As dawn broke, crisp and clear on the 19th of April 1775, 77 patriots urgently formed themselves into a skirmish line on the Lexington Commons. Their formation looked much like they had practiced once a month for the past year or so. As they peered through the dawn light at the 700 professional British troops at the other end of the commons, it was clear that this was going to be no practice. Within minutes of first being alerted, there they stood, preparing for the first time to offer armed resistance against the battle-hardened troops who’d fought all across the British empire. These intrepid souls, known as “Minutemen,” as dictated by law a year earlier had been formed from a mix of local militias, in which membership was a requirement. They were a cross-section of early colonial life, part native, part immigrant, and from differing backgrounds. These men may have assembled because of the legal requirement but what truly bound them together was their deep, burning passion to be free of the meddlesome oppression of a foreign government.
When shots cut the cool, crisp dawn air, eight minutemen fell dead in what would become the first casualties of our war for independence. That first skirmish on the commons in Lexington led to the North Bridge and Concord shortly afterwards, where fate reversed its course for the British troops. All along their advance into Concord and throughout their retreat back to Boston, minutemen continued to pour out of their towns, villages and farms, until their numbers exceeded 3,000.
The brief dawn success in Lexington for the seven hundred British grenadiers and light infantry that had marched out from Boston was their last of the expedition. They would suffer 79 dead and 149 wounded by the time they limped back into Boston having been under assault the entire way. Colonial casualties would reach 49 killed and 39 wounded. Britain would be stunned and humiliated by their encounter with the patriots, which signaled full rebellion. Eight years later, the humiliation complete, Britain would recognize our independence. American resolve in the face of a threat would never again be underestimated.
The relevance of minutemen to this article is that it was organized citizens in 1775 with little formal training but an ironclad loyalty to their community and common values who answered the call to resist a foreign attack. In our past two election cycles we have been attacked by a foreign enemy and it will be up to modern-day minutemen to answer the call to protect our free and fair elections.
We as a nation are still unprepared as we wade deeply into our next election cycle. In the absence of an effective, wide-spectrum strategy by the U.S. government to secure our elections, it will depend on all Americans to fill the gaps in our defenses. The weapons of our modern minutemen, though, are not muskets and sabers but fact-checkers, credible sources of information, and the ability (and willingness) to discuss issues rather than fight our fellow citizens. Digital and media literacy and, most of all, at a moment’s notice, being willing to engage the enemy in protection of our values is of the utmost importance. The most important weapon, bar none, is still courage. The courage to speak and act on the whole truth, regardless of tribal political affiliations.
It’s quite simple: If we don’t defend our election from the ramparts of truth, we don’t defend it at all. There are countless courageous, trained professionals working within the national security community but they can only do so much. DHS and their national security partners are working on election infrastructure, cybersecurity, etc., but that still will not be enough. Foreign enemies influencing voters with propaganda, dis- and mis-information is a vulnerable unattended gap in our defenses that only everyday citizens can fill. This is precisely the one area in which every American has a chance to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other patriotic citizens of all beliefs to ensure that it is truly voters, not Mr. Putin or his like, that make our decisions at the ballot box.
In our upcoming election, every citizen, regardless of political belief, has the opportunity and responsibility to take on the mantle of “minuteman” (or woman) to collectively defend our birthright of freedom – especially that of free and fair elections – from attack by hostile foreign enemies.
Last year, I had the honor of becoming affiliated with HSToday as a contributor when they published my white paper A Five-Point Strategy to Oppose Russian Narrative Warfare. The reason for this current article is simple; to date, the U.S. government, outside of a few areas of concern, is still quite far from enacting a comprehensive and executable strategy for protecting our upcoming 2020 election. Sadly, we are still vulnerable. This begs the question: Who at this late date can help and where should they focus their attention? The DHS and others in the national security community are doing what they can but are hobbled by bureaucracy, regulation and unaddressed bills in the Senate. The most vulnerable aspect of foreign influence targeting voters is something virtually unaddressed by any U.S. government strategy. This leaves us, the citizenry, to address what we can. In a “good news/ bad news” sort of way, the good news is that one of our most dangerous vulnerabilities is something the average citizen can contribute to the most.
