Credibility Is the Currency: How to Defeat Propaganda

Defending America against enemy information warfare is a worthy goal. There are some hard truths that should be told about why we are so vulnerable to this mode of warfare.

The U.S. government has a number of messaging authorities assigned, in part, with countering propaganda—from the communications offices of elected political leaders and military public affairs officers to State Department public diplomacy and the routine statements put out by federal agencies every day. The government does a lot of messaging aimed at setting the record straight. Though it does little to align its messaging effectively across these agencies, and could do better, that is not the key problem. The problem is trust. Americans don’t trust the government to tell them the truth. The government has invited the people’s mistrust.

False messages from politicians are a well-known feature of politics, whether they come from Twitter or from the media and public policy “echo chambers” or they were set up by the previous administration. Opponents of the Trump Administration note his penchant for dubious statements and exaggeration, or for calling into question the quality of our FBI or intelligence community. If only it were as simple as fixing one person, or even just a handful.

The problem is that a lack of credibility permeates American messaging. The U.S. government, it turns out, is only relatively credible. While it does not engage in the intense message control of the Chinese government, or take the vicious active measures of the Russian government, doubt about the credibility of American messages is rational for reasons that readily can be shown.

Why does this matter as it relates to defeating foreign propaganda? After the 9/11 attacks, the Defense Science Board set up a task force to try to see how America could communicate itself better to places that were choosing to harbor terrorist threats. The board produced a report in 2004. While some of its ideas were better than others (notably, its decision to focus global strategic information operations at the U.S. Strategic Command proved unworkable), its key insight was that credibility is the currency in information war.

Information saturation means attention, not information, becomes a scarce resource. Power flows to credible messengers. Asymmetrical credibility matters. What’s around information is critical. Reputations count. Brands are important. Editors, filters, and cue givers are influential. Fifty years ago, political struggles were about the ability to control and transmit scarce information. Today, political struggles are about the creation and destruction of credibility.

In its 2008 report, the task force rightly continued to underline this point.

Fifty years ago, governments took advantage of widespread demand for news and information. Today, information saturation creates an attention deficit. The signal-to-noise ratio makes communication more difficult. Disseminating information and “getting the message right” are not top priorities. Trust, credibility, actions, legitimacy, and reputations are critical to success.

I’m going to raise just one more point from these studies, as I take it to be central to the discussion that we need to have.

Second, we understood then that actions are the most credible form of communication. The Marshall Plan sparked imaginations around the world. The Berlin airlift brought supplies to the citizens of West Berlin and hope to millions. Ditto aid to Greece and Turkey. U.S. civilian and military information agencies were needed to draw worldwide attention to these efforts. But their messages were persuasive because they were associated with actions and values that were attractive. What we were doing was seen as legitimate and having moral authority. This is just as important today.

Emphasis added. Actions speak louder than words. When you words and your actions collide, your actions will be what are taken to credibly show your real intentions.

With that in place, let us look at how American actions are enabling Russian propaganda to undermine faith in our elections. Then we will look at some additional ways in which American messages have come to seem less credible. Finally, we’ll consider what the U.S. government could do to fix American credibility at home and abroad.

Are Our Elections Credible?
A major thrust of the Russian effort has been to make Americans fear that our democracy itself could be manipulated by enemies. A credible defense against that propaganda effort would be a clear demonstration that our systems were secure: if not impossible to corrupt, at least extraordinarily difficult to corrupt. Instead, our actions have shown the opposite.

Federal elections are not controlled by the Federal government, but by the states. Thus, the federal government is not in control of whether or not its elected officials are in fact credibly elected. A clear example of a potential problem with this exists in the state of Georgia.

Georgia has adopted a set of voting systems in which ballots are “cast” on small plastic cards with a magnetic strip. A voter obtains the card at the time of voting from an election officer and plugs it into a machine that is in visual range of the officer. The voter then enters choices on the touchscreen. At the end the card pops out, and it is turned into the election officer. The officers then plugs it into another machine, which allegedly records the choices and then wipes the card for re-use.

