Hostile Social Manipulation

Present Realities and Emerging Trends
by Michael Mazarr, Abigail Casey, Alyssa Demus, Scott Harold, Luke Matthews, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, James Sadden

The role of information warfare in global strategic competition has become much more apparent in recent years. Today’s practitioners of what this report’s authors term hostile social manipulation employ targeted social media campaigns, sophisticated forgeries, cyberbullying and harassment of individuals, distribution of rumors and conspiracy theories, and other tools and approaches to cause damage to the target state. These emerging tools and techniques represent a potentially significant threat to U.S. and allied national interests. This report represents an effort to better define and understand the challenge by focusing on the activities of the two leading authors of such techniques — Russia and China. The authors conduct a detailed assessment of available evidence of Russian and Chinese social manipulation efforts, the doctrines and strategies behind such efforts, and evidence of their potential effectiveness. RAND analysts reviewed English-, Russian-, and Chinese-language sources; examined national security strategies and policies and military doctrines; surveyed existing public-source evidence of Russian and Chinese activities; and assessed multiple categories of evidence of effectiveness of Russian activities in Europe, including public opinion data, evidence on the trends in support of political parties and movements sympathetic to Russia, and data from national defense policies. The authors find a growing commitment to tools of social manipulation by leading U.S. competitors. The findings in this report are sufficient to suggest that the U.S. government should take several immediate steps, including developing a more formal and concrete framework for understanding the issue and funding additional research to understand the scope of the challenge.

Key Findings

The United States is only beginning to examine the techniques and reach of information warfare

  • The United States needs an updated framework for organizing its thinking about the manipulation of infospheres by foreign powers determined to gain competitive advantage.
  • Leading autocratic states have begun to employ information channels for competitive advantage — plans that remain in their initial stages and that could unfold in several ways.
  • Efforts at social manipulation are effective to the degree that vulnerabilities in a society allow them to be effective.

There is as yet no conclusive evidence about the actual impact of hostile social manipulation to date

  • There is a critical distinction between the outputs of manipulation campaigns and their outcomes in terms of effects on attitudes or behavior.

The marriage of the hostile intent of leading powers and the evolution of information technology may vastly increase the effectiveness and reach of these techniques over time

  • Leading democracies may have a limited window of opportunity to develop resilience and active defenses against such measures before they become truly dangerous.

Democracies urgently need to undertake rigorous research on social manipulation to gain a better understanding of its dynamics


  • Develop a more formal and concrete framework for understanding hostile social manipulation.
  • Fund additional research to understand the scope of the challenge.