Sense-Making 101 Knowledge Base

Disinformation, Agenda, and Influence

What are the basics of deception? First, provide your adversary with clues in their several channels of observation and make sure they will lead him to conclude a false picture of reality that leads them to act incorrectly, make themself vulnerable, or fail to take advantage of a favorable scenario. 

Deceptions is practiced in all areas of human endeavor and there is different degrees of complexity (simple to complex) and consequence (trivial matters to life-and-death). Famous miliatry strategist Carl von Clausewitz said that “as joking is conjuring with ideas and conceptions, so military deception is conjuring with actions.” 

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
Sun Tzu

Mal-, Mis-, and Dis-information

To start, information can be categorized into three categories when considering information that is less that perfectly accurate. As the quality of our thinking (sense-making outputs) is largely affected by the quality of our inputs (information and sensory perceptions), it is important to be able to distinguish what types of information we are perceiving and interacting with. This activity is closely related with the articles on media literacy as a practice and understanding meme theory.  

Based on the definitions below, when we observe misinformation we should attempt to correct it if possible, note its existence, and at the very least discount its weighting in our sense-making process. When we encounter disinformation or mal-information, we should seek to understand the actors intent for deliberately promoting false information. 

To understand more, let’s consider the nature of deception and disinformation. 

Info, Psy, and Influence Operations

As sensemakers, it is important to consider what an actor’s agentic interest is, meaning what the intention of their deception is. Active measures have long been a part of nation-states’ war playbooks as they each engaged in state-sponsored deception, propaganda, sabotage, and espionage. In our modern era, a new cold war is emerging taking place on information spectrum. 

As kinetic warfare exacts a high cost, nation-states have adjusted to information warfare as the main frontier of competition. As the graphic above shows that Jason Rivera at the Small Wars Journal, many of the information operations activities fall into a legally ambiguous gray zone. And while nation-states may benefit from large military apparatus and the latest technology  the threshold for non-state actors, groups that range from NGOs to conspiracy groups, is low for participating in the same type of influence campaigns. 

Remember that through the information you are receiving you may be the target of an advanced influence operation, also known as information warfare or psyop (psychological operation). The purpose of these campaigns is to exert influence over the thinking and actions of a target in order to gain a competitive advantage. 

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace defines influence operations as “organized attempts to achieve a specific effect among a target audience. In such instances, a variety of actors—ranging from advertisers to activists to opportunists—employ a diverse set of tactics, techniques, and procedures to affect the decisionmaking, beliefs, and opinions of a target audience.”

Information operations are often focused on dissimulation (hiding what’s real, the truth, and it’s pattern or signature) and simulation (showing what’s false, the mirage, what you want them to see). They range from simple to complex and from trivial in consequence to matters of life-and-death. 

With advanced psychometric profiles available about many of us, given the abundance of tracking through web browsing and social media, many influence operations may be highly targeted and difficult to detect. If the quality is low, the volume is typically high. The Carnegie Foundation has an excellent expose on content mills.

How to Respond to Influence Operations

A strong sense-making capability is the best personal defense against influence ops. Being able to recognize the dissemination of harmful information can be an effective counter to deliberate propaganda. Bruce Schneier in Foreign Policy has a detailed 8 step plan for countering influence operations.

One way to operate effectively in the information landscape is to familiarize yourself with the different “plays” an actor can take. Alan Kelly’s work, specifically his Taxonomy of Influence Strategies, is an excellent, detailed, and well constructed framework that can yield a deeper understanding of the different plays. Highly recommended.