PhD in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism
This article addresses various aspects related to influence operations, such as targets, social and individual resilience, ontological security and (counter)intelligence. The Internet and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), as well as a few aspects with regard to training future information / psychological warfare professionals, are also highlighted. The subject under analysis presents some new features and, as such, said operations can cause unpredictable reactions, chiefly from States.
This work results from bibliographic research and exclusive interviews with a variety of experts.
Keywords: (counter)intelligence; influence operations; information operations; ontological security; political warfare
This article is based on bibliographic research and, chiefly, exclusive interviews with the following experts:
As part of this piece, it is vital to take into account the concept of influence operations: in general, every activity conducted by States or by any other groups, in both times of peace and wartime, including the gray-zone context, with the aim of influencing a target audience (Brangetto, Veenendaal 2016 / Starling, Iyer, Giesler February 23, 2022). Specifically, this article is centered on the influence exerted on certain audiences, depending on the messages / narratives conveyed through various channels, such as traditional and social media.
Influence operations can encompass information operations (Brangetto, Veenendaal 2016). According to several authors, oftentimes, the terms information operation and information warfare are used indiscriminately, that is, as synonyms (Lin 2018 / Vandomme 2010). There is a variety of terms that can generate confusion: psychological operations, influence operations and information warfare (Brangetto, Veenendaal 2016). In all this, there is a common goal that this article focuses on: influencing (Information Operations / Psychological Warfare).
Several experts, such as James Farwell, Jennifer Counter and Petros Petrikkos, relate influence warfare to political warfare. This latter expert feels that, frequently, the aim of influence warfare is part of a broader political agenda. Counter states that influencing is essentially a political activity, given that it seeks to change perceptions regarding the world and concerning an individual's role in it.
For U.S. military operations, intelligence and information operations are crucial components, with information comprising the essence of both communities (Schwille, et alii 2020). There has to be a high degree of coordination between those backing intelligence support and whoever plans and executes operations in the information environment (OIE) (Schwille, et alii 2020). Among various aspects, intelligence services can provide details regarding targets of information operations.
According to Christopher Paul, the intelligence community, especially the part pertaining to the area of Defense, backs information operations, as is the case with the other kinds of operations. In the words of Jahara Matisek, the Information Operations Division at U.S. NORTHCOM (J39) seeks to cooperate with the intelligence community, when it comes to defending the American homeland against opponents' campaigns and promoting American values in the Western Hemisphere. This National Security Affairs department professor at the U.S. Naval War College adds that, in relation to U.S. intelligence agencies and military units involved in information / psychological warfare, there could be some sharing of the best practices and ways of identifying adversarial actions. Matisek maintains that cooperation between the U.S. Government and the military should increase.
The targets of influence operations could include large swaths of the population of one or several countries, groups of people or an individual. From Jahara Matisek's standpoint, this latter case could end up being part of the next major conflict, given that, in reality, few Western citizens are ready to face well-structured adversarial operations that could go by way of direct messages (DMs) of various social media. James Farwell states that, currently, within the sphere of influence operations, individual targets are important.
According to Jennifer Counter, if an influence operation comprises a narrow goal, the target can be a small group or a single person. This expert points out that, for the sake of efficacy and efficiency, it is vital to have a good understanding of the key public. Counter considers that, in this age of social media and microtargeting, it is easier than ever to address key messages to a target audience comprising a small number of people.
Selecting foreign individual targets and channels for precisely sending them the messages constitutes relevant aspects of influence warfare. Matisek stresses that Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) enables gathering data found in the public sphere on an individual and, based on this, sending him / her messages that have been created specifically for him / her. This way, according to Matisek, as part of psychological warfare, a different reality can be socially and digitally constructed, in the infosphere of the individual target with which he / she coexists. Jahara Matisek, while also taking into account the first steps of ChatGPT, feels that we cannot yet see the full potential of using A.I., as a weapon, for non-kinetic operations.
Farwell, Matisek and Paul point out that there is increased intensity and breadth of information / psychological operations, when these are automated, namely with the use of socialbots. This, according to Matisek, can be dangerous, when looked at as entailing a relatively low cost and with hardly any risks, given that there are no precedents for this type of actions on the international system, as to drawing red lines; thus, the likelihood of a conventional military response is low, at least up to the present moment.
Also in the sphere of the Internet, Farwell believes that, without generalizing, troll farms / factories can be effective, when strongly affecting certain sites and through clever social media. In the opinion of Christopher Paul, troll farms play a relevant role, as part of foreign malign influence, thus allowing a government or group to take advantage of individuals' power to manage the contents of a much larger number of people and accounts that are fake.
How and to what extent can influence warfare, chiefly in the medium to long term, jeopardize ontological security, that is, for instance, a country's identity? This is a question that Christopher Paul values, but for which he acknowledges that there is no complete answer. In this regard, Paul is not unaware that, on the one hand, there are those who do not assign a great deal of importance to foreign malign influence and, on the other hand, there are also those who, in said influence, see a potential existential threat. This is a subject which, according to Christopher Paul, should be further researched.
