Losing hearts and minds: The desperate state of US influence operations

Losing hearts and minds: The desperate state of US influence operations

TAMPA, Florida—Several of the nation’s top practitioners in psychological operations, including key officials with the Departments of Defense and State, gathered in a small room at the Tampa Convention Center earlier this month for a panel discussion. The topic: how the United States is positioned to influence global perceptions, particularly around critical national-security issues. 

The unanimous verdict: We’re doing miserably, especially in comparison to China and Russia. 

“I think the state of this enterprise is weak, quite frankly,” James Holly, who leads the defense secretary’s year-old Influence and Perception Management Office, told the audience at the SOF Week conference here. 

Daniel Kimmidge, principal deputy coordinator for State’s Global Engagement Center, agreed. 

“If we are going to be competitive in the information environment, as we face this convergence of [Chinese and Russian] adversarial activity, we’re going to need to make this a higher priority in some way. That puts the burden back on us,” Kimmidge said.

The challenge stems, in no small part, from resistance to the idea that the U.S. government should be trying to “influence” perceptions at all. After all, why does a nation with elected leadership—politicians and officials who are in principle accountable to the public via the activities of the free press—need to influence perceptions beyond just telling the truth? It’s for this reason that influence operations have historically been relegated almost entirely to a small portion of the special operations community that helps operators with very high-stakes missions.

But that effort to limit the scope of influence operations has put the United States at a distinct disadvantage. The world now accesses and absorbs truth in an environment saturated by individualized digital media streams in place of once-credible national broadcasts. Adversaries are exploiting social media to reach billions around the world with messages tailored down to the individual level. And they are increasingly able to do so as national narratives collapse and trust erodes in Western institutions, including the U.S. military. 

“With social media, everything has become subjectivist reality. So what each of us views as what our reality is [is] customized to us as individuals. This is a huge problem, because that means what we define as what it is to be American, my definition may actually only fit for me. And we’re not reading any of the same stuff. This is a huge problem because it undermines those national identities,” Jason Schenker, chairman of the Futurist Institute, told the crowd. 

That makes it harder for U.S. officials to fight disinformation at home, where any effort to discredit or even track foreign influence campaigns can be painted as partisan. In 2022, the Biden administration established a Disinformation Governance Board—only to suspend it three weeks later amid right-wing threats to its members. 

What losing influence looks like

What are the consequences of losing the influence competition on the global stage? Some have already revealed themselves. In Niger, Russian influence operations helped install a new government hostile to the United States. 

Something similar occurred in Slovakia last September, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines recently told lawmakers.

“Two days before the parliamentary elections in Slovakia,” Haines said, “a fake audio recording was released online in which one candidate discussed how to rig the upcoming election with a journalist. The audio was quickly shown to be fake, with signs of AI manipulation, but under Slovakia law there is a moratorium on campaigning and media commentary about the election for 48 hours before polls open, and since the deepfake was released in that window, news and government organizations struggled to expose the manipulation, and the victim of the deepfake ended up losing in a very close election.”

Experts say information operations can shape the battlefield and secure victory before the first jet leaves the runway. That’s what happened in the weeks before Russia’s initial invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in early 2014, said Alex Plitsas, a former chief of sensitive activities for special operations and combating terrorism for the Defense Department.

Russian state television began “talking about all of these anti-Russian Ukrainian fascists running around, beating and murdering people. And this is the seed of all the hostility that’s going on. And I’m in Lviv, shopping and going to chocolate shops with tourists milling about, and none of this nonsense is real,” said Plitsas, now a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs’ at the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.

Understanding the problem

Recent steps the U.S. government is taking to better understand its adversaries’ edge in information operations include the March 2023 establishment of the Perception Management Office. 

Another is a five-year, nearly $1 billion contract signed in 2021 with Peraton “to achieve operational advantages in the information space and to counter threats to U.S. national security.” The main thrust of that contract is developing ways to assess how China and Russia are waging influence warfare and shaping perceptions against the United States, officials told Defense One. That number is a small fraction of the billions China and Russia spend on influence operations. 

“We are now once again confronted by what I would argue are malign actors in a strategic competition that are using communications technology to shape public opinion around the world. And they do that at a global scale, but then they tailor their messages at a very localized level to shape public opinion and therefore put political pressure on their leadership to to position themselves,” said one Peraton official. 

Another Peraton official said Russia, China, and Iran are increasingly coordinating their information warfare efforts. This started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when China, Russia, and other actors embarked on a loosely-coordinated campaign to blame the virus on the U.S. military. Today, they are involved in “opportunistic” coordination on hot-button issues such as Israel’s military operations in Gaza.

“Within a short period of time, oftentimes within a single day, the same topics are being amplified, similar themes being put forward,” said another official.

One of Peraton’s big goals right now under the contract is to develop techniques to reveal how adversaries are using advanced AI tools like large language models to scale up their operations through generative content creation. “I think we’re about six months to a year away,” said the second official.

But in many other areas, the government is reducing its influence activities. For example, the U.S. Army is considering a 10-percent cut to its information warfare capabilities. 

“We see the cuts there,” Plitsas said. We see the significant cuts to the covert Influence Group in the [CIA]. We see the [State Department’s Global Engagement Center] funding and potential assistance at risk. So at the same time that the department is recognizing the significant threat that we face on a kinetic front, we are seeing across-the-interagency cuts to the institutions that are responsible for undermining and pushing back against what we’re seeing” in the information environment. 

One former defense official suggested it would help to combine public affairs, intelligence, psychological operations and move it from special operations to the office of the defense undersecretary for intelligence.

Perhaps the most important thing that the United States can do now to better compete is to raise the status of information and influence activity, said Holly, of the Influence and Perception Management Office. Besides more money, influence warfare needs centralization and a leader with the sufficient authority to be taken seriously, not just by the Department of Defense but also the White House. 

“All of this [information operations activity] occurs at the two-star level and below in little stovepipes of excellence. [Military Information Support Operations] is in a pipeline. Public affairs is in another pipeline…and none of that rises above the two-star level for a single person in charge. Unity of command is a thing we talked about on the battlefield but in this supposedly No. 1 most important thing we’re doing—at least our strategic documents, say that rhetorically—we’re misaligned.”

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