A recent article suggests that the United States via its military has resurrected an effort to engage in influence operations in order to promote U.S. and Western ideals. Correlated information garnered from the authors’ independent research with messaging found in Twitter and Facebook along with reporting from the Washington Post pointed to the U.S. military as its probable origin. This belief was reinforced by the use of Internet domains used previously for the 2008 Trans-Regional Web Initiative (TRWI), a project spearheaded by U.S. Special Operations Command to provide alternative content to counter terrorist propaganda on the Internet via websites in multiple languages that were mostly political in nature and catered to specific regional audiences. The TRWI effort did not pan out as planned with these websites becoming largely extinct by 2014, thought it appears that the infrastructure was still maintained, and put back into operations.
While the United States has traditionally leaned on public relations to promote its messaging via public diplomacy and overt public social media channels, this new activity is more surreptitious in nature. Per the data collected by the researchers, there were several accounts (in their words) without “U.S. military disclosures,” a tactic that U.S. adversaries have been employing for several years to obfuscate any ties to government and/or intelligence assets. More revealing was the exposure of an interconnected propaganda campaign found on several social media platforms. In a longer report on the subject, overlapping accounts found on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and five other social media platforms promoted pro-U.S./pro-Western content in the Middle East and Central Asia. Messaging advanced content that ran contrary to the interests of China, Iran, and Russia focusing on human interest issues, military atrocities, and anti-extremist sentiment.
However, this is not the first time the United States has entered this foray, and its previous failures raise valid concerns if lessons have been learned to warrant another go. The United States has been largely unsuccessful when it comes to these types of influence operations that seek to promote the U.S. values and culture to larger audiences. Whether via counter-messaging, public diplomacy, or strategic communications, the United States has been consistently unable to achieve the kind of results that would influence foreign behavior in a favorable way to U.S. interests. In addition to the ineffective TRWI, during the Global War on Terror, the State Department created a Digital Outreach Team (DOT) charged with the mission to correct misperceptions of U.S. foreign policy to targeted audiences, particularly those in Islamic countries. However, the work of the DOT also proved ineffectual, failing to achieve its intended objectives. A follow-on study conducted by researchers about the DOT’s activities found attempts to correct perceptions among a targeted ideological group were not only fruitless, but they also even backfired increasing misperceptions about the United States.
Several problems have typically plagued these efforts to include but not limited to lack of a cohesive message; not setting specific milestones and specific results to be achieved; and a failure to coordinate messaging efforts with other government projects and initiatives, to name a few. A 2013 Government Accountability Office report on Military Support Operationsunderscored these shortcomings in “communication synchronization” (a term that replaced “strategic communications”) revealing a fractured program with too many parts working independently of the greater whole. The United States engaging in covert influence operations – and being caught doing them – only adds another dimension to the challenges of providing productive counter-messaging.
If this current reporting is true, it appears that the United States may be trying its hand at this art again, and at a time when governments are prolifically disseminating disinformation and propaganda to a global community whose appetite for its consumption is greater than ever before. Its importance is magnified considering that the United States’ primary adversaries – China, Iran, and Russia – are becoming quite proficient in executing disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda aimed at tarnishing the United States’ image. Russia’sinvolvement in such activities has been well documented and increasing reporting has revealed Iran’s burgeoning capabilities in the information space. China is proving to be quite savvy at manipulating messaging to its advantage, often introducing information difficult for Washington to refute because it is fundamentally impossible to disprove a negative. What’s more is that these authoritarian governments are coordinating and collaborating when it comes to disseminating these narratives, serving to amplify the messages behind them.
What’s more interesting about this recent disclosure is that the current operations have taken a covert aspect of them, a tacit admission that the United States cannot successfully counter information activities of its adversaries through overt channels. The immediate drawback of this revelation is that it causes a black eye against the democratic values of transparency and open information. If the champion of democratic values cannot compete against its adversaries via above-board information campaigns, and must resort to the tactics of its adversaries, that perception of the United States as principle-driven may suffer as a result, particularly in strategically relevant regions and countries.
The United States would best be served getting ahead of this problem by devising a policy that is carried out via its various political-military-economic channels through uniformed consistent messaging. For example, the United States’ recent national security strategy identifies China as a major economic threat with the capability to reshape the international world order, and yet the Administration engages with Beijing as anything but, selling it oil from its strategic reserve, largely ignoring human rights positions, and terminating the China Initiative, among others. The Administration also vowed to make Saudi Arabia a pariah, but then pleaded for the leader of OPEC to pump more oil to alleviate high prices. And finally, the Administration looked to Moscow for help in securing an Iranian nuclear deal even as Russia amassed troops on Ukraine’s border prior to its invasion. What the United States says and what it does is clearly not matching up, further obstructive the construction of global-facing policy messaging.
Covert influence operations will not ameliorate the U.S. ability to combat foreign influence campaigns with its own, and risks backfiring tremendously as a result of their continued exposure. In an era where actions speak louder than words, it’s no surprise that the U.S. has had a consistent messaging problem. If it is not careful, it will lose more than its influence; it will lose its credibility in the process.