Psychoacoustics

young mantis helicopter metal gear solid v

What’s one thing that has an outsize effect on influence and emotion but doesn’t get the respect it deserves, especially in the security space?

Music.

Fascinating episode of the Cognitive Crucible:

During this episode, US Army Sergeant Major Denver Dill discusses how music and the arts can be used as tools of influence. Our wide ranging conversation covers the role of music in military operations to the theme park experience to movies to sports.

#91 DENVER DILL ON THE ARTS AND MUSIC, Cognitive Crucible Podcast

We know that effective propaganda goes after emotions, not logic. Now think of any movie you’ve watched and the way that you can be compelled to feel a certain way with the right sound or chord.

Combine music with moving images and now you have a powerful tool for influence.

Don’t believe me?

In the episode, they discuss the role music can play in influence, especially on the active battlefield. As an example, they mention the use of bagpipes as a tool of intimidation. The ominous and unsettling sound of bagpipes was used to confuse and strike fear in enemy troops.

More examples where you can see music at work – in this case, to increase anxiety – are the films of Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Inception). Here is a good write-up about the “Shepard tone” which is deployed effectively in those films.

Shepard tone, huh?

Anxiety attack at the ~:22 mark.

This is an area that needs a lot more research.

What other ways can sound and music be applied to the modern battlefield?

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“If you have a phone, you can be a resistance fighter.”

cyberpunk reaper mural art

Episode 50 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast.

In Episode 50 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast, our guests discuss the history of technological innovation, examples of current and burgeoning technologies that will impact future warfare, and how governments can (and sometimes cannot) regulate the development and distribution of potentially dangerous technologies to malign actors.

Power to the people.

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Tape Measure Hero

viral video tape measure pick up keys from across room

Recently finished another Phoenix Cast episode. Around the ~17:30 mark, the hosts discuss the problem with believing what we see on the internet.

Specifically, they’re talking about videos.

There was this series of very viral videos back in the day of construction workers using tape measures to pick stuff up from ten feet away, and it’s all fake, it was all a marketing campaign for a midwestern hardware chain.

…and there’s a guy who breaks down those videos into exactly how they do the cuts, how they do the pull outs, and it’s important to be able to look for things like that.

Conti and Current Events, Phoenix Cast

Did you ever see this?

Impressive, right?

As they mentioned in the episode, the whole thing was fake. It was part of a marketing campaign.

Unfortunately, they didn’t link to the videos in the show notes so I had to spend some time digging around to find them. But I’m glad I did.

Here’s the first breakdown:

And then the coup de grâce.

Do you know what’s important here? It’s not that these videos were fake or deceptive, or that they could be picked apart with some careful analysis.

It’s that most people who saw these videos believed that they were real. They probably saw it at some point, laughed, shared it with their friends, and never gave it a second thought.

That’s how propaganda works. You never go back to watch the debunk videos. The first one was good enough.

And you want to believe.

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Shallow Fakes

Surely by now you have heard of “deep fakes.”

In their most insidious form, these are doctored videos that appear real. As technology improves, so does the ability to create convincing and deceptive videos.

The fear is that people will believe these deep fakes which will then lead to some change in attitude or behavior.

While deep fakes are interesting, we have been dealing with instances of this forever. We’ve always had the “shallow fake,” or low-effort deception.

And these can be surprisingly effective.

My favorite example is from 2005. The insurgency in Iraq was intensifying and becoming more dangerous. A militant group claimed to have captured US soldier “John Adam.” I remember seeing this photo making its way around the internet.

Of course, it looks fake now.

But in 2005, when the internet was still a pretty new thing, it gave pause. I remember scrutinizing the picture myself, thinking it must be fake, but still wondering.

Deception doesn’t always have to change minds or win the war. It can just cause angst and bureaucratic churn.

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Info ops and legality

revolver ocelot a cold war fought with information and espionage

Published just as the year began – I must have missed it in the deluge of activity that marks the new year.

Terrific and tightly written article on the challenge of military information operations.

This is one of the best (short) articles I’ve read that captures why we seem to be “getting our asses kicked” in the information environment. It’s not about talent, techniques, or will – it’s about authorities and norms.

As well as vision, or “commander’s intent.”