Petros Petrikkos states that, in the case of a conflict between nations, information / influence warfare can be used, by one of the parties, to disrupt the regular functioning of the other State and of society in general, thereby calling ontological security into question. For this to happen, when dealing with a systematic process, Petrikkos feels that information resources and time are needed. This expert explains that, first off, information is gathered on the target country, in order to identify and subsequently exploit its vulnerabilities. According to Petros Petrikkos, a target, with its functioning seriously disrupted and with no resilience, becomes insecure and more permeable to influences, with regard to its identity.
Jennifer Counter feels that the narratives that guide who we are and the position we take up within a group are very powerful, to the extent that identity is an essential part of the individuals and the society we live in. This is why Counter points out that influence operations can be very dangerous, when they seek to gradually weaken aspects that serve as the basis of society, such as shared histories, values and norms. From an offensive standpoint, Jennifer Counter believes that casting doubt on foundational ideas can somehow serve to create divisions between citizens and their State, between people of different groups in society (in religious and ethnic terms, for instance) and among family members or a circle of friends. According to Counter, part of warfare includes determining target audiences and the messages that gradually destroy societal narratives, thus contributing to, for example, undermining an adversarial government's credibility. From Jennifer Counter's perspective, at the end of the war, society should once again function as a single body; however, said divisions and loss of confidence could constitute problems that are hard or even impossible to solve. Counter warns of the need to fill the gaps caused by offensive messages.
Various experts, such as Christopher Paul, Jahara Matisek, James Farwell and Jennifer Counter, acknowledge that, on the international stage, influence operations geared to certain countries already dealing with some social, political and economic problems, possibly combined with involvement from certain local leaders, can contribute toward triggering or heightening uprisings.
Both James Farwell and Jennifer Counter agree that, in reality, the existence of barriers to freedom of expression, information and the free entry of messages from foreign countries hinders influence operations geared to a given country via the media. In this regard, Counter adds that, naturally, there are greater vulnerabilities, for instance, in countries guided by Western ideals, due to the free flow of ideas, information and the freedom of assembly. As acknowledged by Jennifer Counter, this is why limits to free speech are often imposed in times of war. From Petrikkos' viewpoint, when the State imposes limits to information, it could potentially cause a negative effect on its citizens, for example, by causing reduced trust in Government.
Media can be instruments of influence warfare
From Jahara Matisek's perspective, a certain country's social resilience constitutes a hindrance in relation to threats of psychological warfare. This officer feels that, currently, any society should invest in digital literacy, critical thinking and civic education. With regard to this, Jahara Matisek points to Sweden and Finland as two countries that are exemplary in addressing psychological warfare, strengthening their societies, in order to triumph over malign actors which seek to cause divisions through disinformation and misinformation. Matisek explains that, with similarities, the models of the two countries mentioned, respectively Total Defence and Comprehensive Security, present an overview regarding security and national defense, to the extent the elements of the public and private sectors are aware of the role they need to play in a crisis situation. This professor advocates that every citizen's involvement in national defense allows for both individual and collective strengthening that will serve to withstand adversarial influence activities, among other aspects.
In order to deal with situations such as psychological warfare, propaganda or disinformation, Christopher Paul also maintains that fostering individual and collective resilience is important. From the viewpoint of this RAND Corporation expert, one of the factors that can somehow contribute toward said resilience is media literacy, even though, relative to its efficacy, contradictory research outcomes may emerge. According to Paul, another measure against said situations could include inoculation or pre-bunking, where potential targets are pre-seeded with lighter propaganda arguments and counter arguments. However, Christopher Paul acknowledges that fostering resilience can have limits, firstly because human beings, in general, trust others, and so it is easy to deceive them. Paul adds that, when people are not fully involved cognitively, they are even easier to deceive.
Christopher Paul underlines that more effective counterpropaganda strategies should consider every stage of propaganda. Several researchers conclude that, in order for malign or subversive information to be effective, it must successfully go by way of the stages of production, distribution / redistribution and consumption (Matthews, et alii 2021). This is why, with a far-reaching perspective, the fight against said types of information shall concern every stage, not just in consumption, as is the case with fostering resilience, even if such is somehow positive (Matthews, et alii 2021).
In relation to the activities conducted by counterintelligence services to prevent influence / psychological operations in their countries, Jennifer Counter maintains that, first of all, we need to understand that influence operations and campaigns comprise an end goal. According to Counter, an overview may be lacking, when too much attention is often paid to certain specific contents, such as a tweet or a given account on a social media. This expert states that rarely are content batches compiled in order to grasp the message and be aware of the targeted key public, subsequently reversing the process so as to understand the actor and his/her goal.
According to Jahara Matisek, even though few governments and military organizations publicly disclose offensive or defensive operations, in the sphere of influence / psychological warfare, States generally apply some resources in identifying potential adversarial influence attacks. This type of counterintelligence activities, according to Matisek, goes by way of analyzing trends, attempts to put an end to inflammatory information and collecting foreign IP addresses, for instance.
