Weaponization of benign activities

Chinese tourists take a ‘selfie’ at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on November 14, 2016, as Sikh devotees mark the 547th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev. Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of ten Sikh gurus. / AFP / NARINDER NANU Getty Images

Late last year, the Marine Corps released MCDP 1-4 ‘Competing.’ It’s a great pamphlet that captures the nature of the global competition we find ourselves in today. I would recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to know more about what ‘great power competition’ looks like. It’s well-researched and well-written.

Over the summer, I plan on lifting a few things from Competing to explore a little further. The first of these is mentioned on page 4-10 as a part of the ‘common characteristics of our rivals approach to competition.’

‘Weaponization of benign activities.’

While a definition isn’t offered, if you have been paying attention, the concept is almost immediately apparent.

Competing provides a short vignette two pages later which discusses the idea in the context of tourism.

Weaponization of Benign Activities: Tourism in Targeted Countries

Palau is an island nation strategically located east of the Philippines, has only 20,000 citizens, and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. About 2014, China put Palau on its approved list for overseas tourism.

By 2015, Chinese tourists flooded Palau, created a Chinese- funded hotel construction boom, and bought up buildings and apartments. Chinese-owned restaurants and small businesses also started, displacing local enterprises. Chinese tour groups were typically self-contained, staying in Chinese-owned hotels and bringing their own tour guides, which froze out locally owned tourism businesses. The influx of Chinese tourism created divisions between Paulauans benefiting from the tourism and those threatened by the displaced businesses, increased living costs, and damage to the local environment brought by the tourism flood.

In late 2017, Beijing placed Palau off-limits for package tours, dramatically affecting Palau’s economy. The off-limits order was reportedly an effort to put pressure on Taiwan via their relationship with Palau. China used tourism to create an economic dependency and then manipulated it to help them achieve their aims.

MCDP 1-4 Competing p. 4-12

If you follow the footnotes, you’ll land on a 2019 assessment from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail.’ This is what they have to say about the subject:

Weaponization of benign activities. In conducting their political warfare operations, Russia and China have weaponized many normally benign activities. These include but are not limited to diplomatic discussions; conventional and unconventional media operations; tourism into targeted countries; flows of students; visit diplomacy; the establishment of “friendship societies” and similar front organizations; the purchase of well-located pieces of land, key infrastructure, and strategically important companies; accessing, often by stealing, protected intellectual property; managing trade and investment flows; exploiting education systems, and manipulating immigration arrangements.

Ross Babbage, ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail

The weaponization of benign activities will serve as the constant, slow-burn tactic of great power competition. These are events and processes that unfold over years and will be a nuisnance to military, diplomatic, and political leaders who will feel compelled to “do something” in response.

There is a related tactic that we already see every day – and that’s the weaponization of benign information. If you spend any amount of time on social media, you see this when someone includes a screenshot that provides ‘evidence’ of some transgression, however slight or implied. This is a tactic employed by provacateurs and trolls alike. Irrelevant personal details might be tossed on the fire to smear someone. Those details may not add anything useful, but they work as an accelerant with the target audience, carrying unseen weight.

You also see this tactic when headlines are contorted by different organizations to feed a certain narrative.

And of course, you see this when conspiracy theorists posit that some trite piece of information contains hidden meaning.

Words are already loaded with history and stories behind them. Arranged in the right way, they can convey the meaning you want to the right audience and they won’t even have to read the article. Important here, is that this technique is not likely to shift global opinion or ‘win the war.’ Rather, it might nudge the dial just a little bit over time.

More consequently, the weaponization of benign activities/informtation could result in an overreaction, which is why I argue we all need to be a little more patient and let the dust settle when there are bombastic information flare-ups.

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Information Warfare Leadership: Less Don Draper, more Colin Powell

I shared this great article from Matt Armstrong yesterday:

Matt, who has been researching and working in this field for decades, focuses his attention not on the tools of “information warfare” but on the policies and goals that drive it. His analysis (and I’m in agreement here) argues that it’s not about “crafting combinations of nouns and verbs for some medium,” but instead about crafting the right policy and setting a course for others to follow.

Much of the discourse on information warfare/political warfare is centered on mediums, means, and platforms. That misses the point. As Matt writes, this stuff changes all the time and there are plenty of experts out there that now how to use it.

When dealing with massive bueracracies, it is critical to staff key positions with effective managers and leaders – not flashy pitch-men or media stars.

The article focuses on the post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the fact that since 1999, the position has been vacant for 41% of the time. While I’m not an expert on the workings at State, if it’s similar to the military, we know that there’s a sense of “that’s not my real boss” when a position is held by a temporary (often junior) place-holder.

