Ethics and Security in the Age of Ubiquitous Media with Dr. Rebecca Johnson

What You Tweet Will be Held Against You

Dr. Rebecca Johnson Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at Marine Corps University’s Command and Staff College. Prior to joining the faculty in 2009, she taught at The Georgetown Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University and the School of International Service at American University. Dr. Johnson has spoken on topics related to military ethics across the services in the United States and at service schools abroad. She has published numerous articles and book chapters and is currently writing a book on emerging trends in military ethics. Her most recent work, “The Wizard of Oz Goes to War: Unmanned Systems in Counterinsurgency” is forthcoming in Strawser (ed.) Killing by Remote Control: The Ethics of an Unmanned Military. You can follow her on Twitter.

John Little: Let me start by saying that Blogs of War will never knowingly be the launching point for a leak of classified information – no matter how big the scoop. I consider protection of classified information to be a patriotic duty even if one is not directly tasked with that responsibility. At the same time it is impossible to ignore the fact that anyone who discusses or studies intelligence is able to do so, in large part, because of a long history of unauthorized disclosures. Once a story drops in a major publication the damage can’t be undone or minimized. The information is distributed too quickly and too widely. Given that, what responsibility do ordinary Americans, commentators, and journalists have after the initial disclosure?

Rebecca Johnson: I agree whole-heatedly that protection of classified information is everyone’s responsibility – even those who aren’t in direct government service. American lives and missions really are at stake, and it will be a cold day in hell before I do something I know could sacrifice either. I’m not persuaded by the argument that once information is leaked it’s too late to minimize damage. That may be true, but to me, it’s irrelevant. Journalists and government sources both have their own missions and motivations for what they do. I can’t do anything about what brings classified information into the public realm. I can – and must – accept responsibility for my own actions. That means my sharing of classified information (because even if it’s leaked, it’s still classified), puts me not only on the wrong side of the law, but on the wrong side of my duty to work to make the country more secure. People know I work in national security are more likely to take what I share as actual US policy. I think I have to be more careful than analysts who aren’t related to the government or regular private citizens. They might not read a specific story in the paper, but if I share what I consider to be the ‘important bits’, then I’m highlighting the potentially most damaging elements of the leak for anyone to see. I won’t do free work for enemies of the United States. I know they’re perfectly competent to identify the damaging parts of leaks themselves, but again, I’m not responsible for them. I’m only responsible for me.

Ordinary Americans have a responsibility as well. Everyone knows (but often forget) not to telegraph troop movements. Posting on Facebook that you can’t wait to see Tommy when he gets back from Afghanistan next week may not violate federal law, but it’s not the smartest thing to do. Americans also have a responsibility to be involved and communicate their opinions to the government. Here, I would simply caution that leaked classified information by definition gives only a very small part of the picture. Taking one leak and using it to indict some facet of US policy is shortsighted and sure to be inaccurate. Here, I would encourage folks to give a story time to develop, turn to a multitude of sources from different perspectives, and keep their eyes focused on what’s really important – the strength of the country, not scoring partisan or personal points.

John Little: But patience and careful consideration are in short supply. Is there a way to introduce a common ethical framework back into this arena (as opposed to a purely legal one) when it looks like the dysfunctional relationship between media and social media exhibited in the Sandy Hook School shooting is the new norm? The notion of personal responsibility doesn’t exactly appear to be on the rise either.

Rebecca Johnson: If they’re in short supply, then it’s probably a good idea to practice more! I just don’t buy this line of argument. The people working the issues are the ones generating the classified material to begin with; they don’t magically see it for the first time once it’s leaked (very often, at least!). It’s the public — and primarily those of us who work in this area, but maybe not a specific issue directly — who want to know what’s happening on the ‘high side’ and create a lot of the churn following a leak. I am a true believer in our particular system of democratic governance but I couldn’t care less about feeding personal egos or people’s desire to be ‘in the know’. There are times when people claim disclosure is in the name of democratic transparency, but what they really mean is that it’s in the name of advancing their particular agenda or sense of personal entitlement. Anyone who’s in this business to be the center of the ‘look what I know’ universe would be better served just staring in a mirror all day. It would be far more helpful for everyone.

