Civil Considerations in an Era of Great-Power Competition

Civil Considerations in an Era of Great-Power Competition

March 30, 2021

In July 1983, the New Delhi–based Patriot newspaper ran an article: “AIDS may invade India: Mystery Disease Caused by U.S. Experiments.” According to the publication, U.S. scientists based out of Fort Detrick, Maryland, had weaponized a virus to kill African Americans and gay people.1 Two years later, the story gained traction throughout Africa, and two East German biologists published scientific research proving that AIDS was developed in the United States. By 1987, U.S. news reporter Dan Rather featured the story on CBS News, reaching millions of American viewers. All of these stories were, in fact, the result of a years-long Russian disinformation campaign, popularly known as Operation Infektion; it was the first of its kind conducted at such a global scale.2 

Through advancements in technology and wide-scale access to the internet and social media, the United States is significantly more vulnerable to foreign interference in the informational environment (IE) today than it was in 1987. The COVID-19 outbreak has only underscored the growing concerns of coordinated inauthentic activities in the IE and how great-power competitors are exploiting this space. China has been increasingly active in influence operations, adopting and updating Russia’s playbook.3 Perhaps even more concerning is the possibility that both Russia and China are combining efforts in a coordinated systematic approach in an effort to erode democracies.4 These predatory practices ultimately undermine U.S. global leadership and aim to reshape global world order.

While democratic backsliding and increased malign engagement in the IE is not exclusively a DoD problem to solve, civil affairs (CA) forces do have a role to play. There are three ways that the CA Corps can contribute. First, it must be prepared to expand its traditional capabilities and embrace a more complicated and contested IE. Second, it must aggressively advocate for a whole-of-society and whole-of-government process that leverages all elements of national power, to include information. Third, CA has a critical role in advancing the internal narrative as it relates to concept and doctrine development. The CA Corps needs to adapt to the information age to remain relevant. Without effectively moving into the information space, it risks further force structure and funding reductions as other, more information-focused capabilities emerge. As part of this third contribution, it needs to take a critical look at itself to determine how it can support a whole-of-government approach to counter foreign influence operations and to help maneuver commanders to compete in this space.

The Informational Environment in Context

To put the IE in context, it is important to understand the scale of foreign influence operations; online manipulation is not limited to great-power competitors such as China, Russia and Iran. Additionally, India, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (among others) have co-opted sophisticated tactics to conduct foreign interference operations. Sovereign nations have increasingly engaged in this space on their own domestic audiences. Evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns has been observed in at least 70 countries, with indicators that at least one political party or government agency has used social media to coerce public perceptions domestically.5

Online media manipulation has been a particularly attractive and enabling tool for oppressive regimes, giving rise to the “digital dictator.” The low barrier for entry into social media and internet platforms, which showed early promises during the Arab Spring revolution, is now being weaponized against citizens.6 Authoritarian governments use computational propaganda as a tool to suppress fundamental human rights and control domestic civic spaces.7 Furthermore, China and Russia are leading the effort in exporting digital disinformation tools and technologies aimed at censorship and surveillance, making them the buyer of choice for authoritarian regimes.8 This was highlighted in 2017 by Chinese president Xi Jinping, when he announced his desire to become a global “cyber superpower,” offering up China’s model of internet governance to foreign nations.9

Overall, freedom on the internet is in a state of global decline. Internet shutdowns are being used as a blunt instrument by regimes to interrupt the spread of disinformation online.10 Restrictions to internet access are simultaneously used to quell dissent and voices of opposition. According to the nonprofit organization Access Now, in 2019 alone, there were 213 internet shutdowns across 33 countries globally. Disruptions to connectivity are continuing on a negative trend, with outages lasting for longer periods and targeting vulnerable populations.11

These exploitive practices are only the symptoms of a much graver problem. Information space cannot be viewed as distinct from its impact on global democracy. For the first time since 2001, there are more autocracies in the world than democratic nations, affecting over 35 percent of the world’s population.12 Democratic backsliding has only been further exacerbated during COVID-19; in 89 countries, media freedom has come under attack.13