The following article regarding the role that every citizen can play is relatively short compared to last years’ white paper. It is also relatively blunt. My apologies up front if it is too blunt for many readers. Time is short before the election and there is no time to dally around with subtle niceties. Adversaries like Russia, China and Iran, with Russia being the most serious threat, can and will continue to interfere with our national birthright, our elections. The wolf – or, rather, the Russian bear – is literally at our door.
The following article is actually one of the five strategy points in last year’s article and was entitled Resilience. To be more specific, it is actually “narrative resilience” (NR), which simply put is the war over the meaning of information, not war over information. The very reason I placed resilience as the first of the five points last year is precisely why I am discussing it here again. Citizens are the primary targets of foreign influence simply because, as targets of influence go, we are the most vulnerable. This, of course, means left/right, Republican/Democrat, liberal/conservative or any other political beliefs must work together. After all, our first duty is to the nation, not a political party.
There are several links embedded to either support my points or to provide valuable resources to the readers.
- The 2020 U.S. election is hurtling toward us.
- The U.S. IC (intelligence community) has unequivocally concluded that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 and 2018 U.S. elections and will continue to do so with the 2020 elections.
- We, as in the U.S. government, are still woefully unprepared to fend off significant and ongoing foreign influence attacks from the likes of Russia, China, and Iran, etc.
- One of our most vulnerable areas is that U.S. citizens are still allowing themselves to be victimized by enemy narratives by way of mis/disinformation or, as commonly called, “fake news.”
- With far too few national defense tools, processes and oversight, the average U.S. citizen will need to provide much of the supporting effort by becoming “Minutemen” of sorts against foreign influence attacks.
- The most commonly accepted name for this is “resilience,” but in fact it is “narrative resilience.”
The reason that NR is so important is simply because “hardening” our personal defenses as citizens against influence is the core of the issue. In military parlance, a “hardened target” is difficult to penetrate. By default, if mis/disinformation doesn’t penetrate, their effects are, by default, mitigated. A cornerstone of Russian influence operations is false and misleading information disseminated through various channels. Russian propaganda sustained their narratives, which focused on dividing U.S. society along well-establish fault lines. In fact, their agenda was to make these fault lines far worse and more divisive than actually exist. The most common channels in 2016, 2018 and to the present are social media. Russia’s intent is to deceive, divide and erode collective adversarial resistance to their aggression. As their targets are primarily civilian audiences, it becomes essential to “harden civilian targets” to the effects of such activity. NR is, in fact, the process of hardening these targets. First and foremost, this requires educating audiences and divorcing them from “identity politics” or adversarial narratives that are so influential in exploiting such politics.
As an analogy it’s helpful to look at NR much the same as taking protective measures against infection by a communicable disease. Washing hands, avoiding infected people and places or employing all manner of protective measures contribute to NR and cumulatively mitigate and manage the risk of infection and exposure. Malign influence, such as has been and is currently and aggressively employed by Russia, has no absolute cure, hence minimizing the risk is a critical, pragmatic and largely achievable option. We cannot completely cure ourselves of Russian or other influence, but we absolutely can minimize it to the point that it’s not an overt threat.
Building NR in a political landscape as divisive as we currently have in the U.S. is difficult but not unattainable. In order to do so, we must return to our collective values and resist Russian narratives that exploit our differences. This means that we need narrators from top to bottom who focus our attention around our collective values rather than those that emotionally trigger division. As an indicator of just how important this is, we can only look at how many resources Russia applies to promoting and exploiting divisive topics. Their thinking on this is sound: A divided democracy is an impotent democracy. If it were not important, they would spend their time and resources elsewhere.
The question regarding NR is mostly centered on “how to mentor citizens to resist emotionally triggering narratives filled with divisive content that is inaccurate and harmful.” Recent efforts by some of the Nordic countries have employed some novel and very helpful tactics to “inoculate” voters against Russian narrative warfare. Their focus has been to require opposing political parties to commit to educating and mentoring all voters, not just those politically aligned, to recognize, report and expose media focused on malign influence by Russia. Finland, in particular, has a remarkable program in their public schools that teaches critical thinking and how to sort out what is fake or misleading. NR is everyone’s responsibility. In fact, it’s the one area in which competing political partisans could and should agree. Neither side should wish to win an election if a hostile foreign power lends aid to their side. This is, frankly, un-American.
Resiliency recommendations against Russian malign influence:
Elections free of dishonest content, especially that which is inserted by hostile foreign powers, requires more than lip service by leadership from both sides of the political divide. It also requires resources. Faith in national institutions such as law enforcement, the intelligence community and the military are non-negotiables, as well. Voters go where leaders follow and thus it becomes a requirement for leadership to drive these requirements, as in “lead by example.”
Narrative is a primary component of “hardening” the target
Though often misunderstood, narrative is the way humans make sense of the world around them. In its simplest form, it’s a story that gives meaning to myriad words, actions, etc., that people are exposed to. Every person, family, tribe, city, state, region or country has their own unique narrative about “who they are.” What Russia employs against us is “Narrative Warfare.” In other words, it’s not a war over information but a war over the meaning of information. Bad actors such as Russian trolls and those who tweet, retweet or post dishonest content use that content to trigger responses in their audiences. What this does actually is “trigger” our unique and group identities or, specifically, our “narrative identities.” These specific identities have existed for generations and will in some form for generations to come. If we don’t learn to deal with how we are triggered now, the vulnerabilities will always exist and be a threat.
To the point as how narrative matters to protecting our nation, it is simply that we all, right/left, Republican or Democrat, etc., share more common elements of national identity than we all believe. If we recognize that we share an identity through a common narrative then, by default, we must band together to resist anything that will harm our identity. Many times, this is interpreted as “tribal politics.” Tribes formed to protect like individuals from outside enemies. Those with the strongest bonds of common identity do a far better job of protecting the “tribe.” The American tribal identity includes all of us, not the lesser tribes that make up our nation. Hence, the resolute bonds of our national identity that served us so well in two world wars and other challenges still exists. If we bond over these bonds or, rather, our identity, we should have no problem keeping Mr. Putin at bay.
Russia and other influencers attempt to harmfully divide us along identity (tribal) lines. Race, ethnicity, social issues, etc., are examples of this. While we all have some sort of membership in lesser tribes, it’s our national identity that should be primary. If we allow Russia or others to pit us against each other, they succeed and we fail. For the purpose of national security, all Americans who see themselves as patriotic have a responsibility to place national identity ahead of other types such as party, state, gender, race, ethnicity, etc.
“Hardening” a unified national identity by solidifying our core values by default reduces the threat of divisive narrative warfare. “Who we are as a nation” is based on our historical narrative. This identity, once hardened, reduces the threat from weaponized and divisive narratives from Russia and other aggressors. Again, identity is a critical component of narrative. Like the old adage regarding feuding siblings who will fight each other but band together to resist outside threats, the U.S. populace must do the same. Our internal issues are for us to sort out without allowing outside threats to exploit our divisions. Like siblings, we can disagree fervently with each other but must band together to deny foreign malign actors “a say” in our domestic problems.
U.S. political parties would have us believe that there are two primary identities and that they do not share common values. Though this is a common perception, it is far from the truth. Both political “sides” have a responsibility to establish this unified, though often at odds identity. Though there are differing opinions, sometimes dramatically, both sides still adhere to the common core values which revolve around our Constitutional principles. Leaders who constantly pit one side against the other as “un-American” dangerously provide Russia with the opportunity to further exploit our differences for their own purposes. Intentionally pitting one side vs. the other is not only dangerous, it is un-American. Remember, “divide and conquer” is one of the oldest and most effective of military strategies. Why should we make Russia’s job easier by allowing them to do so?
Education regarding digital literacy, though a much longer approach, is a critical element of NR. Students and all adults have the responsibility of citizenship to be accurately informed. One of our most trying problems with mis/disinformation is that it is easier to accept content that bolsters parts of our identity regardless if it is true, accurate and in context. Tragically, a large number of Americans now habitually believe that “winning for their political side” is more important than solving a problem for the entire nation. Remember, being a Republican or Democrat is a lesser, not a primary, identity!
