trust in our public and democratic institutions is falling away in a landslide

An unknown sage observed, “Information is a tool of warfare, and information is warfare itself.” Three months ago, WAR ROOM featured my essay exploring the deteriorating information environment. Things are not getting better. 

Two major institutions are now emerging from crisis, both shamed and embarrassed. First is the U.S. Supreme Court. The American people watched it run headlong into the #MeToo movement and get sullied in the process. In televised hearings and news coverage jam packed with references to sordid adolescent behavior, binge drinking, and sexual assault, the pedestal that Justice herself stands upon began to crack. It felt personal. The confirmation of Justice Kavanagh was simply the most recent part of a much longer story: the gradual erosion of the legitimacy of the court, as evidenced by increasing public divisions over judicial appointments, and increasing disapproval of the court as a whole. Americans are losing faith not only in the court’s non-partisan nature but in the fundamental process of naming justices.

The other is the Catholic Church, still reeling from another round of charges and cover-ups. In August, Pennsylvania Catholics were stunned following the release of a grand jury report that documented more than 1,000 cases of clergy abuse across the state. “I had a moment when I felt like this institution doesn’t have any goodness in it,” one woman said. An attack on faith. Again, it felt personal.

Even as Americans are exhausted by the onslaught of institutional breakdowns and allegations of fake news, we fail to realize the danger in turning away from public life and engagement. We are being targeted – not just as a nation, but as individuals. The attacks are becoming more personal and trust in our public and democratic institutions is falling away in a landslide. Mainstream Americans are turning away. Their place is being usurped by those on the fringes. A recent study, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” discussed how minority groups on the far left and far right dominate the public discourse on major social and political issues. These hard liners neither listen to nor respect each other. In the middle? The study calls these marginalized 28% of Americans the Exhausted Majority

Tuning Out…

The evidence of the disengagement of this moderate middle is growing, and this is a problem. First, there was compassion fatigue, a syndrome grew as news organizations daily showed images of stranded international refugees. Rather than spur action, donor wallets snapped shut with a tired click. Now with the Information Apocalypse well underway, information fatigue is spreading. We have gone beyond feeling overwhelmed with all the information we are received. We no longer want to know what is next, nor do we even care. It is no wonder there is a new play on Broadway titled, “The Lifespan of a Fact,” starring Daniel Radcliffe as a magazine fact checker. The play examines the nature of facts and the fragility of truth, asserting that white lies undermine society’s trust in itself. Politics takes center stage, entertainment for the disengaged.

A recent Public Affairs Council poll reveals that Americans who stay engaged with public issues tend to distrust national political and business news. Yet the news media remains the second most trusted source for news (46%), well below that of friends and family (71%). But what if we cannot trust those closest to us? Now, mistrust of news and information gets personal.

Add this to numerous security breaches in personal data held by institutions from employers to banks and we realize that we are under relentless attack all the time and from all sides. When asked about the potential for a major cyber-attack, Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence said, “The lights are blinking red. Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.” Bob Woodward’s latest book, Fear, includes a dire warning, on this topic: “I think people better wake up to the nature of the war on truth and its consequence.”

…While Adversaries Get Bolder

The world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. Physical and diplomatic threats take place daily on land, sea, and in the air. From Chinese ship incursions in the South China Sea to the growing Russian presence in the Arctic to the omnipresent saber rattling in North Korea, and Iran, threats to nations and individuals are continuing unabated. But the most insidious threat though occurs in the information domain.

We have already felt its impact. OPM suffered a massive hack a few years ago. So have major credit card companies and even companies that purport to protect against identity theft. Earlier this year Facebook promised to do a better job in protecting users’ personal information. Yet, the company revealed in early October that a massive security breach had exposed the private data of 29 million users. This is a security disaster, although one that is gaining only subdued coverage. Will Oremus said in Slate.com “It’s a safe bet that those who took this data are not people you want ‘pawing through your personal life.”

Relentless personal attacks continue in other forums as well. People still fall prey to emails and other phishing scams that tell users to provide their passwords or click on a fake link. It is not just the internet, either. Every form of communication is subject to misuse and abuse. Emails prey on others and snail mail can still ensnare the elderly with fake magazine subscriptions, scams and cons. And let’s not forget the phone; phishing calls use a wide variety of tactics to manipulate people. In one scam, a scam call frightens grandparents into sending money to help out a make-believe grandchild in trouble. As hurtful (and creative) as these schemes are, perhaps their worst effect is to foster a growing mistrust of information in any form. 

Uncovering the truth can be time consuming and difficult. Columnist Geoffrey Fowler tried and found himself chasing down a number of rabbit holes to discover the falsehoods behind a popular Facebook video of a near plane crash. It had 14 million views when Fowler saw it. The lie was sent to him by a friend. He talked to Facebook, to his friend and others in his investigation. The lesson: challenge something that seems too good (or strange) to be true. Stop taking things at face value.

