Leaders are not just political, or military, or economic—they are informational, and information inherently influences. No matter what career field a leader may undertake, being influential is the sine qua non of the modern world. Influence is necessary for political leaders to advance policies, for military leaders to fight adversaries, for economic leaders to shape trends and markets—and even for entertainment figures to attract and keep fans. Some pop culture “influencers” have more sway than traditional leaders. Being powerful means being influential.
The powerful in traditional spheres have ethical and legal requirements. Campaign finance laws shape politics. Rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict shape military operations, and business ethics and regulations shape commerce. These rules reflect an understanding that when a leader has power (political, military, or economic), there is a responsibility to use that power ethically.
What ethics or rules address the power of influence?
Everyone has some influence, just as everyone has some power. But the influence of an international leader is far greater than the influence of a local pundit. An individual might own a firearm, but the military controls tens of thousands of firearms. The massive difference in level requires different rules. The immense quantitative difference creates a qualitative ethical distinction. In the United States, there is a right to keep and bear arms, but arms like automatic weapons require training and licenses. Political and judicial decisions on even fundamental rights affirm that greater power requires greater responsibility.
Modern nations require citizens to have a license to drive a car. Driving a large truck requires additional training and certifications, because it’s a greater responsibility, with greater potential damage from accidents. If the professional truck driver requires more training, and takes pride in meeting professional standards, why would those who can influence millions fear similar responsibility? Why worry about traffic risks from large vehicles and require training, but ignore information risks?
In Western nations, the concept of freedom of speech has been abused as an excuse to dodge any standard. But, much as training for large-vehicle drivers does not undermine the average person’s freedom to drive, why not use an analogous standard for influence? For example, any vehicle over a certain size requires training, and a higher-grade license to drive. What if the top fraction of influencers required training and a license? The vast majority of people would be unaffected, just as the vast majority of drivers require no additional training or licensing
What might such a licensing system look like for influence?
On a social network, for example, access to audiences could be regulated at scale based on the number of followers or reach a user might have. If an individual just wants to use social media to talk to friends and family—no problem. That’s what most networks were created to do. So long as they follow the rules of engagement set forth by the platform, a person can use it to communicate. Once a user hits a new threshold, they should enter into a new level of agreement with the platform to access that bigger audience. This process could include having the user take a short online course followed by an interactive test assessing their ability to follow the platform’s rules. A new service agreement might need to be signed. There could be varying degrees of tests over the growth of an audience’s lifespan, with the process for reaching a smaller audience threshold being less in depth, and those for massive audiences being more thorough. While it is likely that many threat actors will pass these steps, this process would create clear-cut reasons to remove someone from the platform when they violate terms of service.
An added benefit of this approach would be to help raise digital literacy. People would need to demonstrate a certain level of knowledge before being give the keys to influence.
That said, additional training is, and must be, ideologically neutral. Training can help influencers recognize attempts to use their platform to harm their friends and followers. What influencer wants those who admire him or her to be abused? Many organizations already offer education on media literacy or detection of disinformation. (The RAND Corporation, for example, has listed many such education programs as part of their project on Fighting Truth Decay.) Anyone could refuse training, with no penalty other than limiting the reach of their influence. This is analogous to not needing a commercial driver’s license unless you choose to drive a large vehicle, or broadcasting training unless you want to reach much further than a walkie-talkie. Training would help top influencers protect themselves, and those who listen to them, from being manipulated.
Such requirements can also help fight malicious automated accounts (known as bots) without impeding legitimate bot use, with a responsible trained and licensed owner. Since a bot cannot be trained, its reach would be limited, slowing and increasing costs for bot disinformation. Higher disinformation cost means less disinformation. With licensing, propagandists would have to create bots, falsify legitimate activity, and identify themselves for training, risking their true purpose being identified. Every additional hurdle increases the cost, so fewer bots can pass for legitimate accounts, and propagandists can’t afford to make as many accounts.
Education also removes the excuse some influential leaders might offer that “I didn’t know that was disinformation.” Leaders who want to protect their followers should welcome simple training on how to prevent disinformation. Additionally, once trained, leaders who want to spread disinformation would lose their ability to deny responsibility. That’s especially true if they consistently release disinformation that they were taught to recognize.
Training gives influencers a strong reason to avoid disinformation—and greater ability to do so. No new standards need to be created, either. All that’s necessary is a requirement and corresponding education to ensure that those who influence millions can follow the rules already in place. Training would only remove the excuse “I didn’t know that I was breaking the rules.” Anyone who has ever gotten a traffic citation knows that doesn’t work on the highways for drivers, and it ought not be acceptable for powerful influencers able to affect millions of lives, either.
Jonathan Herrmann is a retired lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Air Force with over twenty years of information operations experience, opposing the propaganda and disinformation efforts of authoritarian regimes.
About This Policy Proposal
This article is part of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations Policy Proposals Project. If you have a policy idea for countering influence operations, share it with us here.