This is the real danger: that people become numbed by the daily dose of news disguised as outrage.
“We are careening towards a future where the ability to distort reality shakes the foundations of democracy.” —Aviv Ovayda via Twitter
No, there aren’t any zombies. But there are bots and trolls, hackers, hijacked accounts, propaganda, and pretenders of all sorts. Lies and liars abound. How do we succeed in this toxic information environment and maintain the bond of trust with our soldiers and civilians, not to mention the American people who support us? As leaders, how can we work with allies, recognize enemies, and respect ground truth? How do we engage a weary public on national security?
This is the real danger: that people become numbed by the daily dose of news disguised as outrage, disappointed and disgusted to the point they simply give up, stop challenging the army of falsehoods that confronts them and disengage from public discourse entirely. How can we reach them? What can be done, at the seat of government or other institutions? What can we do as senior military leaders? It comes down to the ways and means of telling truth and preserving trust, even as the apocalypse threatens to drown out all civility and destroy productive public discourse.
The Gallup management consulting company annually publishes the results of its poll on the most trusted institutions in the country. The military retains its high standing, while trust in newspapers and broadcast media has fallen in recent years. Other American institutions have also fared worse. In 2016, internet news, a new category, was rated fairly low, although recent privacy issues and manipulation of content may make that figure drop even more. Now, the media is the most distrusted institution in the world. The mainstream media has slid unwittingly into sensationalism and a rush to judgment.
This lack of focus coincides with a substantial rise in propaganda. From its demise from the lexicon following World War II, propaganda was confined for decades to political advertising and was easily recognizable. In the past twenty years propaganda insinuated itself into the mainstream, promoting particular points of view and causes with limited information of a factual nature.
There is a defined American cultural tendency to place public figures on a pedestal and revere them for their accomplishments. But the list of those who have been toppled from those pedestals since the 1990s is a long one, packed with prominent names, from almost every institution, including: the clergy (thank the Catholic Church abuse scandals), sports (e.g., corruption in the selection processes for the FIFA World Cup, doping of Russian Olympic athletes, and professional football’s deflate-gate controversy), politics (including governors like Schwarzenegger, Spitzer, and Sanford among others ousted following extramarital affairs and use of public funds for illicit purposes), and the world of entertainment. Finally, the celebrities from the mainstream news media itself come crowding in.
As we have witnessed a souring of ethics in public life, we have become inured to our loss of confidence in those reporting news. Print and broadcast journalists have become major celebrities, with fans and followings of their own. Eventually, some fall, including the likes of Brian Williams, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer: victims of their own arrogance and false senses of invincibility.
Even entertainment world celebrities with their long histories of nonconformist lifestyles have failed to titillate with their affairs and excesses in recent years. The debasement of language in movies, television, and song seems to have reached rock bottom itself, until the next shocking revelation. Yet we are unable to look away. Celebrities now influence more than personal choices in attire and cosmetics; they influence issues and even markets. In February 2018, Snapchat shares fell six percent in response to a tweet by celebrity Kylie Jenner, who said, “Soooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore?”
The result of the toxic mix of American culture and apparent lack of standards is an appalling slurry of political excess, celebrity overindulgence, and hubris. To some extent, this negative atmosphere existed prior to the election of the current president. Yet, that event marked beginning of a new era and a significant drop in social norms, inviting new lows in civil discourse and standards for public service, while promoting excesses in personal behavior. In one of the initial interviews regarding his new book, former FBI Director James Comey stated, “We are living in a dangerous time in our country with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused, or rewarded.”
Unfortunately, military leaders have not been absent from this stage. Sensationalized stories about the very public fall of Generals David Petraeus, Michael Flynn, and Stanley McCrystal come immediately to mind. The failures of public figures erode our faith in the institutions they represent. We need our leaders, while not perfect, to live up to the standards they spent their careers espousing.
Can we believe much of the news we see and read? Or perhaps, if one accepts that there are potential issues in all news coverage, the larger question becomes, then why isn’t media regulated by government? Why aren’t there ratings for veracity or reputation for impartiality? Many restaurants in the U.S. post their sanitation ratings, yet when we read a political piece on a social media site there is no warning that it isn’t safe for human consumption. How do we know what we are getting? This is a singularly important question since most consumers have the inherent tendency to seek out news that confirms beliefs they already hold. Even this well-traveled Media Bias Chart by Vanessa Otero that purports to assess various media by its focus is subject to interpretation; many may disagree with its placement of news sources as liberal, conservative, or ultimately, even unreliable.
And the information apocalypse continues to grow. The issue of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has alarmed members of both parties and magnified the issue of social media responsibility. The result is undeniable. Following the conclusion of the U.S./Baltic Summit, then National Security Advisor, then-Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said, “Russia brazenly and implausibly denies its actions, and we have failed to impose sufficient costs. The Kremlin’s confidence has grown, as its agents conduct their sustained campaigns to undermine our confidence in ourselves and in one another.”
More than two billion people use Facebook worldwide. This global phenomenon has flattened distance and engaged and networked people across the world in ways never seen before. As a media platform it is eclipsed in the U.S. only by YouTube which is used as a source of news and entertainment by 73% of all adults (and 94% of Millenials). So with the explosive news that Cambridge Analytica had obtained data on 87 million users through a third party developer and that data was used in an attempt to influence voters in the presidential election, Facebook was forced to acknowledge its responsibility for protecting consumer data and its obvious failure to do so.