A Capabilities-Based Approach to Achieving Effects in the IE

Through its proponent and major commands, the CA Corps needs to define required specific capabilities to operate more effectively in the IE. While the DoD is laser-focused on great-power competition, civil affairs must recognize that strategic advantage over adversaries in the IE comes from democratic values and a continued advocacy for a free and open internet, freedom of speech, human rights and freedom of the press. Increasingly, the U.S. military is likely to find itself in situations in which the cognitive “war” has already been won by its adversaries—before the United States even realizes that there is a conflict. Millions have either become the victims of oppressive regimes through Chinese exported technology or are manipulated by targeted state and foreign inauthentic coordinated activities. Consequently, CA must continually emphasize that democratic norms must remain fundamental to the DoD’s approach. As the U.S. military remains fixed on countering narratives, CA should be charged to effectively convey how the IE impacts civil societies, which it can draw from its wider interorganizational learning networks.

The CA Corps must improve its ability to collect, process and analyze information that represents civil components. It needs a better way to integrate civil considerations into operations and intelligence processes, and it must understand how to transfer that information to staffs and commanders in a way that ensures that those considerations are concretely represented. There are tools, databases and frameworks that can help the CA Corps to develop these new capabilities.

Some of these aids to development include advancing civil information management (CIM) capabilities to adopt a social network analysis approach that can identify key influencers in the IE. CA must also ensure that technology solutions are universal across the U.S. military and are able to interface with other existing relevant defense and interagency technology, such as command and control of the IE (C2IE) and the GEC-Insights Quantified (GEC-IQ) data analytics platforms. In addition to enhancing CIM capabilities, CA should also consider how to be more impactful in on-the-ground civil-military engagements within the operations in the IE (OIE) missions set. For example, IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) offers a “Learn 2 Discern Curriculum,” and Stonybrook offers a News Literacy Course pack, both aimed to improve media literacy. Could the CA Corps use these tools to overlay English-
language training with aspects of media literacy? If the cultural thinking is shifted in these terms, the opportunities for CA are endless. 

To close the knowledge gap, the CA Corps needs to improve its familiarization with current research and databases as they relate to civil considerations in the IE. For starters, the RAND Corporation has done a significant amount of work in identifying resources and tools that it can adopt to better assess the civil component as it relates to the IE.14 Freedom House also provides an assessment of the level of internet freedom in 65 countries around the world. Through its annual “Freedom on the Net” report, it provides a comprehensive assessment of connectivity, blocking, filtering and users’ risk of incarceration or reprisal for online activity.15 The Global Disinformation Index is in the process of developing a real-time database that identifies the probability of disinformation on specific media outlets.16 In a more focused area, AidData tracks Chinese Confucius Institutes and media exchanges, and the Lowy Institute provides a Pacific Aid Map that captures information on Chinese communications projects in the Pacific region.17

Although the indicators are nascent, there has also been some work done in disinformation resilience. Such work has been done by the Eurasian States in Transition Research Center, which has developed a Disinformation Resilience Index that aims to assess vulnerabilities and preparedness to counter foreign disinformation across Eastern and Central Europe.18 The resources are numerous. CA simply needs to find ways to invest in the research and adopt these tools into training and education programs.

In addition to assessing available tools and databases that can offer a more informed common operating picture of the IE as it relates to civil considerations, a CA approach to the preparation of the IE may also require reevaluating existing models to ensure that the correct tools are employed. Some examples are the area, structures, capabilities, organization, people, events-political, military, economic, social, information and infrastructure (ASCOPE/PMESII) framework. ASCOPE/PMESII version 2.0 should not only dive much deeper into assessing what the information landscape looks like with a full media ecology; it should also be able to communicate how the adversaries are competing and influencing in both the IE and in other sectors relevant to civil society. 

Connectivity with Interagency in the IE

If the U.S. military ultimately decides that informational power is the key to leveraging OIE, then it must emphasize that the I (informational) in DIME is not exclusively a military operation; while military leaders might see the combination of diplomatic, informational, military and economic (DIME) capabilities as their particular instruments of national power, the information component must be shared. A “whole-of-society” or “whole-of-government” approach needs to be adopted. DoD cannot forget its interagency partners, or that CA has gained a wealth of knowledge over the last two decades both through experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and through lessons learned working in stability operations with interagency colleagues. 

