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Grey Threat: Exploring Tactical Information Advantage.


‘No amount of kinetic action – alone, and divorced from ideological considerations – can make this threat disappear 1.

Alberto Fernandez, Coordinator of CSCC on Daesh.

Let’s be bold;

There is no Joint Advantage, without Information Advantage. 2

There is no Information Advantage, without Joint Information Manoeuvre 3

There is no Joint Information Manoeuvre, without decisive, empowered, structured offensive and defensive joint tactical information warfare.

That’s what this series is about – the tactical knife-work against grey zone, below response threshold, hybrid threats.  Grey Zone conflict is ancient, but here, for a modern take, I’m going to look at it through the information warfare lens considering the recent resurgence of the Russian Government’s hybrid Hostile State Activity (HSA) and how it’s developed against us.  I’ll overlay this to some entry-level useful concepts to help rapidly move from abstract concept to specific operationalisation. 

The Grey Threat

Written by Mazaar4 Grey Zone theory is old magic, as relevant to ancient Sparta as it is now to Putin, Xi and others.  Many factors have revealed cracks in our Western castles of glass:  demographics, population, technology, globalisation, connectivity, economics, climate and resources all wrapped in and stimulating of deep and manipulable societal anxiety.  We are clambering to comprehend the information revolution taking hold of our battlefields and the susceptible, human warriors operating within them.  Stark though it is, ‘Winter is coming’. I’d humbly suggest:

  • Home and ops, war and peace, truth and reality are more fluid than before.
  • The information revolution means we compete or die.
  •   Major threats, though potentially state-sponsored, are emergent, diverse and unorthodox.
  • Conflict is gradual and designed to be just below response levels whilst advancing adversary agendas and power inch by inch.

There is a war beneath the battles we face and will continue to fight. As we all become slaves to the addictive, insistent ‘ping’ of digital content, we live more and more of our lives in the realities we self-select – and those which are willingly and perhaps unknowingly constructed for us – across the platforms we inhabit.  It’s this reason that Reddit and Gab inhabiting neo-Nazis refer to The Matrix’s apocalyptic visions of reality in regard to their online radicalisation experiences as ‘red pilling’5.  Those chosing this dark path are literally entering a new narrative world, constructed of divergent mythologies, realities and value sets.  Despite the vile misappropriation of a beloved film franchise by keyboard-supremacists, the Matrix had it right.  Once you see the world of silent information war taking place beneath the battles, there is no going back.

Information Parasites

In Information Warfare, everyone can hear you scream… 6

The IW yield.  It’s arguable that dropping bombs on the West would be less aggregationally devastating – and certainly more nationally galvanising – than the ongoing adversary disinformation ‘Infopocalypse’ we face. Orwell already had the intent nailed in 1984: ‘we do not merely destroy our enemies; we change them’.  You don’t have to take Orwell’s or my word for it – or even the remarkable statements coming from the US, but do consider CDS’s opinion7

‘We dealt with this as a cyber threat and focused on protecting our cyber infrastructure.  Meanwhile, the Russians were playing this much bigger game, which included elements like released hacked materials, political propaganda and propagating fake news, which they’d pursued in other countries. We weren’t able to put all of those pieces together in real time.’

Former US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes Speaking about the Obama Administration’s efforts to respond to Russia’s interference and disinformation in 2016

Division and Weakness. We can begin projecting our IW countermeasures by learning from the US post 2016 election, where structural division weakened national defence: ‘a siloed approach ensure[d] that large parts of the problem [were] missed. The responsibility for monitoring the threat [had] fallen in a space between the intelligence community.  Threats to election systems in the United States inevitably fall into gaps between federal, state, and local authorities8’.  We must apply these warnings to our own Joint Information Advantage plans and convergent/divergent structures.

Imagine our revisionist, authoritarian and corrupt information adversaries to be like a cunning parasitic insect.  Outright war is costly and a gamble (but still possible9), so their aim is the strategic hollowing of Western democracy, such that it is gradually transformed (or revised), rather than destroyed. 

Bear Baiting. Talking about adversaries, Putin’s Russia isn’t best viewed as a state.  View the current Russian Government (not the people) as the ‘black mirror’10 image of the West.  Think of it as a sophisticated gangster racket with a strict code of silent Omerta, that keep the truth, as much as the thoughts and true voices of the population, chained.  Putin and his extensive root system of bannermen dominate a national network of crime, politics, celebrity, entertainment, lawmakers, real estate, financial services, charity, security, civil society, national resilience and diplomatic services.  This ghoulish vision of freedom, all exist under authoritarian state control.  Russia aggressively promotes these illiberal values and its extreme conservatism, facilitated by corrupt oligarchical capitalism – the primary means of its influence outside of its borders.  And Putin (and those like him) never plays by the rules, especially when it’s so easy to construct new realities that favourably revise them.

For a contemporary example of ‘revisionist’ rhetoric, one could do worse than analysis of the demonstrably false tweet by the MP for Shrewsbury on Britain and the Marshall plan. As we shall see whilst one MP may not have the social narrative mass to ensure such an assault on reality can take hold, malign influences that can amplify this poor decision absolutely can – and will. This underscores the high responsibility we must observe in Western Information Warfare, whilst not losing a sense of magic and mischief. Mazaar suggests this below threshold war of aggregational gains may be the dominant inter-state conflict landscape for decades.

Revisionism in action. An MP tweeting known, historical falsehoods in order to re-write histories and realities to generate narratives conducive to agendas.

The Grey Zone conflict we face in this piece is a creeping ‘Infopocalypse’ which will destroy us whether we understand it or not.  Gradual cannibalization and re-constitution of previously held norms, values and even objective reality are happening now, as shown above.  The bloodtrails from these bastions of Western life are mercilessly exploited using unorthodox, remote and below threshold activity that is not necessarily linked to the threat of kinetic action.  Attacks therefore illicit sub-optimal IW responses and countermeasures, if only because they are not easily relatable enemy fires.

If we are to believe in a law of equivalent exchange, this, is the cost of our modern addiction to information.  A dark utopia, built on a fragile, interconnected, smaller world, predicated on the rapid rise of technology and computing power.  It proves a truth about the inherent tragedy and terror of such high dreams – there is always a monster in them somewhere.      

Adversary Information Manoeuvre

‘Warfare is changing in the Information Age.  It feels as though we’re on the cusp of a step-change. The message is: Think Big, start Small and be prepared to hold the capability to scale rapidly11.

CGS, RUSI, 2018.

We’re being out-gamed. The new information environment12 is an endless, ever increasing and all encompassing infopocalypse. In it, our adversaries will seek to capitalise on trailblazing tech, easily infiltration, fissures in our ethical foundations and incursion through corruption. They’ll gleefully and anonymously set light to explosive cultural, generational and political issues. In this they’ll achieve summatively huge and impacting aggregational gains.

This vast-vector digital parasite will leech societal capacity, coherence and empathy. Let’s not forget that democracy is built on the latter. It’s also built on the Rules Based International Order (RBIO), something else our adversaries will manipulate and selectively invoke/ignore whilst we struggle to leverage our policies, procedures and firewalls into a workable, agile, aggressive solution. At tactical level, I predict this adversary gaming will get worse, more invasive and harder to mitigate.

Seeking Definition. For UK Defence, at tactical levels, Information Warfare (IW) should be all about one thing: Domination of the enemy decision-action cycle.  As CGS states: ‘We need to address the proliferation and diversification of threats and work out how to create and sustain an asymmetric advantage in a much more competitive and dynamic environment13’. But how?

On Future Joint Tactical Information Warfare

Offensive Western Tactical Information Warfare (IW), should be about the aggressive generation of a battlefield singularity or tactical opportunity.  This exploitation of an error-forced, gamed or free-occurring opportunity, will deliver the enemy decision-action cycle into our control, allowing for advantage to be derived across outputs and vectors, hence solidifying the probability of mission success.

The Battle for Aggregational Advantage. Just as an elite cycling team might leave nothing to chance and work to squeeze every possible percentage chance, in doing this, we begin to win the ‘battle of percentages’ and increase the likelihood of mission success across defence.  This requires empowered risk calculus, trust beyond the unhelpful and formulaic restrictions of rank, command and regression and acceptance that to compete we must be persistently engaged with and innovating implementable information warfare concepts. 

Defensive IW, should be about resilience, pre-fortified protections and rapid response against an adversarial information strike such that our decision-action cycle remains controlled and uncertainty in our forces minimised or mitigated fully.  Cognitive uncertainty for our people is our tactical informational centre of gravity – a psychological parasite that leeches combat capacity and ultimately causes aggregational failures or errors.

Non-lethal, does not mean non-aggressive, 1944.
A Parachute Regiment media operations team at Arnhem.

In sum, our tactical IW is rapidly shape-shifting in nature and is about controlling the informational decision-action cycle by all means possible, within the confines of our RBIO and Western, free values.  It exploits gaps and weaknesses in the OODA loop phases below. This is the conceptual starting point for our IW aggressors to build a playbook of strike options in support of our commanders.  

Gripping Adversary Decision-Action.Decision-action cycles are not new thinking.  Col John Boyd, a US fast jet pilot, first imagined the concept in the Korean War.  Whilst he applied it to aerial combat, it is as relevant to all forms of warfare.  RMAS has recently published ‘Soldier First Combat Hunter’ doctrine, adapted from the USMC, which summarises how this concept can aid all soldiers in tactical efficiency and in the field 14.

From: Soldier First Combat Hunter, OODA Loop, RMAS, 2016 adapted from Col J Boyd, USAF, diagram from Wikipedia.

On Clenching

Tactical IW doesn’t neatly fit in culture, doctrine or SOPs – yet.  It’s very nature is ‘non-standard’, constantly evolving, often evoking a crossed arms and clenched arse response from traditionalists who perhaps rightly fear dilution of the basics and kinetics, all for the combat equivalent of magic beans.  

IW methods and weapons, concepts and capabilities; they all transcend traditionally – and in part legally firewalled, discreet areas like psyops, cyber and media and become tattooed to traditional forms of combat.  But we must change and accept the truth: everything we do generates information advantage opportunity.  Culturally we must shift from the addiction we have to tabulation of effect and accept that whilst MoE/P will be vital in IW, sometimes it will equally be a mystery – and that’s ok.

On Unclenching.

We can’t avoid, ignore or underestimate the caged strike opportunity of tactical IW potential to generate advantage for much longer.  The IW of our adversaries is by comparison a lightning quick Hydra of ever changing and seemingly infinite heads.  But IW doesn’t sit comfortably in any ROE.  The crux is that the weakening of our core strength through enemy IW won’t necessarily produce a detectable, understandable, traceable ‘smoking gun’ threshold to initiate retaliation. 

And so we find ourselves in the eye of the Infopocalypse storm. Mazaar’s ‘Grey Zone15’, is proven true as we face informational remote warfare on an explosive and influential battlefield that exists beneath reality, forming and shaping it.  Just because we don’t fully register it, can’t easily process the weaponised yield of an information strike, or conceptualise a puritanically kinetic response, doesn’t mean we can ignore it.

Worse yet, Jus Ad Bellum and Jus In Bello16 become complex in this ambiguous battlefront.  It’s probably procedurally easier to drop Stormshadow than it is to Tweet or post in an offensive IW context and our adversaries prey upon this mercilessly.  Being necessarily swift, agile and bold in our target:response, whilst supported by tactical IW ROE, is problematic. It’s seizing us and building an aversion to IW related risk in commanders, that is absent in our adversaries.   

Faustian Bargains. 

DFR Lab’s recent #TrollTracker study on Iranian IW is an excellent primer on Grey Zone adversary IW manipulation and strike 17.  Such IW ‘allows you to create confusion, while staying well below the level of an armed attack18’.  This means an adversary can mount aggressive IO/IW, in a NATO country, with an armoured sense of invulnerability from collective defence reprisal.

The comparative agility of our adversaries and the permissibility of their operating environments, is, perversely, granted by the gaps that our freedoms and values create in liberal democracy.  We are presented with the brutal simplicity of threat and opportunity, magic and mischief – of morality and momentum.  Adversaries are not hindered by legal, rules based systems or democratic values and so our starting points are immediately at variance.  We must conceptualise, lobby, empower and normalise IW, without selling our democratic souls for bloodlust.

Culture Bomb.

Our need to grip emergent IW fronts are as vivid and important a paradigm shift as my Rifleman Brothers in the Peninsula War opting for Green Jackets and marksmanship training, in defiance of outmoded crimson and musket.  Yes, it’s got a stark risk calculus in regard to unknowable subsequent effects and diverges from ‘core back to basics’ business; but it’s like this: if you can’t conceptualise how information could be weaponised against you on a battlefield, you’ve lost your soldierly edge and your mind might just be next.  As CGS states:  we don’t live in the past and certain fundamental changes seem to be underway that have real meaning for our future; much of it linked to rapid technological change which I think marks out the times we live in now from those that went before19 

We must accept the truth, Information Advantage is as pressing as a sword to the neck.  Whilst its arguable that ‘in the information age, it’s not just whose army wins but whose story wins’20, we find ourselves facing a double threat: a rising infopocalypse that forms a combat revolution owing to globalised connectivity and constantly evolving technological enablements being weaponised against us. 

Terms of endearment

General Gerasimov (Centre)

What the Russian CGS, General Gerasimov, calls ‘New Generation Warfare’, in which  ‘there is a “blurring of the lines between war and peace,” and that “non-military means of achieving military and strategic goals has grown and, in many cases, exceeded the power of weapons in their effectiveness21”’, has a number of names in the West which are beginning to coalesce in Information Advantage.  As CGS put it at RUSI on 22 Jan 1822, warfare no longer has to involve ‘something that goes bang’ to capture our attention and inspire a change to how we fight.  A cursory look into geopolitics will prove this.  Our adversaries in Russia, China, Iran, Daesh, non-state terrorist organisations and the rising spectre of neo-fascist authoritarianism around the world, have invested, are experimenting and already acting in the information battlespace.

Inception Point

‘We are living in a period where Europe faces sustained hostile activity from certain states. I mean deliberate and targeted malign activity intended to undermine our free, open and democratic societies; to destabilise the international rules-based system that underpins our stability, security and prosperity23.’

Director, MI5, 2018.

What Russia has accomplished in Ukraine, Central/Eastern Europe and, incredibly, America, will be readily translated to a battlefield, coming soon, near you.  CGS said of this on 22 Jan 18 at RUSI, “It won’t start with little green men – it will start with something we don’t expect.  We should not take what we’ve seen so far as a template for the future24.”  If we take the breathtaking speed at which conflict changes, encapsulated in Secretary Well’s futurism letter to Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 below, CGS is first round, on target.  But to predict the future, we must understand the near past…

Wells writes to Rumsfeld with his predictions….


‘Roads?  Where we’re going we won’t need roads…’ 25

Before Russia’s war in Georgia; before the annexation of Crimea; before the consistent cyber attacks on Finland and Sweden, there was Estonia and ‘Web War One’ 26  Russia’s aim was to divide and destabilise the country from within after 2 days of rioting over the movement of a contentious Red Army statue.

The contentious Russian war memorial

Estonia is an international leader in technology, whose national infrastructure, resilience and strategic centre of gravity is slaved to it’s web based systems.  On 19 May 2007, it was forced to ‘turn off the internet’ after massive cyber and social media attacks.  This effectively transformed it’s critical capability into its critical vulnerability and unlocked possible strategic collapse.  By cutting its informational wires it conceded defeat in the first ‘Internet War27.  

The Tallinn Statue is defaced…

The follow-on attack was a digital Blitzkrieg.  It involved both targeted Troll/Bot cyber ops and distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS).  It lasted for weeks28, crippling parliament, financial and business sectors – all of whom needed to surge support post riots.  The primary target, objective truth, inherent to the social construction of reality, was contested and lost, with cataclysmic results.  Ultimately, with the digital umbilical severed, the informational poison being mainlined into the Russian-speaking and ethnic Estonian populous by Russian Trolls was stopped 29. .

Gerasimov Doctrine?

‘He’s more [doctrine] now than man.  Twisted and evil…’
Obi-Wan Kenobi on the dark side of the force.

Recovery would be tortured, but outcome clear:  ‘Estonia was our first glimpse of the future, in which cyber attacks were married to political activity and clear policy goals30’.  Everything that follows, starts here.  Russia had mounted an integrated, devastating Information Operation (IO)31 and was primed and ready to push it further than ever before.  Emboldened, perhaps even as far as the greatest democracy in the World.

General Valery Gerasimov mastermind of Russian hybrid warfare, takes aim.

The IW concepts derived in Estonia and after, were synthesised into maturing much vaunted ‘Gerasimov 32 Doctrine’, if it is indeed a doctrine at all33  Named after Putin’s CGS, I’ll be dissecting the components of Russian Hybrid warfare in part 2 of this series.  The thing that should concern us now is it’s rapid migration from operationalised trials in former Soviet satellite states, to fully weaponised, visceral and brazen deployments in Western civilian and military theatres.  But first, to really take Gerasimov by the doctrines, you’re going to need to understand how framing works…


From the Common Cause Handbook on emotional frames34 – an exploration of the human emotion system.

‘In simple terms, a frame is a way of seeing and understanding the world that helps us interpret new information. Each of us has a set of frames we use to make sense of what we see, hear, and experience. Frames exist within individuals, but they can also be shared.  Framing is the process of shaping other people’s frames, guiding how other people interpret new information. Framing can be a powerful political tool 35

Framing Case Study:  Palmyra 2016.  Russian IW Doctrine36 thrives in and is empowered by the corrupt conditions of Putin’s Russia.  Forget the ideological crusade of the Cold War, it’s about the permanence of Putin, not the proliferation of Communism.     

Modern Russian IW CONOPS have been developed through decades of attempts at parasitic state capture37 or social vivisection in former Eastern Bloc countries.  Russian IW is now honed and focussed at Western societal division.  Gerasimov exploited and cross-referenced IW lessons against conflicts such as the Arab Spring, Ukraine and Syria.

Take for example the 2016 Russian concert performed in the recently liberated Plamyra in which we can see vividly 4D IW in effect:

Palmyra through a 4D lens

Reality Wars

‘The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.’ 

George Orwell, 1984.

Social Firepower.  Social Media based adversary IW seeks to replicate the viral effect and narrative impact/firepower of digital celebrity messaging and it’s subsequent burn rate and elaboration patterns across users.  But Sergei the Russian Internet Research Agency Troll can’t generate the digital impact of a Kardashian ‘Breaking the Internet’, or Ariana Grande ‘dropping’ her latest single no mater how much Champagne they splash.  They can mobilise focused ‘robotroll nets’38. This digital mass deliver both human and cybernetic echo effect, which if timed and placed correctly will generate similar impact to a celebrity viral event forcing the narrative into multiple feeds and therefore increasing the percentage chance of both internalisation and elaboration likelihood on the part of receivers. The mass games the system and the narrative parasite roots in your head. The prize is objective reality.

‘Their [the Troll’s] participation in these conversations has a different set of goals: to undermine [the U.S.] by dividing us, to erode our trust in democracy (and other institutions), and to support specific political outcomes that weaken our strategic positions and strengthen theirs. Those are the goals of their information operations39

100% Proof Pure Doctrine. In this regard, the distilled Russian version of this IW doctrine is brutally simple.  At its centre is a powerful psychological quadrant of multi-domain information attack and strike vectors that yield advantage.  These are structured within clear mission verbs, empowering of freedom of action at all levels: Dismiss, Dismay, Distort and Distract (4D). 

Russian 4D Ops by Ben Nimmo of @DFRLab  / @benimmo

It’s a rather school playground fusion of pervasive persuasion and coercion methods used by bullies, organised crime, cults and sociopaths.  You’ll see similarities in the operations of Scientology, Neo-Fascist European Youth Identitarians, misogynist motivational speakers and emergent alt-right incels on 4Chan and sub Reddits 40.  Its all the same playbook, adapted for each environment, where truth is a fluid concept.

The prime influence on Russian IW, national dialogue and celebrity narrative, is the primacy of Putin41.  It is ‘corruption [that] is the lubricant on which this system operates42’.  Echoes of this in Tomi Lahren’s above tweet and Guiliani’s statement, among many more in US discourse are apparent.  But, if its corruption that empowers such strikes at societal division, it’s also perhaps corruption that brings it down as a single point of failure when we consider counter-strike.

Psychology.  At its centre, Russian IW and specifically the 4Ds are built on the fact humans process uncertainty badly – we crave social proof 43.  Uncertainty frustrates, scares us and muddles thoughts, evoking dissonance.  This mental violence is a known torture tactic44.  It tires the mind quickly and from that, resistance to attacks on cognitive compliance runs weak.  Furthermore, the stress and largely consequence-free consistency of the herd is our psychological comfort zone.  The mass, sometimes anonymity and social distance inherent to social platforms make them the perfect hunting ground and hiding place.  So, the prime concern of Russian IW is to sheepdog populations into the right herd and make them comfortable with the right messaging.  For example, the belief that all ‘mainstream media’ (MSM) are lying is useful, because it focuses populations on derivation of news from easily manipulable, biased or antagonistic tributaries.  The belief that those who do not eschew your politics are traitors is useful, because it lays foundations of civil unrest. Admiral McRaven former USSOC was similarly concerned 45  This has manifested more vividly and violently in Trumpian ‘strategic catastrophism’ (the perennial phantom Southern border caravans) and gleeful ‘dogwhistling’ to a pressurised base on multiple issues, which is arguably a form of psychological stochastic terrorism 46 employed by many authoritarians.

The Herd Mind.  Its easy to make the ‘Herd Mind’ pejorative, but we need to empathise and understand it in order to change it.  However, ‘when it comes to the psychology that shapes mass movements, there are two fundamental rules: Everybody wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and everybody wants someone to tell them what to do so that things will turn out OK.  Conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily something that stupid or uneducated people fall for—they are magnets to the disenfranchised and despairing.  Maybe it’s religion, family, national identity, ethnic identity, community, or government that once filled the void—the comfort of belief, the answers to who you are and where you fit within the system.  But when those break down for any reason, conspiracies can take their place, particularly in times of rapid change or upheaval. They then become the framework for making things that don’t make any sense somehow understandable.’47   Again turning to Trump, the outright insanity of the Q Anon conspiracy theorist movement in explaining some of his more adversarial, erratic, disengaged or nationally harmful behaviours is a prime example of a mutated belief being embraced as once certain bastions of societal surety appear to betray or fail you. 

As such Russian 4D IW both thrives in and builds summative uncertainty, made worse by endemic societal division and trust issues.  For example the vilification of the mainstream media in favour of direct or unchallenging channels as shown by Trump in his reluctance to meet the press, reliance on Twitter to energise a base and drive the news cycle and fondness for Fox News, a broadly hyper partisan Murdochian conspiracy theory channel.  It then seeks to replace the uncertainty with a newly normalised thought set that exists to benefit the adversary.  Chained now in the minds of an exhausted, angry and dissonant population, the lie becomes the truth and the parasite takes hold.  It’s psychological herd management.  The real ‘power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing,’ according to Orwell.  

The 2007 Russian Estonian IW Strike was a testing ground for launching similar ops in the West.  We’ve seen that adversary 4D IW relies on massed primal responses to emotional frames48 – it needs momentum, noise and chaos to survive.  The issues it preys on are the contentious and inflammatory ones. 

On that basis it’s unsurprising and deeply concerning that there’s a lot of Russian style IW around geopolitics at present:  Brexit.  Trump.  Resurgent Polish Nationalism.  Bolsonaro.  Erdoğan.  Kurz. Orbán. Duterte. Alternative für Deutschland. The newly-named Rassemblement National which barely gives a new costume to hide the grim French National Front.  Bannon and his many swarthy tentacles.  They’ve all benefitted from 4D practices, directly or indirectly.  You can see in each a common theme – find, then explode societal divisions or emotive issues to drive a dominant decision-action cycle that they own and communicate directly to a willing base. 

This isn’t Russia-phobic hysteria and they aren’t the only offender.  But for recent proof of the looming infopocalypse, consider the FBI and Facebook, who stopped a fledgling Russian IW op involving 36 Facebook and 99 Instagram accounts in the opening salvos of a hyper-partisan attempt using recycled Internet Research Agency (Russian IRA) content49 during the 2018 US mid-terms using framing as an IW tool.  Lets see how that could have shaken out…  

‘Advantage Kremlin’:  The #BLM Framing Contest and Scotland’s #dissolvetheunion.  A framing ‘contest’ exists where 2 competing presences try and undermine or drown out the other.  Below is a Retweet map showing right and left wing Twitter presences in conversation about shootings and #Blacklivesmatter in 2016. You’d find similar results on investigating Brexit, Bolsonaro or reproductive rights, for example.  Note the absolute polarisation, with only minimal harmonic convergence.  Societal division is predominant before the Trolls and is summatively amplified through social media far more than before.

From Advantage to Attack.  As a simplified baseline, it can take only 50 highly active Twitter profiles a little under 4K tweets within a specified hashtag to game Twitter’s algorithm into making an issue trend and receive user attention and engagement.

@benimmo discussing botnets around #dissolvetheunion in Scotland in which his thread is (somewhat ironically) attacked by a circus of ‘useful idiots’, anonymous provocateurs, some genuine anti-unionists and a load of trolls/bots.

We can see then, movement of divisive conspiratorial or once fringe ‘hysteria’, to prime potentially newsworthy status within a political agenda isn’t just done by botnets and automation, it’s also a human terrain and high value target troll game too.  For the best ‘Bot primer’, on ‘how to spot a bot’ (no jokes, you lizards…) available check out @DFRLab50 and their 12 ways to ‘spot a bot’.

The parasitic, sinister truth was revealed by Professor Kate Starbird’s team in the subsequent and equally sinister visualisation below.  Note that the orange adversary Troll clusters are dynamic in their divergence, visibly ripping open an already divided society.  The tactic is sometimes referred to as ‘sock puppeting51’.  It is a proven fact that Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) Trolls were stoking each side of that social entrenchment and divergence.  It’s clear Putin’s Russia, built on corruption, does not care about ideology, only Western division.    

The Washington Universty Starbird visualisation of digital narrative polarisation.

Automation and Information Warfare. For a current and vivid account of the impact of adversarial automation in social aggression and dominating narratives check out the incredible work of @ErinGallagher or go to the article here.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the values, truths and emotions of our society are being manipulated by our adversaries, who are running a sophisticated IW playbooks that are delivering them Information Advantage.  It’s being done in a grey zone of below threshold information operations and it’s scale is industrial.  This will begin to strike at the core of our defence outputs, simple or complex. The infopocalpyse parasite seems to have nested and is already exploding from our figurative chests – and against effective enemy information warfare, everyone can hear you scream.

Is This The End?

Not quite. But it’s time to ask ourselves the same question The Wiper’s Times did of it’s readership in WW1:

‘Am I as offensive as I might be…?’

Wipers Times

As we remember the ingenuity, magic and mischief of our wartime ancestors, perhaps it’s time to recall who we were, to discover where we’re going.

Squadron Leader Rob Pitt RAF

Rob is a RAF Training Officer, former Reserve Infantry Company Commander and led Tactical Information Warfare Team development at 77 Brigade.  Whilst on sabbatical from regular service, he's written novels represented by Sheil Land Literary Agents and is currently writing his first non-fiction book, The Mad Brigade: A tactical guide to military rogues, renegades and eccentrics. He has worked in conservation media, was a UK Defence Academy Consultant in IA&O/OA and FCO Stabilisation Unit Stratcom Deployable Expert.  He previously served with 3 RAF FP Wing, 2 PARA, led an award winning RAF Valley media ops team, as SO2 Leadership at the RAF College Cranwell, commanded The London Scottish and recently supported C-VEO STTT for 7 Infantry Brigade in Africa.  He is XO of Joint Warfare at JFC and is Wavell Room’s Information Warfare Associate Editor.


  1. Fernandez, Alberto, Coordinator of CSCC on Daesh.  Terrorist, Regime and Western Media:  The War of Ideas in the Disinformation age.  http://www.state.gov/r/cscc/releases/218606.htm accessed 1350 28 Mar 15.’
  2. Information Advantage is currently formally undefined, but let’s go with the perpetual battles for decisive informational and platform/tech superiority IAW the commander’s plan and the strategic imperative.

  3. Proactive, Reactive, Opportunity/Free-occurring, Directed Info Warfare Strike supporting, synchronised to and informing the Commander’s plan.
  4. https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pdffiles/PUB1303.pdf
  5. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/americas/2018/10/11/memes-infowars-75-fascist-activists-red-pilled/
  6. To our younger readers, this references Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 space survival-horror ‘Alien’, itself an excellent lesson in the power of uncertainty against audiences given the cast did not know John Hurt’s chest was about to explode mid-scene

  7. Their current influence and disinformation campaign is a form of ‘system’ warfare that seeks to de-legitimise the political and social system on which our military strength is based. And this undermines our centre of gravity which they rightly assess as our political cohesion; https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/dynamic-security-threats-and-the-british-army-chief-of-the-general-staff-general-sir-nicholas-carter-kcb-cbe-dso-adc-gen

