Remember the Real: Cyberspace, Misinformation, and Human Action
by Daniel Riggs
The Orange Man Cometh
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a jarring experience for many in the U.S. and across the world. Notable pollsters forecasted a dominant Hilary Clinton victory. When she did not, experts searched for reasons she failed and coalesced around one: Russian disinformation on social media platforms. The later narrative was that the election was "hacked by Russia" due to cybersecurity lapses. While it is true that Russia is an adversary, and they are undoubtedly involved in influence operations in the United States, it is not this cleanly Manichean. This theory did not understand cyberspace and human action and exaggerated the impact of influence products in the Cyber Domain.
Cybersecurity is critical, and the military needs to orient towards cyberspace over the next few years. However, the current narrative overstates the role of misinformation and disinformation about national security, human action, and cybersecurity. Target audiences' prevailing and ongoing external and internal conditions affect attitudes and behavior far more significantly than enemy propaganda. The following will first define the Cyber Domain to understand its impact on influence, explain its connection to other domains, how external and internal conditions outside of the Cyber Domain influence human action, and proposals for future efforts.
Overview of the Cyber Domain and Its Role in Influence
Joint US Military Doctrine understands cyberspace as a global domain within the information environment, essential to joint operations. Interdependent networks of information technology infrastructure and resident data (e.g., internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems, and embedded processors and controllers) constitute this domain. Three interdependent layers further break down and categorize cyberspace factors: (1) physical network, (2) logical network, and (3) cyber persona.
The physical network layer consists of the information technology devices and infrastructure in the physical domains that provide information storage, transport, and processing within cyberspace. This layer concerns all tangible elements, subject to measurement, including fuel to power the connections, submarine cables, and internet service providers' port servers.
Image 1. Example of Servers.
The logical network layer consists of the elements abstracted from the physical network based on the logic programming (code) that drives network components. The binary code of ones and zeroes translates actions and intentions into representations on a screen, defining this logical network. Below is an example of code to operate in the Python Programming language:
Image 2: Example of Python Code.
The cyber-persona layer is the layer internet users see daily. The logical network layer abstracts data and rules from the logical network layer and develops descriptions of digital representations of an actor or entity identity in cyberspace. After establishing the physical infrastructure and the programming language moving through that infrastructure, it translates into the products that constitute the cyber persona layer.
The three are interdependent, have unique operational attributes, and require systemic understanding. Cyberspace operations often "traverse all three layers of cyberspace… [and] target effects at [multiple] layers." One cannot disconnect one layer from the others without understanding its effects on them. As the doctrine states, "cyberspace ops require links and nodes in [the] physical domains to perform logical functions that create effects in cyberspace that then permeate throughout the physical domains."
This interdependence and extension through domains include Land and Space.
The below image from Field Manual (FM) 3-12 Cyberspace Operations and Electromagnetic Warfare shows how "congested" (as the doctrine dubs it) multidomain operations are:
Image 3. Showcasing the multidomain fight in FM 3-12.
The visualization shows that nothing is in isolation. Actions are systemic and wide-reaching. While malign activities in cyberspace actions can affect actors in the Land Domain, it is the actions in the physical Land Domain that dictate the strength and reach of misinformation/disinformation. Improving cybersecurity to halt malign efforts in cyberspace is useless unless planners also bolster other domains.
Reconsidering the 2016 Presidential Election
The impetus to improve cybersecurity at all levels appears to have stemmed from the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and the perception that Russia swayed the voting population via social media. They "hacked the election" by using targeted advertisements on social media and subsequently convinced voters toward Donald Trump instead of Hilary Clinton.
Quickly reconsider the efforts of the Russians. They spent $300,000 on a small amount of content, primarily unnoticed and slightly obtuse. In addition, any effect of the Russian efforts is difficult to measure, which means analysis is subjective and conjecture. Subsequently, when any hypothesis argues in the positive (i.e., that Russia's efforts influenced the election) illustrates an analyst mistaking performance measures for effectiveness measures. Timothy Summers, noted ethical hacker and academic, makes this error:
"First, a billionaire Russian businessman and Putin associate allegedly
assembled a network of troll factories: private Russian companies engaging in a
massive disinformation campaign. Their employees posed as Americans, created
racially and politically divisive social media groups and pages, and developed fake
news articles and commentary to build political animosity within the American public.
