The power of disinformation lies in its psychological strength. On one hand, it can be easily disregarded, due to its seemingly outlandish claims, especially when it appears haphazard and clumsy. But on the other hand, disinformation efforts can be remarkably effective, in part because they can be executed stealthily via the internet, relying on the fact that any information—no matter how implausible—still resonates in our fragmented culture’s susceptibility to conspiracy theory. In 2014, while serving at the US embassy in Kyiv, I was the subject of a targeted disinformation attack. I became aware of this when I started receiving hate mail from conspiracy theorists, sent to my work email address. Unbeknownst to me, Russian trolls, under the guise of independent “truth-exposing” hackers, had falsified a letter under my name, claiming that I was part of a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine against Russia. Our embassy response to this claim was quite simple: “Absurd.” Fortunately for me, this report never gained traction. But it raises a broader question: Do we ignore these claims or respond to them? One’s gut reaction when confronted with falsehood is to push back, citing facts and debunking the falsehoods through careful research and investigations. But an enduring way to diminish this threat is to focus on the intended audience and build resiliency to withstand those attacks.
It is prudent to ask why deliberately disseminated falsehoods resonate with citizens, and how to strengthen our resolve in the face of disinformation attacks. Nina Jankowicz, a scholar at the Kennan Institute who researches disinformation, observes that more focus should be directed to those “who are targets of Russian disinformation, why its narratives find fertile ground among them and what can be done to change that.” Not only does Russian disinformation aim to not only create confusion and sow general discord, but it is also targeted; narratives take special aim at known divisions in society. Here in the United States, for example, disinformation seeks to erode the trust that citizens have in their governmental institutions.
Russia perceives that this relationship between US citizens and the government, often tense, is one of America’s greatest vulnerabilities, and that it increases political polarization. A healthy distrust of big government has been woven into the fabric of the American people. But when does this distrustful relationship turn unhealthy? Numerous surveys have pointed to the low level of trust that citizens have in their government. Only 17 percent of Americans trust their government to do the right thing either always or most of the time. Making matters worse, the exponential expansion of media outlets, combined with rise of the mobile device, has exacerbated these trends. Although the federal workforce as a percentage of the total American population has shrunk over the last fifty years, as one example, some media reports fuel the opposite perception. To curb attempts to sow division in our society by spreading false information and disrupt our efforts abroad, the United States can improve its security by investing in its own democracy without mirror-imaging our adversary by creating outlets like Russia’s—RT and Sputnik, for example—which serve Kremlin interests rather than the truth.
Reacting Without Being Reactive
Some efforts are already underway. Recently, the US government has created entities to share information, analyze trends, and inform a response to disinformation campaigns. Legislation in 2017 created the Global Engagement Center (GEC), based out of the State Department. The GEC’s mission is to “lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining U.S. national security interests.” The Department of Defense has also been examining the structure and authorities of its institutions that involve the cyber domain. DoD is currently wrestling with the roles and responsibilities of Cyber Command, and whether this entity should assume expanded authorities over broader information warfare globally. While the effort to define roles and responsibilities is laudable, it could be a mistake to consolidate all information-related activities into one functional command, neglecting the expertise and agility of regional commands—and their interagency partners—to respond when necessary. While the conversations between State and DoD need to continue, the arguments over structure miss the larger issue. How do we amplify our message?
The US Agency for Global Media (USAGM)—until recently known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors—is responsible for advancing principles dedicated to freedom of information and expression as well as communicating American values abroad. It does so primarily via five networks: Voice of America communicates news from the United States; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting focus on news catered to their regional audiences; and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks focuses on a wide array of international and local news to reach Arabic audiences. USAGM adheres to the legislative “firewall” between these networks and the US government: the latter cannot tell the former what to say. This firewall is critical and adheres to US principles of a free and independent press, as Thomas Kent, the former head of RFE/RL explained to me. Some discount the USAGM’s impact as a messaging tool because of this firewall, but the opposite is true: by deliberately protecting the content of the networks from US government influence, we increase American credibility as an honest broker of information and engender trust in those we aim to reach. More resources should be dedicated to this valuable tool, yet USAGM’s FY20 budget is likely to be lower than previous years. If the United States is serious about retaining its influence abroad to advance American interests, Congress should appropriate more money to the five networks. While we may never match Russian efforts to fund information activities around the world, we can do more to amplify the effect of our federally funded—but independent—networks.
