One is “loose lips sink ships,” which adorned posters with a stark drawing of a ship under attack and disappearing into the sea. The idea was that spies might be anywhere. Speaking out loud about anything, even the location of a loved one fighting in the war, might provide useful information to the enemy.
The other comes from former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and was quoted this week by David Ignatius of the Washington Post: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
We’re not in such a struggle, of course. Not yet, anyway. But various intelligence officials have been trying to convince Americans for years now that they are in the middle of a propaganda war; that foreign interests use social media to stoke our natural suspicions of each other or to influence the outcome of elections.
A few weeks ago, TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, was grilled at a congressional hearing. As the Associated Press has reported, the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission believe TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, which is located in China, could share TikTok user data with China’s government, compromising the privacy and sensitive data of Americans. China denies this.
Those concerns also were countered by a group of TikTok influencers, mostly young Americans who have built livelihoods on the social media platform, who also traveled to Washington for the hearing. “It’s now my full-time career,” one young female influencer says on a video accompanying the AP report. “I’ve been able to do bigger things like commercial roles, acting roles, going to premieres because of TikTok and because of the families that I was able to grow.”
Less ambiguous is the way Russian propagandists use TikTok to distort what’s happening in the war in Ukraine. The social media company has said it would label these posts as propaganda, but the AP cited a study by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan, transatlantic nonprofit, which said more than one-third of the nearly 80 accounts operated by Russian operatives were not being labeled.
Beyond TikTok, Utah congressmen Chris Stewart and Blake Moore have warned that Utah businesses may be too open with foreign business officials trying to establish relationships.
“We always expect the best in people and see the good in people,” the Deseret News quoted Stewart as saying. “Sometimes that makes us not fully aware of the nefarious motives of others.”
Those warnings come against the backdrop of increased tensions between the United States and China over the status of Taiwan.
And now, someone is leaking reams of classified U.S. intelligence documents, many concerning troop strength, strategy and the lack of military equipment held by the Ukrainian forces, and some concerning the U.S. spying on its own allies, similar to information made public about a decade ago. Some information appears to have been exaggerated or altered. U.S. officials won’t comment on their accuracy.
These could help the Kremlin by exposing Ukrainian weaknesses, or they could help Ukraine by painting a false picture of its weaknesses, making the Russians overconfident. But clearly, the most troubling aspect is the leak itself, where it came from and what else might eventually come forth. Leaked data could give Russia hints about U.S. intelligence operations, which might cost lives — that old adage about loose lips.
In 2019, the Post published a perspective by Albinko Hasic, a Bosnian-American attorney who founded BosnianHistory.com. He argued that the propaganda posters of WWII have been replaced today by internet memes, “that are easily produced, mass-disseminated and politically pointed, with the potential to do even greater damage to American politics and society than propaganda posters did a century ago.”
He also noted that, unlike with the posters of old, today “any figure, domestic or international, with a political agenda can reach a mass audience with weaponized symbols, images and digital art to advance a political cause.”
Maybe U.S. officials are overreacting. Trade depends on establishing ties with foreign business leaders. Many Utahns have sincere friendships with people in China and Russia. Social media companies do lead to jobs and careers.
But maybe, as congressman Stewart said, we also should proceed “wide-eyed and clear minded” about the world around us. Maybe we should be more careful about the information we give out and the social media information we trust. I’m guessing the WWII generation might agree.