I see Sandy Hook differently, primarily because we’re not talking about national security and classified information. It does, however, highlight both sides of social media – important information is shared quickly and efficiently, but the impulse people (not just journalists) have to be the one who shares the information first resulted in the wrong man being accused of a horrific crime in a very public, terribly painful way. Did he find out that he was accused of mass murder on twitter before or after he learned that his brother had killed his mom and 26 other people on Facebook? That is the very real cost of social media and citizen journalism. In terms of a common ethical framework, I would suggest the following (and I’m speaking here to your basic user of social media – I’ll leave journalism ethics to the professionals):

  • Sourcing in everything. If you don’t know the credibility of a source, ask before you share. If that takes you extra time, oh well. If you’re not in a position to be breaking news, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re 15 minutes behind the curve. No one will remember you weren’t first out of the box tomorrow, and it could spare you from looking like a complete jackass if you share something that turns out to be wrong.

  • Ask yourself what good would come from sharing a particular piece of information. If you’re just piling on, or potentially exposing someone’s (or the country’s) vulnerability, maybe don’t RT. When big stories break there is a group dynamic that takes over that motivates people to share more than they should. If you lack the judgment and impulse control to moderate what you share on social media, then really – REALLY – take the time to practice developing that skill. It will serve you well in life.

  • Remember that no one really cares what you think anyway. You honestly don’t have to vocalize every single thing you know or suspect to be true. I’m active on social media, so I won’t pretend to be immune to this temptation, but there seems to be a sense in which people use social media to feed self-importance. Folks who follow me on twitter know I tweet all sorts of irrelevant nonsense. It’s actually intentional. I ain’t all that, and chances are, you ain’t either. Get over yourself. You don’t have to share what you know. You certainly don’t have to let yourself get caught up in a story as it’s developing if you lack the skills to moderate yourself effectively. Just stop.

  • Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective? There are all sorts of baiters lurking on social media trying to draw people into saying something they shouldn’t. You don’t have to correct every knucklehead who gets a story wrong. Really. Work your issues and let stupid take care of stupid. It can be stomach churning to watch stories build in a direction I know to be wrong, but that’s life. People would do well to remember why they’re on social media to begin with and not let one-off distractions compromise their larger goals.

John Little: Lastly, do you think we are doing enough to prepare incoming public servants and soldiers with the burden that comes with having access to sensitive information in an environment that also encourages persistent personal broadcasting?

Rebecca Johnson: This is a great question. No. This is true of both PERSEC and OPSEC. Every day for a month I had Facebook recommend that I friend an individual whom I’ve never met but who serves in a Cabinet level position in the current administration. Finally I friended the individual (who — sniff — has yet to accept my friend request) and posted a courtesy message on my wall that whichever of my friends who knows the principal may want to have a gentle conversation about privacy settings. If this is the level of security for senior leaders, imagine the lack of preparation and accountability at more junior levels. I have found myself correcting my own students numerous times for PERSEC issues on social media, and my students are seasoned professionals.

In terms of OPSEC, most service members are pretty good at keeping quiet on things they shouldn’t discuss; here I would say the breakdown comes not in preparing people not to leak classified information, but in reminding people that there is a lot of open source material that still should not be shared – at least by them. Since DOD changed its policy on the use of social media, each of the services has adopted guidelines and operating procedures, but these tend to be communicated by Public Affairs Officers, rather than by commanders or small unit leaders. I’ve had the good fortune of working with leaders who embrace social media rather than run from it, and that definitely helps in building a culture of responsible social media engagement. Still, I know this isn’t the norm.

In the military, familiarity on the part of unit leaders with what social media is and the general common sense prudential rules for how to leverage it goes a long way to training subordinates in responsible practices. I’m not saying leaders should be monitoring their people’s twitter feeds; I’m saying that familiarity puts leaders in a better position to actually lead in this area. In civilian organizations (including DOD) where there is a mix of career public servants and political appointees, it can be harder to get everyone on the same page in terms of what’s appropriate to share. I’m less familiar with what individual agencies do to regulate social media use on the part of their employees, but I would suggest that the obligatory “these views do not represent” disclaimer people cram into their profile is not enough.

Banning or over-regulating the use of social media is obviously not the answer either; it’s a fact of life and has the ability to make us all better at what we do. For me, it comes down to responsible engagement. My boss likes to say that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason – so we will listen twice as much as we speak. When it comes to social media I’d push it even further. We have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth. We’d all do better to stay on receive mode and be judicious in when and why we shift into transmit.

Blogs of WarJohn Little has been breaking national security news and leveraging thousands of conflict, intelligence, security, technology & political sources to provide level-headed analysis in a complex news environment since 2002.