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What are the ethical issues surrounding the military influence on communication outlined by King? We suggest that although the ethical imperatives for practitioners are clearly spelled out by the American Psychological Association, their implications for researchers are less clear. We suggest that influence scholars must be cognizant of the way in which their work may be applied for (quasi-) military purposes and point to analyses and precedents that outline those risks but also highlight the promises of influence research.
King makes many informative and important points. We focus on the ethical implications that arise from her meticulous documentation of military influence in the global information environment.
Can modern soldiers of western democracies really be considered “heavily armed social workers” (Taylor, 2003, p. 312, cited in King, 2010)? Is modern battle really “… more about winning public opinion than about seizing contested geophysical terrain” (King, 2010, p. 2)? What is the proper role of social scientists in this context of modern warfare?
The American Psychological Association's ethical standards are unequivocal: “Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm” (Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence).
The implications of this imperative have been spelled out unambiguously in the context of the most extreme instantiation of information warfare; namely, the extraction of information by torture: “Any direct or indirect participation in any act of torture or other forms of cruel, degrading, or inhuman treatment or punishment by psychologists is strictly prohibited. There are no exceptions. Clear violations of APA's no torture/no abuse policy include acts such as: waterboarding, sexual humiliation, stress positions, and exploitation of phobias.” (APA Position on Ethics and Interrogations).
While this demarcates the acceptability of practitioners’ actions quite clearly within the confines of the dungeons of “black sites,” the implications of the APA's ethical mandate for researchers, such as ourselves and such as the audience of King's article, are less straightforward. Clearly, research that seeks to facilitate the practice of torture, for example, by developing new techniques of mind control, would be as unequivocally proscribed as assisting torture itself. By contrast, research that prevents the likely application of torture would be ethically permissible—and indeed ethically valuable. Counseling of torture victims also seems to fall squarely within the bounds of “… benefit those with whom they work,” provided of course that victims are not counseled for the sole purpose of rendering them “fit” for further torture.
What do the ethics of torture have to do with King's analysis of military social and media influence?
Much that was unthinkable a short decade ago, from torture to assassinations to black sites, has entered public discourse and gained acceptance by systematic distortion and linguistic normalization. Torture is now “enhanced interrogation,” abusive “stress positions” have been likened by (former Secretary of Defense) Donald Rumsfeld to his ability to stand on his feet during a routine day at the office (U.S. Department of Defense “Action Memo”; November 27, 2002), and invading armies conducting an illegal war (Kofi Annan, BBC News, 16 September, 2004) have become “well armed social workers.” In light of those developments, what are the acceptable ethical bounds for “influence scholars” (King, 2010, p. 20)?
This question has no easy answer because scientists have little control over the use of their research: findings concerning the role of skepticism in information processing (e.g., Lewandowsky, Stritzke, Oberauer, & Morales, 2005, 2009) can be used to inoculate people against deception—by underscoring the importance of being skeptical of government claims—but it can equally be used to facilitate mass deception by exploiting knowledge of the variables that may suppress skepticism. One hallmark of science is that scientists have no control over who reads their papers.
A further hallmark of science, more encouraging in the present context, is its ability to both characterize large-scale societal phenomena and generate evidence about how intended or collateral damage of “information warfare” can be moderated, or how information campaigns can be used to counter the long-term effects of such warfare. We find three recent analyses particularly informative.
Altheide and Grimes (2005) proposed that the invasion of Iraq was just one of many past and (likely) future U.S.-initiated conflicts, and that eventual dissent and retrospective reevaluation of a conflict are a routine part of a larger propaganda cycle, such that initial euphoria in the media is eventually followed by self-critical reexamination and correction of earlier misreporting. Alas, in Altheide and Grimes’s view, those retroactive critiques are a routinized aspect of cyclical public discourse and do not prevent the next conflict—as they put it: “for the next war, return to step 1” (p. 622).
In a related vein, Mueller (2006) analyzed the history of U.S. national security threats—real and imagined—since World War II, coining the evocative term “devil du jour” to refer to the kaleidoscopic array of characters who, at one time or another, were presented by the media and officials as a threat to U.S. security. In retrospect, devils of bygone days, such as Egypt's Gamul Abdel Nassr, are now more likely to appear cartoonish than mortally threatening. Nonetheless, framing of media issues with a steady stream of devils du jour seems set to remain an important tool for justifying military social influence operations in the information environment.
Yet, social influence scholars can use the tools of science to counter the effects of military objectives. In a field experiment in Rwanda, Paluck (2009) has shown that educational media entertainment based on psychological prejudice theory and evidence can reduce prejudice and conflict between ethnic groups. This is encouraging given that in the lead up to anti-Tutsi violence in 1994, radio broadcasts were used to achieve the opposite, namely, to incite prejudice, conflict, and, ultimately, slaughter.
We draw two conclusions from these analyses. First, they buttress King's meticulous analysis and furthermore attest to the “success” of the information campaigns conducted by the U.S. military. Second, we suggest that the ethical mandates just reviewed should impel influence scholars further to examine the causes of the—so far—seemingly inevitable cycle of build up to new conflicts, and to raise a warning flag if evidence emerges for another iteration of war-enabling propaganda and spin.
Ultimately, information cannot be controlled, be it by scientists or by governments. Lingering doubts to the contrary ought to have been squashed by the WikiLeaks revelations of the last few months. In the short run, however, governments can exert much control over information, and it is precisely the extent and mechanisms of that control on which influence scholars ought to shine a light. King's article is a valuable effort to this end.
STEPHAN LEWANDOWSKY is a Winthrop Professor and Australian Professorial Fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia. He received his PhD in 1985 from the University of Toronto. He has published more than 100 papers, chapters, and books, and recently served as Associate Editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. His main research interests concern memory updating and skepticism and the flow of misinformation through society.
WERNER G. K. STRITZKE is an associate professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from Florida State University in 1997 and completed his clinical psychology internship at the Medical University of South Carolina and at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center Consortium, in Charleston, South Carolina. His main research interests include addictions, eating disorders, and terrorism and torture.