Over the past few years, much has been said and written about the growing incivility in our country. From the news media to social media to the man in the White House, coarse name-calling has overtaken measured, civil discourse. There are myriad reasons this is a dangerous trend, but we need to understand and bear heavily in mind one in particular. Our growing incivility is a grave threat to our national security.
To understand why, look at the D.I.M.E. paradigm, a way of military thinkers have devised of looking at instruments of national power. The acronym stands for Diplomacy, Informational, Military, and Economic. Beneath these four levers of power exist all of the ways and means that every country may employ to exert power and influence.
In three of these areas, the United States has unquestioned dominance over all other nations on earth. But in the informational area, that dominance is nowhere near as certain. Informational levers of power include public relations, communications, and, most importantly, propaganda. The United States’ offensive informational capabilities are second to none, but our defensive capabilities are hampered by one of our most cherished institutions: the First Amendment.
While an ultimate good, freedom of speech is also a dangerous hole in our ability to defend against the growing threat of propaganda operations. Our primary foreign adversaries — Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea — are all repressive regimes vastly more capable of defending against propaganda. If speech is being used to sow division and discord in those nations, they just squash it. They shut down websites, close newspapers, and even kill journalists. These are defensive options that thankfully our government cannot use.
The Propaganda Threat Is Growing
Over the past several years, our country and its leaders have awoken to cyber-attacks’ grave threats to national security. Quite reasonably, the most focus has been placed on major operations such as shutting down power plants, actions that can potentially kill many Americans. But in the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, we are increasingly focused on small, grey-zone attacks that undermine our society without reverting to acts of outright war.
While propaganda is as old as warfare, the cyber age has created abundant new opportunities for our adversaries to manipulate our information and discourse. The Russians, for example, have always stoked divisions in our country, but before social media they were much more limited in how they could do so. This is because in the analog age there were gatekeepers to most corridors of information. This is simply no longer the case.
Today, foreign information campaigns can and do go directly to the American people with no middlemen. Anonymous social media accounts can not only more easily spread propaganda, these accounts, often deployed from large troll farms, can also interact with citizens. They can pour gasoline on the issues that divide us, in massive operations that make Americans believe they are dealing with peers, not foreign agents. As stated above, these threats are asymmetrical, because our government often does not have the authority to silence the speech attacking us in ways our adversaries do.
Civility As Defense
If Americans choose, as they should, to engage each other in more civil and less angry and emotional ways, there will be two huge benefits to our efforts to stymie propaganda. First, we create a much less target-rich environment. If a politician, news anchor, or anyone with a decent follower count calls an opponent a “lying dog,” for example, within minutes meme magic can plaster that opponent’s face on the image of a dog and send it far and wide to the jocular amusement or horrified anger of millions of Americans.
If, on the other hand, the person criticizes his opponent by saying, “While my friend with whom I disagree is well intentioned, here is what they are getting wrong,” well, that would make a pretty terrible meme. It’s important to consider that, every time we “trigger the libs” or “own the conservatives,” we are creating opportunities for those seeking to harm our society.
A second way that greater civility in our discourse can help protect us from propaganda is by making it easier for us to spot. If we are name-calling at and dehumanizing those with whom we disagree, foreign actors simply blend into the background of incivility. If, on the other hand, more or most of our discourse is polite and respectful, these foreign efforts will stand out more starkly.
Freedom Isn’t Free
When we think about the idea that freedom isn’t free, we are generally thinking about the brave men and women who serve in our military. But in regard to informational threats, the price of our freedom and our ability to defend it depends upon a citizenry that uses speech responsibly. Because our government cannot control our speech, it is we the people who must police our own speech and consider the second- and third-order consequences of what we say and how we say it.
Far too many Americans on all sides of our political divides have come to believe that they are essentially at war with their fellow citizens and that the positions they disagree with must be destroyed, not discussed. This is an ideal situation for foreign powers wishing to sow discord and, in the case of 2016, even enjoy some ability to affect our electoral process. In a free society, combating informational propaganda campaigns meant to harm us is a responsibility that falls on all of us.
None of this is to say that we should not have healthy debates or strong disagreements, or that our news media should be shy about criticizing our government or society. Ironically, it is this very freedom that we use to convince countries around the world to be more like us and less like North Korea.
There are times for angry protestations in news and social media. There are outrages to confront head on, and maybe there is even a time and place for name-calling. But if we continue down the road of defaulting to anger and outrage, we are handing nations like Russia a very dangerous weapon to use against us.
As our lives become more connected to the Internet, as we use Twitter and Facebook; post blogs, articles, and memes; as we call each other deplorable or snowflakes, we must always be considering how foreign actors can turn these moments of malicious mirth into tools that degrade our communities and institutions. We must teach our children and ourselves that respectful and civil discourse, beyond being their own rewards, also go a long way towards limiting the informational capabilities of foreign powers.
This problem isn’t going away, and our government can’t save us from it. Only we can do that. Treating each other with civility and respect is not just the right thing to do, it is a powerful defensive weapon in a very dangerous world.