Thursday, March 1, 2018

Russians, Elections & Mueller – Oh My!

You cannot pick up a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast today without hearing something about how the Russians influenced the 2016 US presidential election. The barrage of news and commentary surrounding the disinformation operations is overwhelming.

We all know that there are PSYOP lessons to be learned buried in there and I thought the time had come for me to at least start pecking away at them. When I face complex international events I turn to the Economist as an impartial source. Since they are not a US publication they can, and do take liberties in the way they report and analyze the news.

I’ve used two articles from the February 24th, 2018 printed (yes real) magazine. The first was simply titled “The discord amplifier” (see:, which is also a photo source.)

The article notes “three companies Mr Prigozhin controlled, including the Internet Research Agency (IRA, see article), and 12 other named Russians with identity theft, conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud and conspiracy to defraud America by “impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the United States”.

Identity theft stood out to me. Identify theft implies that the perpetrators used the identities of real people as well as fictitious people in their social media ruses.

This is the very essence of Black Propaganda that either uses false sources or obscures the true source. Fake social media personas were employed to reduce voter turnout among blacks and Muslims, while encouraging votes for Bernie Sanders to decrease Hillary Clinton’s vote count.

The false personas were then able to mobilize “unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump campaign” largely because the false persona’s appealed to the already existing beliefs and bias of those people.

The article goes on to say that “Social media are designed to hijack their users’ attention. That makes them excellent conduits for the dissemination of lies and for the encouragement of animosity.” This employment of social media shows a deep recognition of intended and unintended consequences of it.

However, let’s not totally count on digital influence. I noted how groups of real people were duped and brought into play. Playing on humans is a hallmark of Russian tradecraft, as well stated in the article: “Russia’s activity consists of techniques from the pre-digital Soviet manual: marshaling human assets, be they active spies or sympathetic activists; funding organizations that may be helpful; and attempting to influence the media agenda.”

One last point from this article was the use of armies of bots as a way to leverage their influence especially on Twitter. The article concludes like this ““If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos,” Mr Trump tweeted on February 17th, “they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.” For once, he had it right.”

The second article I referred to was in the same issue and entitled “Facebook unfriended” and subtitled “Russian meddling is only one challenge facing the social-media giant” (see:, which is also a photo source).

This article stands for two propositions:

1.     FaceBook was a critical element in the disinformation campaign as evidenced by the fact that it was mentioned “mentioned no fewer than 35 times as a place where Russian trolls swayed Americans through targeted political advertising and curated posts.”
2.     FaceBook will not be as influential for any subsequent disinformation campaigns targeted at people under the age of 25 because it is losing significant ground to SnapChat and Instagram among others.

For we in the PSYOP Community the message is clear – stay on top of the latest in social media and technology, view them with caution and never loose sight of how even the oldest of influence tactics still work.

As always reader comments are encouraged.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Train Them While They Are Small

 I had put away an article about the PRC’s control of textbooks in elementary schools, but somehow it disappeared. However, I did find this article that addresses education in the PRC: China battles foreign influence in education (see:, which is also the photo source).

The Chinese have always been long haul players. Unlike many other cultures, the Chinese understand that influence requires frequency of messaging and controlling messages.

One of the dilemmas faced by countries is how much influence they want to let in from the outside and who can access it. According to the article the last front in the influence war are international schools catering to Chinese citizens and migrants, non-Chinese citizens inside China. Attendance at these schools has, for the most part been restricted.

One of the more interesting approaches to insuring that the youngest students get only ‘approved’ messages is a new law that “bans for-profit private schools from teaching the first 9 years of compulsory education.”

Of course you must appreciate that most parents want their children to attend prestigious Chinese Universities. Entrance exams for these native schools ‘prize rote learning over critical or lateral thinking.”

As noted in the article “The Communist Party is instead seeking to inculcate young Chinese with its own ideological values: the new directive on for-profit schools calls on them to “strengthen Party-building”. After pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, nationalistic “patriotic education” classes were stepped up in schools, a move that Xi Jinping, the president, has taken to new levels since 2012, seeking to infuse every possible field with “patriotic spirit”. “Morals, language, history, geography, sport and arts” are all part of the campaign now. Unusually, he also seeks to include students abroad in this “patriotic energy”.

