Rules of Engagement for Social Media Influence Operations

By Molly K. McKew

Since the US elections in 2016, we have struggled to develop an adequate response to revelations that techniques of persuasion and influence are being applied by foreign and domestic actors via social media to shape the information environment of Americans in ways that are deceptive and manipulative.

At the Senate’s recent hearing to discuss the Worldwide Threat Assessment from the Director of National Intelligence, FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged that the Russians continue to use social media for information operations against Americans, and that other actors are learning from their techniques.

Awareness of the problem has grown, but clarity of response and responsibility has not. Who is responsible for monitoring, exposing, and warning us about these attacks, and who is supposed to defend us from them — intelligence agencies, social media platforms, a network of nonprofits or private companies, “fact-checkers,” ourselves?

There is a loosely-defined assumption that some fusion of goodwill-based efforts from tech companies, academics and experts, nonprofits, lawmakers, and intelligence agencies will provide the basis for an eventual solution — and that may in fact be the only way forward. In the meantime, tactics adapt and evolve. And the problem grows.

Facebook and Twitter have identified that American actors are mimicking the disinformation tactics of the Kremlin for use against other Americans. The recent exposure of efforts by progressive activists to replicate the disinformation techniques that they believe provided a material advantage to conservatives in 2016 has been a poignant example of missteps that will occur when everyone fears they are in a persuasion arms race. There is real discomfort with the idea that an environment steeped in information operations will just be the normal way of business from here on out.

It is wrong for a foreign state or non-state actor to use “black” information campaigns designed to deceive, divide, and dismay Americans. The assessment that this occurred – and is morally and legally wrong – is the entire basis of the investigation into Russia’s attack on Americans during the 2016 elections. But this moral line of outrage seems hazier when we are discussing non-state American operators.

Additionally, the focus on technology solutions and education campaigns to mitigate the impact of information operations has ignored the necessity of a difficult conversation about the cognitive impact of the use of manipulation and persuasion in online influence operations. We need to talk about the ethics of civilian information operations, writ large.

In short, we need a code of conduct — civilian rules of engagement for the information war we seem dead-set on waging against one another — before it is too late.

Relevant standards from military rules of engagement for IO and PSYOP

In 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 operations

To 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 engagement

A 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)

  1. Ultimatums with no intent or capability to respond in the event of noncompliance.
  2. Implications that the United States is infringing on sovereignty.
  3. Themes that favor a specific country, nationality, religion, tribe, ethnic group, or race at the potential perceived detriment of another.
  4. Messages that promote the legitimacy of organizations or governments committing illegal acts or violations of international or domestic law.
  5. Themes that have a negative impact on legitimate exercise of peaceful religious tenets.
  6. Themes that recall or reflect colonialism.
  7. Themes that imply an inherent moral, cultural, or ideological superiority of the United States to local audiences.
  8. Unfounded accusations of atrocities.

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.

Summary of core guidance from military IO/PSYOP

The 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 media

In 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.

Here we will consider rules for IO conducted in the political, social, or news lanes with the intent to inform and influence political opinions, views on society or groups within society, or perceptions of the world, your nation, or your local environment as they relate to these views.

This is not meant to apply to product marketing and other types of promotion and advertisement, nor to governmental programs that must observe the necessary guidelines and restrictions as determined by official policy.

A code of ethics for social media influence operations

With 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.

This list is meant to provide a framework for a voluntary code of ethics for the conduct of social media influence operations. It can be reviewed and adapted.

In the absence of effective regulation, legislation, or platform rules, people and organizations conducting social media influence operations can disclose whether or not they follow this code of ethics in order to create a standard amongst peers.

This can likewise help guide the efforts of lawmakers and policymakers as they better define legal or regulatory limitations for the conduct of influence operations.

Molly K. McKew (@MollyMcKew) is a writer and researcher of information warfare at the New Media Frontier. She previously worked as an adviser to the Georgian President Saakashvili and his National Security Council; as an adviser to former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat; and as the director of a project in the Baltic states to counter disinformation and propaganda. She is a member of the board of Stand Up Republican Foundation.

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