More Than a Buzzword: Diversity Can Help Defeat Disinformation
How much do you really know about the people and organizations you follow on social media?
A lot of people started following @Blacktivist when the account joined Twitter and Facebook in early 2016 and began supporting causes in the black community. Around the same time, @BacktheBadge, made its Twitter debut as an “authentically American” community supporting police officers. Initially, @Blacktivist posted stories about Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man whose death in April 2015 at the hands of police sparked protests and riots. The posts were passionate, exclaiming things like, “We are fed up with police violence, racism, intolerance and injustice!” Content incorporated the rhetoric of racial outrage and protest, and the account quickly gained more followers than @BlackLivesMatter. Simultaneously, @BacktheBadge ran ads supporting law enforcement and included links to its “community of people who support our brave police officers.” The ads eventually appeared in feeds of over 1.3 million Facebook users. Yet, while the accounts appeared to be legitimate, Facebook and Twitter found evidence that @Blacktivist and @BacktheBadge were linked to Russia. Both accounts had taken advantage of America’s open society and manipulated narratives to influence opposing sides of a contentious social issue.
Russia, however, is not the only player — China is also capable and has long employed influence tactics. China’s latest efforts include targeting information about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination efforts. Regardless of origin, foreign manipulation and influence activities in the context of great-power competition are potent because they work within existing social fault lines to raise tensions on both sides of divisive public issues (e.g., gun control, racism, and abortion) and to reinforce peoples’ fears and prejudices. The result is a fracturing of the public’s shared reality: “the experience of having in common with others inner states about the world.” While U.S. adversaries nest their influencing campaigns neatly within centralized government strategies, America’s response remains decentralized and poorly coordinated. What is particularly concerning from a national security perspective, moreover, are the foreign manipulation efforts targeting the U.S. military and veteran populations through the use of “misleading and divisive questions about the U.S. government’s military and veteran policies to further amplify and exploit the existing frustrations.”
But the United States does possess the means to defend itself because diversity, within the context of team building, is an antidote to foreign malign influence and a force protection imperative for U.S. service members. Ultimately, foreign attempts to manipulate and influence the American public undermine communal truth and trust — two elements that are also paramount to successful military teams. While actively working to diversify the military might not be the intuitive approach to building resilience, the strength of diversity is the key to countering foreign disruption efforts targeting the U.S. military.
It’s Not About the Party. It’s About the Public
In March 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its declassified assessment, Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections. The report identifies how, throughout the election cycle, Russia’s interference sought to affect public perceptions of the candidates, undermine confidence in U.S. election processes, and exacerbate social divisions. Russia’s purpose, according to the assessment, was to undermine America’s democratic institutions in order to weaken U.S. power and legitimacy — an objective of Russian foreign policy since the early days of the Soviet Union. Various Russian organizations, including proxy actors, contributed, making the malign activity difficult to track and stop.
Even though election influence only comprises a small portion of Russian activities in the information environment and Russia has other lines of effort — examples include the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, the NotPetya ransomware campaign, and the recent SolarWinds hack — the assessment reiterates how Russian influencers target social cleavages in a strategic and calculated manner to affect public perceptions. Ultimately, because information flows are often not controllable (even by the most powerful states and certainly not in a democracy that values free speech such as the United States), foreign actors can manipulate information to weaponize U.S. public opinion, producing effects far beyond what any state could create with state resources alone.
Importantly, by pushing influence narratives — including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations about political figures, media organizations, U.S. officials and private citizens, and public health crises, – foreign adversaries have direct access to the American public. With their astute assessment of America’s cultural pressure points, Russian and Chinese actors target the information flows surrounding inflammatory issues spanning the political, economic, and social spectrum. Additionally, malign foreign activity should not be construed as distinctly partisan or as a partisan problem. Instead, Russia and China stoke fires on both sides of the aisle, adding inflammatory content to already passionate narratives to deepen social divisions, widen the ideological gap between opposing groups, and increase distrust across the population. In short, foreign actors are influencing how the U.S. public thinks and feels about contentious social issues, and Americans hardly notice it.
‘When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen’
Because the American public is vulnerable to synchronized foreign influence activities, U.S. service members are, too. George Washington famously emphasized loyalty to the Republic, stating that “when we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen.” As part of an all-volunteer force that swears an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, each U.S. service member assumes the responsibilities of citizenship while simultaneously taking on the added responsibility of service to the nation. Living alongside and among the general population, service members and veterans are not only susceptible to information manipulation targeting the average citizen, but are actually the target of additional foreign manipulation efforts. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines all access social media platforms just as civilians do, but with foreign adversaries creating content specifically designed to attract the military audience, the likelihood that foreign influence is impacting the military grows exponentially. In fact, the issue of military targeting was raised by the Vietnam Veterans of America in August 2017 when the group first became aware of an imposter account, based in Eastern Europe, using its name and logo. The fake Facebook page had more followers by the time it shut down than the official Vietnam Veterans of America account.
