Friday, November 19, 2021

The Russians and Iranians Show Us Why We Need Influence Ranger School

 On November 16, 2021 The Brookings Institute ran an article “How the Kremlin has weaponized the Facebook files” (see: https://brook.gs/3CAi3Dll, which is also a photo source).

 


Many of us have followed France Haugen’s denouncements of Facebook to learn more about the internal workings of the internet juggernaut. This article describes how the Russians have exploited the whistleblower to “paint the United States as hypocritical in its support for freedom of expression and provided a boost for China’s autocratic model of internet governance, normalizing Russia’s own repressive model.” 

 

The Russian propagandists are showing a remarkable ability to adapt various situations and sources to accomplish their disinformation mission. Among other things the article continues “Russian state media has seized on Haugen’s testimony to argue that her revelations reveal the benefits of China’s model of internet governance.”

 

Another adversary, Iran has also been a player in strategic disinformation as demonstrated by the recent indictment of two Iranian nationals were charged in campaign to undermine 2020 US election (see: https://abcn.ws/3qQtMv5)

This article noted: "As alleged, Kazemi and Kashian were part of a coordinated conspiracy in which Iranian hackers sought to undermine faith and confidence in the U.S. Presidential elections," said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams.

 

Today’s posting is not an analysis of either of these two disinformation attacks, but rather an argument that perhaps we need to vary our influence operations training to a sort of “Influence Ranger School” (no tab of course).

 

I have always admired those who have graduated Ranger School because they demonstrated the drive, discipline and teamwork needed to overcome the school’s rigorous demands and because they learned survival and coping skills in hostile environments such as the mountains and the swamp.

 

It seems to me that given the top to bottom nature of influence operations (meaning from strategic through operational and down to tactical) requires new, innovative, and rigorous training. This training should include the digital and technical side as well as working with new cultural and linguistic environments as well.

 

Some of the training could be classroom or online. However, there is a critical need for field training in unfamiliar physical environments.

 

PSYOP has always lived in the shadows of Special Forces, the time has come to elevate the influence game and beat the adversary on our terms rather than becoming the global informational punching bag.


Friday, October 22, 2021

 

The Shoemaker’s Children Are Barefoot – or who counter’s enemy influence on the US military?


A number of publications including the prestigious www.foreignpolicy.com reported on October 21, 2021 that the “U.S. Army Failed to Warn Troops About COVID-19 Disinformation” ( see: https://bit.ly/3vDwnsJ which is also a photo source)

According to the article close to 90% of the DOD workforce had not received any information from their chain of command about Chinese or Russian propaganda aiming to sow doubt and fear about the virus and Pfizer, Moderna and J&J vaccines. In violation of a key security principle, neither service members or DOD civilian employees were advised as to how and to whom suspected disinformation should be reported to.


To be fair there were efforts to raise the issue of disinformation to service members and DOD civilians. The Vietnam Veterans Association (disclosure: I am a Life Member) published a survey on September 17, 2019 which you can find at: https://bit.ly/3E24BsS, which is another photo source.



The website, www.defenseone.com on September 17, 2021 (see: https://bit.ly/2ZgcYT8) briefly reported “Countering disinformation. The Army is working to disrupt disinformation online by trying to get inside a perpetrator’s OODA Loop—which stands for observe, orient, decide, act—when they see efforts to spread lies, Defense One reports. The U.S. evacuation operation in Afghanistan is a recent example where the military saw adversaries spread misinformation about the event on social media.”, (see: https://bit.ly/2ZgcYT8), but I couldn’t find any other information about that effort.


As with many of my postings, the point is not to report the news, but to analyze it.


Clearly enemy propaganda is an OPSEC concern which is the province of the J/G/S3. 


However, where does the buck start? Is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs responsible for putting out guidance down the chain of command? Should the service proponent (the JFK Special Warfare Center & School at Fort Bragg) be responsible for providing the guidance through the proper chains of command?