To gain a better understanding of interagency relationships in OIE, the DoD should draw upon its experiences drafting the 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR)—it is one of the more ingenious interagency coordination efforts in recent times. Not only does the SAR provide a much-needed interagency definition for stabilization across three U.S. government agencies—DoD, the Department of State (DoS) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—but it also unequivocally outlines the roles and responsibilities for each of these entities as it relates to stabilization.19 Unfortunately, by the time of the SAR’s inception, divergent concepts within DoD had already gained traction, initially directed by the 2005 DoD Instruction (DoDI) 3000.05, Stability Operations.20 Perhaps the SAR’s greatest obstacle in implementation has been breaking through well-established paradigms rooted in years of practice in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 13 previous years.

Unfortunately, the threats posed in the IE are imminent. To best achieve consolidated gains, such as stabilization, the DoD must also tackle OIE from a whole-of-government approach. That said, the strategic focus on great-power competition and divergence from stabilization has correlated with a shift away from interagency coordination; however, OIE by no means requires less attention to the interagency space. If anything, it requires more. There is a tremendous gap in the collective understanding of how and who within the U.S. government is currently working in the IE and what the interagency organizational framework should look like at various echelons within the military force structure. 

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act states that the purpose of the DoS Global Engagement Center (GEC) is to “direct, lead, synchronize, integrate, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts,” yet it remains up to the U.S. military to decide how to integrate interagency coordination efforts within the force. Furthermore, while the GEC may be technically in the lead in countering disinformation and propaganda, that does not preclude the U.S. military from engaging in this space. Rather, CA can and should build the relationships and connective tissue required to work with other governmental agencies, partners, allies and civil society.

Building upon lessons learned from stabilization operations and work at the interagency level, the CA Corps has much to offer as part of force modernization efforts to update internal force structure. It should also conduct a stakeholder analysis to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the breadth of interagency participants that are actively engaged in this space and could be better integrated into organizational structures. This includes the U.S. Agency for Global Media and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which are actively engaged in this space and could be better integrated with military organizational structures. In addition to the GEC, the Corps needs to gain a better understanding of interagency capabilities and needs to forge new relationships within the respective offices of DoS and USAID programming in this space; these offices could include the Bureau for Global Public Affairs within the DoS and the Center for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance in USAID. The Corps should also set the foundation to drive the interagency language and promulgate cross-talk among various U.S. government agencies. Additionally, it should identify and leverage relevant government and collaboration platforms, such as Protected Internet Exchange, the GEC’s “Disinfocloud,” and the GEC-IQ, which was intentionally designed as a hub for interagency and international coordination. 

Civilian Considerations in Concept and Doctrine Development

CA must also champion the use of information in military plans, operations and activities. The DoD needs to get smarter about how it uses information to counter adversaries. Current strategic guidance underscores that the civilian component should be fundamental to any understanding of the IE. The U.S. military is initially charged with making this direct correlation based on the direction provided by the 2017 National Security Strategy. Particularly relevant to CA are Pillar III, Preserving Peace through Strength, and Pillar IV, Advancing American Influence, which broadly outline how the U.S. government will address challenges posed in the IE.21 Pillar III identifies “information statecraft” as a tool used by malign actors to exploit free societies and to intentionally target individuals through the use of disinformation and propaganda. It further states that “local voices are most compelling and effective in ideological competitions.” Under Pillar IV, the strategy advocates for the protection of a free and open internet that would enable interoperable communications to advance American influence globally.22 The 2018 U.S. National Cyber Strategy further elaborates on a civil society–centric approach to countering malign foreign influence operations, emphasizing that the U.S. government must work with civil society to address authoritarianism censorship practices and to promote internet freedom.23

While engaging civil society is a core aspect of U.S. strategy, it has not been a focal point for the U.S. military in practice or concept. A considerable amount of energy has been devoted to the narratives that adversaries are propagating without enough attention being paid to better understanding how those narratives are affecting individuals and populations. This gap is easily apparent in current doctrine and concepts. For example, commonly used language such as “information warfare,” “informational power” and “informational dominance” are suggestive that OIE is only a military great-power competition endeavor. To highlight this, look at mandated Secretary of Defense operational security (OPSEC) training, in which journalists and protesters were, until recently, referred to as “adversaries.”24 Noting that OPSEC is considered an information-related capability (IRC) only emphasizes how pervasive the misunderstanding has become.

