Media Literacy: How we protect our Airmen from themselves

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Daniel Corneliussen, 375th Communications Support Squadron

Oftentimes, when we think of defending military assets, we think of fences, secure badge-in facilities, and Security Forces Defenders at our gates. But often these aren’t enough to secure the Air Force’s most precious resource, its Airmen. In recent years, the Air Force has placed a much greater emphasis on our Airmen and sought to protect them through various means: whether that’s increasing awareness and emphasis on mental health resources or ensuring better rights and opportunity for all members regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The increased emphasis on building a culture of inclusivity and health of our Airmen is the exact path the Air Force needs to continue down. But a new threat is emerging that puts our Airmen at risk, and this threat is from foreign adversaries. However, the tactics used by our adversaries are different today; our enemies not only look to degrade and find ways to defeat our technology or our Airplanes, but our very Airmen. And the enemy is targeting Airmen through disinformation. 

Last year, I was given the opportunity to pursue a full-time master’s degree at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, Maryland. While it was a ton of work, it was a great experience. I was allowed to completely focus on learning about our nation’s intelligence capabilities and the threats posed by our adversaries. I was able to study the top threats to the U.S. military to include everything from cyber-attacks to Russian Hypersonic Missiles, to China’s growing nuclear arsenal and capabilities. However, despite all these high-tech threats, the one that gave me the biggest concern was an adversary’s ability to disrupt us from within. Specifically, it’s an adversary’s use of social media and other online platforms to create and spread disinformation within the U.S. Oftentimes these adversaries use real, sensitive topics, to create sensationalized, and fake news stories. The goal? To cause conflict and turn us against each other. 

While foreign countries' use of disinformation against the U.S. isn’t new, its potential to cause harm has drastically increased due to the prevalent use of social media and online news sources. Foreign actors have become increasingly good at disguising themselves as U.S. citizens and tapping into sensitive political issues to sew discontent and mistrust within our population. This first came to light during Russia’s use of disinformation in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. However, Russia isn’t the only culprit; China, Iran, and other countries have also begun to use widespread disinformation campaigns in the last several years. China, for example, used prominent disinformation campaigns targeting the populations of both Hong Kong and Taiwan during their national elections in 2019.    

So why is this such a threat? Growing disinformation online creates a situation where it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. Additionally, social media creates an environment where the user primarily sees information he/she finds agreeable. To keep you engaged on their social media platforms, companies design their platform’s algorithms to show you information you agree with or find entertaining. An entertaining and somewhat scary documentary on Netflix that describes this phenomenon is called “The Social Dilemma.”   Social media then creates a situation called confirmation bias…. where you only see what you agree with and over time, begin to think you are right because “everyone” thinks the way you do. Anyone that disagrees with you is then naturally “crazy.” Adversaries have become good at taking advantage of this situation by using heavily contested topics in our society (e.g., abortion, immigration, election fraud, climate change, COVID-19, etc.) to turn the population against each other. They often use bots to create fake profiles and content (messages) and then let real people on social media spread the fake news and continue the trend. 

How does this apply to the Air Force? One of the biggest concerns from a military standpoint is the division within the ranks. Extremist ideas that are propagated by disinformation pose a serious threat not only within society at large but also to our Airmen. 

How then do we combat this threat? One prominent idea is to increase an Airmen’s aptitude in the concept of “Media Literacy.” Simply put, media literacy is teaching Airmen how to read and identify real news from fake news. Teach them to be critical consumers of news and knowledgeable about the fact that disinformation exists and be resistant to its effects. 

What does media literacy entail? Recent literature has stated that media literacy has four generally successful approaches to improving people’s ability to detect falsehoods:

- Fact-checking (teach individuals to check for fact-checking articles about a news story)

- Tracing the source of information (e.g., find where the social media post originated from)

- Investigating laterally (checking other sources’ evaluations of the story’s source) 

- Recognizing your own personal emotional responses to a news story

If you go on your social media account right now, I bet (without even looking too hard) you can find a relative, friend, or celebrity who is advocating passionately for or against something. Many of these posts seem legitimate, but many are not. To discover if something is authentic, often all you have to do is just take a few minutes to simply fact-check. As a personal example, my Aunt (who I greatly respect) sent me a shocking article about how the Vice President was shutting down many of the benefits to veterans the VA provides. The article read like it was legitimate and even said it was “fact-checked.” However, after a quick 10-minute google search, I found three different articles from various news sources debunking the story. While this sounds simple, basic skills like these are vital for our Airmen to have in today’s information environment. Almost all of our Airmen go online at some point throughout the day and we must ensure they are protected… not only physically, but from within their very minds. 

To protect our Airmen from the adversary, we must teach them how to be media literate. Literacy skills should be taught to Airmen early and often, from Basic Training, and repeatedly throughout their career. And yes, while I realize I may be advocating for another mandatory training item, the risk of friction and conflict within our force is too great to ignore. In order to protect our most valuable resource, our Airmen, we must protect them online, and give them the tools to overcome our adversaries’ abilities to divide us.