The debasement of language in movies, television, and song seems to have reached rock bottom itself … . Yet we are unable to look away.
Naturally the question surfaced again, in the political theater that constitutes a public Congressional hearing. Should American lawmakers focus on regulating tech companies or permit them to continue to regulate themselves? Facing lawmaker’s questions, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg promised a number of changes to how Facebook is managed in an effort to increase security, authorizing ads, and protecting privacy.
It is a different story in the European Union. There the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which took effect in May, is expected to better protect privacy through strictly regulating Big Tech data collection and enforcing consent. It will also fine those who do not comply. The U.S. Congress may follow suit but it is likely not to be a swift or easy change.
The Edelman Trust Barometer goes deeper, the study delving into issues beyond that of information manipulation by foreign governments, trolls, political operatives, or false flag organizations to the more primal fear that information can be used as a tool of warfare itself. Global statistics on trust are fairly static but in the U.S. there has been a staggering 37% drop in trust in all institutions in the past year alone. According to the Barometer, nearly 60% of adults say “I am not sure what is true and what is not,” while over 56% say “I do not know which politicians to trust” and 42% say “I do not know which businesses to trust.” In 2017, the most widely shared fake news story was one that former President Barack Obama had signed an executive order banning schoolchildren from taking the pledge of allegiance. It was read more than two million times. In the last election, fake news was circulated nearly 40 million times.
Perhaps even more worrisome is the portion of the Edelman trust study that reveals rising global concerns regarding fake news as a weapon. Many countries are beginning to pass laws concerning the distribution of fake news and beginning education programs designed to help individuals understand how to tell a lie from a true statement. In Italy, the government is working with the Ministry of Education to teach children how to spot fake news.
Even as allegations of fake news haunt U.S. elections, they have also disrupted elections in South Africa. In Singapore, the government is considering new laws to combat fake news while Germany now fines media companies for failing to delete fake news.
In the U.S. trust issues are broader than that of influence or manipulation but go to actual distortion. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a major factor in this area, from the long-criticized alteration of news photographs and digital video editing, to computer enhanced or even created images, often not designated as such. Associated issues include AI used for decision making in a military context, to direct drones, satellites or other weaponry, all when a certain set of criteria are met, and in conditions devoid of human oversight.
China is investing heavily in developing AI and its related technologies. For example, future computers could direct swarms of bots or order satellites to attack other satellites and destroy them. The danger here is speed of application. Could warfare speed up to the point that people are unable to keep up with the decision making process? Or that they are no longer part of that process? We have a preview of that possibility from our front row seats here are at the beginning of the process, as we watch the evolution of the driverless car and its decision making capabilities. Not to mention its mistakes.
Each institution in a democracy has an obligatory role in building trust, or in many cases now, restoring it. Just as the manufacturers of driverless cars have to work hard to build consumer confidence, other businesses have to continue to strive to protect privacy and build prosperity. Edelman states that employees typically trust their employers to do the right thing, with a global confidence level of 72%. Government and NGOs have further to go in restoring trust. And perhaps, the institution that is in last place is the Fourth Estate. In order to fulfill its self-described missions to educate, inform and entertain, the broad institution of media must do more to guard information quality, discipline itself and protect the privacy of consumers.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say they prefer to protect the public’s freedom to access and publish information online, including on social media, even if it means false information can also be published.
That means individuals who reject regulation must do a better job of recognizing false information. How can we challenge the lies? Individuals can:
- Ask questions. Ask for evidence. Ask yourself if it is a joke.
- Check the source. Is the URL for the story legitimate? For example abcnews.com and whitehouse.gov are legitimate sites. Abcnews.com.co and whitehouse.org are not.
- Quotes by a public figure can also be fact checked and traced back to an event or statement.
- Photographs can be examined by reverse searching the url on Google.
As producers of information and official positions or commentary, leaders should aim for consistency and transparency in communication. They should perform as role models of professionalism and always act in accordance with service values. They must:
- Respond early to lies, outrageous charges or fake news. Even if a commander doesn’t have all of the correct information or the right answers, it is more important to be able to say, “We are going to find out. We will investigate and will tell you what we learn.”
- Know when to pre-empt potential negative news. There are times when internal briefings to family members – telling them first about a potential deployment, or an extension, can go a long way to towards maintaining the bond of trust.
- Background sessions with local media that explain processes and procedures can also be helpful. “This is how casualty notifications work. Here is how the process for a court martial unfolds.”
- As for fake news or alternative facts, call it out. No drama, no accusations, simply the facts.
There are numerous sites that bill themselves as fact checkers or scam debunkers but many are ineffective. But awareness is the most important step and the one that should result in false information being exposed. The University of Washington has a new course titled, “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World.” Hopefully this course, and other information sources like it can give consumers the tools to find truth and recognize and reject lies.
We are still in the beginning stages of this information apocalypse. Upon reflection, perhaps this phenomenon might be better defined as a chaotic beginning to a new information age. It remains to be seen whether news, media, and Big Tech companies will take a positive role in righting the pillars of their institution or whether the Fourth Estate will suffer from self-immolation only to rise from the ashes as a new being. Whether these changes will be for the good is something that all leaders can and should influence. That requires vigilance and sustained engagement.
There is no sitting out the apocalypse. It isn’t just coming. It’s here. No one will be left behind. There are only those who will be consumed or those who have learned how to navigate. We need to be the trusted navigators.
Mari Eder is a retired major general in the U.S. Army. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.
Photo Credit: Tookapic, via Pexels.com. Released to public domain.