Is each of the 11 Combatant CDRs responsible for the spiderwebbing of guidance on how to spot enemy disinformation and what the individual should do about it.


Frankly, I certainly don’t know. My concern is that neither does anyone else!


Reader input encouraged.






Tuesday, August 24, 2021

At Least the Taliban Learned Something

While the speed of the Taliban take over of Afghanistan was perhaps a surprise, the ultimate result, at least in my humble opinion – was not.


 

In the interests of full disclosure, I remind readers that I am a Viet Nam Veteran, and as one of my colleagues used to say “Deja Doo Doo – I have seen this shit before.”

 

I am not going to dwell on the operational aspects, but to point out that the Taliban have learned that there is much to be gained by influencing perception. The August 20, 2021 online NY Times ran “How the Taliban Turned Social Media into a Tool for Control” (see: https://nyti.ms/3zgvDdZ

, which is also a photo source).


The Taliban were quick to capitalize on their operational success and to leverage social media as a way to influence their opposition that in the words of the Borg “Resistance is futile.” This is a cost-effective and judicious battlefield multiplier. As you may recall I posted “Of Course The Taliban Are PSYOP Experts! They Don’t Have Much Competition” (see: PSYOP Regimental Blog: Of Course The Taliban Are PSYOP Experts! They Don’t Have Much Competition!). 


Creativity is not lost on the Taliban and they have recognized the importance of personification by alluding to “Tommy Ghani”. Sort of an Afghan “Uncle Tom” if you will, Tommy Ghani, according to the Times and other publications is a derogatory term for Afghans who adopt Western ways using their former President Ashraf Ghani who is currently residing in the UAE along with millions of dollars he took with him when he left.


Afghans with mobile phones are fair targets for Taliban propaganda. “Experts estimate that 70% of the population has access to a mobile phone.” FaceBook and Twitter are the primary vehicles. 


The Taliban recognize that they don’t have to change world opinion to benefit from social media. They understand that targeted influence to reduce opposition, particularly from those in a position to harm them or orchestrate others can be a tremendous battlefield multiplier.




However, there are also two sides to the Taliban social media coin as well.


  1. Some believe that online resistance can be expected especially from the generation that grew up under the previous permissive administrations.

  2. The networks that serve as the vehicle for Taliban social media are also lucrative sources for NATO intelligence. Breaking Defense featured an article on August 24, 2021, “Afghanistan’s Precarious Networks: Will the Taliban, Once Again, Go Dark?” (See: https://bit.ly/3sGNMzo, which is also a photo source). The nub of the article is simple: “The Taliban now faces a decision: Ban the internet as the group did during its first rule, while hindering its propaganda windfall and other online activities, or leave the country's networks intact, allowing an avenue for continued US electronic surveillance.”

It is pretty clear that today’s Taliban has indeed learned about influence operations during the past twenty years. NATO is no longer on the ground, it remains to be seen if they can effectively harness the information domain for future operations.



 


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Booming Job Market For PSYOPers

 





In case you are thinking about transitioning from PSYOP, it looks like your skill set is in high demand. The NY Times online edition, 25 July 2021 and the 26 July 2021 print version ran an article "Disinformation for Hire, a Shadow Industry is Quietly Booming". (See https://nyti.ms/2Wu7EcX, which is also a photo source.)

The essence of the article is that the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook incident has stimulated disinformation into a big business. While nation states such as Russia, Iran and China among others employ shell proxies, now this service is available to anyone who will pay for it. According to the article, "The result is an accelerating rise in polarizing conspiracies, phony citizen groups and fabricated public sentiment deteriorating our chared reality beyond even the depths of recent years".

The article summarizes the business this way:

"Private firms, straddling traditional marketing and the shadow world of geopolitical influence operations, are selling services once conducted principally by intelligence agencies. They sow discord, meddle in elections, seed false narratives and pus viral conspiracies, mostly on social media And they offer clients something precious: deniability."

Business is so good that some experts believe that the for profit disinformation segment is actually bigger than the government proxy segment. It's quite the global business with Oxford University (UK) researchers believing that operations were run in at least 48 countries.