The article concludes on a somewhat optimistic note: “Restricting for-profit schooling also risks hitting another growing educational market: urban private schools that cater to migrant children who cannot get places in regular state schools because they do not have the required residence permits. A law that undermines educational opportunities for the privileged and the underprivileged at once could prove far more incendiary than a little foreign influence.”

PSYOPers should be aware of the power of schools, even our own. If you have not taken part in your child’s career day you are missing an opportunity to share your experiences, but to also experience a bit of your child’s education. Clearly something every parent should do.

Monday, February 12, 2018

“Honey – are you home from the War?”


I have often said that the funniest stuff is never made up.

Of course, I come from a Western mentality and my household doesn’t run like they did in the 1950s where Dad worked and Mom stayed home to cook and clean and otherwise feather the nest. While I was aware that Al Qaeda groups didn’t think much of women and their role in warfare while others embraced them as warriors, it didn’t occur to me that these two views would play themselves out in terrorist media wars.

Imagine my surprise when I caught the article “How to please your holy warrior’ in the February 3, 2018 of the Economist. (see:, which is also the photo source).

The article addresses the al-Qaeda published magazine for women called Beituki (“Your Home”). Rather than grab your rifle and kill infidels, the magazine urges““Make your house a paradise on earth,” it advises. “Prepare the food your husband loves, prepare his bed after that and do what he wants.”

The Al Qaeda view is contrary to ISIS and the Taliban who believe that women should be out there creating mayhem, just like their male counterparts. Rather than showing women in action, Beituki shows neat designer homes and domestic bliss.

While trying to find the actual Beituki website, I came across another reference which prepared an ‘infographic’ of their concept of the Al Qaeda magazine which you can see here and at:

Unfortunately there is no data available to determine which of these competing views is more popular – go out there and shoot or stay home and cook.

There is a key message for PSYOPers though and that is you can’t take your own viewpoint as the most popular one or the perspective that will be embraced by your target audience.

Reader input invited.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Books – Key to Afghan PSYOP?

The 4 February 2018 NY Times ran a front page article “though Most Afghans Can’t Read, Their Book Trade is Booming” (see: which is also the photo source).

According to the article, there are only two things that Afghanistan does not import: opium and interestingly enough – books! While only 40% of Afghans are able to read, apparently that 40% reads quite a bit. One Afghan publisher describes the situation like this: “Publishers are all trying to find new books to publish, young people are trying to find new books to read, writers are looking for publishers. It’s a very dynamic atmosphere. And it’s something independent, with no foreign assistance.”

Kabul has 22 book publishers and 60 registered bookstores serving a population of over 5 million. Of course it’s not all blue sky. Translating a book from other languages can be problematic and, as to be expected in a country bereft with corruption, there is an increasing number of pirates who can sell 4 times as many copies as the legitimate publisher.

Given that the readers of books are exactly the kind of audience you would like to reach, does it make sense to foster publishing books that support the American messages?

As it turns out self-help books, especially those offering to help the reader get rich are popular. The article notes that Ivanka Trump’s “Women Who Work” is very popular, especially among female readers. That book was panned in a New Yorker Review in May 2017 (see:

Nevertheless it is refreshing to read something that is not focused on Social Media and perhaps, just perhaps helping get the message across with an old fashioned book is the key to influence in Afghanistan.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Animals & PSYOP

I was struggling to come up with a posting for this week when I happened on this article from Task and Purpose. (see: The content of the article doesn’t matter it was this picture that I had in mind.

Most people, including Indiana Jones, hate snakes and spiders. Many people even have what others term irrational fear of animals such as spiders and will go to great lengths to avoid them. Why not simply harness common and dislikes of animals to bring a message across?

Of course, animals are not all universally loved or hated. Dogs for example are treated very well and in China they are struggling with canines as cuisine (see:
in most Western countries – see author’s dog photo While in Arab cultures, dogs are regarded as impure (see:

Units have adopted animals for their crests and emblems. The tiger can be found on many such crests as shown in this simple Google search “tigers on military crests”.