Threats to the stable operation of that digital infrastructure, the internet backbone of global commerce and communication, means that trust in institutions will probably continue to erode. This ongoing decay leaves the doors wide open for a plethora of other bad actors to engage. Foreign Affairs devoted its Sept/October 2018 issue to the information domain and its threats, titling the issue, “Word War Web.”

In Like War, The Weaponization of Social Media, P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking argue that the internet is changing the nature of warfare. Twitter attacks can result in real-world casualties and disinformation, which in turn radically alters the discourse between governments and armies. The information battle-space continues to blur both reality and perceptions of reality.

What US and Others are Doing

There is no greater indication of how serious this threat has become than the launch of police forces (not military) to fight it. On August 30th, the FBI activated its new site, dedicated to combating foreign influence.  More individuals are being affected and the FBI is giving people both a chance to engage with law enforcement and providing them with the tools to fight personal attacks. The site grew out of efforts by the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF). Established in 2017, the FITF was chartered to seek out, identify, and counter foreign influence campaigns targeting the U.S. While influence campaigns have taken many forms over the years, the most widely known today is the attempts by adversaries, either governments acting covertly, or non-state actors to influence large segments of the U.S. population through false stories, advertising and sites designed to discredit institutions and political parties, policies, and public figures.

One article, “Regulate to Liberate,” explores the European Union’s regulatory efforts to protect personal information. The General Data Protection Regulation, in effect since May, asserts the personal data is a “fundamental right.” While this law is groundbreaking and will undoubtedly be closely studied by other organizations and governments, it is still new and many of its tenets are evolving. Certainly we will continue to see the courts take a role in refinement of how the law is applied and interpreted. And other countries, including the U.S., will be watching to see what works and what doesn’t.

We fail to realize the danger in turning away from public life and engagement

In America, tech giants are working on internet security on their own terms. Twitter has been busy removing fake accounts from its site, even as more pop up every day. Microsoft has been following suit, most recently removing a fake app from its store. And Facebook? The social media giant says it is taking major steps to fight fake accounts linked to Iran, and Russia. It is also serving as a watchdog for election meddling. But it has just been hacked again. Is relying on business to do the right thing enough? Frustrating, it seems that efforts to counter online attacks are one step behind the next attempt to distort, and destroy. Michelle Flourney and Michael Sulmeyer’s article, “Battlefield Internet, A Plan for Securing Cyberspace,” calls for the U.S. government to fundamentally rethink its approach to cyber security, and even consider the establishment of a new organization to focus exclusively on cyber security.

Dealing with macro-level threats is difficult enough, but threats to individuals are scary, damaging, and highly effective. Do you know anyone affected personally by a cyber-attack? Rather, do you know anyone who has not been affected in some way? Phishing attacks go through Facebook and other social media sites in waves. Some fail; many still succeed. State and local governments, hospitals, movie studios, retail chains, law enforcement agencies, schools, state and local governments and private individuals are also targeted individually, randomly, and personally through network attacks, computer intrusions, ransomware and identity theft.

Just ask Kris Goldsmith, an Army veteran who is hunting fake Facebook accounts that target veterans. His work to expose and dismantle those sites has resulted in more than 100 questionable pages, with millions of followers, being flagged to Facebook’s managers. Many of these sites have Russian or Iranian ties. The FBI’s site, created in concert with the Department of Homeland Security, provides a great deal of information for individuals, including a number of short videos providing tips and guidance for protecting computer networks and information on how to spot cyber-crime. There is also a hotline for reporting internet crime.

Down to Us

But this is the bitter truth we as a society must face: we cannot rely on our institutions to carry the fight alone. As individuals, all of us are involved.

There are no bystanders in this war. We should fight to go beyond indifference and seek out the truth. And we need to call out any information that is fake or misleading. This will not be easy. We have short attention spans. Even if we do pay attention to information designed to help us protect our personal information there is more work to be done. We can limit our online profiles, safeguard social security numbers and birth dates, and never use Mom’s maiden name as a password, but we still need more. We need tools and a culture change at a societal level that accepts and embraces the lessons of today’s information age.

What more can be done to heighten awareness? Do we pay attention to military command information programs on social media awareness? Or the DHS or FBI public information outreach campaigns? Perhaps not enough. Interestingly, The FBI sponsors a site on Safe Online Surfing to teach children in grades three through eight how to be safe on the web. Safety and security awareness must be taught early and on an ongoing basis.

If we do not join in solving these problems and change our ways, we fulfill the warnings from the science fiction television series, The X-Files. Agent Mulder told his colleague, “Deep Throat said ‘trust no one.’ And that’s hard, Scully. Suspecting everyone, everything, it wears you down. You even begin to doubt what you know is the truth.”

Agent Mulder was right. There is more than credibility at stake. In the “Information Apocalypse,” it is all about survival and hoarding our personal data as though it is the most precious thing we own. Because it is. Only then can we begin to rebuild trust.

 

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.

Image: Ústí nad Labem, the Czech Republic. Větruše, a mirror labyrinth.

Image Credit: By ŠJů, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18200682

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