Second, the Russian military intelligence agency, known by its Russian acronym
as the GRU allegedly used coordinated hacking to target more than 500 people and
institutions in the United States. The Russian hackers downloaded potentially
damaging information and released it to the public via WikiLeaks and under various
aliases, including "DCLeaks" and "Guccifer 2.0."
None of these are actual effects. However, they reinforce a cosmopolitan fear easily overturned by data and logic. Summers details planning and intention, but not necessarily effectiveness. Many of the memes and posts were just incidental atmospherics. Russian bots responsible, for instance, constituted 0.63% of election-related tweets. An actual look at any of the Facebook posts or Twitter posts shows a series of products that lack cultural nuance and read as if they were spoken in a Russian voice. They targeted a vulnerability, but the delivery was a simulacrum of an effective product.
The more significant issue when looking at influence in the Cyber Domain is understanding that it is merely one realm existing in others. The target of this propaganda doesn't just live online. They still do breathe the air of the external world. Analysts must understand susceptible audiences beyond one input. The narrow aperture of viewing products as the sole behavioral influence ignores the internal and external conditions that explain a target audience's mindset and ultimate behavior. These internal conditions include values, attitudes, and beliefs. External conditions consist of situations and events. Defense doctrine categorizes these as operational variables and further categorizes them into the following: Political, Military, Economy, Social, Information, Infrastructure, Physical, and Time (PMESII-PT). These conditions must be considered as co-equal, if not more significant, factors in one's decisions, not just a few memes.
In the case of Trump voters, external and internal conditions motivated these disaffected voters, just like any susceptible target audience. These included changing to an information economy from an industrial one, cultural changes (e.g., Critical Race Theory), wealth transfers through quantitative easing, and seeing their close ones maimed and killed during the War on Terror. They felt they did not receive the promise of a better America, and they felt betrayed. Social media undoubtedly did affect voters, but it was a little bit of a straw on a camel's already loaded back. In hindsight, if the goal was to prevent the election of Donald Trump these external factors would have been accounted for and addressed.
To battle disinformation does not just require logical arguments and targeted social media products. It requires planners and decision-makers to reconsider the systemic tensions and consequences of the behavior. Instead, some elites responded with "learn how to code," which is the 21st-century version of "let them eat cake."
Osama Bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh: Terrorists with Agency
Internal and external conditions are everything when understanding and interpreting human behavior. Army Psychological Operations (PSYOP) doctrine understands that PSYOP efforts need to "affect behavior change by creating conditions where military operation [lead to]…[a] sustainable peace." Influence products on their own are meaningless. Long-standing vulnerabilities are the basis for influencing products that give the final nudge to their audience. Reducing these vulnerabilities by altering external and internal conditions is key to improving cybersecurity and inoculating against propaganda.
First, consider Timothy McVeigh. Following the tragic 1996 Oklahoma City bombing, America searched for answers. One dominant narrative was McVeigh's reading of The Turner Diaries prompted his actions. The book has a section where a character does bomb a government building, which suggests causality. The logic is the relationship between a hypnotist and an audience member who loses agency.
But hypnosis only works when the participant allows it to work. A text like The Turner Diaries complemented his mindset, but it did not alter it. The book was an advertisement in the playbill of his performance. It was not the director of his actions on stage.
According to McVeigh, the government was the director of his actions. In his words, federal government overreach, the perceived FBI militarization, and attacks on rural America (e.g., Waco) motivated him to action. Misguided as he was, he perceived his actions as a reaction to terrorist attacks by the U.S. government. He was not a hypnotized zombie after reading one racist book.
