“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
The character of war, as Clausewitz reminds us, is always evolving. The line between conventional war, conducted by uniformed service members representing the interest and the will of nation-states, and irregular warfare, conducted by forces not in uniform and often not representing conventional states, has blurred. After two decades of irregular conflict in the Middle East, the United States is recognizing this reality as it focuses on deterring any Chinese intimidation of Taiwan, even as Russia unjustly invades Ukraine in the bloodiest European conflict since World War II. In this blurred “hybrid war” environment, information operations are essential to ensuring the accomplishment of American and allied objectives and securing the support of populations around the globe. Keeping popular support at home and abroad—our center of gravity in this environment—effectively demands a reconceptualization of both war and the role of information in war. As we ponder information’s future role in hybrid war, we must consider social media’s immersive yet potentially misleading nature. Further, we must think through ways to work with information technology companies to achieve national and coalition objectives and how cyber-enabled information operations can amplify messages and target receivers to bolster our strategic narratives.
Reconceptualizing the Role of Information in War
War continues to be the use of force to compel our enemy to do our will—but that force is increasingly applied in the virtual and information spaces. As long ago as World War I, T.E. Lawrence noted that the printing press was the most powerful weapon in the armory of military commanders of the time; as technology has advanced through radio, television, and now the internet, the ability of information providers to shape the perceptions of both adversaries and affected civilian populations has expanded dramatically in scope, scale, speed, and number of messengers. One advantage accruing to insurgencies in recent history is the democratization of information-spreading ability away from the exclusive control of governments and into the hands of substate groups and super-empowered individuals. Counterinsurgency doctrine notes that information is the dominant line of operations in this kind of war. Still, even so-called conventional large-scale combat operations against state actors will increasingly involve an information component. The current conflict in Ukraine, with enormously successful information operations conducted by the Ukrainian government and by individual Ukrainians on platforms such as Twitter to influence Western public opinion—and hence armament shipments—is a stunning example of how the democratization of information shapes the conduct of war. How we craft, aim, transmit, and protect information will determine how well we conduct hybrid war.
Social Media and the Modern Information Environment
Social media offers a vast sea of information DoD needs to chart and operate in. Almost 60 percent of the world’s population uses social media, with higher user percentages in rich countries like the United States. However, many accounts on social media are not human. Bots account for two-thirds of all tweets with links to current events or news sites on Twitter. Likewise, Facebook removed 6.5 billion bots in 2021 alone. With Instagram, a bevy of marketing companies offer to create armies of bots posing as real people to boost an account’s number of followers. These internet robots sing in choruses as part of loose networks (botnets) where the voices are neither genuine nor human and where the bots further their coders’ agendas. While many botnets seek to advertise products, others are nefarious. In 2016 and 2020, Russia created and deployed botnets that sought to change our political landscape. Researchers from the University of Colorado confirmed this campaign’s effectiveness, concluding that the misleading, divisive information promulgated by accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency on Twitter notably changed the tweeting behavior of English-speaking users who engaged with those accounts. Likewise, Taiwan endures China’s constant, cyber-enabled propaganda. As social media feeds are subject to proprietary machine-learning neural networks, users are immersed in curated, siloed information. As we examine the operational environment, DoD must understand the nature and impact of social media platforms. Social media constructs interactive highways of information flow where disinformation can propagate without attribution. Misinformation is often shared, forwarded, and consumed by citizens who become victims of machine learning–enabled confirmation bias.
Social media reflects narratives and messages disseminated by humans—authentic or sock puppets—and by bot users. These highways of cyber-enabled information flow likewise inspire, enlighten, and reduce friction for everything from economic growth to human connection. Think of typical users who use social media to get the news from media outlets they like, buy products through targeted ads, and share information that conforms to their worldviews. Social media gets a user’s attention for brief bursts of time, and our adversaries can spread misinformation that spurs emotion and aligns with cognitive biases. But unfortunately, as the United States slowly and ponderously navigates ethical and responsible responses to Russian and Chinese disinformation, we lose the audience’s attention. The quote that opened this article—“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”—is apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain, a demonstration of false information’s remarkable staying power. But the pithy expression’s origins extend back even further, to a time of a news cycle lasting twenty-four hours—or even more—with hard copy newssheets distributed by riverboat or literal horsepower. It is infinitely more true today due to the instantaneous nature of social media. The United States must rebalance its bureaucratic processes to engage more quickly with misinformation and propagate its messages in narrative competition. Swaying a population that swims in information ubiquity can only stem from persistent, targeted, fast, and straightforward messaging to counter viral misinformation.
The embrace of social media by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) offers a recent historical example of how to message proactively. In the summer of 2006, Israel retaliated against Hezbollah for kidnapping two IDF soldiers. Although the IDF conducted precise conventional attacks, it lost the battle of the narrative against Hezbollah. Despite Hezbollah’s clunky efforts in the information environment, it commanded the narrative and influenced world opinion against the IDF. However, Israel rapidly learned from its missteps. In 2012, when Israeli forces were once again in combat, this time against Hamas, the IDF tweeted in near-real time, showcasing its accurate weapons and sharing sophisticated battle damage assessments on YouTube. Noted in the media as the first war to be broadcast on Twitter, the IDF told its story better and cast Israel in a better light than during the IDF’s 2006 conflict. To rapidly convey our narrative, the United States must break down barriers to sharing information, including intelligence. Although the United States is now quickly sanitizing and turning around intelligence for Ukraine, breaking down barriers in intelligence still has a way to go. While imperfect, the United States should continue this forward-leaning mindset to share information with our allies, partners, and industry. These actions demonstrate the best American qualities; we are transparent and truthful. In addition to US Cyber Command’s hunt-forward operations, which allow cyber teams access to networks traditionally within the sphere of Russian influence, the US government must embrace US-led information technology industries as partners.
