Nuclear Weapons | Readout and Recommendations

Three Tweets to Midnight: Nuclear Crisis Stability and the Information Ecosystem

February 2018


How might a nuclear crisis play out in today’s media environment? What dynamics in this information ecosystem—with social media increasing the volume and velocity of information, disrupting journalistic models, creating potent vectors for disinformation, opening public channels for adversaries to influence national leaders, and changing how political leaders interact with constituencies—might threaten rational decision making during crises between nuclear-armed states?

There are still many unknowns about the effects of social media on international conflict. Digital disinformation and influence campaigns have already been used by foreign adversaries to interfere in democratic elections and have played roles in low-intensity international conflicts. But leaders have not been tested in high-stakes security crises in this media environment. It is worth asking what new dynamics leaders would face and whether this affects the likelihood that a conflict could escalate, potentially to include the threatened or actual use of nuclear weapons.

This brief provides a framework for identifying such questions. It identifies several disruptive dynamics in the information ecosystem. It then looks at the psychology of decision making and asks when during the arc of a crisis the information ecosystem might have significant detrimental influence. It also recognizes that technology may be empowering new actors who have stabilizing effects on the information ecosystem and could promote accuracy and informed decisions. The brief concludes with a series of open questions deserving further examination.