Five years later, this explanation was recycled. After authorities identified Osama Bin Laden as the chief culprit for 9/11, the next step was understanding why he planned this attack. Like McVeigh, radical influence turned him from the path. In this case, it was Saudi Arabian madrassas. Their zealous commitment to Islam forged a hatred of the West and its freedom in their students. It appears only logical that one would eventually be inspired to act on this. However, Osama bin Laden's reading and adherence to the Koran do not explain the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In his own words, the issue had to do with the deployment of US armaments in the Middle East, not Western decadence:
“First, for over seven years, the United States has been occupying the lands
of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches,
dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning
its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring
Muslim peoples. If some people have in the past argued about the fact that the
occupation, all the people of the Peninsula have now acknowledged it. The best
proof of this is the Americans' continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using
the Peninsula as a staging post, even though all its rulers are against their territories
being used to that end, but they are helpless.
Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-
Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1
million... despite all this, the Americans are once against trying to repeat the horrific
massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed
after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation. So here they come to
annihilate what is left of this people and to humiliate their Muslim neighbors.
Third, if the Americans' aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the
aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of
Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to
destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment
all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper
statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel's survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.”
One can correctly argue that the Koran influenced bin Laden's values, attitudes, and beliefs. However, activities by the United States in the Muslim world moved bin Laden to act. One knows this because he explained the factors in his 1996 Fatwa readily available online and cited above. He did not hate U.S. and Western freedom but its presence on the Arabian Peninsula.
The Necessity of Psychological Actions (PSYACTS) and Integration Moving Forward
The examples above might make some uncomfortable, but attacking misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda requires a nuanced and sober view that genuinely considers the motives of radicals and how we might counter their message. If the sky is blue, one cannot keep saying it is red and then scolding large target audiences that they are wrong if they think otherwise. Skepticism will emerge, and distrust will follow. The grade on this already uphill climb further increases.
Pre-existing internal and external conditions in the physical world play a far more significant role in amplifying misinformation/disinformation in cyberspace. To defeat malign efforts in cyberspace requires privileging PSYACTs to affect target audiences. PSYACTs influence the target audience's thoughts and perceptions by modifying conditions, exploiting identified vulnerabilities, and building rapport. For instance, even though someone may want a given target audience to vote, planners need to ensure they reduce cognitive and physical behaviors. Do they have the means to get to the voting poll, know how to vote, and do they have the influential figures in their lives with the power, control, and authority that encourage them to do so?
Single messages will not change a behavior or counter disinformation. The breadth of the target audiences daily experience must be understood. Even if the behavior is beneficial for them the effort is on the influencers to work with other bodies to ensure this happens. This requires an expansive and integrated effort.
In the case of the US Military, robust integration between U.S. Army Cyber Command and the "three tribes" of 1st Special Forces Command (i.e., Civil Affairs, Special Forces, and Psychological Operations) is required. To secure the Cyber Domain, these units must together to battle misinformation and disinformation by developing and executing the PSYACTs needed to change conditions and subsequently behavior. On their own, these Army entities cannot create meaningful behavior change; they must work in synchronicity. Psychological Operations can identify the vulnerabilities and create the products, Special Forces and Civil Affairs can transform the physical conditions, and Cyber Command can provide product dissemination and protection. This unity of efforts is requisite for success in bolstering cyber-security.
Finally, there must be efforts to better understand the Cyber Domain across all of government. In the case of the military, there should be a "Star Course" for cyberspace. In the United States Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC), students must complete a land navigation crucible known as the "Star Course." If students do not understand land navigation principles and cannot physically move through the environment (i.e., the Land Domain), they will fail. The "Star Course" confirms graduates that can navigate the Land Domain. The Cyber Realm needs something similar that can test one's ability to understand the "terrain features" and common pitfalls of this domain to be navigated and understood effectively. Current efforts appear to mimic an old saying: he knows just enough to be dangerous.
Just like Your Parents Told You, Actions Speak Louder than Words
Today's cybersecurity is critical, but current narratives mistake the causes and roles of disinformation and information. The presentism resulting from the unexpected 2016 presidential election ignores the importance of the target audience's systemic internal and external conditions. Politicians, policymakers, and flag officers have the right instincts for improving cybersecurity, but they need to ensure that their orientation is correct. Further case studies are required throughout security and military publication to overturn the narratives that mere exposure to messages over a fleeting time is substantive for behavior change.
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