Text messages telling Americans they’ve been drafted for military service are fake, the U.S. Army said in a statement last week. Despite recent tensions with Iran, the Selective Service Program has not initiated a draft of any kind. Misinformation is a dangerous weapon.
Since Iran and the United States have faced the potential for increasing conflict in recent weeks, many Americans have received text messages claiming that they’ve been recruited for a military draft. However, these texts are a ruse. In a statement released onto the U.S. Army’s official website last week, the U.S. Army Recruiting Command office said that it “has received multiple calls and emails about fake text messages and wants to ensure Americans understand these texts are false and were not initiated by this command or the U.S. Army.” It goes on to mention that the draft has not been in use since 1973 and that military service has been strictly voluntary in the 47 years since.
While it’s unclear if these texts are a prank or part of an ill-spirited misinformation campaign, fighting misinformation is best done with a cool head and a few simple tools.
Misinformation campaigns have been utilized since long before computers, but technological breakthroughs of social media tools have lead to new misinformation problems.
“The rise of the internet and the development of advanced digital communication tools has expanded the scope of the misinformation problem dramatically,” Mehri Druckman, Country Representative for IREX in Ukraine, said. “Misinformation has become increasingly easy to distribute and difficult to control; it can be generated by anyone for any reason and can cross national borders with ease.”
One example Druckman gave was when the country of Myanmar got Facebook, which became its primary internet news source. “The New York Times reported that no measures were put in place to try to mitigate the legacy of the country’s history of censorship and social and political polarization, with devastating results,” she said. “The Myanmar military, some of whose members had trained in disinformation techniques in Russia, used anti-Muslim rhetoric on Facebook to incite genocidal violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority from 2017 to 2018.”
In addition to Myanmar, the governments of Venezuela, Iran, and Bangladesh have begun using Russia’s methods of spreading misleading and untrue “news” stories to further their agendas at home and abroad.
Fighting back against misinformation begins in the same place where most of it originates: the internet. According to Druckman, when reading so-called news online, you can often identify its intentions by looking for four characteristics of propaganda as outlined by the Rand Corporation.
First, Druckman said, it’s “high-volume and multichannel.” Second, it’s “rapid, continuous, and repetitive.” Third, it lacks a commitment to objective reality; and fourth, it also lacks a commitment to being consistent.
“The broad availability of this technology today facilitates Russia’s ‘fire hose’ approach to spreading misinformation that comes from a multitude of sources,” she said. “It is important to understand that much of today’s misinformation isn’t necessarily about converting people to a new set of beliefs. Rather, it’s about power—controlling the narrative.”
How Cooler Heads Prevail
Druckman said that fact-checking and debunking misinformation is an important activity, but there’s little evidence to show its widespread effectiveness. “Revealing truth by itself does not automatically undo the hold that falsehoods have on people’s minds,” she said.
Instead, the solution that she and others espouse is more dynamic.
“We must fight misinformation by improving and increasing independent journalism and access to information; by making tech platforms accountable for their roles in spreading misinformation, including through regulation; by creating international commitments to fact-based information; [and] by strengthening individuals’ and communities’ skills in navigating information, scrutinizing its veracity, and resisting the impulse to pass it on unless they are sure it is accurate.”
Fostering healthy skepticism and conducting fact-checking of claims can go a long way in protecting ourselves from being taken advantage of by misinformation campaigns. When Americans brought the phony texts about the military draft to the attention of the U.S. Army, the confirmation that the texts were false then eased the minds of the countless Americans who were receiving the false texts.
Mehri Druckman contributed to this article. Ms. Druckman is a media literacy and training development expert. In 2015, she designed and managed IREX’s innovative Learn to Discern project, a citizen media literacy initiative that has since been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Columbia Journalism Review.