Animals can also serve to inspire and help people identify with stories. There is of course the very famous and very smart pig, Wilbur who is schooled by his friend Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web. The point is that animals can help a PSYOP campaign or they can serve to quickly turn the audience off.

Animations or cartoons of animals can also be employed in PSYOP when appropriate and to appeal to target audiences that perhaps are not as literate in the language of the land.

Creative PSYOPers know that they need a variety of tools and techniques at their disposal to be successful and appeal to their designated audience. Judicious use of animals can be one of those tools.

I have to cut this short, Max needs his walk.

Note: cited articles are also photo sources.

Monday, January 8, 2018

China Turns to Private Sector to Jazz Up Propaganda

The December 2, 2017 print edition of the Economist ran a short article “Happy Bunny” which you can find at: (which is also the photo source). The article addresses how Chinese state media is working with the private sector to liven up their propaganda.

Given the often wooden and stoic nature the PRC’s state propaganda, it’s no wonder they decided to outsource some of their efforts. Of course cooperation between the government and the private sector takes on different dynamics then in other countries.

Private sector in the US comes in many flavors. The most obvious are the entertainment juggernauts in movies and TV (broadcast and streaming). Cooperation and interaction between the entertainment industry and the federal government peaked during WWII.

At this point in time (as evidenced by last night’s Golden Globe Awards see: the entertainment industry appears to be righting the wrongs of past years and striving for independence.

The other aspect of the private sector is of course are defense contractors. The US has had mixed results by outsourcing PSYOP to commercial entities. The media is quick to publicize government contracts for influence operations and generally opines that the millions of dollars spent on these contracts was a waste of money.

The PRC’s efforts are certainly a proof of concept that working with the private sector can help improve the effectiveness of influence operations.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Propaganda and Diplomacy: Russian US Election Influence

The NY Times, December 5, 2017 on-line edition ran an article “Russia Designates U.S.-Backed Broadcasters as ‘Foreign Agents’ (see:, which is also the photo source). Interestingly enough the same article appeared in the December 6, 2017 print edition as “Russia, Retaliating, Targets U.S.-Based Broadcasters”

The article cites a 6 January intelligence report “Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution” (which you can find at: . The Key Judgment found on page iii of the report is:
“Russia’s State-run propaganda machine contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.”

The report cited several points that my Blog readers might find of  interest:

By their nature, Russian influence campaigns are multifaceted and designed to be deniable because they use a mix of agents of influence, cutouts, front organizations, and false-flag operations. Moscow demonstrated this during the Ukraine crisis in 2014, when Russia deployed forces and advisers to eastern Ukraine and denied it publicly.  (Page 2)

Russia’s state-run propaganda machine—comprised of its domestic media apparatus, outlets targeting global audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls—contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences. State-owned Russian media made increasingly favorable comments about President-elect Trump as the 2016 US general and primary election campaigns progressed while consistently offering negative coverage of Secretary Clinton. (Page 3)

Putin’s public views of the disclosures suggest the Kremlin and the intelligence services will continue to consider using cyber-enabled disclosure operations because of their belief that these can accomplish Russian goals relatively easily without significant damage to Russian interests.  (Page 5)

RT's criticism of the US election was the latest facet of its broader and longer-standing anti-US messaging likely aimed at undermining viewers' trust in US democratic procedures and undercutting US criticism of Russia's political system. RT Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan recently declared that the United States itself lacks democracy and that it has "no moral right to teach the rest of the world" (Kommersant, 6 November). Page 7)

It is important to point out that Russian propaganda efforts are aimed at further their economic goals as well as pointed out in this comment on Page  8:
RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health. This is likely reflective of the Russian Government's concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom's profitability (5 October).
The Russians understand the importance of social media as shown by a chart on Page 11 which featured this chart:

The implications for the PSYOP community are clear – we need to be as familiar with nation sponsored, strategic communications as we are with leaflets. The importance of Social Media such as Twitter and Facebook when combined with the visual power of well-viewed videos such as found on YouTube cannot be underestimated.

The Blog and I are taking a well deserved hiatus. We’ll be backed after the New Year.

All the best to you and yours for the New Year.