Information Literacy russian ads

A Gullible Population Is a National Security Issue

The hair on my arm prickled up like porcupine quills, but there was no breeze. It was a discussion about a digital literacy issue at the U.S. Army War College National Security Seminar that caused this response. Suddenly, information literacy became real — and urgent.

Information Literacy russian ads

A Note from Vicki: This post is in response to Cathy Rubin's Global Search for education where she asks about the literacy skills required for a new world. The ads shown are publicly available here from the US Congress.

While this blog is based on verifiable data, some readers may be unhappy with my interpretation. In the spirit of academic discourse, I encourage those readers to use my ideas as a starting point for discussion rather than viewing the blog as a gesture of provocation.

Please note:

1) Information literacy skills are not new
2) There is a sinister side to information literacy that has largely been ignored in education – these ads are inflammatory and were intended to be by those nefarious organizations who created them and do not represent my own views
3) While some may wish to argue whether the Russian government “meddled” in US elections in favor of one candidate or another, the bottom line is that the public was easily meddle-able. The illegitimate, fictional organizations and profiles creating this content were never outed or recognized as such by anyone, neither Facebook who let them spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the ads nor the people who reshared their content and never stopped to ask whose content they were sharing figured out these were false.

We must give pause to understand how citizens can become savvy purveyors of accurate information so that hoaxes like not friending Jayden K Smith and the  countless missing children Facebook posts that travel unhindered for years after children have been found can cease. Social media has not shown an ability to “self correct” perhaps because by its very nature, the responses can only be positive and thus, there is no self-correcting mechanism built into its algorithm.

For the curious, one requirement for attending the Army War College National Security Seminar is “non-attribution.” This means I can say, “I learned this at the War College.” I cannot, however, quote any individual. For what I want to discuss here, I don't need to quote anyone. The facts themselves are powerful enough. When I dug into them, this information is publicly available although not being widely discussed.

I challenge you to look for yourself and open conversations about where we failed as a public on social media and why we didn't realize the fires were being stoked by those with anti-US sentiments. Now is the time for all of us to become savvy investigators. Let's dig in.

We were discussing the recent release of over 3,500 Facebook and Instagram ads of the nearly “80,000 posts on Facebook that 126 million people may have seen.” (David Sanger – The Perfect Weapon, location 4240)

These aren't regular Facebook and Instagram ads. They were ones created by organizations that the US Congress says have been tied to the Russian government starting in 2015.

Now, whether or not you agree with the conclusions of candidate favoritism, as we dig in, I think we can certainly agree these ads are designed to sow discord.

For those upset about a foreign entity meddling in U.S. elections, take a look at David Sanger's new book The Perfect Weapon, released June 18. He asserts that the Chinese hacked the both the Obama and McCain campaigns in the 2008 election cycle. (location 520) Cyber-terrorism is the new area of warfare that few discuss but many fear. But now, Sanger talks about what some in the military call “weaponized social media”,

“Such “dialed down” cyberweapons are now used by nations every day, not to destroy an adversary but rather to frustrate it, slow it, undermine its institutions, and leave its citizens angry or confused. And the weapons are almost always employed just below the threshold that would lead to retaliation.” (emphasis mine)

For purposes of this conversation, however, let's focus on the discord. As Americans, we are the angry and confused citizens – mostly angry at one another and confused at the divisiveness everywhere we look. Where is the country that disagrees and works together for a common solution?

Simply put, we had a non-U.S. entity posing as U.S. citizens and organizations. Disturbingly, a seemingly non-fact-checking American public became a discord-causing propaganda machine for Russian-affiliated organizations. Far too many Americans completely fell for it.

Some of you still don't believe it. So, let's dig in.

A Few of the Ads Traced Back to Russian Organizations

For example, the information released by Congress seems to show that the Russians were eager to fund discord, putting money into everything from anti-police brutality ads, Black Lives Matter messages, pro- and anti-immigration calls to action, and agitating against and for the removal of Confederate monuments.

Perhaps this strategy can best be seen in the February 2016 controversy over Beyonce’s support of Black Lives Matter. Shortly after her Super Bowl appearance, two such advertisements created by the Internet Agency were run on Instagram (as shown below from the Wired Article on this topic).

One ad announces an anti-Beyonce protest rally, and the other a pro-Beyonce protest rally. The date, time, and location shown are the SAME for both. The accounts and organizations promoting these events depicted themselves as Americans. The goal here was to sow chaos at NFL headquarters over this topic.

beyonce Russia ads

These ads were released by the US Congress as being traced back to Russian origin, although they were liked and reshared by many Americans on social media. Source: Wired

When talking about the 3,500+ ads, Wired Magazine says,

“What made these ads so deceptive is they rarely looked like traditional political ads. Often, they don't mention a candidate or the election at all. Instead, theytear at the parts of the American social fabric that are already worn thin, stoking outrage about police brutality or the removal of Confederate statues.”

Fictitious Events, Real People Showing Up

So, a non-U.S. organization was creating fictitious events for both sides of an issue in the same location.

Why did real U.S. citizens show up, then?

