A delegate's summary of the Information Operations Global 2012 conference
Posted: 04/10/2013 12:00:00 AM EDT
The annual Information Operations Global conference took place in London recently, bringing together leading information operations (IO) practitioners, theorists and enthusiasts from the military, government, and private sector. Presentations and discussion engaged thoroughly with information issues in contemporary conflict, with the wars in Libya, Afghanistan and, of course the events of the Arab Spring the context for discussion. While the social element has always been a key factor in IO, the rise of social media as a key feature in contemporary conflicts was a key issue of interest across the board as IO practitioners and structures begin to adapt to leverage their expertise in the new media environment. The variety of attendees at the conference - from military officers with long experience in IO, to younger officers with a more intuitive grasp of new technology, and private sector actors offering insight into the latest communication problems and opportunities – allowed lively discussion and insight to be produced into the evolving role of new information communication technologies (ICTs) in the sphere of military communication.
Much has been written about the challenges of new media to traditional military and government communication practices. The challenges include: a loss of the influence of information gatekeepers; increasing uncertainty; a proliferation of information; and ‘emergent’ data. Together these phenomena mean that it is nearly impossible to control what information about a particular event is published, who will be influential in driving opinion, and what the 2nd or 3rd order effects of an event will be. The journalist Nik Gowing describes this situation as “the new tyranny of shifting information power in crises” – and his work on the subject ‘Skyful of Lies’ and Black Swans was seen by senior military speakers to outline the current challenges well. In his book Gowing outlines how slow institutional adaption to the new information environment means that militaries and governments – used to certain advantages (of authority and means) in communication in times of conflict – lose their edge as bureaucracy, issues of operational security, and institutional risk-aversion mean ground is ceded to rival communicators. This situation was the context of much discussion at IO Global 2012, as institutional adaption to the new communication environment was discussed in various contexts.
One of the major barriers to military engagement online has been OPSEC – a concern that an institutional openness to social media will lead to the leakage of operationally-sensitive information. Despite such circumspection we have seen data leaks which undermine not just operational activity, but strategic objectives – videos and photos of torture, mistreatment, incompetence, and cultural insensitivity which damage the narrative Western governments seek to create around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. OPSEC concerns were barely mentioned at IO Global – a new openness underlined by a workshop which included a Foursquare (a mobile geo-location networking tool) treasure hunt in central London! – and the broader issues of engaging in the communication environment as a vital strategic element moved to the fore. The distinction between OPSEC and strategic information engagement was underlined by the fact that a number of presenters used the example of a YouTube clip from the Brian De Palma film Redacted, which was widely reposted – out of context – purporting to show the rape of an Afghan teenage girl by American soldiers. The clip was filmed in Hollywood in the style of an emergent amateur video, but ‘remixed’ on YouTube as a ‘real’ video it incited anti-American sentiment, such that it was said to radicalise Arid Uka and inspire him to a deadly attack on two American soldiers in Germany. In an information environment such as this, information control at the operational level is simply not an effective way to engage in the information realm – and participants recognised the need to think much more broadly about the challenges and opportunities of new media tools.
One way in which IO practitioners outlined engagement in the new media environment was through online publication. Examples were presented of engagement with Somali news sites to try and produce a more positive narrative about the trajectory of Somali development, and of US EUCOM’s sponsorship of the South European Times (SE Times) website as a key information operations tool in Southeastern Europe (including Turkey and Greece). While the publication of news websites is fairly standard ‘Web 1.0’ practice – and in this respect similar to IO sponsorship of newspapers or magazines – the very placement of this information online insinuates it into the world of online discussion, hyperlinks, and interactivity. This was demonstrated in a presentation of EUCOM’s use of Facebook as platform to drive traffic to the SE Times, and as a tool to build a community of engagement around American influence material. Social media was described as “another tool in the PSYOP kit”, one which allows much greater flexibility than official military tools. The process of using the Facebook platform for rudimentary target audience analysis (through polling and link analysis), for the propagation of IO messages (through encouraging social sharing, strategic buying of Facebook advertising space) and the building of a community of trust (through encouraging discussion and comments) was explained – in what amounted to a cheap and incredibly successful campaign (with every Facebook user in 7 of the 11 target countries only 1 degree of separation – and thus, within the sphere of the audience – of US IO products).
The response to this EUCOM initiative was enthusiastic, but tellingly the most pertinent question asked of the presenter was “how did you get institutional buy-in?”, how did they manage to persuade the bureaucracy to let them do it. To an outsider it seems a counter-intuitive question to ask of a cheap and effective IO campaign, especially one with reasonably stable measures of effectiveness (Facebook ‘likes’, shares, polls, etc.), but it was one with resonated with many participants. Furthermore, the SE Times Facebook campaign was seen as successful despite US military policies – access to social media is limited from DoD facilities so much work had to be done off-base, and one of the reasons the Facebook engagement was so successful was that it facilitated interactivity, a feature which is impossible on DOD-owned websites (like the SE Times main site) due to a cumbersome process of comment vetting and authorisation. Plainly, the institutional barriers to engage in the social media sphere are far still a significant feature of the IO practitioner’s work.
It seems to be the private sector where IO work which confidently engages with the new media environment is being done. The conference featured presentations by a number of small companies which had developed expertise in the analysis and use of narratives; specialised in the analysis and creation of YouTube videos and online-engagement for IO purposes; and offered consultation on cutting edge social media platforms and trends. It is unrealistic to expect the IO practitioners of the military to adapt a ‘start-up mentality’ and focus solely on social media; particularly when social media is not particularly influential, for example, in the war in Afghanistan. Yet the development of communities of practice and relationships between military actors and experts in using new ICTs for influence represents a significant shift in IO practice, one which may have particularly important effects in more-networked battlespaces. One company presented their “media battlespace awareness” tool, currently in use by ISAF, to visualise on a map all the human intelligence, social, political and economic data for Afghanistan – from local analyses of sentiment to segmented propagation models (i.e. who thinks what and where do they get their information?). The use of such a tool in a battlefield with a large social media population, by military actors with an advanced understanding of the dynamics of ICTs, would represent a qualitative shift for the role of IO in the contemporary battlefield.
Overall, they key message from IO Global 2012 was one of evolution – of the necessity for, and in some places existence of, a forward-thinking and open approach to engagement with the new information environment. The recognition of social media as a vital component of engaging in the influence realm, rather than a frivolous luxury, although well-understood by conference participants, appears to be slowly coalescing within broader military structures. While military institutions are not alone in having taken some time to realise the importance of these changes in the communication environment, they operate – as ever – in an environment where the penalties and rewards for getting engagement right (or not) make this adaption a very high stakes game indeed.
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