The Need to Inoculate Military Servicemembers Against Information Threats: The Case For Digital Literacy Training for the Force
Every minute of every day, men and women in uniform are attacked by a weapon that threatens them, their services, and the nation. Yet the U.S. military has not trained them to prepare for this onslaught. It is time for this to change.
Over the last several years, misinformation and deliberately spread disinformation, pushed by both foreign and domestic sources, have proliferated online. They have shaped not just what people read and believe, but also how they act. This “weaponization of social media” has created a formidable challenge in nearly every policy area, from aiding the forces of terrorism and extremism, to being a tool of great-power competition, to damaging the vitality of our democracy.
This challenge is not just to our wider national security, but also to the military itself. Every day, millions of servicemembers at every rank use social media. In so doing, they regularly are targeted by and engage with the viral spread of false information online. The resulting effects on them and the military affect operational security, force reputation, and even the physical health of servicemembers.
The shameful and illegal Jan. 6 takeover of the U.S. Capitol, fueled by viral lies and largely motivated and coordinated via social media, suggests that the problem may be more dire. Of those members of the mob charged so far in federal court (a subset of the total participants), it appears that at least one in five have a military history, approximately three times the rate at which military or veterans are represented in American society. Some data suggest that this problem may be even more widespread: In 2020, the FBI notified the Department of Defense of 143 servicemembers involved in extremism-related probes. Further, screening the social media of forces deployed to protect the inauguration of President Joe Biden reportedly led to a dozen members being “relieved of duty.” More examples will almost certainly emerge as more focus is given to the issue by the military, law enforcement, and researchers, especially as they sift through the terabytes of data leaked from the Parler social network that included posts from multiple military members and geotagged U.S. military bases.
In the wake of the Joint Chiefs’ powerful statement condemning these acts and the incoming Secretary of Defense’s pledge to act on this new risk during his confirmation hearings, we are at a “Now what do we do?” moment. We believe that a key policy item in this agenda should be to bolster the digital literacy of the force.
The reason for this need comes from not just an emergent threat but a gap in our broader response to a changing world. In facing the rise of digital threats over the last decade, the Department of Defense has launched initiatives ranging from new force structure to altering strategy documents. This focus on the organization itself is also where most of the proposed policy solutions have been focused.
But in sharp contrast to how both the policy (and the policy debate) would address any other area of force effectiveness (as it has done on everything from lethality to physical fitness), the role and training of the individual servicemember in this new online battle has largely been ignored.
The Case for Digital Literacy Training
In a world of claimed “alternative facts,” where even the very phrase “fake news” became twisted and weaponized, it is useful to start by defining the problem and its terms. A simple breakdown is offered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s resource for those who teach journalism:
- Disinformation: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.
- Misinformation: Information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm.
- Mal-information: Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, social group, organization or country.
In military terms, information acts like a biological weapon. Like a virus, it can infect the host and spread, both harming the host and also using it a means to reach a wider community. Malicious information thus operates simultaneously at the level of the individual and the network, and it should be countered at both levels, too.
Through changing thoughts and beliefs, the viral spread of information can lead to real world actions that can rapidly scale, which is why it has quickly become a key weapon in the arsenal of everyone from terrorist groups to foreign spy agencies to politicians and celebrities. And this weapon can be wielded with both tactical and strategic effect, across any key issue. For example, in the ongoing competition with great powers that particularly plays out in gray zones, Russia has repeatedly targeted NATO forces on deployment in Eastern Europe with such online disinformation campaigns. In many ways, they are modern-day versions of KGB “active measures campaigns” from the Cold War and, just like those campaigns, would also be accelerated to larger effect if there were outright conflict.
Similarly, social media has also altered a host of other age-old defense challenges, and arguably made them far more difficult. American and allied militaries, for instance, have also experienced a rise in “honey pot” entrapment via social networks for use in espionage. So too, “insider threats” can now be cultivated from afar. Both Islamic and far right non-state extremists have already used social media to recruit and mobilize servicemembers to act contrary to the very fabric of the U.S. military’s values, policies, and regulations. And, finally, operations security issues are massively magnified in a world where almost anything can be posted online for literally anyone in the world to see, and then mine for data to exploit against that individual servicemember, their unit, or the larger force.
