Defense and Self-Defense in the Information Age: Collaborative Strategy and Collective Vision

The United States needs a unifying information strategy. America’s adversaries gain political and military advantages every day the U.S. goes without clear priorities in the current information war. Some authors already describe the U.S. as losing the information war to adversaries like Russia and China, who use information attacks from cyber-attacks to disinformation against American corporations, cabinet-level departments, and our European allies. To succeed, American military leaders and political scientists emphasize prioritizing the use of resources. The prioritization of these resources requires a comprehensive strategy.

Much like the Cold War, the information war rarely resembles traditional combat. This complication has spawned terms like gray zone and hybrid warfare in which today’s military tries to explain the tactics and methods of increasingly unorthodox, creative, and dangerously innovative enemies. Adversaries know that defeating American power is unnecessary if they defeat America’s will to use its power. Weaponized narratives, for example, target national will and can trick Americans into opposing each other. There are several examples. Russian trolls have worked to push gun control and gun rights groups further apart. China befriends some industries and undercuts others, pitting winners against losers in the U.S. and worldwide even as we consider today’s trade policies. Radical Islamists try to persuade Muslims to act against U.S. cities, but also seek to turn American public opinion against Muslims—with Islamophobia used as justification for further actions, creating a vicious cycle. Internal struggles cripple the U.S. We need a single strategy to unify the nation.

The information environment is too complex for a mechanistic solution such as a new incarnation of the U.S. Information Agency to oversee everything or a series of military protocols. Information strategy must be organic and adaptive because the information environment itself is so fluid. The domain shapes the strategy. Geography is hard to change, so ground strategy can still use some concepts from Roman legions. The sea changes quickly, so tactics must adapt to sea conditions, and the same may be even more true in the air. But, arguably, the information environment is the most dynamic, so a strategy that works within that environment must be equally dynamic. Otherwise, the system itself—especially when opposing a thinking, adaptive adversary—will circumvent the fixed points of the strategy. We cannot afford an informational Maginot Line, because there are a nearly infinite number of ways around it. The strategy must shape the environment to promote the flow of truth and contest the spread of disinformation and lies.

A critic of this method might call this oversimplification. However, for a complex environment, the best tool is often a flexible yet straightforward set of operating principles. In this case, it also requires a flexible collaborative structure. Envision a set of procedural tools that could make creating an ad hoc public-private task force much easier. If an adversary information attack is placed on a website, linked to from Facebook for greater virality, and shared through Twitter to increase its range, then a flexible collaborative structure would allow strategists from Facebook, Twitter, Google, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and others to put together a response team in days rather than months, address the issue, and disband once no longer required.

Both the guidelines and the structure should support a shared vision. Autocracies can often unify and mobilize their governments in ways democracies cannot. For example, China can (and does) compel their corporations—and even foreign corporations doing business in China—to censor pro-democracy information and share vast stores of personal information with the ruling Communist Party; the American government cannot. The Chinese model seeks to unify by censorship, myth-making propaganda, and Orwellian control. A shared vision, with guidelines and a structure to empower that vision, is necessary to unify a democracy.

The collective, individual autonomy of Western capitalists won against central planning because its adherents followed a shared vision: enabling the free flow of commerce and a commitment to defeat Communism.

Compare the information war to the Cold War. Early predictions tended to see the Communists’ unified economic plans as advantages. Still, after five decades of oppression and the colossal burden of competing with capitalism, the free market won out over the Soviets’ centrally-managed, state-owned enterprises. The collective, individual autonomy of Western capitalists won against central planning because its adherents followed a shared vision: enabling the free flow of commerce and a commitment to defeat Communism. Given this premise, it would be logical to propose that individual actions could win against autocratic unified information strategies if its adherents follow a shared vision: enabling the free flow of truth and a commitment to defeat disinformation.

The recently released U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) recognizes that adversaries use marketing techniques to weaponize information, attacking societal values and institutions. Enemies disseminate disinformation and spread malicious propaganda. The current strategy isn’t enough for what the strategy calls an information-dominant era. An American grand strategy with the power to defeat this adversary requires a whole-of-society approach. This does not imply that we should implement a centrally controlled information effort like America’s autocratic adversaries. It means we need to implement a crowd sourced effort, which would coordinate the innovations of American individuals and groups. Such a whole-of-society strategy is challenging, but not impossible. Leaders could craft a unified strategy for an effective American effort to fight all forms of disinformation.

