Evaluating current information operations: The 2020 information environment is challenging, riddled with cascading disinformation campaigns that grow more targeted and complex over time, and which are increasingly tied to offline events and advanced via new techniques. It is vital that we have a clear perspective on events relating to the elections, coronavirus, and now protests and civil unrest, but we know that disinformation and malign influence campaigns seek to distort those perceptions. Now is when it’s most vital to be a better information citizen in a highly connected world, and to be vigilant about the new campaigns that seek to influence us.
Current IO topics 1: Someone is psyoping Americans, and you should be really pissed off about it
You’ve probably seen messages that claim to provide evidence that busloads of “out of state” looters, rioters, and members of antifa are coming to burn down your town or city. They are bullsh*t. They are a psychological operation being run against Americans. And we should all understand how dangerous they are.
The other day I was watching the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody unfold across the nation — at the time, becoming increasingly tense, accompanied by a spike of unrest and destructive activity — when I got a message from a friend who is connected to the broader military community in Ft. Bragg:
Got this from a friend; Here’s what I know this far. All of the hotels at exit 49 are booked by protesters from out of state. The word is the group that was here Saturday that caused all the trouble was in Greenville last night. It got so bad there last night that Greenville PD requested assistance from all agencies within a 100-mile radius. They are coming back here tonight. There is a group currently at Westwood shopping center protesting. We have credible intel that they are going to attack 3 FPD stations. Get home and stay home.
This was followed by a discussion in texts that Fayetteville, where Ft. Bragg is located, was going to “burn.” My immediate response was to laugh at the predictable specter of the antifa-bogeyman, and then to point out that this information didn’t seem to be mirrored by reality, as much as Fox News has been desperate to push a narrative of coordinated nationwide activity to bring unrest to American cities. More importantly, the construct of the message was highly similar to a set of text messages that circulated in the military and defense community at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which claimed that martial law was about to be declared (it wasn’t).
The martial law messages, which cited friend-of-a-friend sources at the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, or similar agencies, warned recipients to “pass the word” along to their loved ones to prepare. Text messages were the core of the campaign, though the messages also spread on Facebook, 4chan, and via encrypted messaging apps. The National Security Council, perhaps at least in part because these messages seemed to target active duty military personnel and other defense officials, batted the rumors down, and US intelligences sources said they were a disinformation campaign spread by a China (though they declined to give any supporting information about why they believed China was the source).
There are many, many aspects of those messages that are troubling, in terms of how they worked, and how they spread so quickly. But the psychological technique involved — no matter who you were, the information was always two-steps removed and from a trustworthy source — seemed particularly effective at evading our information filters. It seemed like insider information from a friend. It seemed important to pass it on — better safe than sorry, right?
So I mentioned to the friend that the Fayetteville protestor texts seemed to be from the same template and that it seemed like disinformation. He swore the guy it came from was trustworthy, a good dude. I pushed back. He left it with, “well we’ll see, I guess.” Needless to say, Fayetteville, NC is just fine.
But the repetition of this technique — messages spread via text, citing known-source information of coming high-stress events, anchored in some seemingly specific information — troubled me. I looked online. These messages were spreading everywhere, highly localized, targeting even small and improbable communities, always citing some bit of evidence — a number of busses coming, hotel rooms rented, things like this — and appealing to a sense that this information should be shared with people you care about.
One such message was discovered to be from a fake antifa account, which had actually been set up by a white identity group pretending to be antifa. That message and others like it are being spread via hyper-local apps and platforms like NextDoor and Ring as well as via text messages, often as screenshots, which makes it harder to track or search for the content if it hasn’t been sent to you directly.
These messages troubled me because they are a psychological operation, anchored in deception and aiming for a specific behavioral outcome, which is a physical conflict between protestors and other groups.
Psychological operation (PSYOP, in shorthand) is a heavy term, and I have previously written about how the definitions of PSYOP, information operations, and deception inform the code of conduct that domestic influence operations should be guided by, which you can read here for a deeper discussion of what all these things are and what they really mean. But the definition of PSYOP from the 2003 US Army manual on psychological operations is this:
PSYOP are planned operations that convey selected information and indicators to foreign target audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately, the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of all PSYOP is to create in neutral, friendly, or hostile foreign groups the emotions, attitudes, or desired behavior that support the achievement of U.S. national objectives and the military mission. In doing so, PSYOP influences not only policy and decisions but also the ability to govern, the ability to command, the will to fight, the will to obey, and the will to support. The combination of PSYOP products and actions create in the selected target audiences a behavior that supports U.S. national policy objectives and the theater commander’s intentions at the strategic, operational, and tactical.
The important thing here: PSYOP plays on our emotional responses in specific ways to achieve specific behavioral outcomes that can alter how our communities function or how we govern ourselves. In the military context, this is a highly controlled process used against foreign targets. In the current sh*tshow of the American information environment, actors foreign and domestic are using these techniques with varying degrees of sophistication to target Americans — and you should be totally pissed off about it, and especially how fragmented the response has been for the need to provide our citizens with better information defense. There are long-term cognitive impacts from these campaigns, and it’s really not a joke.