Jennifer Counter maintains that influence operations are more art than science. Among the multiple subjects that comprise training a future information / psychological warfare professional, Counter stresses political science, behavioral science, psychology, history, geography, anthropology, languages, social movements and measurement approaches (pooling, surveys and focus groups). James Farwell considers that a future information / psychological warfare professional should have talent and study hard, most notably cyber operations. As part of this, Jahara Matisek feels that a cyber professional, within the context of sociopolitical-information warfare, should be dynamic enough to understand a diversity of cultural, social, political and historical trends. Matisek adds that, from his standpoint, said professional should have characteristics that include a free spirit and an ability to come up with out-of-the-box solutions.
In both times of peace and warfare, including the gray-zone context, it is incumbent on the State to protect its nationals and, as such, should not underestimate any type of threat to its security, including offensive influence operations, on the part of another State or another foreign organization. Those who attack also should not underestimate reactions to said operations. Not everything is predictable, so much so that, in the subject under analysis, there are various new features, such as those related to A.I., for example; this enables influence operations to comprise great intensity, breadth and depth.
The targets of influence / information operations can be populations from one or several countries, groups or an individual. Traditional and social media serve to bring the messages to the various targets, even, if necessary, with precision, to a single person. Currently, experts assign a high degree of importance to individual targets.
Influence operations can contribute toward triggering uprisings, chiefly in countries that already have some conditions so that this can come to pass and where local leaders take part. In reality, when a State imposes restrictions to freedom of expression and of information while preventing messages from entering from other countries, on the one hand, it is hampering influence operations, but, on the other hand, in this situation, citizens' trust in Government can dwindle.
Collective or individual resilience constitutes a hindrance to psychological warfare. On the defensive level, it is sensible to invest in media / digital literacy, critical thinking and civic education. Relative to security and national defense, involvement from every citizen and participation of the public and private sectors are vital. Surely, when fighting influence / information operations, the State's role is relevant, mainly with regard to its counterintelligence agencies.
Creativity is a feature valued in an information / psychological warfare professional, who needs to examine several matters, with a global perspective; to such end, he/she requires multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary training.
It should be pointed out that, collectively (that is, pertaining to a country) or individually, the effects of medium- / long-term influence operations can be regarded as dangerous for ontological security, or, potentially, as existential threats. This way, an aspect of core importance for a nation or an individual can be called into question – their identity. Above all, this is a question of political warfare.
*Researcher at the RAND Corporation; Professor, Pardee RAND Graduate School (U.S.)
This interview was conducted, via email, on January 11, 2023.
**Lieutenant Colonel., U.S. Air Force; Military Professor, U.S. Naval War College Department of National Security Affairs; team member of the Irregular Warfare Initiative at the Modern War Institute / West Point (U.S.)
This interview was conducted, via email, on January 25, 2023.
‘‘The views of Lt Col Matisek do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Naval War College, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.’’.
***Consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense, including Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy / Intelligence), Special Operations - Low-Intensity Conflict, U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Strategic Command; associate fellow of the Centre for Strategic Communication / Department of War Studies at King’s College London (United Kingdom); nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East Institute (Washington D.C., U.S.)
This interview was conducted, via email, on January 3, 2023.
****Lecturer at the Northeastern University Professional Studies (U.S.); course associate at the University of Columbia / New York (U.S.); nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense Practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security (Washington D.C., U.S.); Vice President, Orbis Operations (U.S.); former Foreign Service Officer (U.S.); former U.S. Air Force Intelligence Officer
This interview was conducted, via email, on February 2, 2023.
*****Political, defense and foreign policy researcher and analyst; Project Coordinator at the University of Nicosia Diplomatic Academy (Cyprus)
This interview was conducted, via email, on February 7, 2023.
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Information Operations. Retrieved 2.2.2023 from https://www.rand.org/topics/information-operations.html
Lin, H. (2018). Developing Responses to Cyber-Enabled Information Warfare and Influence Operations. Retrieved 10.2.2023 from https://www.lawfareblog.com/developing-responses-cyber-enabled-information-warfare-and-influence-operations
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Starling, C., Iyer, A., Giesler, R. (February 23, 2022). Today’s Wars Are Fought in the ‘Gray Zone’. Here’s Everything You Need to Know About It. Retrieved 8.2.2023 from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/todays-wars-are-fought-in-the-gray-zone-heres-everything-you-need-to-know-about-it/
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Photo by: Jorge Marinho
Published by Marinho Media Analysis / February 14, 2023
This piece was also published on the following sites:
- International Affairs Forum - Center for International Relations (Washington D.C., United States of America) / February 15, 2023
- University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) Blog / United States of America / March 3, 2023
- Intersec - The Journal of International Security / United Kingdom / April 2023 (Cover feature / pp. 16-18)