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Americans must put aside bitter divisions to defend against foreign threats

Americans must put aside bitter divisions to defend against foreign threats
© Madeline Monroe

As we approach Election Day, our union faces some of the starkest challenges in a generation.  Internally, we are bitterly divided, not just about the presidential election, but also on critical social and economic issues which, if left unresolved, could permanently divide us. We are also in the midst of massive, rapid technology change that provides us broad access to new information, and changes how we develop our opinions and interact with others.  

At the same time, the democratization of how we get information has made it harder to separate fact from fiction and news from opinion. This can create significant challenges, including widening existing divisions in society, making it harder to resolve critical political, social and economic disagreements in a productive manner. These challenges are magnified by foreign nation-states who leverage technology to undermine our faith in our political system, elected officials, and rule of law institutions. 

While there is no question that increasing polarization in our society — whether among our politicians, popular media, or the citizenry — has turned up the volume and heat of our internal debates, the reality is that our lack of access to consistent, accurate facts has made the public more vulnerable to foreign disinformation. And while we are clearly making efforts to grapple with this challenge, part of our problem is, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently noted, in today’s world our “technological thinking is way ahead of conceptual thinking.” That is, as technology has evolved faster and faster, we simply haven’t designed policies that protect the American core values. 

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For example, today we have little, if any, agreement on the rules of the road needed to preserve free speech and open debate while effectively coping with the spread of foreign disinformation. To the contrary, more than four years into this fight, we’re still making it up as we go along. And, more often than not, we have private actors setting these rules of the road on their own, with little transparency as to how they are doing so, raising questions of censorship and bias. Even worse, this has led us to consider misguided government regulation that could strangle one of America’s most innovative industries.

With the advent of 5G and the pandemic-created work-from-home exile, we are increasingly dependent on the news and social media outlets that we access through our connected devices.  Unfortunately, these sources likewise have become less than reliable. Today, most cable news channels are less front-page and more op-ed. It is virtually impossible to watch any news channel and get more journalism than opinion. And the problem is worse online, where social media algorithms increasingly force us to spiral into tighter circles of those who share our own views, increasing our vulnerability to the inaccurate facts and polarized narratives that are promoted by our foreign adversaries.

And yet, all hope is not lost. The path forward, however, requires real leadership from those in industry, politics and the media. It requires elected officials and those running for office to step up and create a more civil environment. It requires the media to focus more on facts and less on opinion. And it requires the technology industry to get serious about providing radically more transparency about the information we get online — where it comes from, and why we are seeing it.

In many ways, this requires our institutions, and each of us individually, to return to our core values as Americans. We seem to have forgotten that we are a nation forged in the very fires of heated disagreement about politics, religion and democracy. Rather than embracing our traditional zeal for fact-based debate, we have become complacent. We increasingly reject honest debates in favor of invective and posturing. 

This is a mistake. Incivility and invented facts are not the way Americans should argue, regardless of the bitterness of our disagreement. Likewise, spiraling into conspiracy theories or suppressing speech — whether by shutting down discussions or shouting down opponents — also should be rejected. Instead, we must embrace the value of the new democratized technology environment by permitting more speech, not less. We ought get the facts from the media, and be informed when we are hearing opinions instead. The technology industry should tell us more about who we are hearing from online and direct us to factual resources to assess these views on our own. And they ought to do so not because of government regulation but because it benefits their core values and bottom lines to do so.

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In sum, we need to return to the America that truly made us great — an America that was united and believed in our mission and role in the world, that shining “city upon a hill,” an enduring beacon of freedom and goodwill to all mankind. We need to treat our fellow citizens with respect and kindness. We need to find a way to address the scourge of disinformation by helping technology companies evolve in the right direction, protecting our values while defending our democracy. And we need to educate ourselves on our system of government, the importance of the rule of law, the need for politicians to fight for what they believe in, on principle, rather than rhetoric.  

We can and should disagree, but we can do it without becoming victims to the vitriol that empowers our adversaries. Instead, we ought come together as a nation to collectively defend against the foreign threats we face. And we should do so by expecting more from ourselves and our elected leaders and those standing for election. Taken together, these efforts — not regulation or suppression of speech — are the best bulwark against foreign interference. 

America can be great again, and the most effective path to get there is to be better than we are today, as individuals and as a nation.

Gen. (Ret) Keith B. Alexander is the former director of the National Security Agency and founding commander of United States Cyber Command. He currently serves as chairman, president and co-CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity, a start-up technology company focused on network threat analytics and collective defense.  

Jamil N. Jaffer is the former chief counsel and senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and served in senior national security roles in the Bush Justice Department and White House. He currently serves as senior vice president for strategy, partnerships and corporate development at IronNet Cybersecurity.