OIE needs to consider civil society because it matters to military operations, and because it plays to one of CA’s core strengths—namely, that open access to information, rule of law, freedom of the press and other democratic values promote the American narrative and so counter authoritarian narratives. CA has a role to play because it can enable a shared understanding, particularly as it aims to be better integrated across all IRCs, to include psychological operations and public affairs. CA must recognize that the civil domain cannot be divorced from the IE. Manipulation and polarization of civil societies online can quickly move into the physical environment, leading to civil unrest and even violence.

Examples of this can be observed throughout 2019, which has widely been hailed as the “year of the street protester.” Hundreds of thousands of people participated globally in demonstrations, with social media serving as both a conduit for mobilization and a tool for suppression, such as happened in Hong Kong.25 Myanmar’s military systematic use of Facebook in 2018 offers another case study in which the military exercised explicit intent to incite widespread murder, rape and forced migration of the Muslim Rohingya minority group.26

The CA Corps is well positioned to advocate for mainstreaming civil considerations and to advance the institutional thinking around the subject, especially as the U.S. Army builds upon the tenets of the MDO concept. This includes participation with U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Combined Arms Center, with the Centers of Excellence and with Army Futures Command throughout the concept development and doctrine updates. To start this process, the CA Corps must first examine itself and decide how it can best contribute to these efforts. 

This includes posing a series of challenging questions aimed at better defining its role in the IE. Among others, these questions are: 

  • In an information-centric era, is “by, with and through” obsolete?
  • How does CA work with non-governmental organizations in this space?
  • What are the risk factors that make societies more or less susceptible to disinformation?
  • What is the relationship between inauthentic social media campaigns and conflict? How are foreign online actors weaponizing ethnic grievances and hate speech?
  • What do measures of effectiveness look like in the cognitive space? 
  • What concrete capabilities does CA uniquely bring to all of these questions?

Additionally, the CA Corps needs to advocate for the adoption of a vernacular that is inclusive of civil considerations, a vocabulary that not only accurately depicts what, for example, a “journalist” is or is not, but also one that acknowledges language such as “media integrity” and “internet freedom.”

Finally, while CA may be well placed to address civil considerations in the IE, there is still room for improvement. CA should aggressively explore additional training opportunities. Possibilities include using annual training to train-with-industry and conducting visits or leveraging virtual platforms to engage non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector—particularly NGOs and private sector organizations that are working in this space and encouraging participation in career broadening training, such as the Institute for Defense Business’s program in information operations (IO).27 CA leaders should also consider having more of their personnel become IO-qualified and should support training opportunities provided by the 1st IO Command, through the Joint IO Planners Course (JIOPC) and by participation in information-focused table-top exercises or experiments.

CA should also advocate for the establishment of an IE consortium that fuses civil and military thought leadership. This consortium should draw on expertise not only from civil society, but also from like-minded allied partners, academia, the private sector and NGOs currently working in this space who can consequently better inform U.S. military research and leadership in this regard. CA should also broaden the pool from which it recruits, to include Silicon Valley and NGOs working the same spaces. Lastly, CA should set rank aside, drawing from and leveraging its tech-savvy junior reserve Soldiers who are currently operating in the private sector; CA needs to remind itself that this expertise does not currently exist anywhere else in the U.S. military.  

Conclusion

In a post-truth era, fighting a proclaimed “disinfodemic” in the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the future looks fairly unsettling as it relates to the IE. The advancements in technology and speed of communications far outpace the ability to effectively reorganize against them, both cognitively and physically, or to develop the necessary capabilities to effectively respond. CA must adapt to this new environment to maintain relevancy. It must develop new capabilities and embrace a more complicated world. It must also advocate for the use of informational power in a way that has yet to be used by DoD, while also pushing for a better defined and implemented whole-of-government effort to counter adversarial influence operations. To accomplish this, the CA Corps must lead efforts to update doctrine and press for concepts to better articulate how civil considerations impact the information environment. Addressing these concerns will help to align CA with the reality that the industrial age has transitioned to the information age.
 

