Does the President need to know what is true or what everyone thinks is true?
This question that did not first arise with Donald Trump’s election. It is a function of the growing power of social media. Political leaders have to make decisions and lead the American people. Facts may not be the most critical element. Yet it still is important for leaders to know what they are (to the extent possible). The intelligence community may have to rethink its service to their clients to include assessments on both–i.e what is true (as best they can tell) and what everyone thinks is true.
Consider the circumstance during 2011 when US policy decisions were being made about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Tahrir Square was filled with thousands of protestors. In retrospect, the images of the opposition and social media trends were out of sync with the “reality” of views among the broader population. Glibly stated, Mubarak was trending down on twitter so we dumped him?
This is simply meant to illustrate the need to know and evaluate both what is true and what everyone thinks is true.
Then next pernicious question is more difficult. Intelligence organizations not other collect and analyze data, but have the ability when directed by the President, to shape events through covert action. If the intelligence can collect and analyze what populations think is true, then can they shape that as well? This is nothing new. Fake news stories are not new. They just spread faster now. The cold war history is full of efforts to shape thinking on both sides. One simple example. Stories were promoted by Russia that the US created and spread AIDS in Africa–stories that are still widely believed in the region.
Social media offer an amped up opportunity to do the same things today. Russian services have a long history in covert actions and it would be surprising that they would not use this to their advantage. It seems they have tried to undermine the American image of its election process by hacking.
What will the US do in response? There will be some big policy issues for the next administration on how to use the intelligence community in a world more defined by image than so-call reality. The world the President needs to understand is not the simple factual, physical world that intelligence analysts have typically assumed. Their objective reality, while pure and important, is not all the President needs to know or deal with.
And, Donald Trump is not wrong to be skeptical about the products of the intelligence community. They make mistakes. The Iraq WMD assessments were wrong. Political leaders made decisions based on broadly held and broadly wrong assessments of reality. It was, ironically a case where what “everyone” (or most people) thought was true was not true, but the intelligence community did know there was a difference.