The Information Environment of 2017 – What to do and what not to do

You’d have to be living under the proverbial rock to not have read about the threats posed by nation-based actors attempting to undermine confidence in democratic societies. The seriousness of the threat is certainly debatable but the fact that it is occurring is not.

Uncertainty, fear, tribalism, lambasting the increasingly globalized and connected world all have contributed to declining trust in US institutions. It’s also no mystery that we have opponents in the community of nation-states that benefit from our disarray and this declining trust.

If we look past the domestic politics, it’s not at all a stretch to understand why other countries gain from undermining our institutions. Some of these opponents are long-time competitors capable of threatening the U.S. with potential destruction. It’s easy to see that actions taken in the information environment to destabilize the U.S. and other western democracies help these opponents gain an advantage in world affairs. Put simply: Anything that lessens the trust others have in us and creates uncertainty regarding the ability of the U.S. to spread western democratic values benefits our opponents.

The question for information professionals is why, after more than a decade-and-a-half of struggling to counter our enemies on-line do we have the same limitations holding back a true defensive effort much less conducting an offensive effort.

Certainly, arguments over exercising our power in the informational domain and about whether this is a military function (rendered moot by the ubiquity of mobile computing and telecommunications) or a diplomatic function continue without any foreseeable conclusion.  Congress’ reluctance to demand (direct?) the executive branch to organize and conduct a consolidated USG effort to promote our values and aggressively counter those that would undermine our democracy remains a mystery that will, in retrospect, be seen as a case of a failure to act in the face of overwhelming evidence.

What to do? Others have identified (repeatedly) the need to organize the interagency, appoint a leader of the effort, prepare to take risks, ensure our actions in the physical world are backed up by our actions in the information environment. Nothing about any of this is new. Multi-domain warfare, gray zone conflict, hybrid warfare and operations in the human domain: Nothing new in any of this other than the recognition we must consider the IE as an integral part of every level of war. The increasing volume of information available at any time everywhere, the speed with which this information is spread and the ubiquity of telecommunications makes it imperative we stop thinking this is something to be solved at a strategic level. The impact of the IE is something that must be considered at any level. It is not the domain of experts (but experts are often needed much like they are in any other area of the increasingly technical battlefield).

Let’s stop hoping for some new agency endowed with magical powers and budget to match that will direct USG efforts in the information environment. Instead let’s start demanding that every plan at every level address the necessary human decision-making necessary to our success – whether the protection of our own decision-making or undermining the decision-making of our opponents.

Why does our cyber effort focus only on the technical flow of electrons? Why isn’t CYBERCOM also assigned the responsibility of countering false content that undermines our own objectives? Why aren’t they responsible for ensuring factual content is spread faster and dominates the minds of those susceptible to opposing us?

It is time to move past the old arguments: What is IO? What is strategic communication? To whom should we assign responsibility? These questions have employed countless hours and the talents of those that could be focused on building policy and plans to operate effectively to support our strategic goals.

Our policies do not recognize the speed with which information flows, the volume of information available to anyone with a mobile communications device and the global availability of mobile telecommunications. The military services are paying attention – – yet the policy-making apparatus within the Pentagon and the inter-agency (with Congress continuing to hold us back) continues to confound efforts to make Information Operations a vital component of our military and diplomatic efforts.

It’s time to take this on in new and imaginative ways.  Who will champion the cause?