Education to Strengthen Resilience
At home, introducing modest advancements in our education curriculum to promote media literacy, digital competencies, and civics for all citizens will strengthen our resilience to withstand disinformation attacks. An increased awareness to the risks of our digital world is warranted. Almost all Americans—96 percent—own some sort of mobile device, with 81 percent owning a smartphone. Congress should encourage the improvement of media literacy and the building of greater digital awareness in middle and high schools. Other countries subject to contested information environments, such as Estonia, have already introduced this in their secondary schools. Estonia promotes “digital competence” as one of the eight core competencies that inform school curricula. But we should not confine improving digital competency to younger populations, already perceptive to the risks associated with the cyber domain. Increasingly, older generations demonstrate a susceptibility to disinformation. Encouraging and incentivizing civil society organizations at the community level to engage in this outreach would be the most beneficial way to help all adult age groups better understand various sources of information.
To complement these initiatives and to strengthen our citizens’ ability to identify disinformation, it would be sensible to find common ground and promote civics education in our schools. Several states, notably Massachusetts and Illinois, have made great strides in elevating civics curriculum standards. CivXNow, a project of the nonprofit enterprise iCivics, has formed a bipartisan coalition of numerous philanthropic organizations, learning providers, and other stakeholders to promote “civic knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary for informed and authentic civic engagement.” Recent studies have pointed to the abysmally low level of knowledge of government among US citizens. By some accounts, approximately 75 percent of Americans cannot name all three branches of government. Increasing general civic knowledge among our populace could certainly act as one more tool to inoculate against disinformation and elevate the public discourse. Framing these initiatives as part of the larger national-security equation might garner more interest in Congress, and possibly lead to increased federal education standards for the nation.
Moving to a Culture of Public Service
Finally, to build more resilience at home, it is time to incentivize public and national service, with the aim of connecting more Americans to their governing institutions, whether they be local, state, or federal. Currently, only 6 percent of the federal workforce is under the age of thirty, while 30 percent of this same workforce will be eligible to retire in five years. Established in 2017, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service set out to “examine and recommend ways to increase participation in military, national, and public service as a means to strengthen our nation.” The commission’s interim report contains helpful recommendations that could add resiliency to our nation’s ability to withstand disinformation.
Public and national service is a known way of increasing social cohesion. Some countries have even recently re-introduced conscription as a means of strengthening the social fabric. While not suggesting that we should re-introduce the draft, we could do much more to increase incentives and awareness of service opportunities. By properly incentivizing national and public service, our nation could drastically increase the contact that citizens have with local, state, and federal government, which could tear down old preconceptions and prejudices. “Our goal is to transform the existing spirit of public service into a culture of service,” Dr. Joseph Heck, chairman of the commission, told me in an interview. The commission has put forward a suite of recommendations to do this, from public-service scholarships, akin to the military’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, to forgiveness of student debt under certain service obligations. We should also not confine the pool of potential applicants to younger generations; there could be plenty of ways to incentivize mid-careerists and retirees, as well, to leverage skills and expertise that are, in some cases, in high demand—thereby expanding the pool of Americans whose experience binds them close to their fellow citizens.
The information space is crowded, and the proliferation of media can complicate a coherent response amid the noise. Americans can now easily live in information bubbles, which reinforce their own biases and prejudices and accelerate disinformation efforts. Russia understands the resonance of information warfare well and has employed tools to destabilize the United States, exploiting worn and latent seams in our social fabric. The answer to countering disinformation lies not just in recognizing disinformation trends and understanding the evolving nature of information warfare, but also in strengthening our democratic and civic culture to become resilient to such threats. The United States should double down on our inherent democratic strengths and soft power—both at home and abroad—to strengthen our society, contribute to social cohesion, and make us more resilient in the long run.
Jason P. Gresh is a US Army colonel and foreign area officer, and has served at multiple US embassies across Eurasia, in a range of security cooperation duties. He most recently served as the security cooperation chief at US Embassy Tallinn.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: kremlin.ru