Diversity: More Than a Buzzword
The U.S. Department of Defense recognizes force diversity as critical to mission readiness, but diversity is too often viewed as a played-out buzzword or a check-the-box event instead of a dynamic and ongoing initiative that is an asset against a new(ish) and evolving threat. And despite Defense Department efforts, diversity remains an ongoing challenge, especially among general officers. While differences (e.g., racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, economic, etc.) can seem challenging to leaders and subordinates alike when developing team culture and cohesion, research shows that diverse teams outperform homogenous ones and that diversity is essential for the military to represent and connect to the American public it serves. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, recently emphasized force diversity during a joint commissioning address for Army and Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets at Howard University, stating, “We’re strong as a nation and strong as a military when we act together as one team. Like the diverse strands of a rope when interwoven, giving it incredible strength, one of the key strengths of our American military is our diversity and fighting for a common cause.” Milley highlighted the military team and how the benefits of diversity cannot be realized without a strong sense of team and organizational inclusion.
U.S. military diversity efforts can be understood as a social justice initiative to make the force more inclusive — across ranks and among recruits — and more representative of the American population. It is also an important recruiting initiative: Over time, bringing in more diverse recruits will lead to a more diverse military if retention efforts also focus on diversity and inclusivity. But, as explained above, foreign adversaries are directly targeting social divisions, which can lead people toward what is sometimes called “ingrouping” — “a belief that [a person’s] social identity is a source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems”— rather than inclusiveness. “Ingrouping” tendencies are driven by a sense of social destabilization and a growing hostility toward others or outgroups. In these types of situations, the truth matters little: People become closed off from alternative viewpoints. Greater intergroup hostility feeds social distrust, creating a divided society more prone to rumor and falsehood — precisely the endgame of adversarial attempts to manipulate information and narratives.
However, diversity is an antidote to foreign adversaries’ manipulation tactics. In general, diversity is the degree to which there are differences among a group, unit, or team, and the U.S. military thinks about diversity in two ways: demographic and cognitive. Demographic diversity includes age, gender, sexual orientation, education, income, marital status, religion, race, and ethnicity, whereas cognitive diversity is about differences in personality, attitudes, values, knowledge, strengths, and skills. Often overlooked, cognitive diversity or informational diversity highlights how people bring different information, opinions, and perspectives to their work. In teams, this is critical for innovative problem solving. The same logic applies to demographic or social diversity. Individuals who are different — in race, gender, and other dimensions — bring unique information and experiences to a team. A male and a female soldier may have perspectives as different from one another as those of a social scientist and a physicist, and that can be a good thing. Essentially, diversity integration is about cultivating the various strengths and perspectives that individuals bring to a team to solve a collective problem. Although leaders seek diverse teams, true integration develops a shared understanding among teammates, giving them all the same sense of purpose and belonging to a group.
If the intent of malign foreign influence is disruption, then countermeasures should focus on building trust and developing mutual understanding across diverse groups to build a shared reality. Building trust is complicated — and even more so in the current era of endemic misinformation and disinformation often connected to foreign manipulation. Unlike other foreign threats, misinformation and disinformation constitute an epistemic threat to what the American public believes is real. Knowledge is socially distributed — not individually constructed — and over the last few decades, the institutions that help Americans define what is real and what is true have been steadily eroded, creating a vulnerability that U.S. adversaries are quick to exploit.
Trust and Teams, Putting Diversity to Work in Great-Power Competition
I propose that diversity be considered a national security imperative in the context of great-power competition. In fact, the newly released Interim National Security Strategic Guidance places diversity first, calling for “creative approaches that draw on all the sources of our national power: our diversity, vibrant economy, dynamic civil society and innovative technological base, enduring democratic values, broad and deep network of partnerships and alliances, and the world’s most powerful military.” However, diversity integration within the bounds of team building will not succeed until diversity is perceived within the framework of national security. Ultimately, resiliency in great-power competition mandates acknowledging how foreign actors targeting the American public are successful. Because service members and veterans are directly targeted, it also requires the U.S. Department of Defense to recognize that its people may be doubly affected. Fortunately, current doctrine and initiatives hold the key to building a resilient military but a reframing of the discussion about diversity and its importance is required.
Proactive and deliberate steps should be taken toward understanding social divisions that pose an internal risk to military cohesiveness. But, first, an understanding of trust and the elements required to generate it is necessary. Col. William B. Ostlund explains how the Army Doctrine Publication 6-0 notes that “trust is gained or lost through everyday actions … [and] comes from successful shared experiences and training, usually gained incidental to operations but also deliberately developed by the commander. While sharing experiences, the interaction of the commander, subordinates, and Soldiers through two-way communication reinforces trust [emphasis added].” Col. Ostlund further explains that communication “builds trust, cooperation, cohesion, and shared understanding [emphasis added].” Ultimately, trust building is a deliberate process, facilitated by two-way conversations that result in a shared understanding rooted in shared experiences.
