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Countering Information Warfare activities

For the future Land Force, the ability to counter Information Warfare (IW)[1] and operations in the Information Environment (IE)[2] will be just as important as the ability to conduct them. This blog will look at countering IW influence activities using social media.

Social media platforms are forums where information influence takes place, where narratives can be easily spread and countered, and where IW influence activities are already commonplace. The 2017 Director of National Intelligence report on Russian interference in the US elections highlights how simple it is to use bots on Twitter or trolls with fake Facebook accounts to undermine democratic processes.

While not a widely used medium in the current Land Force, future generations of leaders will have grown up using—and exploiting—social media platforms and will be more comfortable with their operation. In order to harness the full potential of social media, all members of the future Land Force should be entrusted to use information in the same way they are trusted with any other weapon. Social media platforms are designed to be interactive and timely; there will be times when a 24 hour delay is too long. The audience will have moved on, or worse, the adversary’s narrative will have filled the information vacuum, harnessing the anchoring bias and making it very difficult for any counter-narrative to gain traction. Land Force members should also be encouraged to leave their echo chambers and explore other areas or groups, using facts and figures to counter the themes.

Risky and uncomfortable, but potentially less risky than leaving an information vacuum in an area where the Land Force is reliant on influence to achieve mission success. Former Supreme Allied Command NATO, Admiral James Stavridis, notes ‘if, as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics ‘by other means’, today’s use of the social networks makes possible a new way to influence politics, and thus gain advantage in conflict between states’.

The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) recommends three steps to countering information influence. Prepare (raise awareness, build trust, assess risk), Act (choose your response, fact checking, social media), and Learn (describe, reflect, share).

Preparation, with the example of raising awareness, can occur using lessons learned from previous IW campaigns. A 2018 report by RAND identified four components of the Russian Disinformation Chain: Leadership, Organs and Proxies, Amplification Channels, and Consumers. The report also identified different options used by the Russians for targeting each component of the chain. While it is true that the majority of options are not related to military activity, it is certain that the future Land Force will be a target of each component.

Acting can occur via four categories of response options identified by the MSB: assess, inform, advocate, and defend. The appropriate response will depend on the phase of war and the target audience. In some cases, it will be better to ignore any opposing force influence attempts. In others, responding with facts or commentary is entirely appropriate. There are obvious difficulties in attempting to persuade an ardent follower of Daesh that their hate-filled narrative is wrong, but it is lazy to use this as an excuse to fail to respond. Bots on social media make it too easy to have a prepared response appear within moments. Where only one narrative exists, it will become the truth and ardent believers are not the only target of counter-IW.

It is difficult to know what Army’s role in countering malign actors’ use of social media is. ISIS use social media as a recruitment tool, creating the illusion of a utopian state to attract potential recruits. Programming bots to detect such propaganda and counter with graphics and statements is the easy part, finding an organisation to take responsibility to do so is harder. However, what is the impediment to the future Land Force doing this? It is not legal; an argument cannot be made that it is not the remit of land forces to take steps to counter recruitment efforts of opposing forces.

A lack of experience in the use of social media to counter IW makes the third step—learning—difficult at this point. The Land Force can learn from Russian and Chinese IW activities, but it can also learn from its own experience. In this blog, Captain Carman makes a case for Army Information Operations (IO) in South East Asia to counter Daesh in the region. Reflecting on the outlined IO measures, it is easy to see how they can be replicated on social media platforms.

About the author: Major Lee Hayward is an (ARes) Intelligence Corps Officer posted to the Future Land Warfare Branch at Army Headquarters. Major Hayward has a Bachelor of Economics, Master of Defence Studies and Master of Economics Studies, and a particular interest in Information Warfare.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.

[1] IW is defined here as Information Activities (IA), Cyber and Electro Magnetic Activities (CEMA), and operations in the space domain.

[2] IE is defined here as the aggregate of individuals, organisations, or systems that collect, process, or disseminate information.

Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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