Strategies for communicating information and disinformation in war Managing and exploiting uncertainty in social media

Filippo Tansini and Yakov Ben-Haim


States engage in diverse types of strategic public communication during armed conflict or crisis, with various goals and facing a range of uncertainties. We compare two distinct methodologies for designing strategic communications. The first methodology focuses on optimising the outcome of the strategic communications, based on a model of the information environment. The second methodology, based on info-gap decision theory, satisfies outcome requirements and optimises the robustness to uncertainty (rather than optimising the outcome). We identify situations in which one strategy, or the other, is preferable.

Ivana Markova in 2008 wrote: ‘There would be hardly any reason to communicate if there were no tensions, asymmetries or conflicts between interacting parties’.1 From a psychosocial perspective, every conflict motivates communication. For instance, dominating groups may try to reduce internal conflict by identifying external enemies through propaganda. While the fundamental nature of warfare may be constant through history, the character of war has changed over time. Variations in conduct of war can be found in the type of actors involved (asymmetry between contenders as opposed to symmetric conflict of States), in their purpose (economic, ethnic identity, personal, political or religious motives), in conflict localisation and extension (urban low intensity vs. global conflict). Variations in characteristics of war create diverse information landscapes, with new communication needs and opportunities. The modern digital information environment creates what Luciano Floridi defined as our contemporary ‘on-life’.2

Unlike clashes for survival, contemporary war is frequently ‘war of choice’.3 The ‘choice’ for conflict is almost inevitably questionable and becomes disputed regarding its opportunity, quality and legitimacy. Consequently, every actor involved (nation-state, irregular fighter or terror group) struggles to establish a widespread and prevailing narrative over its choice, before, during and after the conflict. Control of the narrative is a critical ambition of every actor involved in contemporary conflicts.

Digital and social media are often used for tactical and strategical information management during conflicts. Indeed, in 2017, ‘Information’ was introduced as a Joint Function in the Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, where its pervasive nature is described through an axiom reminiscent of the basic rules of communication: ‘all military activities produce information’.4 The doctrine argues that, because almost all decision making and behaviour relies on communication, the influence of information will inevitably impact strategic outcomes.5

Information operations are currently described in JP 3-13 as entailing five activities: Computer Network Operations, Psychological Operations, Electronic Warfare, Operations Security and Military Deception. The relationship between information operations and information warfare is explained in a Congressional Research Service report: ‘strategy can be defined as the process of planning to achieve objectives and goals in the national interest. Operations link strategic objectives with tactics, techniques, and procedures. For Information Warfare strategy, that link is Information Operations’.6

The aforementioned field of actions, together with strategic communication, diplomacy, public affairs and civil initiatives, can all be analysed together as different operational sides of a multi-faceted landscape, namely the information environment. This composite horizon is the realm where information warfare (and all its subsequent functional areas) takes place. It could be roughly defined as: who’s saying what to whom, using which medium and gaining what effects.

Information operations in all their manifestations are realised in different real-world scenarios: influencing outcomes of foreign elections, ensuring domestic support for initiating hostilities, degrading internal cohesion among enemy troops, protecting one’s own operational security or deceiving opponents to gain advantage in specific battles. These examples all require quite similar implementation as communication strategies and subsequent management activities. Nonetheless, their diverse complexity exposes each outcome to various degrees of uncertainty.

The complexity of desired outcomes of an information operation is the main independent variable. It actively determines the exposure of objectives to known and unknown degrees of risk. The scale of the outcome varies from tactical to strategic in nature, and uncertainties vary from shallow to deep. Whether and how an information operation should seek the putatively best possible outcome will be the focus of this chapter.

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