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Lieutenant Colonel Diana J. Parzik is the 440th Civil Affairs (CA) Battalion Commander in Fort Carson, Colorado. In her civilian capacity, Parzik serves in Washington, DC, as the Counter-Disinformation coordinator to the U.S. Agency for International Development. From 2019–2020, Diana served as the interagency coordinator at the Pentagon with the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center.

Major Mike Schwille is currently a Civil Affairs planner with the 353rd CA Command at Fort Wadsworth, New York, but has served in numerous CA and Psychological Operations (PSYOP) positions throughout the United States Army Civil Affairs and PSYOP Command. As a civilian, he works as a senior policy analyst with the RAND Corporation, where he focuses on joint and service concept and capability development to conduct operations in the information environment.

Adam B. Ellick and Adam Westbrook, “Operation Infektion: Russian Disinformation from Cold War to Kanye,” New York Times, 12 November 2018. 
Ellick and Westbrook, “Operation Infektion.”
Jessica Brandt and Torrey Taussig, “The Kremlin’s disinformation playbook goes to Beijing,” Brookings, 19 May 2020.
4  Paul Shinkman, “State Department: China working with Russia to Spread Coronavirus Disinformation,” U.S. News and World Report, 8 May 2020.
5  Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard, “The Global Disinformation Order: 2019 Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation,” Oxford Internet Institute, 2019.
6  Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Eric Frantz and Joseph Wright, “The Digital Dictators: How Technology Strengthens Autocracy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020.
7  Bradshaw and Howard, “The Global Disinformation Order.” 
8  Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole, “Exporting Digital Authoritarianism: The Russian and Chinese Models,” Brookings, August 2019.
9  Adrian Shabaz, “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism,” Freedom House, 2018.
10  Shabaz, “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism.” 
11  #KeepItOn, “Targeted, Cut off, and left in the Dark,” Access Now, 2019.
12  Anna Lührmann et al., “Autocratization Surges—Resistance Grows,” V-Dem Institute, 2020.
13  Amanda B. Edgell et al., “An Update on Pandemic Backsliding: Democracy Four Months After the Beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic,” V-Dem Institute, no. 24, 30 June 2020.
14  Fighting Disinformation Online: A Database of Web Tools (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 19 December 2019).
15  “Countries: Internet Freedom Scores,” Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-net/scores.
16  “Global Disinformation Index,” https://disinformationindex.org/.
17  “Pacific Aid Map,” Lowy Institute, https://pacificaidmap.lowyinstitute.org/database
18  Volha Damarad and Andrei Yeliseyeu, “Disinformation Resilience in Central and Eastern Europe,” Eurasian States in Transition Research Center, 2018.
19  Department of State, United States Agency for International Development and Department of Defense, “Stabilization Assistance Review: A Framework for Maximizing the Effectiveness of U.S. Government Efforts to Stabilize Conflict-Affected Areas,” 2018, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/283589.pdf.
20  Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, “Department of Defense Directive 3000.05: Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction (SSTR) Operations,” 28 November 2005, https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=464196.
21  The White House, National Security Strategy, December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/ 2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf.
22  The White House, National Security Strategy, December 2017. 
23  The White House, National Cyber Strategy, September 2018, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/National-Cyber-Strategy.pdf.
24  Lara Seligman, “Esper requires training that refers to protestors, journalists as ‘adversaries,’” Politico, 30 July 2020.
25  Jackson Diehl, “From Hong Kong to Chile, 2019 is the year of the street protester. But why?” Washington Post, 27 October 2019.
26  Paul Mozur, “A Genocide Incited on Facebook With Posts from Myanmar’s Military,” New York Times, 15 October 2018.
27  Institute for Defense & Business, “Industry Based Broadening: Information Operations,” https://www.idb.org/programs/in-residence-learning/ib2-io/.