I'll leave the bulk of the article to your reading, but let me offer two final paragraphs in conclusion:
"But governments may find that outsourcing such shadowy work also carries risks, Mr. Graham Brookie, direct of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab said. For one, the firms are harder to control and might veer into undesired messages or tactics. For another, firms organized around deceit may just as likely to turn those energies toward their clients, bloating budgets and billing for work that never gets done.

As always, reader comments encouraged, but --- no resumes please.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Creative Economy –leading edge PSYOP or a fad?

 

You often hear the expression “follow the money”. In case you are interested this goes all the way back to the movie All The President’s Men and meant you can figure out political corruption by analyzing money transfers.





 

Venture capitalists (VCs) are considered among the 21st century’s major money sources. According to the July 12 NY Times (see: https://nyti.ms/3i5wgjj, which is a photo source), “The online influencer culture is starting to draw serioblogus interest from big venture capital firms. But the real money could be in digital tools, not the personalities.”

 

The VCs are creating an investment boom in the ‘so-called creator or influencer economy’.

The creator economy is named for social media ‘creators’ who are people that monetize their on line persona. I should point out the creators are generally young (under 30?) and digital natives – meaning they grew up with high speed technology.

 

The article continues “The creator economy, which provides digital tools to influencers and helps them run their businesses, is a huge, largely unexplored market.”  VCs have reportedly invested $2 billion into 50 creator-focused startups so far this year.

 

Two companies mentioned as provided tools are Dispo and Poparazzi.

Dispo is a photo staring ap which is considered a rival to Instagram.

Dispo as an invite-only picture sharing ap and you can learn more about it at:https://cnb.cx/3yR4z4A

 

Poparazzi (http://www.poparazzi.com/) is another tool mentioned and it is an app that mimics the concept of paparazzi because it is a photo sharing ap that encourages the network of friends to share photos among the group. The Apple App store features it here: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/poparazzi/id1513680970 (also a photo source)

 

Another tool, Sub-stack (https://substack.com/) allows writers to set up paid subscriptions to newsletters. It also provides authods with an on line platform that can provide analytics, and design tools.

 

The TikTok platform is generally given credit for jump starting the creative economy and contines to be the most popular downloaded ap (see: https://www.socialmediatoday.com/news/tiktok-continues-to-hold-its-position-at-the-top-of-the-monthly-app-downlo/601414/, which is another photo source).

 

The implications for PSYOPers is that new tools can help turn anyone into an online personality. This means that the on-line influence playing field is continuing to level and that adversaries can be expected to mount effective influence campaigns with very limited budgets.


Thursday, July 8, 2021

Iran Disinformation Points Way For Near Peers and Others

 

The NY Times June 30, 2021 On line edition ran an article: “Iran Disinformation Effort Went Small to Stay Under Big Tech’s Radar” (see: https://nyti.ms/2SXGrh, which is a photo source)

 

According to the article “Over several months, Iranian agents had infiltrated small WhatsApp groups, Telegram channels and messaging apps that Israeli activists used for intimate discussions among dozens to thousands of people.”

 

There are several ‘intelligence indicators’ in this small sentence. The first of which is that disinformation is not the exclusive domain of top level threats. Secondary and near peer adversaries are able to harness this cost effective influence weapon.

 

Secondly, even seemingly secure applications such as WhatsApp are subject to compromise.

If Iran can do this then certainly it is within the capabilities of others such as North Korea and a number of non-state terrorist actors such as ISIS.

 

The ability to send focus, point to point, messages is a critical tool because the combination of text and images will cause the recipient to pause at a minimum, if not accept the message as true, not so much because of its content, but because of its trusted delivery path.

This adds a new wrinkle to influence operations and further democratizes the cyber domain battlespace.

 

You can fin an in-depth summary of the Iranian Cross Platform Influence Operation at: https://bit.ly/3yu13No. 