America’s adversaries unify their people by deceit. They manipulate to safeguard their regimes, and target Americans with the intent of dividing the country. Technology magnifies the effects of updated Russian active measures, as well as China’s socially-networked surveillance state and revisionist lawfare. The National Security Strategy notes how adversaries challenge American power, influence, interests, security, and prosperity. They enhance their militaries and exploit information “to repress their societies and expand their influence.”

To defend itself, the U.S. needs a unified strategy to promote free collaboration. A national-level joint interagency task force could enhance unity through collaboration across governmental and non-governmental groups. A small task force would prevent mission creep and minimize costs. Staff from the top five American social media organizations (e.g., Facebook, Google/YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, and LinkedIn) would be key liaisons. The task force would also develop structures to rapidly create and dissolve teams for specific goals. These structures would include measures of success to promote initiatives that work and downsize those that do not.

As a member of the task force, the Department of Defense would be vital, based on experience with strategy and information operations/information warfare. Experience doesn’t require that Defense take the lead role, though. For well-attributed offensive/counteroffensive operations, the Department of Defense should lead. For deterrence based on credible offense, Defense should lead, including planning for adversaries’ vulnerability to true information. The Department of Defense may lead in protecting the information environment as a global commons, bolstering freedom of information like freedom of navigation. The concept of cognitive security might fall under Defense. But for the vast majority of the information effort, the Department is a supporting organization.

In collaboration, the Department of State would not lead, but would have a focus. State would encourage partners to enhance the flow of true information (including English education to increase that flow, contrary to tyrannies like Iran). Free flow of information carries risk. Still, the U.S. has a tremendous advantage if true information moves freely and globally. State would also advise partners on increasing capacity to convey truth and counter disinformation. Information is powerful in part because of its low cost. An effective information coordination effort would be inexpensive compared to many federal initiatives. Coordination is more adaptable to the fast-moving information environment, and therefore notably more effective than a monolithic organization, even one with significant power. Teaming can outstrip the prior performance of past agencies like the Office of Strategic Influence, the U.S. Information Agency, or even the current Global Engagement Center. State can further increase information effectiveness at minimal cost through crowd sourcing and innovation contests.

Both Defense and State focus externally, but the unified information strategy must include internally-focused agencies as well... There are important roles for the Department of Justice and the legal/law enforcement community. Transparency underpins a government’s credibility at home and abroad. Justice must examine other agencies, despite the discomfort. Credibility is crucial to a strategy based on free-flowing, true information.

Law enforcement can also address dangers the Department of Defense and private firms cannot. Existing laws could protect Americans against information attacks. Justice can apply statutes for data privacy, cyber-stalking, hate speech, false advertising, tax evasion, or online fraud to protect Americans. Law enforcement can protect against both criminals and security threats. To reinforce these efforts, Justice would lead in developing legal standards for information attack.

Information strategy also requires Departments like Education and Commerce, and groups like the Federal Communications Commission. The Department of Education would coordinate a consensus recommendation on information defense educational standards. Education would empower Americans to protect themselves from information attack and information criminals. (Even in advanced nations like Australia, few students understand information defense.) In the Cold War, Americans learned civil defense. In the information war, Americans must learn information defense.

Education would ensure that innovators share information defense education news worldwide. News and social media would cooperate with the Department of Education (DoE) to promote unity on par with diversity. American values must be as unified as its people are diverse. Youth and faith groups, celebrities and community leaders, public schools and private enterprises would participate in the effort. The National Security Strategy directs “preparedness, informing and empowering communities and individuals to obtain the skills and take the preparatory actions necessary to become more resilient against the threats and hazards that Americans face.” Media literacy is an example of this concept. Education would emphasize critical thinking, logic, speech, rhetoric, and debate. Information defense also fights crime. Education counters data theft and fraud, cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking, and radicalization. Education creates crucial resiliency among the targets of adversary information attack—the American people.

For example, critical thinking helps potential recruits debunk propaganda. Countering propaganda strengthens the individual, his social circle, and the nation. The National Security Strategy highlights how adversaries use disinformation to promote anti-American ideologies and exploit the vulnerable. This strategy describes the importance of “exposing…falsehoods, promoting counter-narratives, and amplifying credible voices.” Using micro-targeted marketing could amplify benefits, equipping the most vulnerable to defend themselves. Information defense and technical education would also strengthen America’s future cybersecurity and related high-value skills.

