Small Wars Journal

WHY RESPONDING IS LOSING: The Plays We Run (and the Plays We Don’t) to Defeat Disinformation

Wed, 01/19/2022 - 8:29pm


The Plays We Run (and the Plays We Don’t) to Defeat Disinformation

By Alan Kelly




With France’s recent report that it engages in disinformation, media and think tanks have been quick to wag a finger. The Washington Post urged President Biden to avoid the slippery slope of offensive rhetorical warfare and The Aspen Institute called for a national response strategy to counter it. These were the echoes of repeating and principled pleas to take the high road in a low road game.[i]

From the Pentagon to the CIA snickers might have been heard. Information after all is an essential munition in any state’s arsenal, particularly today with the reach and resources of online media and the playing field it flattens. To join in games of perception without deception is like competing with half a playbook. Literally, as I’ll explain.

Whether such things draw shock or stifled laughter the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation, malinformation, etc. renews questions of how democracies influence ethically. Should information and the certain guns that fire it be remade and muted to suit free society? Should its uses be banned outright or at least limited for educational and defensive purposes? It’s a tough sell because the weaponization of information can compromise principles of transparency and fair play.[ii]

When it comes to information the U.S. strategy and indeed that of most developed democratic countries has been to promote its power to protect a position than of its power to prosecute it. Consider the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) whose stated purpose is “to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation.” Whether at the hands of domestic or global actors the American script is that it shall respond to, not aggress, deceptive information and campaigns.

France, however, appears ready to play. It sees the advantages of information’s inherent asymmetry and for its curiosity it will develop skills that meet bad actors on their asymmetric terms and understanding of how to enlist what in France’s case is a celebrated and notably peaceable citizenry.

Used as a defensive function, can information win wars of words? In my experience, no. Not without an offensive component. We are fooling only ourselves to think so. Here is why:

From my perches in Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., and through a score of global engagements in business, government and academia, I’ve systematically researched and curated a complete,  practice-based taxonomy of the fundamental strategies that underlie influence (see figure 1). Details of its conception and evolution are detailed in my book, The Elements of Influence, and subsequent white papers.[iii]-[iv]


Like chemistry’s table of elements or biology’s phylogenetic tree the ambition of the taxonomy is to identify, organize and characterize the most basic strategies of communications, marketing, media, military and government intelligence, politics, sales and other members of the influence industry.[v] Its value is to give analysts, strategists, managers and commanders of information programming an objective and precise view of the typically invisible moves and motives that underly persuasion-based campaigns, not just the sentiment and messages we routinely mine to edify communicated content. For the purposes of stratcom and IO operatives, this model also reduces the plethora of TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) by distilling the strategies that underly non-kinetic conflict.


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Figure 1. Developed with Fortune 100 companies, military units, and leading universities, the Taxonomy of Influence Strategies, above, is a first-of-a-kind ontology featuring 23 strategies observed in communicationsfinancemarketingmediamilitary and government intelligencepolitics and sales across professions, governments, regions, customs and cultures. Shown is a revision (update 3.2) to the original framework.



There are myriad breeds of actors, inside and outside our borders, whose rhetoric and strategies aim to disinform. But there is one overarching characteristic these persuaders have in common: Their plays as described in figure 1 are designed to destabilize the agendas of others as much as to defend their own. Their game and mindset is offense. They are activists, exploring and employing all corners of the table.


Baiting TrumpFor Democrats one such actor is former U.S. President Donald Trump whose frenetic use of influence plays relies on their participation of his rivals. His narratives are designed not simply to excite a restive political base but to infuriate and deliberately activate his opposition. My blogs and essays, which detail Trump’s handiwork, suggest that counter-intuitive strategies of encouragement, not mainstream strategies of mitigation, could have and can still accelerate and suffocate his provocative campaigns.[vi]As such, Trump is an expert practitioner of the Label, Decoy, Preempt, Call Out, Peacock and Bait—plays from my taxonomy that are not usually run with the intent to respond to or counter pesky opponents.


For Western allies another actor is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Increasingly more like Sun Tzu than Clausewitz, Putin’s plays also use resistance to achieve his political purposes. As illustrated in figure 2, my analysis with Dr. Christopher Paul, “Decoding Crimea: Pinpointing the Influence Strategies of Modern Information Warfare,” suggests that the Putin regime is an improving, dynamic practitioner of hybrid warfare, particularly in the realms of information and influence.[vii]