An Extended Discussion on an Important Question: What is Information Operations?

This essay is part of the #WhatIsInformationOperations series, which asked a group of practitioners to provide their thoughts on the subject. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.

What is information operations? The debate to answer this question spans the military, governments, business and industry, academia, and the international community. The U.S. military has maintained a rather steady definition, but has differed in how that definition is interpreted based on the focus of the different services. The U.S. Air Force and Navy, for example, tend to view information operations as technical efforts to disrupt the flow of information over networks and the electromagnetic spectrum. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps and Army tend to focus more on human-to-human engagement. These differences make sense, given the different roles of each service, but they add to confusion in the broader debate. In contrast to its sister services, the Army has changed its definition of information operations several times over the past 25 years—they’ve even changed the term itself. From information operations, to information engagement, back to information operations, to a brief flirtation with inform and influence activities, and recently back to information operations. Today, the Army’s definition of information operation, once again, mirrors the joint definition in Joint Publication 3-13 Information Operations. Organizations outside of the military add their own definitions of the term to the discussion. Just recently, Facebook published an entire document on information operations, highlighting disinformation as the key characteristic of information operations. Meanwhile, news media and think tank reports have been awash with the term “fake news” as a synonym for information operations. All of these variations lead to confusion.

While differences in the interpretation of the term serve their purpose for each organization, when those organizations communicate with one another, or across audiences, the differences leads to misunderstanding at best, and information fratricide at worst. If Facebook associates the term information operations with fake news, then it will also associate military efforts to use Facebook as part of a campaign to inform the public, something some in the military might think of as a benign information operation, as deliberately spite of the fact that U.S. military doctrine describes the primary tenet of public affairs, one of the many capabilities available to commanders for information operations, as “tell the truth.” It remains important for each organization to serve its own purpose, but it is also important for each organization to have a common understanding of one another’s perspective.

When you strip away all the buzzwords and politics, information operations is nothing more than activities to encourage a desired audience to act (or not act) in a manner that is beneficial to the organization conducting the activities. It doesn’t matter if it is a corporation advertising a new product for consumers to buy, a politician campaigning for constituents to vote for them, or the Allied Forces of World War II floating a body in the Mediterranean loaded with documents to convince the Axis powers to defend Sardinia when the attack was actually planned for Sicily. In every case of information operations, the goal is to persuade the object of the operations to behave in a particular manner.

This week The Strategy Bridge examines information operations from the point of view of its military practitioners, those who leverage various military capabilities to elicit a desired action from a target audience. They discuss options for the application, and offer insights into the value of these capabilities toward achieving desired outcomes. Thomas Lorenzen, an information operations practitioner with the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center will kick off this series with a discussion on the need for an information operations renaissance. Michael Holloway, an officer in the U.S. Army, will follow with a discussion on Russian weaponization of information to achieve its desired ends in Crimea. Finally, Brian Wieck, a practitioner with more than 20 years of experience in military units focused on the conduct of information operations, will offer considerations for information operations employed to counter the anti-access/area denial capabilities of potential adversaries.

While we do not expect to settle the debate over what information operations is, we do hope to contribute valuable insights to the discussion by building awareness and empathy in their partner’s roles and methods, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about information operations and how they might employ them for the benefit of their own organizations.

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Header Image: Information Operations Integration (SRC)