In this strategic scenario, the Department of Commerce would enhance public-private partnerships in areas enhancing both security and profit, such as bot identification. Collaborative effort would identify technologies and techniques that communicate truth and expose disinformation. Commerce could link developers with financing, and help subsidiaries grow, preventing monopolies or lost innovative focus. Finally, Commerce could promote innovative hiring, government and non-government, giving flexibility to hire and keep staff with information skills. This would benefit information defense, cybersecurity, and other crucial roles.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would also have a role. Under this strategic plan, the FCC would require botnet registration. Botnets counterfeit credibility, making computational propaganda seem newsworthy or trustworthy. Beyond propaganda, botnets can cripple websites and crack security and finance encryption. Unregistered botnets would not enjoy freedom of speech. Registered botnet owners would enjoy the benefits and consequences of using botnets as tools for personal speech.

The Commission would help mediate an agreement among news and social media, paralleling early-warning weapons treaties. News organizations would collectively embargo unverified information endangering national security. Such an agreement would limit the risk of being “scooped” and losing revenue. They would also “name and shame” uncooperative news organizations. Unwillingness to commit to verification might also influence trials. For example, plaintiffs might claim that decisions not to verify were negligent.

Finally, while the federal government coordinates, private enterprise innovates. Private enterprise should lead in developing tools to fight disinformation, such as a speed limit of one social media post per second, focused on bots. A speed limit wouldn’t slow people much, but it would slow botnets. Similar limits on the number of recipients for a message might also help. For example, a 500-recipient cap (with exemptions for vetted groups) would slow propaganda’s spread without limiting many people. Private enterprise should enhance their ability to recognize similar stories. If fact checkers debunk one lie by an adversary, that adversary should not be allowed to tweak a few words and resend the story. Such innovation could be good for information strategy, national security, and as presentations by several sources indicate, profitable growth.

Accepting their vital role would also mean that private firms would share proprietary information with an honest broker, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission or the FCC, to empower their ability to conduct trend analysis. The honest broker could protect private information and identify common vulnerabilities and issues. For example, the honest broker could compare newsworthiness algorithms to recognize common threats. Best practices would include approached analogous to nutritional labeling for established websites and exposing groups spreading disinformation. Coordination between the public and private sector could enable the development of tiered responses ranging from account shut-down to prosecution. On the positive side, leaders can recognize and amplify influencers fighting disinformation.

Private enterprise would both work with, and maintain oversight of a joint, interagency operations center that would oversee information threats and link technology, intelligence, and media professionals. Threat assessment would address the capability, intent, and themes of the information. The center would create channels to share threat information and (when possible) attribution instantly. Threat information could come through multiple channels. First, the center would license information typically sold by the private firms, such as advertising data, to be shared with the center (subject to applicable American privacy and evidentiary protections).

Second, just as banks and law enforcement work together to track illicit funds, legal and law enforcement groups should cooperate to track information attacks. Following the system by which the federal law enforcement community serves as an honest broker with access to banks’ sensitive financial information, or the Securities and Exchange Commission has access to corporations’ sensitive business data, so the interagency center could gather, anonymize, merge, measure, and categorize data to empower trend analysis without revealing trade secrets. The center could leverage private firms’ tactics, like the real-time defense of the Macron campaign against alleged Russian disinformation.

Third, the center could coordinate development of a collective non-disclosure agreement system among private participants, modeled on the system through which the U.S. shares intelligence with allied nations. Disclosures would be subject to corporate espionage laws, as well, to deter firms from using the center to steal proprietary information from other participants. Taken together, this collaborative architecture could enable sharing on an unprecedented amount of threat data on adversary information attacks.

Information is the dominant force in the modern era. Information is the weapon of the future, and the information war is the new Cold War. Information’s power will only increase as new technologies (e.g., virtual/augmented reality) advance. Failing to develop an information strategy today is as foolish as failing to develop a Cold War nuclear strategy. The information war, even more than the Cold War, requires participation at every level. But every person and every nation has limited resources. To win the information war, we must use our resources wisely and cooperate to defend each other. To win the information war, we must have a collaborative, unified information strategy.

Jon Herrmann is a retired career Air Force intelligence and information operations (IO) officer with multiple advanced degrees in international relations and related areas. He currently works as a contracted expert educator, strategist, and consultant for the Department of Defense and other organizations.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: South side of the White House. (Zach Rudisin/Wikimedia)