Diversity Integration Requires Top-Down and Bottom-Up Initiatives
Based on the understanding of trust described above, the U.S. Department of Defense should actively cultivate shared understanding and cultural appreciation through the following tiered approach to diversity:
Acknowledge that individuals in the U.S. military experience the same effects of foreign influence and manipulation as the American public and that the American population and American military are groups whose members overlap. Therefore, any approach to counter foreign influence should be deliberately developed with the understanding that social divisions do not disappear once people are in uniform. The shared experience of wearing a uniform is the starting point, not the solution.
Recognize the role that elites and public figures play in promoting falsehoods and linking them to the public’s political and social identities. Because the military is a segment of the American public, the military leadership cannot ignore the configuration of information flows reaching the American public. Why? Because soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines ingest the same information as civilians. Private attitudes and assumptions about outgroups do not disappear once the holder is in uniform, and the U.S. Department of Defense should take an active role in communicating facts to overcome the inertia of public opinion to generate shared understanding — potentially by leveraging the messaging expertise found in its public affairs branch. Increasing the cost of making false claims and making corrections difficult to deny or avoid can help foster trust. Finally, research shows that “messages drawing attention to potentially unwelcome facts … may also be more credible when coming from unexpected or trusted sources,” such as general officers and senior civilian leadership.
Counter misperceptions and falsehoods by amplifying third party and credible sources through “mediated deliberation” to prevent belief polarization on social issues targeted by foreign manipulation. Communicating factual and scientific information directly to the public writ large has shown little success in correcting or reducing misperceptions. Additionally, efforts to reduce misperceptions are often short-lived, and injecting credible sources of knowledge has little effect if falsehoods are linked to opposing ideological worldviews. However, despite these challenges, the U.S. Department of Defense should undertake efforts to shape its collective intelligence through mediated deliberation and incentivize leaders to counter foreign manipulation efforts. Collective intelligence, similar to a shared reality, is facilitated by trusted mediators (e.g., senior leaders or persons with legitimacy within U.S. military circles) who “investigate, articulate, and ‘rationally reconstruct’ the political points of view of citizens for one another.” Leader-driven, mediated deliberation within an organization can help address the tension among different ideals when members are incentivized to respond to points of view that deserve attention. Additionally, when recognized leaders are encouraged to engage in narrative correction and provide resources to counter false narratives — such as an official, organization-generated fact sheet about COVID-19 to counter Russian and Chinese disinformation — the military is giving voice to stakeholders who possess credibility inside the organization to communicate evidence that counters falsehoods. Therefore, the military services can become resilient to foreign influence through deliberately developing collective intelligence and a shared understanding.
Help facilitate conversation among diverse teammates to generate shared understanding. Research has shown that “non-judgmentally exchanging narratives in interpersonal conversations can facilitate durable reductions in exclusionary attitudes.” Two-way communication among teammates is key: “The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.” While exclusionary attitudes are precisely those targeted and exacerbated by foreign manipulation and influence, shared experiences among diverse teammates can increase resiliency to foreign influence — but only if diverse teammates feel valued by the team. Integrating diversity is about curating a deliberately developed team culture that is inclusive and supports diversity as a means of repelling foreign efforts to fracture team bonds. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston recently said that the point of the recent Department of Defense “Stand-Down to Address Extremism in the Ranks” memorandum was to have “[o]pen, candid conversations on uncomfortable topics. Air it out. Listen to each other. Walk away with a better understanding. You’ll be better for it.” Because, societal divisions are reflected in the military, the services should emphasize developing relationships to generate shared understanding. A diverse force is more resilient to foreign influence.
To build a military that is resilient to foreign influence and manipulation in the era of great-power competition, the U.S. Department of Defense should emphasize diversity as its first line of defense. Foreign actors routinely exploit and exacerbate social divisions, but adversaries cannot exploit social tensions if U.S. troops are united by a shared reality. A diverse military can repel foreign influence if service members recognize that underneath the uniform, they are a cohesive team, united in service to the American public. If leaders emphasize that trust and teamwork can only be genuine when differences among team members are acknowledged, understood, and appreciated, the U.S. military can deflect efforts to divide it from within. Society tells us that “beauty is only skin deep,” but the U.S. Department of Defense cannot to afford to accept a defensive posture in which “unity is only uniform deep.”
Capt. Maggie Smith, Ph.D., is a U.S. Army cyber officer currently assigned to the Army Cyber Institute at the United States Military Academy, where she is a scientific researcher and an assistant professor in the Department of Social Science. 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: U.S. Army