security. In contrast, this investigation somewhat counterintuitively finds that today’s information overload frequently facilitates strategic ambiguity, deception, and surprise, challenging enlightened internationalist expectations of emerging global trust and cooperation. Increasing information access can dramatically worsen the signal-to-noise ratio,1 eroding effective management of global intelligence and security challenges; operating as if most global communication is honest and accurate can have disastrous foreign policy consequences. This disconnect between common information and communication premises and existing realities results in global data shock, impeding both public officials’ and private citizens’ ability to interpret, respond to, and ultimately shape the world around them. In exploring circumstances affecting information overload’s impact on strategic manipulation and on global security, and in recommending policies to manage global data shock, this analysis serves as a corrective to rosy assessments surrounding traditional “big data” analysis solutions and as a reminder that even with more information and better fact-checking and data assessment tools, today we may be out of touch with the world around us.

Analytical Scope

Given the breadth and depth of information and communication distortions, this book’s scope is carefully circumscribed. This study considers the contrasting perspectives of both initiators and targets of strategic ambiguity, deception, and surprise because information misinterpretation and manipulation are embedded in two-way communication, for which responsibility is shared, making the quest to find fault or isolate who is right seems fruitless. Ten relevant case studies are explored: the 2017 foreign security policy style of American president Donald Trump; the 2016 “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union; the 2002–2003 nondiscovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea; the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster; the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia; the 2007 Israeli attack on the Syrian al-Kibar nuclear plant; the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan; the 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States; and the 1990 Iraqi attack on Kuwait.

This investigation’s geographical scope is explicitly global, because the interplay between information overload and strategic manipulation cuts across national boundaries. This study emphasizes the post–Cold War time period, particularly the twenty-first century, for that is when the Internet-age information revolution transformed foreign data interpretation and manipulation. This work focuses on cross-state security issues (even when manipulation occurs within countries) because the most critical interpretation and manipulation costs and benefits are both international and security-oriented. Finally, this analysis concentrates on intentional and premeditated strategic manipulation applications because this deliberate planned use seems to have greater potential for improved future management. Overall, this integrated exploration aims to understand fully the complex web of causes, consequences, and cures surrounding global data shock.

Provocative and Unique Qualities

This book is both controversial and distinctive in several ways:

• It challenges the reliability, validity, and credibility of much open-source quantitative foreign security data.

• It challenges the value of always acquiring more information as a means of correctly interpreting situations and coming up with appropriate policies.

• It challenges the utility of traditional “big data” analysis in managing foreign security information.

• It challenges exclusive reliance on internal experts—with their biases and grooved thinking—as a means of correctly interpreting incoming information.

• It challenges the universal desirability of clarity, transparency, and predictability in global security communication.

• It is the first book to link information overload to changes in strategic ambiguity, deception, and surprise, considering the perspectives of both initiators and victims.

• It is the first book to detail a comprehensive set of global Information Age case studies presenting new material about the role of information overload and strategic manipulation.

• It is the first book to comprehensively explore the circumstances under which information overload most promotes foreign strategic manipulation and global insecurity.

• It is the first book to comprehensively present policy recommendations for constraining the negative security consequences of information overload and strategic manipulation.

• It is the first book to stress how both information overload and strategic ambiguity, deception, and surprise are critical concerns for citizens and government officials alike.

This study is unique not only in undertaking an integrated and timely analysis of global data shock but also in raising critical broader security concerns, including (1) global value divides, where despite growing globalization, tensions surround cultural diversity (including nativism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and Western–non-Western and Global North–Global South frictions); (2) foreign intelligence failures, where despite massive data collection, many security aims are not reliably attained; (3) mass public frustration, where despite expanded news access, many citizens misunderstand foreign security policy; (4) citizen freedom and privacy fears, where despite increased human rights rhetoric, many people worry that personal information collection has gotten out of hand; and (5) international anarchy, where despite alleged enlightened global restraint and mutual respect, there appears to be a resurgence of “might makes right” behavior.


1. For an early discussion of the ramifications of the signal-to-noise ratio in information interpretation, see Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962), 392.