First, the prospect of military engagement to counter adversary information operations during competition raises very significant legal concerns that must be addressed—concerns foundational to our constitutional system. On the other hand, these legal concerns play a significant role in hindering the development of a coherent information strategy in competition. This article will attempt to bring these issues to light, so that the underlying and implicit concerns can be stated, which is a necessary first step to crafting an effective, comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy to respond to our adversaries’ malign influence campaigns. This article will discuss the underlying legal concerns and conclude with thoughts on the development of an integrated strategy.

Static Inertia: The Legal Challenges to Making Progress on an Effective Military Information Strategy – Modern War Institute

I especially enjoyed this upfront rationale:

Behind all the discussions is a nagging sense that the entire enterprise is just wrong—after all, the United States is a liberal democracy, we do not engage in state-sponsored propaganda, and there should be no Ministry of Truth in America. The whole prospect sounds utterly distasteful.

Yup. For lots of reasons, we tend to treat anything “psychological” as a dirty word.

Additionally, this:

The job of the military has been to fight and win our nation’s wars, not engage in propaganda campaigns, even in foreign contexts. 

Correct. But…

With its extensive cyber capabilities and resources, the US military is currently in the best position to counter the adversary in the information arena.

Agree, but this goes far beyond cyber.

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Polite propaganda

rush radio journal image

My podcast diet continues to grow.

I recently finished the first three episodes of the RUSI Journal Radio – each focusing on different aspects of information warfare.

The Royal United Services Institute is a UK-based think tank. It turns out they have a bunch of different podcasts.

Here are the first three:

Episode 1: The Realities of Information Warfare

Episode 2: Emotion as a Policy Tool

Episode 3: 21st Century Propaganda

I especially enjoyed the discussion in episode 2 regarding measures of effectiveness (and the fact that they are often meaningless).

While discussing atmospherics, the host asks “how do you measure it?”

It’s hard. It’s not something easy, especially in a discipline or in an environment such as policy-making where we like things to be quantified. We want metrics to be able to show that something has impact.

But having worked in politics and policy for a few years, I’ve come across people, often politicians, strategic communicators, very good strategists, who have this innate and intuitive sense of ‘this is the mood right now, this is the moment, something has changed.’

Claire Yorke, Emotion as a Policy Tool, ~5:00

The conversation moves onto the qualitative aspects of analysis – which is something that doesn’t lend well to putting numbers on a chart. We trust this analysis because it comes from someone who has put in the work and has studied the subject matter over time.

We shouldn’t need to be wowed by the methedolgy.

We can measure things this way, and yes, it is subjective. But that’s ok.

So to measure it is subjective and we have to be comfortable with the ambiguity and the subjectivity of it.

This podcast also has the calmest, unimposing intro music of any I’ve heard. A welcome break from the hum of impending doom that begins most American security-themed podcasts.

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The Third Person Effect

men reading newspapers on a train

People tend to overestimate their confidence and ability in things and discount the same in others.

We see this most clearly in driving confidence and ability.

73% of Americans believe that they are a “better-than-average” driver.

Instantly, we know something must be wrong.

There is a similar phenomenon in psychology called the third-person effect.

“…people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others. More specifically, individuals who are members of an audience that is exposed to a persuasive communication (whether or not this communication is intended to be persuasive) will expect the communication to have a greater effect on others than on themselves. And whether or not these individuals are among the ostensible audience for the message, the impact that they expect this communication to have on others may lead them to take some action. Any effect that the communication achieves may thus be due not to the reaction of the ostensible audience but rather to the behavior of those who anticipate, or think they perceive, some reaction on the part of others.”

The argument here isn’t that propaganda works. The argument is that there are many people who believe propaganda doesn’t work on them, but they have concerns that it works on others.

That concern may lead the same enlightened people to take action which ultimately makes the propaganda effective.

In Davidson’s paper, he cites a couple of examples from military history that takes advantage of this. One is very similar to the technique Saddam Hussein purportedly used during the Iran-Iraq War to ground the Iranian F-14 fleet.

The History of the Psychological Warfare Division, Supreme Headquarters, Alled Expeditionary Force (Bad Homburg, Germany, 1945) tells us about Operation Huguenot – a project for undermining the efficiency of the German Air Force by suggesting that German flying personnel were deserting in their machines to the Allied side.