Weaponized information has also struck at the larger society that the U.S. military exists within, and thus here too hits the force itself. A pertinent and ongoing illustration of this challenge, and the high stakes, is what public health professionals call the “infodemic” of false information about COVID-19. The viral spread of false information about everything from the disease’s origin to simple best practices to protect against it has been one of the reasons that the pandemic has been so lethal, and has undermined force protection measures along the way. For example, the spread of various myths about masks have acted to reduce their use and, as a result, put servicemembers and their families at risk. This challenge may grow even more difficult with the combination of vaccines being a currently voluntary decision and COVID-19 vaccine disinformation campaigns starting to organize — anecdotally, a voluntary sign-up for the vaccine at a U.S. military post this last week saw only a third of the eligible active-duty servicemembers do so.
While it may be less pernicious than lost lives or battles, soldiers’ misuse of social media also causes an almost daily drumbeat of embarrassing episodes for the force, which then cause what feels like a never-ending series of headaches for leaders. Dealing with something said or done on social media that should not have been said or done on social media is now a regular challenge not just at the unit command level, but all the way up to the most senior levels of the Department of Defense. These episodes range from simple juvenile antics and mistakes, which become attached to the larger force because they are done by a servicemember online, to more serious examples like the recent case of a junior officer who made grossly inappropriate comments about the Holocaust on social media. One of us interviewed a now retired service chief and he commented that one of the biggest surprises he had in that most senior leadership role was “how much time” he ended up spending on social media-related incidents.
Implementing Digital Literacy: What Would It Look Like?
Getting a better handle on the changing digital threat environment should involve more than shifting organizational charts or creating new units. Just as the online threat has shifted from hacking networks to those on them, so should digital literacy training evolve beyond annual cyber awareness training focused on what link not to click. Fortunately, the United States does not need to re-invent the wheel to develop such training. Sweden, for example, implemented an early training manual for countering influence activities as far back as the 1980s, which was later adopted by Finland. It is no coincidence that the Scandinavian states are now considered among the best nations in the world at dealing with online threats.
There are also many existing educational resources in the U.S. civilian world, which range from books and videos to educational gamifications. Along with the National Association for Media Literacy Education and the Florida education system’s CyberFlorida project, our own organization (New America) is building a portal to assemble these tools into one place for educators, and maybe also the force.
Each of these tools is about providing the skills, knowledge, and abilities that soldiers should possess concerning social media. For example, a RAND/IREX study found that exposure to short media literacy videos made even the most avid and partisan users of social media less likely to engage with and spread false information. Similarly, a Harvard study of an inventive digital literacy video gamification found that such training interventions yield the equivalent of an “inoculation” for the individual, creating “significant and meaningful” reductions in the effectiveness of deliberately manipulated information against them (and the larger network they are within).
Whatever the tool used, the National Association for Media Literacy Education’s guide Building Healthy Relationships with Media offers a simple set of guiding questions to begin any user’s engagement with media: “Why was this made? Who made it? What is missing? How might different people interpret it? How do I know this is true? Who might benefit from this message? Who might be harmed by this message?”
In deploying these tools into the force, the Joint Staff J-7 , with its responsibilities for doctrine, education, concept development and experimentation, training, and exercises and lessons learned, would be the appropriate coordinating body, with the implementation then flowing down through each of the service’s training commands, such as the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
The need for these new skills cuts across ranks — much like cybersecurity awareness is handled now, digital literacy should be woven into professional military education at all its levels, from boot camp all the way up to senior leader seminars for new flag officers. To be clear, though, a digital literacy initiative is not about creating new professional military education course loads. Instead, much of it should be via individual self-study lessons, with links to existing digital literacy resources vetted by the force. It should then be supplemented by various forms of hip-pocket training, formerly Noncommissioned Officer Opportunity Training, using “guided discussions” as another means of training that blends digital literacy with a key matter of concern. For example, imagine a sergeant directing all of his or her subordinates to pull out their smartphones and search for COVID-19 stories, then leading a guided discussion about safe behavior on COVID-19 versus disinformation and how it works. Similarly, Leader Professional Development Opportunities for officers and noncommissioned officers can be executed in the same way as the guided discussion, but taken further to address specific force protection and operations security concerns that connect with social media.