And that place-holder doesn’t carry the same weight in the rooms where decisions get made.

What should this leader look like? Matt writes:

In my opinion, the right person for the job is a leader, manager, facilitator, and integrator with experience in government and at least practical awareness of the realities of foreign policy on the ground abroad. A focus on platforms – an expert in social or broadcast media, for example – is wrong, not just because every “market” is different but because there are professionals within the department (the number of which must increase) and agency partners, in addition to ready access to the private sector, to advise or handle the specifics of how to engage.

W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy – MountainRunner.us

I joked on Twitter that this person would be more Colin Powell than Don Draper. Colin Powell, although well-known as a military leader, was actually most effective as a Washington-insider. He spent most of the last decade and a half in and around the White House. He understood how the system worked, and people trusted him. Even as Secretary of State, he admitted in his most recent book that he often felt like he needed to stay in Washintgon (as opposed to constantly traveling) to make sure he could get things done.

My sense is that many folks think we need Don Draper in this position. A flashy ad-man who understands the media and can brief well. Don Draper needs to be way further down on the food chain – making ads.

It’s exciting to be living in a time where information warfare/political warfare is gaining attention, but I can imagine this can be frustrating to those who have been deep in the research and work for decades. Too much attention on the tools – the nouns and verbs – and not enough attention on the staffing and strategy.

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A Cold War, fought with information and espionage

As we move further and further into this new thing – great power competition – I’m struck by how much more difficult this is going to be than anything we’ve done before.

Counter-insurgency was supposed to be the “graduate level of war.

If that’s the case, then great power competition and political warfare must be the doctorate level of war.

We are going to have to do more planning, more work, and more activity just to slightly move the dial.

And that is what winning looks like.

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Curiouser and Curiouser

A deep-dive on where we’ve been and where we are in regards to big-picture political warfare/public diplomacy.

I appreciate Matt’s insistence that it’s not about pulling the right “info-ops” lever or restructuring organizations, but having a clear strategic vision of where we’re going – a “commander’s intent.” With that, everyone can move in the right direction. We have the tools and we have the talent – we just need to know where to go.

If there is a strategy or something resembling a strategic vision, in other words, the president knows what we want tomorrow to look like and has a baseline understanding of the costs we are willing to pay and the costs we are willing to extract from adversaries (and allies), then there is a “page” for everyone to get on to (ie “commander’s intent”). Centralized orchestration breaks down quickly as the buck is passed and sign-offs are required. Along with a commonly understood goal (or goals), we need to tolerate risk so risk avoidance does not continue to have the priority. These are all products of leadership, or lack of leadership.

Neglected History, Forgotten Lessons: a presentation and a discussion – MountainRunner.us

The post features an extended question and answer portion at the bottom. Worth reading if you are confused (and you are – I know I am) about the Smith-Mundt Act, the US Agency for Global Media (formerly BBG), and what the heck we’re even doing anymore.

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The Shadow Commander

Just finished this after hearing about it on the Angry Planet podcast.

In this gripping account, Arash Azizi examines Soleimani’s life, regional influence and future ambitions. He breaks new ground through interviews with Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians who knew Soleimani for years, including his personal driver, the aides who accompanied him to his Moscow meeting with Vladimir Putin, and his brother. Through Soleimani, Azizi reveals the true nature of Iran’s global ambitions, providing a rare insight into a country whose actions are much talked about but seldom understood.

The Shadow Commander

I listened to the audiobook version. It was a great narrative, telling the story of Soleimani’s life and the military-political machinations of the Middle East over the forty years. The mini-Cold War in the Middle East is such a deep and fascinating subject. There’s so much more we need to know.

I thought this quote from Ryan Crocker that comes towards the end of the book nailed it pretty well:

Over the last several years, it seems that General Suleimani allowed his ego to overcome his judgment. The shadow commander came out of the shadows, holding news conferences and conducting media tours. This time we were waiting. 

Opinion | The Long Battle With Iran – The New York Times

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Storyweapons and Storywarriors

“But in the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness.”

Finally sat down to read this quick article by Renny Gleeson in Cyber Defense Review. Renny works in advertising, which is important, as we don’t often get perspectives on information warfare from outside the military or national security bubble. As such, this take is a bit demilitarized (hence the non-doctrinal term “storyweapon”).

Gleeson makes the argument – as many others have – that we have entered a new realm, where the confluence of marketing, digital media, computers, and psychology have made all of us more vulnerable to manipulation by adversaries. It’s a good recap and overview of things IO professionals should have a solid grasp of – the race to the bottom for clicks, the primacy of emotion over rationality as demonstrated through the important work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, and the fact that none of this is going away.

Nothing new here so far.

What Gleeson argues through his article, though, is that what this all leads to is what he calls the primacy of “storyweapons.” He defines this in his opening line as “adversarial narratives that use algorithms, automation, codespaces, and data to hijack decision-making, and the stories of who we are, what we believe and why it matters.”

Storyweapons, as I read it, are not that much differnt from what we mean when we talk about “narrative warfare,” another non-doctrinal term that gets a lot of attention these days.

And all of these are variations or spin-offs of something doctrinal that we do know: political warfare.

Anyway, to defeat adversarial storyweapons, Gleeson argues that we need to employ our own storyweapons, writing “we need storywarriors on the field, fighting for the best version of America.”

I don’t disagree with that. The problem, as he sees it (and I do too), is that we have a hard time doing that. Here he quotes General (Ret) Jim Mattis who says “a proper understanding of our national story is absent.”

It’s not that we necessarily have to package up ideas, narratives, messages, or whatever, and get it “out there” in the “information environment.” It’s that we have to actually believe in this project – the American story – and project that through action. Certainly there is a role for information operations as it more commonly understood (crafting themes and messages, media, PSYOP, etc.), but there is no calibration or tweaking that fixes all of this.

The concept of “storyweapons” has me skeptical, because it sounds like a simple, short-term solution to a complex, long term problem. Making a “storybomb” and dropping it on a target audience, with the idea that it is going to change something that has a long term tangible result is unlikely. Unfortunately, our incentives are aligned for the short term (politically, operationally, and personally).

Some choice excerpts from the article:

Our stories are more vulnerable than we know: our cognitive systems are hackable by everyone, from kids’ birthday party magicians to infowar adversaries. We do not see the flaws in those systems because they are features of the systems. Storyweapons leverage the infrastructure of perception to misguide, misdirect, and manipulate.

Yes, this is everywhere. And it’s not new. It’s just that many of us are only now realizing it. The advent of the smartphone and the constant notifications represent perhaps the most tactile example of this.

By biological design, outrage, fear, and the unfair light up these lower regions, grab the spotlight of our attention and short-circuit rational thought. 

This is why the ads below articles on websites you might otherwise enjoy are littered with pictures and copy designed to excite or scare you. It’s hard not to click an ad that promises you photos of an actor or actress who you don’t really know but are curious about how they look now or thirty years ago.

The ruthless economic imperative behind the zero-sum wars for attention has fueled the rise of outrage as a business model in the places we connect with who and what we love.

Yes. This also is not new, though. I’d recommend the book The Attention Merchants (2016) which covers the history of advertising. It’s always been a race to the bottom. It’s how you get snake oil salesman and yellow journalism – concepts and tactics that are over a century old. And it’s how we get those stupid ads I just mentioned.

“life-as-software-mediated-experience”

Gross.

We will be alone together: two people looking at the same thing at the same time will sense different things. 

Here he is talking about literally looking at the same space and seeing a different thing, as in advertisements. Imagine walking through a mall or airport and looking at an adverisement on the wall, but you see one thing based on your data while another person sees something else. This is already happening. I think more importantly, we are already living in a world where we can look at the exact same *physical* thing and come to completely different conclusions based on our information diet and the bubble that we live in. To me, this is more frightening. We can look at the nude emperor and admire his clothing, and everyone is okay with it and will say the clothes are beautiful.

Everyone and everything that touches software is effectively on the new Storyweapon battle field; there is no “behind the lines.”

Yes, this is true. I feel confident that the greater public doesn’t know this yet, because a majority of the military isn’t aware of it. There are options for changing this, but it will take time and effort.

You can’t beat a “true enough” storyweapon with facts.

So true.

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Operations in the Information Environment: Irregular Warfare Podcast

Wow, that was really good.

The Irregular Warfare podcast (quickly becoming a bump everything, “listen now” podcast) recenlty hosted Dr. Thomas Rid (recent book: Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare) and Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds (USMC Deputy Commandant for Information). The topic was “competing for influence” and information operations broadly speaking.

Great back and forth and they get into topics in information operations that are often neglected. It’s particularly refreshing to hear a discussion on IO that goes beyond “we’re getting our ass kicked in the information environment.”

We need more conversations like this.

Some choice quotes below.

“There are types of tactics in information operations that democracies should not use…You cannot excel at disinformation and democracy at the same time, because, you have to fight with one hand behind your back.”

Dr. Thomas Rid (emphasis his)

Agree. Democracies have to fight with one hand tied behind their back – and that’s a good thing.

On questions about the need for a new or different cooridinating agency for information operations.

The more that we can infuse this thinking of Multi-Domain Warfare inside our tradional way of command – that would be my preference. I think another stove-piped commander is not necessarily helpful in this area. I think it doesn’t make things faster.

Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds

Yes! Every year, I see another think-piece calling for a new super-organziation that would serve as the coordinating element for information operations or information warfare or some flavor thereof. It seems like an ‘easy-button’ solution – build a new organization. The organizations we have now work. Lt. Gen. Reynold’s puts it this way: “We have to infuse this thinking and figure how we do this at echelon inside the commands that we have today.

We should focus on building IO thinking into organizations that are effective now. I think this is happening. Sure, it’s slow. But building a new headquarters and then getting the ‘whole of government’ to work with it is 1) expensive, 2) hard to accomplish, and 3) probably ineffective.

On why our adversaries ‘seem’ to be better at this than us.

Our adversaries [China and Russia], from a gray zone perspective, they are a lot more willing to put themselves out there than the United States has been. Call it “willingness to impose friction”

Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds

This is another area where I think things are changing. Sometimes the face of operations needs to be the American military officer on the ground or the diplomat in country. This is an area where we need to improve, for sure, and I think it starts with setting left and right limits and letting folks go for it. There will be mistakes, but if we do this right, those will be factored in and written off as part of the cost of operating at this level in the IE.

One more from Lt. Gen. Reynolds:

“I think the challenge is in the competition space. How do you action the information environent in great power competition? And to me, I think it starts with definining the measurable objectives you want to get after, [and then] define what success looks like in the information environment.”

Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds (emphasis mine)

This is so important. Too often, success in the IE is amorphous. “I know it when I’ll see it.” IO professionals need to have conversations with their commanders and build a shared understanding of “what success looks like in the IE.” Is it the adversary getting smeared by the public? Is it a partner force highlighting their own success? Is it praise for government institutions? Having an understanding of what success looks like is paramount – otherwise it is likely you will miss the good stuff if it happens, or find yourself chasing tweets and counting ‘likes.’

Finally, on advice for practicioners, researchers, and policy makers who are approaching this problem set (IW, IO, political warfare, etc.):

“Understanding information operations in the 21st century is impossible without first understanding information operations in the 20th century. Although they happen in a different technological environment, the logic, and sometimes the dynamics have not changed. So for example, the temptation to overstate effects, is a large one.”

Dr. Thomas Rid

He goes on to discuss that the sum of ‘clicks’ and ‘likes’ often leads people to believe (falsely) that IO today may have a greater effect than IO of the past. There is so much to learn from the past.

This episode, coupled with the recent PSYOP deep dive from the PSYWAR podcast is a good indication that this community is coalescing and growing more professional every day.

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Some recent articles on Chinese political warfare

I’ve been digging into the “Ministry of Truth” series from War on the Rocks discussing Chinese political warfare.

It’s a three part series, and to date, the first two have been released.

Each is packed with links and sources. You can go deep down the rabbit hole if you’re interested in building a better understanding of Chinese political warfare.

A couple of choice excerpts below.

Part I Contrasting China’s and Russia’s Influence Operations.

On the fact that political warfare is “standard operating procedure” for Russia and China:

The operational differences, for all their practical implications, may be less important than the simple recognition that Beijing and Moscow both approach influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business. 

On the different approaches Russia/China take in regards to political warfare:

Undoubtedly, more can be said about how to understand the distinctions between Chinese and Russian influence operations and political warfare. Perhaps the best way to describe the differences between the two approaches is that the Chinese are human- or relationship-centric while the Russians are operation- or effects-centric. 

Part II China’s ‘three warfares’ in perspective.

Looking at the PLA in strictly military terms lacks a true understanding of their purpose:

When analysts look at the PLA, they are looking at it as a military — at its warfighting capabilities and the resulting security implications. It is a purely military view that lacks a clear concept for appreciating political warfare.

Influence operations are directly connected to political power:

The party leads, the PLA follows. The purpose of influence operations is political power.

Lessons learned from watching the US in the Persian Gulf war (emphasis in bold mine). I’d love to see more on this, by the way:

The Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait taught the PLA the value and power of information in the modern context. Most obviously, precision-guided bombs blowing out buildings on CNN cameras demonstrated the value of targeting intelligence and guided munitions. However, the PLA also drew lessons from the George H.W. Bush administration’s diplomatic effort to paint Iraq as the aggressor and to rally an international coalition, including Iraq’s Arab neighbors. They also admired the psychological warfare efforts to induce Iraqi commanders to surrender or retreat without fighting.

Related, a short (and kind of choppy) article in Small Wars Journal that couches China’s approach as war, not competition. The author seems to be inferring that we should not be using the “great power competition” construct because our adversaries aren’t.

Image at the top: “The Boss” mentoring “Naked Snake” (MGS3).

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