I continued tracking messages about the coming “rioters,” and finally posted a screenshot of a particularly annoying “busses are coming” tweet that somehow ended up in my twitter feed, claiming an army of antifa was coming to a mislabeled town in Indiana — even on the face of it, the math involved was bonkers. I got dozens of responses from people citing similar examples from their own information environment, coming via text, Facebook, NextDoor, r etc. All specific, local spread as trusted info from known-ish sources. If you only see one, it’s possible to believe there might be something to it, or that it’s information that you might as well pass along just so everyone is prepared. But when you see them all together, you realize it’s just a massive effort to spark conflict in communities. To prime a sense of action against a threat, and remind you, subtlety, it’s up to you to do something about it. Here are some examples:
One thing that really stood out to me was how local police departments, and in some cases local papers, are left on the frontline to combat these disinformation campaigns as they unfold in real-time. Their communities have real concern, and people want to know if it’s true, or what is being done. The few examples we can see are police departments that have debunked this information for their communities — but how many more haven’t, either because they believe some aspect of this campaign or because they don’t see that there’s a nationwide pattern of these messages looking to rile people up?
In Idaho, militia groups and others were spreading the message and calling for action. They claimed credible sources that reference the types of fake postings described above, including information from hospital workers and law enforcement and a range of undocumented firsthand accounts. Local authorities tried unsuccessfully to calm the rising tensions. Across the state, militias and vigilantes mobilized to patrol the streets, heavily armed. Needless to say, the wave of antifa invaders didn’t show.
It struck me that none of the police messages confront the inherent disinformation about an organized nationwide effort by antifa — the idea of which has been trumped up by the President and his attorney general with no supporting evidence, and the drum of which has been beaten hourly by Fox News and the broader right-wing media landscape ever since the protests began. (You may recall that the antifa drum has been beaten since 2017, and was again built up in the right media ecosystem last summer before totally fizzling out.)
They can only say: this isn’t happening here. The broader hysteria is unchecked: the belief it must be happening somewhere.
This one set of messages shows how truly exposed we are to threats coming from the information domain. And, in echoes of the famous “Lisa case” in Germany — where a Russian disinformation campaign about an alleged rape was used to spark unrest against the government — what elevated the online information campaign was a statement from the Russian foreign minister weighing in on the lie. In the United States, of course, the disinformation is elevated by the president and his cabinet officials. And that’s … really something else.
Because someone is designing psychological operations and targeting Americans with them. They are building a perception of division and coming internal unrest, with the apparent goal of inter-group violence. And probably someone in charge of this popsicle stand should care about that, because most of the current frontline defenders are ill-equipped to properly respond.
So, what can you do about it?
As we discuss information threats specific to the current landscape, it’s important to return to the question guiding this blog series: What does it mean to be a better information citizen? Let’s go through the parameters we laid out and discuss what that means for this case.
The first 3 are connected:
- To acknowledge that disinformation and online influence campaigns are increasing in frequency and importance because they effectively exploit elements of human psychology, media feedback loops, and the algorithmic/engagement architecture of information networks on the internet. In short, we must accept that disinformation campaigns work in altering perception and behavior, including our own, which is why foreign and domestic malign actors invest time and resources into deploying them
- To consciously evaluate how you act as a citizen in a connected, digital world facing crisis; to understand that how you engage and amplify information shapes the overall information environment for you, your community, and your nation; and to choose to be a better consumer and purveyor of information in that landscape
- To scrutinize both the sources of information in front of you and the conduit for how it reached you. Is the origin of the information documented, verified, and trustworthy? Do you know the poster/amplifier of that information or understand their motivations?
With the text message/screenshots campaigns, we should understand how these messages are specifically designed to bypass our information defenses, seem like trusted information, exploit our emotional responses to threats to our community and our loved ones in times of uncertainty, and make us both absorb the message and transmit it on to others. This transmission “just to be sure” is fanning the flames of a campaign that aims to polarize us and spark conflict. Be a roadblock for these types of campaigns: transmission stops with you.
- To be constantly vigilant not just about the veracity of the information before you, but the purpose of it. Why is it in front of you, why now, and what does it aim to achieve?
I remain convinced that this is the single most important question when we are evaluating pieces of information in front of us. And I think in these times of heightened anxiety and uncertainties and questions, we need to understand that a lot of inflammatory information is being put in front of us to elevate that sense of panic. Does the information ask us to do something and does it make sense? When this relates to current events, it’s important to be well-informed and have a broad base of knowledge about what is actually happening.
- To understand how the tactics and narratives of disinformation target us, work on us — all of us — and how we, as individuals, can alter those outcomes, limit their reach in our communities, and disincentivize investment into future disinformation campaigns
- To endeavor to positively engage others to encourage the habits of good information citizenship
So, we’re not going to transmit these rumors now that we understand they are designed to exploit our psychology. But we are also going to confront them when they are before us — speak out, tell the group the post is fake and get them to delete it, tell your family member there’s no proof of this, tell your friend to stop spreading this stuff — and encourage authorities, including local elected leaders and police when necessary, to speak out against these disinformation campaigns when public safety is at risk. On social media, we can praise the efforts of local authorities and local newspapers and media organizations to combat these types of disinformation campaigns. We can also share content carefully, when it makes sense to do so, to raise concerns or alarm about information you are seeing when you believe it is false. Get the whisper campaign out of the shadows.
Molly McKew (@MollyMcKew) is a senior adviser to the Stand Up Republic Foundation. She is a writer and lecturer on Russian influence and information warfare. She advised the Georgian president and national security council from 2009 to 2013, and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014 and 2015.