Perhaps it is because we’re really upset (on both sides) by many of these topics. No one stopped to research who “mericanfury” or “sincerely_black”, the entities that posted these ads shown above, actually were.

In another example, who has taken the time to consider that much controversy over immigration may have been stoked by the perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into mobilizing and angering supporters and opponents of U.S. immigration policies?

Below are some of the ads that you may have seen on social media that were released as being traced back to Russian origin. Facebook has not notified us that we've seen this content and if they did, who can un-see and unlearn false information, specially when it plays to our previously held bias.

Anti and Pro-Immigration Ads of Russian Origin (reshared widely)

Anti-Confederate Statue Ads using a Black Lives Matter-seeming Name (but of Russian Origin)


A Confederate Monument Supporting Ad (of Russian Origin)


So, how does all this fit with information literacy?

As we discussed this topic at the War College, many of us agreed that information literacy is a massive national security issue. 

A gullible public is a danger to its country. If those citizens blindly share unvetted information, intentionally ignore the facts, refuse to correct themselves when they realize they are mistaken, and report things as truth because they “hate” the other side, well, that country is in trouble.

Who stopped to ask who was planning the rallies? Or did people just say, “I wish I’d thought of that,” and pass it on?

Who stopped to understand the organizations that appeared to be sponsoring the ads?

And can people step away from their hatred for “the other side” long enough to lock arms with their fellow citizens and unite as a country? I’m not so sure that the word “united” in our name, the United States of America, is exactly true right now.

As I was sharing these concerns at this week’s ISTE Conference in Chicago, an educator told me that she had adopted a philosophy she’d learned from her college professor. He told his students that if he was doing his job, they wouldn’t know which political party he supported, but they would discuss both sides of an issue with civility, respect, and open-mindedness.

Whether a teacher hides their political affiliation or not, are they able to respect and promote civil discourse on topics of national interest? And if teachers cannot, how can the general public?

The National Security Literacies that Should Concern Every Country

The new literacies that we need are actually, in some cases, what we should already be teaching:

  • We must be literate on how to conduct civil discourse.
  • We must be literate on how to verify information BEFORE sharing it.
  • We must be literate (and humble) enough to correct ourselves when we realize a mistake AFTER we’ve shared something that is untrue.

An undeceivable populace is a shield of protection in the grey-zone warfare that’s emerging in cyberspace.

However, a gullible, illiterate public is not only a vulnerability, but a country that’s divided enough is no longer civil when disagreement becomes civil war.

Information literacy is no longer just a nice-to-have literacy. It’s required for stability and civil discourse within any modern country. We don’t have to agree about everything with our fellow citizens, but we should learn how to disagree, and we should realize that our common enemy can easily make us enemies of one another and let us do their dirty work. 

I recall an old quote from Batman, the Dark Night

“Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

And with this “weaponized social media” unwitting citizens are being deceived each day to spread discord, disunity, and disinformation. We've become our own match.

I am very worried. As I try to bring up these issues, I get attacked from “both sides.” I don’t know what else to do but blog about it. Blogging is the best way I know for appealing to people with a wakeup call for awareness and literacy before we’re destroyed by our own ignorance. I refuse to become partisan on this issue but admit that I am decidedly pro-American in my writing of this article.

Abraham Lincoln said in his Lyceum address,

“”Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.””

What good is our military if they surround a house and the children are in the house chasing each other with hatchets?

“We must all, indeed, hang together, or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately,” said Benjamin Franklin.

I hope that this spurs a conversation about how we can hang together in learning, seeking the truth, and promoting civil discourse while celebrating the freedoms that we so cherish.

I hope that you'll look NOT take what I've said at face value. Look at the ads yourselves and have discussions about what an undeceivable un-meddle-able social media public looks like.

There are many ways to teach this topic, but I think perhaps, first, we all need to educate ourselves.

Social media is social but it's also serious.


Additional Readings

The first and best book is David Sanger's new book The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age,  it covers far more than just this issue, but will help the reader understand the extent of cyberwarfare.

Esin, J. O. (2017). System Overview of Cyber-Technology in a Digitally Connected Global Society. AuthorHouse.

Gleason, B., & von Gillern, S. (2018). Digital Citizenship with Social Media: Participatory Practices of Teaching and Learning in Secondary Education. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 21(1), 200-212.

Hügel, S., Kreowski, H. J., & Meyer-Ebrecht, D. (2017). Cyberwar and Cyberpeace. Handbook of Cyber-Development, Cyber-Democracy, and Cyber-Defense, 1-25.

Singer, P. W., & Friedman, A. (2013). Cybersecurity. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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1 comment

Sue McCown January 6, 2020 - 3:44 pm

Very interesting blog. I am one of those citizens who does get upset by many political postings on FB (only social media I use). I do try to look at who made the post and decide if they are a legitimate source or not, and I try not to share anything that is likely to stir a lot of opposition. I wish I knew how to determine what a legitimate source on FB looks like. I try to take most things I see with a grain of salt and not be too influenced by them. It is very frustrating for me that I feel there is no real reliable source of information from the news media or social media. I believe they are all geared to influence the public to the way they want us to believe. Thank you for this blog. I will be much more skeptical now of things I read on FB.


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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere