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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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).

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.