Compared with paper ballots, there is very little reason to repose trust in a system like this. For one thing, because the ballot is wiped and re-used, there is no way to do a true recount. For another, there is no way for the voter to confirm that his or her choices were accurately recorded on the card in the first place. A paper ballot would be marked clearly, so that the voter would at least know it was accurate when dropping it into the box. The plastic card cannot be checked in any way by the voter himself, and is wiped immediately after votes are (or, more to the point, possibly aren’t) recorded.

All of that would be true even if the system were perfectly secure. But in point of fact, Georgia’s system has proven to be incredibly weak and vulnerable. In a move that will become quite familiar over the course of this essay, Georgia wiped a relevant computer server after a lawsuit was filed aimed at addressing some of these issues. In terms of establishing the credibility and reliability of our elections, no move could be more calculated to undermine American confidence in our democracy.

This is not a partisan issue. Georgia’s election system happens to fall under a Republican secretary of state, but the issue exists in many states under both parties. Americans most concerned about the 2016 Presidential election are worried primarily about the processes in Democrat-controlled states. The point is that our Federal government, as well as our state governments, have failed to create a system of actions that proves the credibility of our electoral process. That failure, which is in our control as Americans to fix, is why the Russians have an opportunity to exploit us.

Are Our Voters Credible?
Similarly, there is a concerted effort to avoid imposing Federal identification standards on elections. The Federal government has developed standards for what is called a “Real ID,” which include clearly documenting an individual’s citizenship. For an American citizen, an official birth certificate or similar document (e.g., a U.S. passport) must be presented, and a scanned copy of it is retained so that it can be checked by officials if there later is any question about it.

A system like this makes perfect sense for ensuring that the person who shows up to claim a ballot is, in fact, the American citizen who is entitled to cast that ballot. Opponents of these systems argue that fraud is almost non-existent, and thus that it is unreasonable to burden people wanting to exercise their right to vote with a requirement to show identification. If the claims of squeaky clean American elections were sufficiently credible, that argument might suffice. But doubts among Americans remain widespread, and for good reason.

Frankly, voters simply do not believe officials or nonprofits when they claim to have proven that there is no fraud. Voters know their other duties of citizenship are burdened by an identification requirement: for example, if they are called up for jury duty, or called to appear before a court for any purpose, or should there be a resumption of the draft into military service, they would be required to provide their identification. The refusal to apply the same standard to this duty and privilege of citizenship creates a reasonable doubt in the minds of Americans about the integrity of our elections, as the most obvious reason for refusing to identify voters is to defraud the vote. Voters notice that those who most want not to identify voters are also those producing the studies claiming there is no fraud. In short, it looks like fraud designed for the purpose of covering up fraud..

Rather than telling the voters that they are irrational or wrong to be concerned about voter fraud, American officials should simply fix the system in a way that puts their fears to rest. Wouldn’t that edge out any propagandists, or demagogues working to  worry voters unnecessarily about the validity of their system? Here again, our refusal act creates the opportunity for propaganda to damage our system.

Are Our Politicians Credible?
This is a much bigger problem than elections. The Defense Science Board details American credibility issues abroad at great length. I will explore some additional ones here. They go well beyond the venial lies that are sometimes told to hide affairs or puff credentials.

In 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the United Nations, justifying a war against Iraq on a weapons program he painstakingly described with of evidence that later proved to be false. Former Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Michael Morrell would later take responsibility for the false claims. It remains debatable whether or not that attempt to force the Agency to take responsibility was valid. Either way, these claims permanently damaged Powell’s credibility and, along with it, the credibility of American intelligence at home and abroad. Not only were a number of claims false or exaggerated, they had the practical effect of elevating a minor figure named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to the point that he could organize effectively the Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgency, which killed hundreds of American servicemembers and thousands of Iraqi civilians.

The Obama Administration pursued a similarly deceptive policy in its approach to Iran. “In the spring of last year, legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters. ‘We created an echo chamber,’ [Ben Rhodes] admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. ‘They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.’”

