We can't protect ourselves from mis/ disinformation, until we understand influence
Would someone please tell the National Security community?
A short TAT today due to lots of appointments and chores.
Today I want to talk briefly about why US national security agencies, continue to fail in regard to stemming the tide of massive mis and disinformation. This particular topic is precisely in my wheelhouse. Over the next few weeks, I will return to this subject often and build on today’s bare bones introduction. The threat of adversarial influence, external and domestic, is our most critical national defense vulnerability.
As I have often noted, every objective within our NSS/ National Security Strategy requires ethical influence as the core effort. People, especially within DoD are afraid of the word influence because they believe, inaccurately, that it always carries a negative connotation. NONSENSE!
Influence according to Merriam-Webster
: the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways: SWAY
· The act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command
· Corrupt interference with authority for personal gain
We influence people all of the time. Politicians do it, some even ethically. Marketers do it, sometimes ethically too. We do it within our families, friends etc. Patriotic songs on the 4th of July, along with banners, fireworks etc. are all designed to influence us to be proud of our nation and support it according to American values. Heck, even bribing children with a cookie and an extra story before bed… yep, you guessed, influence.
From a national security perspective, here’s my definition for influence:
“Influence, done well is achieved by a complex and intricate choreography of sustained actions, words and related activities wrapped around a core narrative, that continually modifies behavior in a manner supportive of natsec objectives.”
· Cobaugh, 2019
Mis and disinformation are both subsets of influence and almost always combined with multiple other types and tactics. In order to influence people, you must go to the heart of how people derive meaning about what they experience. That is called narrative, which is based on each of our unique NI or narrative identity. In other words, we all sort, all we experience a bit differently. When I say “all that we experience” it’s not just words or what most call messaging.
Today, Brooking Institution has a new report out on some of the technical means necessary to help thwart mis and disinformation in digital communications, like websites, FB, LinkedIn, Twitter etc. These tools are indeed helpful in the hands of someone who understands how to deploy them appropriately. Like building a house, not one type of tool is good for everything.
Within the US national security community, there is no mechanism that allows influence professionals to support the NSS with all of the tools needed to stem all types of adversarial influence. This could be Russian, like our elections since 2016 or China, Iran or extremists of all types, including those that are domestic extremists, regardless of ideology. There’s little difference in how extremism works whether its AQ or the Proud Boys. The dynamics are amazingly similar.
To put a conclusion to this, we are very much at risk because our national security community refuses to put together the architecture of influence that will support our NSS. This is due to a lot of reasons but some of the primary ones are:
· There’s an overt lack of understanding across the national security community about what influence is, how to achieve it and what are the core principles
· Different parts of the natsec community don’t share effectively, outside of their own agencies, including DoD.
· Due to the avoidance of the word, “influence” the community doctrine has become nothing more than gibberish, unintelligible to anyone who didn’t write it.
· Even if they worked together, it’s largely a “mother-may-I affair with no one in charge that has power to coordinate a campaign (yes, this is as absurd as it is shocking, to anyone with common-sense)
· The entire community is waiting on CYBER answers.
o This is beyond ridiculous because CYBER are merely the tools and to date, they do NOT yet understand human behavior in any manner that matters
· The reason that AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning) can’t help yet, is because most of the CYBER community doesn’t talk to practicing human influencers that understand narrative and the complexity of human psychology
· The national security community, due to heavy influence by big defense contractors, selling ships, planes, tanks etc., refuse to seriously invest in solving our lack of influence crisis.
o Our last few defense budgets only even mention influence obliquely
· Congress is no better since they write the checks, even when we’ve failed at 90 % of the influence, we’ve attempted for the past 40-50 years. Where I come from, this is called, “throwing good money after bad.”
The above could be a much larger list but it is enough to make my point. So, this should help us understand that influence overall. is the foundational reason we are still largely at significant risk from our domestic and global adversaries from mis and disinformation.
The Department of Homeland Security is primarily responsible for this protection, inside of the United States but they are still stuck on a CYBER answer exclusively. This cannot be achieved without actual human engagement with Americans. Since narrative is at the core of influence, narratives require narrators that acquire and hold the attention of an audience. Successful narrative-centric campaigning with Americans can be supported by technology but will continue to fail without it. We largely suffer the same fate supporting our NSS overseas.
The real tragedy is that despite the nation being at serious risk, there are zero improvements coming from the army of brilliant and committed patriots, working in these programs/ missions. That’s a long way of saying that leadership is required to tear-down, antiquated national security architecture and retrain related professionals with modern knowledge. Then and only then can mis and disinformation become an annoyance but not the threat that it is today. When influence pertains to national security, it requires engaging all types of bad influence, not just mis and disinformation.
America deserves competence and results.