The utility of such tools is that they can also be easily deployed outside of active duty and reserve professional military education and training. For Defense Department civilians and contractors, the implementation should be much the same as how cybersecurity awareness training is already baked into contracts and new personnel assignments. As certain elements of the threat also target military family members (such as the above COVID-19 example), many of the same resources should also be made available through Family Readiness Groups, where they can be voluntarily accessed (we should also expect that the experiences will provoke many to have valuable conversations with spouses, partners, and children, creating a kind of “train the trainer” effect).
As is the practice in civilian digital literacy training (and is already the case in current Department of Defense cyber security training courses), the modules might conclude with quick online skills evaluations. A typical approach is presenting a scenario through which a soldier could demonstrate knowledge of the key features of digital literacy, such as pulling out facts versus opinion statements or identifying altered media. While the individual should be expected to pass the evaluation for completion, any outward reporting of the specific scores should be anonymized (and there should be no career consequence of individual performance on the evaluations). Instead, the overall community scores are about providing a means of feedback and assessment of key areas that might need particular attention in future iterations.
However, it is important to stress that the measurement of success of digital literacy training is not merely about improving one’s individual defenses or even the broader resilience of the force. Yes, those who have such skills are better positioned to identify, understand, and, when appropriate, respond to mis/disinformation they encounter in the social media space. But having digital awareness goes beyond just that. It is really about gaining the skills to succeed in a world where information has shifted from being scarce to often overwhelming in its (too) easy availability. We all now should be able not just to access information online but also to evaluate and communicate it in new and better ways.
“Pre–Bunking” the Counterarguments
As with any new proposal to face a new challenge, there are potential concerns that have to be answered about the force providing such training.
Some might ask whether digital literacy is even something for the military to teach. One could envision a fear that it might turn the institution into a “nanny state” telling soldiers what to think or even violating their First Amendment rights.
To begin, digital literacy is not a policing of behavior or censorship of ideas, but rather a provision of skills. Its training would be about empowering servicemembers to better navigate the digital world that they engage with literally every day. As the RAND Corporation report Exploring Media Literacy Education as a Tool for Mitigating Truth Decay sums, the focus is “on teaching participants how to think without dictating what to think.” The goal of the force training would be to give servicemembers a better awareness of the environment that they are both constantly in and constantly targeted by and the critical thinking skills to operate more effectively and safely in it.
Secondly, part of why that added training is needed is not just because members of the military are frequent targets, but also because the consequences of their actions can be very different, including for themselves. All Americans have First Amendment rights, but military servicemembers operate under a different legal regime regarding their acts and speech (as confirmed by the Supreme Court from even before the advent of social media, under 1986’s Goldman v. Weinberger). This also holds within the force’s own regulations, such as Army Regulation 600-20, Army Command Policy. In cases of criminal behavior online (such as in terms of child pornography and extremist affiliations), there are obvious legal prohibitions, whether someone is in uniform or not. But there are also a wide range of behaviors online that might be legal for civilians under the First Amendment but violate military professional norms and codes and even lead to Uniform Code of Military Justice punishment.
Another potential concern is whether digital literacy training would be a costly or difficult proposition for the joint force. Fortunately, as noted above, there are already multiple resources available, many of them free and open source. In turn, the implementation does not require changing organization charts, new legislation, or massive new line-item budgets. In fact, one might even think of it as a means of indirect cost savings, akin to how we train soldiers in everything from cybersecurity best practices to how to exercise correctly, in order to reduce the number and severity of data breaches or soldiers injured at the gym. Even more, digital literacy fits in with top priorities already identified by the force for its future, such the Army’s focus on people and modernization. Gaining digital literacy helps modernize people and their ability to navigate a changing world.
There should no longer be any doubt that the spread of misinformation and deliberate disinformation campaigns are a threat to our servicemembers, Defense Department civilians, their families, and, by extension, national security. As such, the Defense Department should alter how it not just organizes, but also trains, all the way down to the individual level. Digital literacy is a necessary capability that servicemembers need to possess in the 21st century. If U.S. forces are to defend against new online threats as well as more effectively lead and communicate in this new battlespace, the force needs to fill this key missing part of its training.
Lt. Col. Eric B. Johnson, U.S. Army, is the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Senior Fellow with New America.