Some might say that it is better to lie in pursuit of peace than war, but in terms of protecting the credibility of American messaging, there is no difference.

These two examples, unfortunately, are not unique. We easily could draw examples from the administrations of each president going back through Nixon and further.

Politicians also exercise a distorting effect on the credibility of allegedly apolitical government agencies. In several cases the officers of such agencies are, by law, required to make factual statements that are true as far as they know. Military public affairs officers, for example, are trained to inform rather than influence. Their statements are meant to be credible.

Yet for 17 years in Afghanistan, military public affairs officers have given us true facts that clearly have been misleading about the larger strategic picture. As far as I know, they have obeyed the laws and regulations that require them to speak the truth about the facts. They have told the truth they were asked to tell, and the truth they were allowed to tell. But the American people cannot rely on them to speak the real truth about the mission in Afghanistan, as it is said to be above their paygrade.

The “above their paygrade” defense applies to military commanders as well as to public affairs officers. At any level, military officers are unable to give the real truth about the mission in Afghanistan. Allegedly this is because they lack, at their rank and in their position, the full picture of the conflict that is obvious only at higher levels. But the higher levels are just as constrained, all the way up to the civilian political leadership above them. As a result, the military experts—who would be credible to Americans—cannot speak the real truth to the American people. The politicians will not allow it.

The Intelligence Community (IC) is under a very similar pressure. In 2007, they produced an estimate that declared “with high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration was outraged. In 2013 the IC re-published this report with extensive additional front matter, as the agency wanted to explain that “the controversy over the estimate was rife with ironies.” Their interpretation of this process is that their “meticulous” estimates were taken out of context by both sides of the political debate. Politicians represented the parts of the estimate they liked in various ways, both to under- and to over-emphasize the threat the intelligence community thought it was describing. Since the estimates themselves are often at least partially (and properly) classified, they cannot be discussed in their full context. The report goes on to lament:

. . . for better or for worse, the nation is living in one of the most politically divided and partisan eras in American history; this was true in 2007 and is even more so today. Politics hardly ends at the water’s edge any more, and there is little evidence to suggest that this is likely to change any time soon . . . Any intelligence findings, leaked or deliberately released, will be scrutinized by readers whose interest is not to better understand the subject matter but rather to identify opportunities for taking political advantage of what is discussed.

The intelligence community cannot speak directly to the public without violating its duties to secrecy, which—as it would involve violating sworn oaths to keep secrets—would itself imperil any such statement’s credibility. What happens instead is that these statements and estimates are run through a political filter, improperly described or even leaked to the press, in a way that brings doubt upon the whole process. Such statements as they appear to audiences outside the government are known to be distorted by these filters and simply are not credible.

As a consequence, enemy propagandists can spin conspiracy theories with great effectiveness. The American people know that they are not being told the truth, not by elected officials nor by the presumptively apolitical agencies that serve them. If the government were credible, enemy propaganda easily would be refuted. Conspiracies take hold because of a rational distrust among the voting public, which can see that every elected government official works to deceive them and to pressure the bureaucracy to do the same.

Are Our Bureaucracies Credible?
Not that the bureaucracies are themselves always credible, either. A powerful example of a bureaucracy sowing distrust among the public comes from the IRS effort under one Lois Lerner. Her part of the IRS exercised its punitive tax and audit authority to punish conservative American groups attempting to organize themselves politically. That might have been resolved had the agency as a whole outed and punished these efforts. The opposite occurred. When Congress sought emails to document and investigate claims that this was occurring, the IRS claimed that seven different email servers had crashed, and that none of their contents were recoverable by the IRS’s contracted backup service. Lerner and her agency’s head made false statements to Congress. Actions speak louder than words, and the credibility of the IRS was badly damaged by this set of actions. The fact that no real punishment ever occurred for this has not improved the agency’s credibility, nor federal government’s credibility as a whole.

