Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Combating Information Operations

| June 2018

Developing an Operating Concept

Reading and Research Project, Harvard Kennedy School


Recent Russian Information Operations (IO) and election interference should have come as no surprise to Western Governments, given that it reflects the trend of an increasingly belligerent and provocative Russia, willing to use the full range of levers available to advance its foreign policy objectives. It is more striking that following the conclusion of the US intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election, there has been lack of concrete policy proposals implemented in the US or other Western democracies to address Russian behavior and ensure that future elections do not fall victim to Russian interference. 

Much has been written on encouraging social media companies to help stem the flow of disinformation, either by incentivizing voluntary efforts or through government regulation, including the Shorenstein Center’s authoritative work on the subject. In recent weeks, a number of welcome initiatives have emerged, including the EU’s proposed voluntary code for social media companies and Facebook’s announcement that it will filter political adverts during elections. While this is an important part of countering disinformation, it is questionable whether social media platforms themselves have the necessary capacity and capability to counter state-sponsored disinformation. For example, despite its best efforts, Google has struggled to prevent search engine manipulation, a tactic that has already been used to achieve financial, political, and disinformation objectives. Russia has repeatedly proven that it is adept at adapted its tactics, using illegal methods, and exploiting legal loopholes to exploit social media platforms and channels. This means that technology—and technology companies—alone cannot solve the issue and a more comprehensive approach is needed. 

This paper instead focuses on developing an operating concept—composed of ends, ways, and means—for those who are tasked to respond and those affected by foreign interference and IO. Based on the principle of information superiority and drawing on best practice from efforts to counter cyberattacks, terrorism, and civil emergencies, the paper seeks to develop a more holistic and collaborative approach for planning for and responding disinformation, identify additional sources of support and expertise, and outline new norms and standards of behavior to assist an effective response. 

While this paper predominantly draws on Russian IO conducted for the US 2016 Presidential Election and elections across Europe and aims to prevent Russia from conducting similar activity again, a number of nations and groups have proven willing to utilize similar tactics, techniques, and procedures. Therefore, the approach outlined is applicable to any concerted disinformation campaign or IO that has national security implications.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Jones, Simon. “Combating Information Operations.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 2018.

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