As tensions between global powers once again come to the forefront of the national security discussion, the United States finds itself facing not only traditional threats, but entirely new kinds of warfare borne out of rapidly advancing social technologies. Perception management, manipulation and propaganda have always played a vital role in warfare, but the advent of popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as concerted digital campaigns mounted by foreign governments, have expanded the role of information warfare in the 21st century — and the United States Special Operations Command, normally thought of as a kinetic force, rather than a digital one, wants to ensure America doesn’t fall behind in this new theater.
“Russian troll farms through Facebook and Twitter tried to divide America and inject fake news into our public life.” SOCOM said in a statement. “Communications technologies by themselves are neutral, yet it is bad actors who can hide in plain sight and leverage attacks using fake accounts making the threat very real. In this way, information can become weaponized and threaten a nation’s sovereignty.”
With this concern in mind, SOCOM hosted the Sovereign Challenge Conference in New York City last month. The conference’s theme was a simple question: “is truth a commodity?”
The conference included more than 100 participants from 43 different nations, and featured key note speakers like Dr. Richard Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations, Steve Clayton who is billed as Microsoft’s “chief story teller,” and Dr. Ajit Maan, president of Narrative Strategies, a think tank that specializes in “non-kinetic aspects of counter-terrorism.”
Speakers addressed a variety of issues facing national government’s today, including the pervasiveness of “fake news” being spread through social media and the emotionally and politically charged atmosphere the internet has become. These issues are not only concerns in elections or regarding political figures, they can shift perceptions of a national endeavor like warfare. While there is nothing wrong with a grass roots political movement gaining momentum through social media, the concerns of entities like SOCOM arise when the movement was initiated or advanced by foreign powers to achieve their own goals.
“Surveys say seven and ten people worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon,” Clayton said. “People tend to think fake news is U.S. centric, but clearly it isn’t, countries like Mexico, Argentina, Spain and Indonesia, that’s where the worry is the highest about fake news.”
Ultimately, much of the discussion boiled down to one issue: human beings propensity to be influenced by narratives, rather than truth. This issue has become a prominent concern in the United States since news first broke about Russian efforts to manipulate the perceptions of American voters in the 2016 presidential election, but that Russian endeavor didn’t stop there. Since then, Russian groups have been linked to a number of divisive initiatives, like attempting to incite racial and religious violence in events created by Russians posing as Americans.
Amid legitimately nefarious efforts to manipulate perceptions are other issues, including the amount of misinformation shared on social media thanks in large part to what some call internet “rage culture.” Websites produce fake stories to draw traffic, which are then shared thanks to things like confirmation bias, wherein a person seeks information that supports their pre-existing beliefs, rather than actual facts.
“Technology has atomized everything to meaninglessness. Everything is hyper-charged with emotion. Social media is about thinking fast.” said Maria Ressa, chief executive officer for Rappler, an online news site based in The Philippines. “In the end journalists are no longer the gatekeepers. And the gatekeepers today have no rules. It is mob rule. Good journalism is now bad business.”
Although the conference was heavy on observation and perhaps light on solutions, it prompted days of important discussion and debate regarding how best to counter both intentional and unintentional misinformation in the digital sphere, as well as how these issues affect broader topics like national security. Ultimately, there is no single solution, no magic wand that can resolve the litany of problems presented by the world’s modern digital inter-connectivity. Instead, it will likely require a gradual shift in culture prompted, at first, by discussions like these.
SOCOM’s core activities include “Foreign Internal Defense,” which is explained as protecting the nation “against subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to their internal security, and stability, and legitimacy.” One might not expect the same command element that fields Navy SEALs and Green Berets to lead the way on conversations about shared Facebook statuses and emoji laden retweets, but SOCOM doesn’t choose the wars it fights, it’s just in the business of finding ways to win them.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense