America has a problem with the truth. When asked, most Americans say they value the truth. If this is true, then why do so many have such a hard time discerning what’s true from what’s false with their media consumption? And who is to blame when misinformed citizens turn their misguided ire into violent acts against the government and fellow Americans?
Our nation is in the middle of a truth crisis. Last year, through a tense election, coronavirus restrictions, and a national reckoning over racial inequity, we witnessed many friends, family members, and associates fall prey to misinformation. Interwoven between posts about everyday life, current events, and funny memes, we noticed a steady drip of intentional falsehoods slip into the media ecosystem. We were shocked to see more than a few smart, patriotic Americans engaging with and re-posting information straight from the QAnon script of misinformation and disinformation — and believing it.
Following the election, misinformation and disinformation spreaders accelerated their efforts, incubated the Stop the Steal movement, and openly coordinated a direct attack on our democracy on Jan. 6. In the aftermath, we now know that nearly 15 percent of those arrested had military service backgrounds (compared with approximately 7 percent of the U.S. population). While this statistic shocked many Americans, the problem of misinformation and disinformation is larger than the Jan. 6 riot.
We know hostile foreign governments and domestic violent extremist groups have been specifically targeting America’s veterans for years with deliberate propaganda efforts to further widen divisions within our society and to recruit veterans to carry out extremist attacks. And historical data shows an uptick in veteran involvement in violent domestic extremist groups typically follows the conclusion of wars. We also know that historically, small numbers of veterans have had an outsized impact within domestic violent extremist movements at the end of major combat operations, and National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism research is showing a greater than 300 percent increase in the number of individuals with military backgrounds arrested for extremist crimes over the past decade when compared with the decade prior.
We need to create a prevention ecosystem now which recognizes the link between hostile foreign influence operations and anti-democratic forces at home.
We have seen hostile foreign influence operations successfully sow public doubt in the integrity of our elections, our free press, and our rule of law, and aggressively attack our democratic norms and institutions — especially our all volunteer military. For example, a deliberate disinformation campaign about the efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine is likely to result in the separation of thousands of military members who are expected to refuse the vaccine, and these departures will degrade the readiness of the Department of Defense to the advantage of the Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians, and other state actors who are working against U.S. national security interests.
While we have already lost many service members, veterans and family members to these falsehoods, there is something we can do. Veterans and military families can continue to protect our democracy — if we empower them with the knowledge, tools and network to do so.
We are part of a new national coalition called We the Veterans committed to harnessing the strengths of the veteran community and our military families to crowd out the appeal and impact of violent extremism and polarizing misinformation. We ground our work in rigorous and objective research through a formal partnership with START and researchers across the country and take a strengths-based and public health approach. We are in this for the long haul.
Through this empirical approach and multi-disciplinary working groups, we seek to create multi-level and multi-sectoral prevention ecosystems.
Our aim is to raise awareness of the threat of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation within the veteran community and better inform our fellow Americans of the tactics used by hostile influence operations. We intend to provide the military and veteran communities greater access to resources so we can scale the amazing work that they already do at the community and national levels to strengthen the fabric of American society.
A better future is possible if we, veterans and military family members, recognize that we are not immune to hostile foreign influence operations or the siren song of domestic violent extremists and their false patriotism. We must offer a much more compelling opportunity to our brothers and sisters in arms, work together to defend the American experiment, and do our part to build a more perfect union.
Learn more about this threat and join our efforts to protect democracy and build a more perfect union at www.wetheveterans.us.
Anil Nathan, Air Force Veteran, We the Veterans co-founder
Ellen Gustafson, Navy spouse, We the Veterans co-founder
Ben Keiser, Marine Corps veteran, We the Veterans co-founder
Maggie DeLany, Navy veteran, We the Veterans co-founder
William Braniff, Army veteran, We the Veterans co-founder
Christa Sperling, Air Force veteran, We the Veterans co-founder
Jermaine Clark, Army veteran
Joe Plenzler, Marine Corps veteran
William Braniff is the director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism and a professor of the practice at the University of Maryland. He previously served as the director of practitioner education at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center and an instructor in the Department of Social Sciences. He is an Army veteran.
Ellen Gustafson is an entrepreneur, author, activist mom and military spouse. She is a co-director of the Summit Institute and President of EG, Inc, an impact-focused consulting business. She is the co-founder of the Military Family Building Coalition — an organization on a mission to help active military members build their families.
Joe Plenzler is a co-founder of Cassandra-Helenus Partners, an executive leadership coaching and communication firm. He is a combat decorated Marine Corps veteran.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.