“People will show you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.” – Don Draper, Mad Men
For many in the national security arena, pushing back against Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or extremist group information and influence operations in the U.S. and abroad involves countering the activities and messages of our adversaries. Countering involves a wide range of initiatives from exposing the messages and political positions espoused by our adversaries to identifying how they are using social media platforms which are popular in the U.S., and then stopping them from doing so. For example, convening Congressional hearings and determining how Facebook was used to sow discord in the 2016 election and then identifying ways to prevent Russian cyber actors from using the platform in 2018 and 2020 was a first step in countering Russian electoral influence.
Countering adversaries is at its core a defensive activity. The focus is on identifying what the adversary is doing and trying to negate it – their messages, world view, communities they are targeting, and how they are delivering their messages. The approach seeks to highlight why the adversary is ‘wrong’ and to use rational arguments to sway Americans, or others, to reject the message to which they are subjected. To use an American football analogy, the U.S. is playing defense and trying to prevent the adversary from scoring a touchdown or kick a field goal, but allows the adversary to dominate the field and hold the ball for the entire game.
To actually win, the U.S. needs to go offensive. Playing defense for the entire game ensures that the U.S. will not win. At best, there will be a draw. To get ahead of our adversaries, the U.S. needs to kick field goals, score touchdowns, and snag interceptions from the opposing quarterback. Playing defense is still important, but will become the foundation for understanding the adversary – what they view as important, why they chose using a community group vice social media to spread their messages, and what events in the U.S. they feel are important. Understanding how the adversary views the U.S. provides insights into their decision making, culture and values. These insights provide a foundation that can be used to build concepts that can be used offensively: divides in adversaries societies, friction points between political factions, and what technologies are relied upon, among others.
Using the information gleaned about U.S. adversaries, thoughtful campaigns can be created to sow discord in the communities that adversaries value or need in order to maintain their power base – from the hyper local or neighborhood-level through to entire nation-states. Offensive campaigns should be designed to control the narrative and messaging concepts in such a way that the adversary is forced to counter U.S. activities, reducing their ability to conduct offensive influence operations of their own. Using the football analogy, U.S. activities should force them to hunker down at their 20-yard line expending human and political capital, financial resources, and energy chasing down and countering U.S. messages.
When adversaries hit on a counter-message that resonates, the U.S. can then change the message and start the cycle over once again. However, good messaging concepts can take on a life of their own, as racial divides, the abortion debate, and gun ownership do in the U.S., where individuals unaffiliated with the formal campaign take the issues as their own. These instances, though they can be rare, signal a win for the campaign and significant insights on specifically what issues matter to everyday people and messaging approaches that work.