- Information operations can have heightened impact in the modern era of mass communication.
- For the US military, US Special Operations Command handles most of those operations.
- But Pentagon and intelligence officials say the US’s IO capabilities have atrophied compared to its main rivals: Russia and China.
Before any shots are fired in a major conflict, a war of words and ideas is already underway.
The modern era’s unprecedented level of interconnectivity and the proliferation of communication methods, such as social media, has made that information battle fiercer than ever, and it will be crucial for the US as it competes with near-peer rivals China and Russia.
However, the US military has fallen behind in the information realm.
At a recent congressional hearing, Pentagon and Intelligence Community officials said the US has let its Information Operations (IO) atrophy compared to those of its competitors. Russia now poses the more serious IO threat, but China follows close behind.
Disinformation, misinformation, and psychological operations are the main features of the propaganda and information realm.
Disinformation is the deliberate distribution of false information, such as social-media posts, to deceive the target audience.
During the 2016 presidential election, Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which works very closely with the Russian intelligence services, disseminated thousands of pieces of fake information aimed at American voters.
Misinformation is the unintentional distribution of false information — for example, ordinary Americans spreading conspiracy theories on social media, believing them to be true.
Misinformation is very closely related to disinformation, and sometimes the former is fueled by the latter. Russian intelligence, for example, can plant fake stories in state-owned or controlled outlets, which unaware Americans may then distribute.
Misinformation and disinformation campaigns manipulate facts or omit contextual details to shape public perceptions. Misleading stories with a kernel of truth are often harder to debunk.
Propaganda is the distribution of arguments or narratives to influence a target audience.
Propaganda can be both true and false, and while it has a negative connotation, it can come through official channels, such as White House or Kremlin statements, or from seemingly ordinary sources, such as a tourist guide.
A battle for your mind
Russia has a long history information operations. Throughout the Cold War, the primary goal of Russian intelligence services, mainly the KGB, wasn’t intelligence-gathering but to subvert the US and the West.
They did so with “active measures,” which are similar to covert action. The goal was to drive wedges within and between Western countries, especially NATO members. Equally important was the effort to discredit the West in the eyes of the rest of the world, especially in Asia, Africa, and South America.
Russia fell into disarray after the Cold War, but Moscow has in recent years grown more focused and aggressive in its information operations directed at the US and the West.
Russia views information operations as a key warfare domain — it already sees itself as in conflict with the West in this regard — and its approach is now more holistic as it targets both the methods of communication, such as computers and networks, and the information itself.
China uses information operations to achieve more traditional goals, such as bolstering perceptions of the Chinese Communist Party and its policies and undermining foreign governments and their policies.
Like Russia, China wants to undercut social cohesion within the US and sow discord between Western countries. US Special Operations Command has already set up a task force to counter Chinese information operations in the Indo-Pacific region.
When it comes to US military information operations, it’s SOCOM that does much of the work, mainly through two units: The Army’s Psychological Operations Groups (4th and 8th) and the Civil Affairs Brigade (95th).
These aren’t your door-kicking commandos but rather special operators with language and cultural training who identify local needs and perceptions and then work to influence them.
“PSYOP in the Army goes a long way back. We first established the capability right after World War I and have refined it ever since. PSYOP guys have deployed in all the conflicts and did some great ‘peacetime’ work in Europe during the Cold War,” a retired special-operations PSYOP soldier told Insider.
Psychological operations are part of information operations and can occur in peacetime and during war. The US military divides them into three categories — White, Gray, and Black — depending on the target and operational and political considerations.
Such operations are also divided into phases of competition: 0 for shaping perceptions, 1 for deterring foes, 2 for seizing the initiative, 3 for dominating the enemy, 4 for stabilizing environments and populations, and 5 for enabling local civil authorities.
“What’s great about PSYOP is their ability to satiate all appetites. We can target audiences in the tactical, operational, and strategic levels depending on the need. This gives PSYOP a great advantage as it’s always relevant, and ever more so in phases 0, 1, 4, and 5 of competition — that is, before and after a war,” said the retired PSYOP soldier, who requested anonymity to discuss operations.
What makes it hard to do effective IO is the time and effort required to train troops, special operators or not, to excel in the domain. To conduct or counter information operations, practitioners need native or near-native understanding of a culture and language, in addition to knowledge of psychology and behavioral science.
PSYOP used their skills very effectively against ISIS, even deploying a special leaflet that could play and listen for audio.
“To counter Chinese and Russian IO, we need to be aware of the threat and educate the public,” the retired special-operations PSYOP soldier said. “Americans need to understand that this is a real, ongoing threat. Sometimes war doesn’t mean gunfire and explosions.”
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.