Unity of Effort with the Private Sector
In a hybrid war, DoD must look for opportunities to achieve unity of effort with information technology corporations. Cyberspace is a human-made domain where private sector companies play an outsized role. For instance, social media companies can amplify or firewall voices. Microsoft defended the Ukrainian network by detecting, tracking, patching, and forecasting Russian cyber threats as Russia invaded Ukraine. Likewise, Elon Musk’s SpaceX-run satellite internet service company, Starlink, opened information conduits for a war-rattled Ukraine. Embracing tech companies to achieve unity of effort protects our center of gravity in a hybrid war, the population. In counterinsurgency, the counterinsurgent must defend everywhere, all the time, while the insurgent can choose both the target and the time of attack, constantly slipping away to fight another day if the time isn’t right. This maxim holds true in the information environment, as well. In the West, bound by truth, we must defend a large attack surface by debunking misinformation spread by our adversaries. The nefarious actors, anonymized by their onion routers, slip onto mainstream platforms, plant their narrative landmines, and slip away again. Leveraging tech industries can help illuminate who these actors are and what their patterns are to rapidly call them out and shut down their mistruths. At a minimum, DoD could amplify industry voices when corporations catch authoritarian nation-states spying, planting malware, or promulgating false narratives.
Some companies in the tech industry may choose to distance themselves from the US government, especially after Edward Snowden’s release of the details of several NSA programs cast doubt on their security. However, the war in Ukraine offers encouraging signs that US-based tech companies will choose to side against repressive authoritarian regimes. Of course, public-private cooperation always brings challenges, but there are opportunities, and the US government must act deliberately to take advantage of them. American businesses, for example, offer significant technical expertise. The most talented coders, analysts, and developers work for large US tech firms. DoD offers two opportunities to attract those in tech to achieve unity of effort. First, the department presents a sense of doing the right thing. For instance, by patching and updating software, the tech industry keeps the Ukrainian people connected to each other and the global community. Second, DoD offers complex, dynamic problem sets against some of the savviest hackers in the world. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea all employ cyber espionage and cyber-enabled information operations. Leveraging the brightest minds from industry by reminding their employers that the United States stands on the moral high ground can better protect our vulnerable networks from being exploited while offering robust challenges to expert programmers.
Winning Wars with Information
In its 2022 Digital Defense Report, Microsoft added a cyber-enabled influence operations section for the first time, signaling a confluence of interests between private sector companies and the US government. The report recommends a four-stage process to combat this threat—detect, defend, disrupt, and deter. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency should lead an effort to counter cyber-enabled influence operations within the United States, and DoD should support this effort by, where its authorities allow, harmonizing its own activities overseas with it. Moreover, the US government should consider adopting, modifying as needed, and implementing Microsoft’s basic framework. What each of these four stages entails is at least partly intuitive, but a few details about the way Microsoft defines them are instructive. Defending, for example, constitutes educating society on civics and data literacy, empowering journalists, and constructing innovative policies. Disruption for Microsoft boils down to increasing transparency of false messages’ content and origin. For DoD, proactive communications and truthful, transparent, and consistent narratives can both defend against and disrupt adversaries’ influence operations. Finally, Microsoft aims for multinational, multistakeholder agreements to deter cyber-enabled influence operations. DoD should seek a similar unity of effort with other stakeholders to achieve integrated deterrence. In concert with the other instruments of military power and alongside our allies, partners, and the tech industry, targeted, truthful communications offer a viable option to deny adversaries from meddling in US elections and other attempts to spread malicious misinformation.
Finally, DoD must conduct cyber-enabled information operations of our own. Combatant commanders’ and ambassadors’ truthful, culturally appropriate messages should be crafted and delivered through cyberspace to the right receiver at the right time. The good news is that a growing range of military commands recognize how important social media is as a tool to promote DoD messaging, counter that of adversaries, or improve data-driven decision-making. If algorithms can effectively dictate the ads we see on social media they can be modified to determine when a certain foreign individual may be particularly receptive to a certain, honest US government message. For example, for users living and working in an Indo-Pacific country, an appropriate message might emphasize how their nation’s economy, or even individual industries, fairs better with a free and open Indo-Pacific. That message can appear directly to that user in subtle but attention-getting ways. It might arrive in an email, be seen in stories curated by social media, and be spread in a trending video. Consistent messaging across multiple vectors, which audiences are already accustomed to using, would complement the efforts through traditional channels to powerful effect. Social media reaches most of the free world. There is no reason that the US government should be on its heels with messaging. Proactive, targeted messages should reach foreign audiences to educate and inform global populations of DoD’s efforts. The character of war has changed. The United States must play in cyber-enabled information operations, using the tools of the trade, or face being out-messaged in the information environment.
Cyber-enabled information operations present a pernicious threat. If the populations in the West are unable to discern fact from fiction, we risk the atrophy of the will of our people to stand against unjust actions by revisionist powers like Russia and China. We cannot afford to lose our center of gravity in hybrid warfare. A whole-of-society approach is one fix. Teaching our young basic data literacy and research skills will help stem this problem. However, the lag time for that effort is long. In the meantime, DoD must act. We must acknowledge the nature of our strategic competition—that hybrid war, especially in the information environment, is upon us. As such, DoD should chart a comprehensive social media strategy (not just a policy that outlines dos and don’ts for its own personnel), target audiences, promulgate the truth and its narratives early and often, and work with industry to expose bad actors in the sea of the information environment.
John Nagl is a retired Army officer and Michael Posey is an active duty Navy officer; both teach at the Army War College.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Senior Airman Nick Daniello, US Air Force (adapted by MWI)