Written by Gavin Wilde
Earlier this year, researchers from internet analytics firm Graphika and Stanford’s Internet Observatory revealed the existence of a five-year influence operation that encapsulates the difficulties the US government faces in gaining secretly online hearts and minds. This campaign – which the US Central Command allegedly orchestrated – attempted to spread pro-American messages and targeted audiences in the Middle East and Central Asia through the creation of fake personas, the use of memes and fake independent media.
In its apparent attempt to conduct a Russian-style information operation, CENTCOM failed. As well as featuring relatively unsophisticated business techniques mimicking Russian operations — and perhaps circumventing the military’s own standing protocols — the operation was perhaps most notable for what it was not: efficient . The researchers assessed that the Pentagon’s own overt social media posts had more engagement than the operation in orders of magnitude.
Six years after Russian messages targeted the 2016 US election and roused the US government to engage in covert influence activities and political warfare, it still hasn’t found the best way to approach this area. . Its recent failures — and other more successful activity messaging campaigns — offer America’s information warriors an opportunity to reevaluate doctrines and place truth, transparency, and dedication to democratic values at the heart of their stock. But to succeed online, US information operations not only need better oversight, they also need to make room for a little absurdity.
What Graphika and SIO revealed about CENTCOM’s apparent five-year campaign represented a sort of “I told you so” moment for students of the United States’ counter-influence and counter-disinformation efforts. As Ambassador Dan Fried and Dr Alina Polyakova warned in their extensive 2020 disinformation report, “We must not become them to fight them.” By adopting tactics of inorganic obfuscation and amplification, countries like the United States risks undermining “the values that democracies seek to uphold, creating a moral equivalence (which would bolster the cynical arguments of Russian propagandists that democracy is just a fraud),” Fried and Polyakova argued.
They say there is another, more practical reason for Western states to avoid covert information operations: “If Cold War history is any guide, democracies are no good at disinformation.”
US defense officials are working to make US information operations more sophisticated, but they still have a long way to go. Last month, the Joint Chiefs of Staff updated its doctrine on information operations, or what the military calls “operations in the information environment.” But beyond the intention to smash notions of parochialism among the military services and arrive at a unified conception of information operations, not much is known publicly about the update. After the US operation targeting the Middle East and Central Asia became public knowledge, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl reportedly ordered a review of all online psychological operations, which was to be due last month.
It remains to be seen whether the Joint Chiefs of Staff doctrinal update will resolve the baseline definition issues that have long plagued US information operations. “We have not yet decided what is or is not Info Ops, Information Warfare, Cyberspace Operations, Cyberspace Operations that enable Info Ops… is it about cognitive operations, beliefs, understanding and motivations for operations?” retired Vice Admiral TJ White wondered earlier this year. “We just haven’t decided yet.”
Even the Ministry of Defense’s overt, “work-as-usual” operations have a mixed record of success. For example, an apparent Cyber Command foray into meme wars in October 2020 proved bureaucratically inept and stylistically laudable, as an attempt to contribute to online culture clashed with the realities of culture. military. A cartoon bear designed to accompany a public advisory about Russian malware would have required four weeks of review and final approval by a brigadier general – somewhat ironic for a command that has rigorously sought to reduce bureaucracy surrounding the operations in cyberspace.
So, in thinking about what American information operations should look like, future information warriors in government would be well served by studying what works in online messaging.
At its core, successful info ops captures attention, plays on existing biases, solidifies factions and inspires them to action. Consider the online phenomenon that is the North Atlantic Fella Organization. In short, NAFO involves a group of dogs in fatigues on Twitter, relentlessly punk a Russian diplomat smothering for his shameless lying. Opportunistic yet altruistic, spontaneous and uncoordinated, NAFO enjoyed the momentum of a cultural touchstone. It was an unaffiliated, pro-Ukrainian support movement that was inspired by a long-running internet meme featuring Shiba Inu puppies and their signature facial expressions. Western heads of state, lawmakers and even Ukraine’s defense minister have all jumped on the bandwagon.
For those who grew up with the seriousness of Tom Clancy’s novels, NAFO may seem patently ridiculous. But, as CyberScoop’s Suzanne Smalley pointed out earlier this month, therein lies the source of its power. Former Marine Matt Moores, co-founder of the group, leveraged the absurdity of a senior Russian official “responding to an online cartoon dog” to demonstrate a profound and galvanizing truth: When you, Mr. ambassador, reach this point in the debate, “you lost”.
These episodes raise questions about whether the bureaucratization and outsourcing of online operations — whatever doctrinal moniker one prefers — by the DOD might be precisely what dooms many of them to the doom. inefficiency. Military officers and government contractors will naturally attempt to amplify, automate or manipulate online phenomena like NAFO. However, they risk trading precious tax dollars and irreplaceable credibility for a fraction of the impact that is free for those willing to take advantage of the zeitgeist and tap into something with inherent social resonance – rather than trying to create that resonance from scratch.
By abandoning the pretense of big government and trying to be authentic – and perish the thought, human – America’s so-called information warriors could capture “hearts and minds” in a way that even most programmatic efforts probably cannot. The Graphika and SIO researchers who revealed the U.S. government’s latest attempt to sway public opinion echoed that recommendation, insisting that the DOD pursue a more proactive stance in cyberspace, its efforts “focus about exposing these antagonistic networks with radical transparency and winning hearts and minds. with an underused weapon: the truth.
Some within the US government seem to be increasingly adept at exploiting internet idioms in an attempt to reach the public. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, appears to have much more success raising awareness of disinformation using “Pineapple on Pizza” than with a formally constituted governance council. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly seems to be gaining more popularity among the hacker community with Rubik’s cubes and knit hats than she likely would with a brochure and binder. Even Rob Joyce, the director of cybersecurity for the National Security Agency, uses memes to communicate, wade through the pool of esoteric memes and find the water just fine.
On the one hand, the approach is unorthodox. On the other hand, the current orthodoxy seems to have strayed from the principles of truth, transparency, and democratic values that the US government should uphold – undermining the message by overstating the broadcast.
Gavin Wilde is a Senior Fellow in the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously worked as a management consultant for Krebs Stamos Group, a cybersecurity adviser, and served as a director on staff at the National Security Council. The opinions expressed here are his own.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed who was responsible for an influence operation targeting audiences in the Middle East and Central Asia. It was assigned to United States Central Command, not Cyber Command.
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