Relevant standards from military rules of engagement for IO and PSYOPIn determining ethical boundaries for civilian information operations, a good starting point is to evaluate how the United States military has approached this question. Much of the public doctrine for information operations (IO) and psychological operations (PSYOP) has not been fully adapted to account for the social media domain. Doctrine takes a long time to write, and much of it was written prior to the social media explosion. There are, nonetheless, definitions and rules that can be extracted from the military’s expertise, training, and discipline in thinking through the the practical application and consequences of IO/PSYOP.
Information and psychological operationsTo apply these lessons on the conduct of IO to the civilian domain, definitions need to be narrowed and simplified. For the military, IO includes a broad range of capabilities, including electronic warfare, PSYOP, and more. But in the most parsed-down terms, these are the best definitions to for understanding terminology: Information operations is “the integrated employment, during military operations, of information-related capabilities in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.” The information environment “comprises individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information. The environment has three dimensions: physical, informational, and cognitive.” The component of IO that focuses on the messaging content is mostly in the realm of PSYOP.
The purpose of PSYOP is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to U.S. national objectives. PSYOP are characteristically delivered as information for effect, used during peacetime and conflict, to inform and influence. When properly employed, PSYOP can save lives of friendly and adversary forces by reducing the adversaries’ will to fight.In the civilian/social domain, what we call “information operations” are really influence operations conducted with psychological (“information support”) capabilities.
Quick review of IO and PSYOP purpose and rules of engagementA RAND study evaluating the changing nature of information warfare defined the two critical “realms” of modern information warfare: the psychological (message content and target) and the technical (means of delivery). Elements of the rules of engagement from IO and PSYOP apply to both of these realms, but those for PSYOP are most directly relevant for defining a civilian code of ethics that delineates redlines and constraints in purpose, tactics, and impact. The purpose of PSYOP, described as “to inform and influence,” is often mischaracterized. PSYOP is a nonlethal capability for commanders to use during peace or war to help achieve objectives. The PSYOP manual emphasizes terminology like “reducing the adversaries’ will to fight” and “discourag[ing] aggressive actions.” Roles for PSYOP include to “influence foreign populations by expressing information subjectively to influence attitudes and behavior, and to obtain compliance, noninterference, or other desired behavioral changes;” “maintain or restore civil order;” and “counter enemy propaganda, misinformation, disinformation.” A point to emphasize: IO broadly aims to impact decision-making, while PSYOP measures impact as achieving behavioral change.
Behavioral change is at the root of the PSYOP mission. Although concerned with the mental processes of the [target audience], it is the observable modification of TA behavior that determines the mission success of PSYOP. It is this link between influence and behavior that distinguishes PSYOP from other capabilities and activities of information operations (IO) and sets it apart as a unique core capability.The terminology and desired effects are defined almost entirely positively: the goal is to stabilize an environment and reduce the potential for violence or unrest, or the need to achieve objectives using lethal measures, instead. PSYOP is not meant to be used against your own people. A Department of Defense Directive specifies that “DoD IO activities will not be directed at or intended to manipulate audiences, public actions, or opinions in the United States. (PSYOP is not really meant to target your allies, either, though there are historical examples that demonstrate when this may be important.) The rules of engagement for PSYOP specify the need to adapt tactics and operations significantly when civilians are present. In wartime, all defined enemy targets are fair game, but outside of war, the rules of engagement are highly restrained and account for broader impact, like potential political concerns. This is because of the belief that “excessive force undermines the legitimacy of the operation and jeopardizes political objectives.”
The principles of necessity and proportionality help define the peacetime justification to use force in self-defense… The principle of necessity permits friendly forces to engage only those forces committing hostile acts or clearly demonstrating hostile intent.The principle of proportionality requires that the force is reasonable in intensity, duration, and magnitude.Within PSYOP (which has also been called “military information support operations,” or MISO), the real debate is about using true information versus misleading information — between “white” and “black.”