 

Among the survey’s conclusion is: “The direct approach to Israeli citizens, made through internal protesters’ WhatsApp groups, represents a dangerous escalation of methods. Establishing a personal connection with unsuspecting citizens is a novel technique and is suspected to be merely the tip of the iceberg regarding methods of foreign intervention in Israeli democracy.”

The penetration of WhatsApp can also yield interesting intelligence as the interloper is now inside a trusted virtual perimeter. This threat was confirmed in the NY Times article cited below: “In these closed messaging groups, people tend to trust one another and share more freely because there is a feeling that they share the same politics, and that the app itself is secure and safe,” said Gonen Ben Itzhak, an Israeli lawyer who once worked for Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. He was among dozens of Israelis who said the Iranian efforts had targeted them.

 

The App also provides top cover while websites can and are targets for government action. On June 22, 201 the NY Times ran an article, U.S. Seizes Iran-Linked Websites at Key Point in Nuclear Talks (see: https://nyti.ms/3qT3fvi, another photo source) which describes the US Justice Department actions after the recent Iranian election.

 

The message is clear for PSYOPers – be prepared on all fronts and don’t count seemingly less resource endowed enemies and adversaries out.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Of Course The Taliban Are PSYOP Experts! They Don’t Have Much Competition!

 

I ran across an MSN article dated June 22, 2021. “The Taliban Are Winning the War of Words in Afghanistan as morale falters” (see: https://bit.ly/3qmDhQt). The article began:

“As Afghanistan’s armed forces cede and regain ground in the searing summer offensive against the Taliban, they are losing a propaganda war that is affecting the morale of a fearful population waiting for reassurance that the insurgents won’t overrun their country.”

 

Just for fun I decided to do a Google Search on “Taliban war of words”.

And, what do you know, I came across another article “Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?” (See: https://bit.ly/35Kv7Ic), This one was written by the well respected International Crisis Group and published on 24 July 2008. It begins:

“The Taliban has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement. Using the full range of media, it is successfully tapping into strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers. The result is weakening public support for nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban. The Karzai government and its allies must make greater efforts, through word and deed, to address sources of alienation exploited in Taliban propaganda, particularly by ending arbitrary detentions and curtailing civilian casualties from aerial bombing.”

The Taliban dominance of influence operations should come as a surprise to no one.

The fact that the media is latching on to their dominance in June 2021 should also not be a surprise.

The Marine Corps Intelligence Activity commissioned the Rand Corporation to produce an analysis of “U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan; Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001 – 2010”, which was published in 2012.

While the reported covered both successful and unsuccessful information operations, their general conclusion was:

“If the overall IO mission in Afghanistan is defined as convincing most residents of contested areas to side decisively with the Afghan government and its foreign allies against the Taliban insurgency, this has not been achieved.” (see: https://bit.ly/2TW4mhs, which is also a photo source).

On April 14, 2021, President Biden spoke from the Roosevelt – the Treaty Room in The White House where he said “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result. 
I’m now the fourth United States President to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats.  I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”

(See: https://bit.ly/3xGJFEC

There should be no surprises here. Recapping some reasons why:

1.     The Taliban have always had a more streamlined approval cycle.

2.     There was no real unity of command of influence operations.

3.     There was neither an overarching communications strategy, nor a practical plan.

4.     The Afghan government was barely able to govern, let alone develop and execute a communications strategy.

5.     The Taliban have done a marvelous job of exploiting their home field advantage.

6.     The US withdrawal will undoubtedly lead to more Taliban military victories which they will no doubt exploit.

7.     The tribal nature of Afghanistan does not lend itself to high tech social media efforts while the global stage is great fodder for them.

Many of us were trained using “Leadership Reaction Drills” where unit leadership rotated among the members of a group. At one point we were asked the question we all dreaded “What now Lieutenant?”

I’d ask President Biden, Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin the same question ‘What now’?

Photo Source of President Biden & President Roosevelt: https://abc3340.com/news/connect-to-congress/gallery/biden-hails-house-passage-of-19t-virus-bill-now-to-senate