The easiest way to trigger someone’s identity is to share something that they wish to believe, based on their identity. Political parties are notorious for using this technique. Just because some bit of information suits your identity doesn’t make it true. If you base your loyalty on dishonest content, you are not only cheating yourself but your fellow citizens. If this is the case, you are the problem, not the solution. In short: stop it! It’s not only immoral but patently un-American. If the leaders you follow do so, either stop following or insist on an honest narrative from them as the price of loyalty.
Learning to fact-check, doing credible research and applying critical analysis are all hallmarks of a resilient populace. Education and mentoring regarding these three elements are the responsibility of schools, parents, community leaders, etc. Yes, every single citizen is either part of the problem or part of the solution. Curriculum and teaching techniques must be instituted in our schools and public institutions beginning at a very early grade level and be supported by parents and other respected community leaders. Facts, in context matter. My parents always said, “If you have to use dishonesty to win an argument, you should probably change your opinion.”
Public and credible renunciation of false and misleading content by trusted leaders and institutions is a “must-do.” Challenging all “fake news” or otherwise is required consistently, not only when it “helps” your political/social beliefs. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Leaders from the local level through the highest office have a citizen’s responsibility regarding accurate, in-context information. Those who fail in this aspect of resiliency have no business in a leadership role. Those who accept dishonesty on face value without doing their homework have consciously abdicated their responsibility as a citizen.
This short piece merely discusses the most essential basics of narrative resiliency. The topic is easily deserving of an entire book. We don’t have time either to write or have every American voter read such a book with our elections bearing down on us. There is also no magic solution that government can provide. This piece of our national defense falls under the title of “responsible citizenship.” With the few simple tips listed below, every citizen can increase their NR immeasurably.
An untrained and unaware citizenry is exceptionally vulnerable to the type of narrative warfare practiced by Russia. As we have seen, especially during the 2016 election cycle, narratives are a particularly difficult type of propaganda/ influence to resist. This is because narratives trigger audiences based on their unique narrative identity. The only way to combat such warfare is to educate and mentor citizens regarding digital and media literacy. In other words, the primary weapon system is narrative resilience. This literacy must also be supported by leaders across the spectrum of society. The U.S. also must rekindle its relationship with its own unique national narrative that solidifies our values against enemy values. We absolutely must remember that when it comes to tribal/narrative identity, the most important in warfare is national, not Republican, Democrat or otherwise. Only citizens can fight this type of foreign influence and it will require brutal honesty with ourselves. If wanting your side to “win” is your only goal, the entire nation loses.
By following these simple ideas, each and every citizen will be as qualified as our original minutemen were 249 years ago. There is every bit as much at stake now as at the founding of our nation and it’s again up to us, the citizenry, to protect it. It’s on you to be courageous, honest and responsible – but then again, that’s what patriotism has always required.
- Fact check by way of one of the respected mainstream fact check sites.
- As much as is reasonably possible, verify accounts in all social media platforms.
- Question each and every source.
- Always become aware of the other side of the story, not just the one that you like.
- Never hit “send” before sourcing content.
- Follow advisory sites such as “The Propaganda Critic,” The Securing Democracy project,
- If a source always presents only one-sided political or social content, see this as a warning sign and seek information elsewhere to verify.
- If something triggers you emotionally (anger, sadness, revenge, etc.), it may have been designed to influence you. Be especially careful.
- Be extremely cautious of online games, quizzes or requests to forward some type of advertisement or sentiment. These are often designed to access your connections.
- Be extremely cautious of websites. Many mimics are designed to look almost exactly the same as the real thing.
- Caution friends and family when you discover dishonest content or accounts/profiles that distribute such content. Warn them that they are being targeted.
- Ensure your computer, phone and tablets have up-to-date security.
- Trust advisories from federal law enforcement and the intelligence community.
- If someone you read or follow demonstrates that they are trying to dishonestly influence you, act accordingly. Block, mute and report.
- Beware of trolls and bots.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.