Opinion

Eroding America from within: Marketing data threatens military cohesion

Are algorithms destroying society, or are they merely revealing the schism which always existed? The increased granularity of highly detailed datasets combined with increasingly accurate microtargeted advertising make the question largely unanswerable but nonetheless, pose an unaddressed threat to the armed forces and a national security vulnerability.

Most military strategists only consider center of gravity as that area where the greatest concentration of enemy troops can be found,” and therefore, they concentrate their efforts on directing kinetic operations against physical forces.  However, Clausewitz clearly drew parallels between physical forces and their cohesion — that is their ability to operate as a collective unit. “Where there is cohesion, the analogy of the center of gravity can be applied.” The bond between soldiers is at the center of the will to fight, and it is this bond that is currently under assault.

Several recent articles highlight the cognitive vulnerabilities exploited by the data social media companies and other data brokers collect. The troves of intricately detailed information collected by online and social media companies were used to target disinformation campaigns (a.k.a., story weapons), and yet, much of the broader national defense strategy fails to acknowledge this actively exploited force protection vulnerability. There are currently no provisions in law or force structure to actively assess this vulnerability, nor to defend against it.

The 2016 presidential election was the first great awakening of the American public to the ways in which political campaigns gathered data on potential voters, despite the fact that this data collection has occurred for years. Beyond voter registration data, the rise of social media and the app economy further increased the surveillance and data collection on the American population, including its military. A January 2021 article in Wired pointed out how servicemembers could be selected for targeted advertisement on Facebook by selecting their occupation as Air Force or U.S. Army. While Facebook has removed these detailed targeted categories, advertisers could still select military as an employment category. Even then, the ability to narrow the audience by selecting base locations, ages, incomes and other interests makes the military an easily targeted population through Facebook for disinformation campaigns.

Facebook’s advertising imperative is to allow advertisers — anyone who has a Facebook business account — to find the desired target audience. The feature would exist even if Facebook were to remove all military targeting and locations from their dashboard. Why? Any number of shell companies reportedly continue to use consumer lists, despite customers opting out. The detailed data collected on nearly every aspect of Americans’ daily lives by data brokers such as Axiom, Experian, Magellan and others includes mailing lists that are frequently bought and sold with zero oversight or visibility.

The plethora of detailed data generated in this data wholesale ecosystem creates a massive cognitive force protection vulnerability for the U.S. military. As stated by Kallberg and Hamilton, “We have to treat influence operations and cognitive attacks as serious as any violent threat in force protection.” There is evidence that foreign adversaries are influencing veterans through social media by impersonating veteran service organization and veterans themselves. Unfortunately, there is no mechanism within the military to identify, assess or defend against this threat – a threat that is not viewed as a vulnerability by security firms.

The algorithmic social media ecosystem and targeted advertising economy represent a national security threat, one that the Department of Defense should take seriously. While there are agencies that investigate allegations of criminal activity, there are many ways to damage the U.S. military well below the threshold of criminal activity. Understanding and defending against targeted and algorithmic manipulation must be addressed as a force protection critical vulnerability before the erosion of cohesion — already undermined by the current social media divisiveness over the COVID pandemic response, masks, the vaccines and the recent election turmoil — achieves our adversaries’ greatest victory: erosion of the United States from within.

Maj. Jessica Dawson is a research scientist at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and an academy professor (FA47) in the U.S. Military Academy’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. Lt. Col. Todd Arnold is a research scientist in the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and an assistant professor in the U.S. Military Academy’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy, or the Department of Defense.

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