In current MISO doctrine, information is assessed as white, gray, or black based on both its content and its attribution. Falsehood in either content or attribution is problematic, because when discovered, it damages credibility. In fact, even the possibility of falsehood damages credibility.There is a vast preference in PSYOP on “white” (aka truthful) operations, as opposed to the use of deception, in order to maintain credibility. There is an understood difference between “virtuous persuasion” versus “manipulation and falsehood.” This is emphasized in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff guidance on MISO, which explicitly lists types of content that should not be used in operations for any program area:
Themes to avoid (all programs)Additionally, there is an extensive, deliberate, seven-step decision-making process used in PSYOP to help ensure operational objectives can be met within the rules of engagement and without unintended effects. The essential but hard to quantify aspect across all this material is that it is inherently based on values, and defining intention that upholds those values. This standard is, of course, reflective of the broader rules of engagement that the US military observes, in combat, stability operations, or otherwise. MISO should “protect, preserve, and enhance the leader’s ability to make timely, accurate, and relevant decisions.” Inherent to this is the belief that if you go too far in clouding an information environment to achieve objectives, there will be a negative impact on your own operations. Why is this so important? Going back to the three dimensions of the information environment — physical, informational, and cognitive — “the information dimension links the physical and cognitive dimensions”. The cognitive dimension is defined as “the impact of information on the human will” — and attempting influence in this space must come with incredibly high standards to avoid unintended or lasting effects.
- Ultimatums with no intent or capability to respond in the event of noncompliance.
- Implications that the United States is infringing on sovereignty.
- Themes that favor a specific country, nationality, religion, tribe, ethnic group, or race at the potential perceived detriment of another.
- Messages that promote the legitimacy of organizations or governments committing illegal acts or violations of international or domestic law.
- Themes that have a negative impact on legitimate exercise of peaceful religious tenets.
- Themes that recall or reflect colonialism.
- Themes that imply an inherent moral, cultural, or ideological superiority of the United States to local audiences.
- Unfounded accusations of atrocities.
Summary of core guidance from military IO/PSYOPThe core elements of these rules of engagement that create high standards and demonstrate the credibility of influence operations can be summarized as:
- There is a difference between targeting your people and foreign audiences.
- Mostly, you should never target your own.
- There are explicit differences for operations potentially targeting civilians/noncombatants.
- Objectives should focus on de-escalation and enhancing stability, not stoking greater conflict, because this better protects your own forces and environment.
- Defensive measures should be necessary and proportional.
- The use of deception, either of content or attribution, is not preferred.
- The effects of attempting to change the behavior of a target audience must be accounted for.
- The deliberative process in engaging in IO is designed to minimize unintended consequences, cognitive or otherwise.
- The force exerted via IO/PSYOP should be reasonable in intensity, duration, and magnitude.
Applying the standards of military IO/PSYOP to civilian influence operations on social mediaIn the civilian world, it’s probably best to say that there are four dimensions of the information environment: physical, informational, social, and cognitive. Like informational, social links the physical and the cognitive dimensions, but has an accelerated and disproportionate ability to distort perception and modify decision-making and other behavior. There are also different challenges in attempting to create a code of conduct for social media influence operations, including:
- enhanced unpredictability of the information environment
- the accelerated pace of information dissemination because of social networks
- a broad spectrum of actors with a range of motivations and levels of training
- commercially-available or mercenary-style capabilities
- permissive platform architecture that incentivizes amplification and inflammatory content
- the opacity of algorithms
- the pervasiveness of conspiracy and disinformation
- unpredictable cognitive impacts on individuals
- unknown impacts on political systems, markets, reputation, and social structures.
A code of ethics for social media influence operationsWith all this in mind, the points of core guidance from IO/PSYOP can be adapted as follows into rough elements of a code of ethics for the conduct of social media influence operations which aim to influence views of politics and society.
- Influence operations should be of reasonable intensity, duration, and magnitude.
- Influence operations should be designed to minimize unintended consequences, particularly regarding cognitive effects.
- Deception should not be used in influence operations, either in content or attribution.
- Purpose, overall objective, target audience, and intended behavioral modification objectives should be transparent and aim for “virtuous persuasion.”
- Influence operations should not aim to erode social fabric, stoke division, or weaken or distort the overall information environment, including via use of disinformation, misinformation, or deliberate falsehood and manipulation.
- The impact of influence operations should be tracked by those conducting them, with unintended consequences accounted for transparently.