Within days of Stengel joining the State Department in February of 2013, two shocking events made world-wide headlines: ISIS executed American journalist James Foley in a graphic video seen by tens of millions, and Vladimir Putin’s “little green men”—Russian special forces—invaded Crimea, amid a blizzard of Russian denials and false flags. What these events had in common besides their violent law-lessness is that they were the opening salvos in a new era of global information war. Stengel—the single person in government tasked with unpacking, disproving, and combating both ISIS’s messaging and Russian disinformation—was thrust onto the front lines of this battle, and found himself hopelessly outgunned. Stengel discovers firsthand that government, with all its bureaucratic red tape, is not very good at creating messaging. Ultimately in a democracy, it is not the role of the government to determine what is true information. Stengel argues that it is crucial that we do more to educate the public about media. As Stengel says, “We don’t have a fake news problem, we have a media literacy problem.”
Richard Stengel was the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs from 2013-2016. Before working at the State Department, he was the editor of Time for seven years, from 2006-2013. From 1992 to 1994, he collaborated with Nelson Mandela on the South African leader’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Stengel later wrote Mandela’s Way, a New York Times bestseller, on his experience working with Mandela. He is the author of several other books, including January Sun, a book about life in a small South African town as well as You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery. He lives in New York.