SAN DIEGO — Members of the U.S. military must beef up their media literacy skills as propaganda proliferates and sources of dubious information explode at home and abroad, according to the Navy’s principal cyber adviser, Chris Cleary.

The Navy in October published its so-called Cyberspace Superiority Vision, which highlights the values the service is using to shape its future cyber investments and improve its virtual posture, including through what Cleary previously described as the ability to “fight hurt.” Months prior, the Marine Corps unveiled its philosophies and frameworks for the information environment, known as Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 8.

“There is something to be said about being resilient to information operations. How resilient are we to messaging that we might believe is false?” Cleary told reporters Feb. 14, on the sidelines of the West 2023 conference in San Diego. “It’s not just sailors, you know. It’s everybody.”

Determining fact from fiction, misleading from straightforward, is critical as world powers such as China and Russia wage influence campaigns that are for the public but a keystroke, touch screen or app installation away.

“There’s a good Clausewitz line that says: War is the application of force to compel my adversary to do my will. Well, then, the question today is: What is force? And what does it take to compel an adversary to win?” Cleary said. “If I can just change your mental calculus on what you want to do, well, I win. My end state is achieved.”

By tapping into sources of discord and division, Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election. The Kremlin is also pumping out streams of misinformation regarding its latest invasion of Ukraine, now nearing the one-year mark. China, likewise, used misinformation to recolor its authoritarian seizure of Hong Kong and to exert influence over Taiwan.

“If I can convince, through a million different reasons, that the United States shouldn’t get involved in a defense of Taiwan scenario, and enough of the public feels that way,” Cleary said, “the Chinese might be like, ‘We’ve won. I didn’t have to fight them.’”

Hazards exist stateside, as well.

Fringe groups use social media to distribute malicious information — like coronavirus conspiracies and faked footage of lawmakers — and stand up faux media outlets to circumvent bans. Navy officials in March warned sailors they are prime targets for hacking and deception.

“It’s not just big media outlets. There are 100 ways to get information these days,” Cleary said. “Sailors and Marines are as every bit susceptible to that as anyone.”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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