Speaker: Dr. Todd Helmus (RAND)
Date: 6 June 2023
The war in Ukraine has demonstrated how cooperation between a country’s military and prominent social media influencers can be a useful tool for harnessing narrative control relating to conflicts. Dr. Helmus argued that Ukraine has been out-performing Russia in its ability to create and disseminate effective narratives surrounding the ongoing war. The success of Ukraine’s information operations is in part due to its tactic of leveraging civilian and military influencers who regularly post on social media. These influencers use their platform to share posts that highlight the loss of innocent life during Russian attacks, the resilience of Ukraine’s civilian population, and the success of Ukrainian military operations. These information operations come at virtually no cost to Ukraine because most creators are posting videos on their own volition. Dr. Helmus commented that while researchers have not been able to empirically confirm the positive effects of these social media operations, Ukrainian officials have emphasized their importance on the battlefield. While Ukraine has recently been using its media to great effect, the practice of leveraging influencers on social media is a well-used marketing strategy.
Corporations have long used online employee advocacy programs, allowing individual employees to act as brand ambassadors. Employees are effectively brand ambassadors because they know the brand well, and their status as “ordinary people” increases their credibility. Dr. Helmus emphasized that while corporations want to limit negative posts by employees, posts about bad days at work can build influencer authenticity, benefiting the company in the long-term. He also said that he has not seen any evidence that the US Armed Forces are leveraging influencers like Ukraine has. Potential benefits of the US armed forces using influencers include encouraging recruitment. He emphasized that training programs should be used to avoid the inappropriate use of social media by soldiers. However, the authenticity of the influencer is the most important factor to their success. Dr. Helmus concluded by stating that any stories highlighting the negative aspects of military life will be far outweighed by the positive sentiment held by most military members.
Biography: Todd Helmus is a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and a nationally recognized expert on disinformation and violent extremism. He specializes in the use of data and evidence-based strategies to understand and counter disinformation and extremism. He has studied the disinformation threat posed by deepfakes, Russian-led propaganda campaigns targeting the United States and Europe, and the use of social media by violent extremist groups. He has also led research on the effectiveness of online interventions to prevent radicalization. In addition to his research, Dr. Helmus is a frequent speaker at security conferences. He has served as a consultant to the U.S. Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security and has served as a deployed analyst to U.S. military commands in Iraq and Afghanistan. His work has been featured in various media outlets including the New York Times, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, Harpers Magazine, Forbes and MSNBC. Dr. Helmus holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Wayne State University, Detroit, MI.