The Psychological Warfare Division history tells:

“The dividends from this operation were expected not so much in the actual number of desertions as in the effect of the countermeasures which the German authorities would be induced to take against glying personnel… sharpening up of anti-desertion measures and instructions to field polict to keep a suspicious eye on everyone – a course which would have serious effects on morale. Also, the promotion of officers on account of reliability rather than efficiency (p. 53).”

The Third Person Effect in Communication

It wasn’t about actually getting Germans to defect. It was about getting the German military to take action – unnecessary, painful action – to prevent defections from taking place.

The lesson here, as is often the case when it comes to propaganda, is to exercise patience, discretion, humility, and trust.

Patience to not react just because something happens in the information environment.

Discretion to be selective about what levers we choose to pull if and when we do react.

Humility to acknowledge that we are all vulnerable.

Trust in each other that they can do the above as well.

No matter how smart we think we are, or how immune we may be to the effects of slick marketing, social media algorithms, or plain old-fashioned propaganda, we are all made up of the same stuff as the person next to us.

We’re all vulnerable. Understanding that is the beginning of beating it.

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Administrative Warfare: Deception + third person effect

iran f-14 winnie the pooh posing

The use of deception and the third-person effect to exploit an administrative process for military advantage.

He knew that they were paranoid.

He knew that the Iranians guarded their oil facilities with their F-14s, and his Air Force [the Iraqi’s] was terrified of dog-fighting the F-14s because at the time the F-14 was pretty much unmatched as a fighter aircraft.

So he figured the best way to get our aircraft to strike the oil refinery is to get the F-14s out of the air and the only way to get them out of the air is to ground them.

We don’t have the means to strike their airfield, so he called one of the Gulf leaders, I’m not sure if it was the Saudi king or somebody else, and he essentially told them, “Hey, we have received intelligence that an Iranian F-14 wants to defect in a couple of nights and they are going to come to your country, so just keep an eye out – there’s an F-14 coming.”

[Saddam] knowing full-well that that Gulf leader was going to leak that information to the Iranians – they did.

The Iranians heard ‘one of your F-14s is going to defect.

They panicked and put all of the F-14 pilots in jail, and while all the F-14 pilots were in jail being investigated for a possible treason plot, Saddam struck the oil refinery.

Aram Shabanian, How the Iran-Iraq War Shaped the Modern World, Angry Planet

Photo source.

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Ok, but what should the Army do to combat this?

quake 3 arena logo

Good episode of The Convergence Podcast last month. Guests were Joe Littell and Maggie Smith, who recently co-authored a good article on information warfare for the Modern War Institute.

In the podcast, they discuss the article and its implications for the military.

What I like about both the article and the podcast is that we are hearing directly from practitioners – in this case in the fields of psychological operations and cyber.

Often – and especially as of late – we are hearing everyone’s opinion on these fields, whether they hold expertise or not.

One thing that I think gets to the crux of many of the military’s issues in dealing with information warfare came in the form of a question. After a long back and forth on some of the background concerning information warfare on a grand scale – political polarization, distrust in media, misinformation/disinformation, etc – the host poses the following question?

“How does the Army combat this?”

It’s not a bad question – and it is literally referencing the problem addressed in the guests’ article. The issue here is the solution to the problem goes way beyond the scope of what the Army can do. Even those tiny parts of the Army that deal exclusively with these issues.

What is the role of the Army? To win our nation’s wars.

We do ourselves a disservice if we ask it to do more than that.

There are limits to what the military can achieve in a traditional sense. Look at Afghanistan.

But there are also limits to what the military can achieve in an irregular sense. It doesn’t matter what combination of tactics, techniques, or tools you can pull together. There are extreme limits to what can be accomplished when dealing with the complexities of the human condition.

Thinking that it’s possible to fix everything, that we just haven’t discovered the right tool or educated the right people in the right way is dangerous.

This isn’t a cause for cynicism. Rather, it’s a cause for critical thinking and clearly understanding the role of the military and executing accordingly.

And pushing back when asked to do the impossible.

Lastly, there was a good conversation towards the end on the need to move away from the terms misinformation and disinformation. I agree. They are used everywhere now, mostly interchangeably or without a clear meaning.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. For what it’s worth, this is how I think of them.

For those who hang in there until the end, you’ll learn a couple of interesting facts about Joe and Maggie.

“Hangin’ with railbait like you is gonna lower my rep.”

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