Recommended Reading on Information Operations

Andrew Exum sparked some discussion with his post at the Small Wars Journal blog last week with his questioning the definition of Information Operations.

... how many of you have ever looked up the official Department of Defense definition for ‘Information Operations?’

According to JP 3-13, Information Operations, the term is defined as “the integrated employment of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security, in concert with specified supporting and related capabilities, to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making while protecting our own.”

I am confident there exist more confusing definitions in the U.S. military lexicon, but surely there cannot be too many. ...

In response to the query, SWJ’s discussion board lit up.  The resulting posts went from at what IO is, the level it does or should apply (tactical, operational, and/or strategic), whether the goal of influence should be considered, whether it is simply non-kinetic activities, and more.  Naturally, there were the questions into what differentiates Information Operations from “Influence Operations” from Public Affairs from Psychological Operations.  There was the ever so brief mention of public diplomacy, but that was ignored and left hanging.  

Marc Tyrrell followed up with Notes towards a theory of Information Operations (IO).  The painfully smart Marc closes this post with a carefully arrived a definition of IO:

Information Operations are a) actions taken by actors, b) based on sensory input from the environment which is c) filtered through one or more interpretive maps, with d) an intentionality to either modify, deceive or degrade a targets sensory environment, input or interpretive maps while, at the same time, preserving ones own.

Clearly contemplating the subject over the weekend, Marc posted a follow up, Dissonance in Information Operations, that considers the receptivity of IO. 

Information Operations (IO) are communicative acts, but they are neither simple nor simplistic in terms of making certain that the intended audience or target of those acts the acts in the way intended by the originator of the message. To a large degree, this is because these actions do not take place in a vacuum, away from other acts by the “same” actor.

The efficacy of communication is based on the listening that is being created and not on the talking itself.  The effects are based not just on the immediate act, but on how the act resonates within a larger mental and discursive framework.  In the Defense community, this is the “say-do gap”, elsewhere it is the difference between the propaganda of deeds and propaganda of words. 

Marc closes with the assessment that telling the “truth” is required, “even if this means saying something “good” about their opponents or “bad” about themselves.”  Trust (and legitimacy) can only be done, as Marc reminds us, through honest and truthful engagement. 

Thus Marc hits on a core feature in the IO (Information Operations) versus PA (Public Affairs) versus PO (Psychological Operations) debate: what really distinguishes them?  Is it, as one reader of this blog implied in an email, based on the “psychological” element of PO?  If you use Target Audience Analysis, are you doing PSYOP because surely PA does not do such calculated messages (right, sure)? 

Chris Paul explored this in a chapter in his Information Operations--Doctrine and Practice: A Reference Handbook.  In my review, I noted his statement that “Counterpropaganda features prominently in PSYOP doctrine, but it is also part of the public affairs portfolio... It isn't clear who has the lead.” 

Some quick thoughts...

Andrew was too light in his criticism of JP 3-13’s definition.  The definition isn’t an attempt to be all things to all people but highlights a fundamental failure to understand information as a tool of influence.  Beyond JP 3-13’s (incomplete) laundry list of means, it focuses on adversarial decision-making in an era when the adversary himself is increasingly marginal to the influence he wields.  The definition projects the same awareness on our own capabilities as it tells us to protect our own decision-making capabilities (but not options). 

Are we simply recreating stove-pipes? 

Underlying this discussion is fixing the “plumbing” of our engagement in the global, not non-U.S., information environment.  As many noted, part of the problem is we still don’t understand the role of information, its effects, and how it fits into our perception of the operational art.  Largely left out of the discussions at the links above is should, as others argue, the practice of PA, IO, and PO be merged with the black and gray elements going to a redefined PO?  Should there be a realignment based on white (attributed communications) versus black (un- or mis-attributed communications)? 

Is IO strategic, operational, or tactical?  Where does IO, for example fit in with Countering Ideological Support for Terrorism? 

Merging PA, IO, and elements of PO into, say, a Public Communications (or Public Engagement, both working off of PA’s “Public” that conveys both open nature of information and the audience) element would necessarily be deeply integrated across all levels of engagement and also be tightly integrated with the rest of the U.S. Government. 

Understanding the value of shaping and managing perceptions is critical today just as it was critical throughout history.  The difference is today fewer people are needed to mobilize for strategic effects, arguably making the precision and result of influence activities that much more important.  We can’t afford to ignore this or get it wrong, but then we don’t have to get it absolutely right on the first cut.  We must move ahead and realize that everyone is a strategic corporal and everything we do has information effects, some more than others.

Good on Andrew for his kick-off to this necessary and long over due discussion.