The recent inspector general report on the handling of the Clinton email investigation also involved disappearing servers that were wiped after investigations began. More than 500 pages of irregularities and strange decisions were catalogued. The fact that the inspector general elected not to pursue criminal referrals only made the credibility issue worse. Still worse was the decision to accept excuses for every single one of these hundreds of pages of bad decisions, from the tarmac meeting between former President Bill Clinton and sitting Attorney General Loretta Lynch to the decision to draft an exonerating statement before interviewing key witnesses. The report itself is damning to the credibility of the Department of Justice and all of its subordinate agencies, especially the FBI.

Actions speak louder than words, and the deliberate choice of inaction speaks very loudly here.

Similarly, then-Attorney General Eric Holder was found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with oversight requirements around the Fast and Furious scandal. This involved the trafficking of automatic weapons to cartels in Mexico. Nor was this the first time that federal police took what any rational member of the global audience might read as attempts to prevent the truth from coming out. Older members of the audience will recall how the Branch Davidian compound was bulldozed “in the name of safety” in spite of the fact that questions about ATF conduct remained unanswered.

And, of course, there is the case of Edward Snowden. Federal officials argue, plausibly, that Snowden was likely an actual agent of hostile foreign powers. That said, what is most obvious to the American people is that Snowden revealed the degree to which their own government was spying on them. Officially the American system respects privacy, and the Fourth Amendment once provided strong protections to Americans’ persons and papers. What the Snowden case revealed was that America’s bureaucracies had conspired with American corporations to find ways around all of those protections. They had done so without any kind of public debate with the representatives of the people about the scale of these violations, or whether or not anyone cared to consent to being spied upon in this way. If the American people have come to regard their federal agencies with deep distrust—and they have, increasingly so, according to the long-running Pew poll on trust for public institutions, with only three percent of respondents trusting the American government most of the time—it is rational for them to have done so. Repairing the credibility of our agencies is going to require a lot of work.

What Can Be Done
I write this as a patriotic American determined to help his country right itself. The American vision of liberty by law, of a system designed to secure the freedom of the individual, remains to my mind the best hope of humanity. I do not write these criticisms, however severe, with the intention of further undermining public trust in America, but to begin trying to repair it.

Our system will be more secure against enemy propaganda when it is more credible. It will be more credible when it repairs the problems identified in this essay.

Here are some steps that should be taken.

1. Congress should use its power of the purse to require states to adopt paper ballots for all Federal elections. This should include providing for appropriate controls at each step, from production of the ballots at the factory to counting and recounting the ballots after the election.

2. Congress should use its power of the purse to require that Federal Real ID be mandatory to cast a ballot that includes any vote affecting a federal election.

3. The American voters should do a better job of insisting on honesty from their elected officials. Even in this divided and partisan atmosphere, primary elections provide an opportunity to hold elected officials to account. We as voters should make this an issue in every election.

4. Congress should adopt protections for military officers and federal bureaucrats who wish to come forward and speak a dissenting truth to the American people. These should be based on whistleblower laws, but especially protect them in the case of public speech about specific problems they have encountered. The American people are sovereign and should be able to receive the advice of those who work for them.

5. The Department of Justice should be replaced from the top down. The new members should go after recent violations, say those that occurred within this millennium, with fire and sword.

6. Congress should change the laws so that destruction of records by a federal agency, such as by wiping a server, is legally considered a confession of guilt to whatever charges are being brought. The defense that a server crashed without backup should not be accepted: even if it is true, as it shows a reckless disregard for federal record-keeping laws, which require careful backups. Such technical failures should be deemed, by law, deliberate attempts to destroy evidence of corrupt practices.

If we did these things, we would have much less to fear from Russian propaganda. What would they say to undermine trust in a government that did everything reasonable to ensure valid elections, honest debate, and to root out corruption? Actions speak louder than words. These clear actions would overwhelm any attempt to deceive the American people about the intentions of their government.

These actions would also do a great deal to repair our republic. More than this needs to be done, to be sure, but this is an important part.

Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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