  8. https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/47/shredding-the-putin-playbook/
  9. Vividly painted by this headline from the ever emotionally charged Daily Express, articulating some anxiety about Trump’s apparent continuous desire to assist in ‘moving Vladimir Putin’s drinks cabinet ever closer to the West’ – to misappropriate Blackadder: https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1081174/USA-v-russia-ww3-cold-war-nuclear-weapons-president-trump-president-putin-inf-treaty
  10. Black Mirror, a dystopian TV show considers alternative, dark futures by Charlie Brooker.
  11. CGS RUSI Keynote 2018 https://rusi.org/annual-conference/rusi-land-warfare-conference/cgs-keynote-address-2018
  12. AJP3.10.1:  the information environment is comprised of the information itself, the individuals, organisations and systems that receive, process and convey the information and the cognitive, virtual and physical space in which this occurs.
  13. https://rusi.org/annual-conference/rusi-land-warfare-conference/cgs-keynote-address-2018
  14. The excellent Soldier First Combat Hunter, RMAS, 2016: 0106.
  15. Mastering the Grey Zone:  Mazaar:https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pdffiles/PUB1303.pdf
  16. Great explainer here: https://www.icrc.org/en/document/what-are-jus-ad-bellum-and-jus-bello-0
  17.  https://medium.com/dfrlab/trolltracker-facebook-uncovers-iranian-influence-operation-d21c73cd71be

  18. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/39655415
  19. https://rusi.org/annual-conference/rusi-land-warfare-conference/cgs-keynote-address-2018
  20. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/gergely-polner/new-golden-age-of-diplomacy-_b_3744555.html
  21. Douglas Farah, The CIPHER Brief, https://www.thecipherbrief.com/the-gerasimov-doctrine
  22. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/dynamic-security-threats-and-the-british-army-chief-of-the-general-staff-general-sir-nicholas-carter-kcb-cbe-dso-adc-gen
  23. https://www.mi5.gov.uk/news/director-general-andrew-parker-speech-to-bfv-symposium
  24. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jan/22/russia-is-biggest-threat-since-cold-war-says-head-of-british-army
  25. For our younger readers, Back to the Future is a beloved 80s sci-fi trilogy in which a young man accompanies a nuclear scientist back in time and narrowly avoids incest with his future Mother, amid other capers
  26. ‘Storming the Servers: Social Psychological Analysis of the First Internet War by Rosanna E. Guadagno, Ph.D, Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D, and Gadi Evron, 2010

  27. https://securityledger.com/2017/04/estonia-10-years-later-lessons-learned-from-the-worlds-first-internet-war/
  28. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/39655415
  29. Throughout the period there were only 2 people in Estonia’s Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT). The unit is now slightly more muscular…
  30. https://securityledger.com/2017/04/estonia-10-years-later-lessons-learned-from-the-worlds-first-internet-war/
  31. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/dec/02/fake-news-botnets-how-russia-weaponised-the-web-cyber-attack-estonia
  32. Valery Gerasimov is a Russian General, the current Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, and first Deputy Defence Minister. He is the strategist alleged to have conceived the “Gerasimov doctrine” – combining military, technological, information, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and other tactics for the purpose of achieving strategic goals.
  33. Is a doctrine, isn’t a doctrine, you decide..https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/05/im-sorry-for-creating-the-gerasimov-doctrine/
  34. http://publicinterest.org.uk/the-common-cause-handbook/
  35. https://medium.com/s/story/the-trolls-within-how-russian-information-operations-infiltrated-online-communities-691fb969b9e4′
  36. The Menace of Unreality, Peter Pomerantsev https://cdn.mashreghnews.ir/old/files/fa/news/1393/12/26/950303_869.pdf
  37. The Kremlin Playbook, Understanding Russian Influence, Conley and Stefanov, 2016  https://www.csis.org/analysis/kremlin-playbook
  38. https://www.stratcomcoe.org/robotrolling-20183

  39. [1] https://medium.com/s/story/the-trolls-within-how-russian-information-operations-infiltrated-online-communities-691fb969b9e4
  40. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-41926687

  41. Starting in the autumn of 2011, Vladimir Putin’s popularity rating began to fall noticeably. On the eve of the 2012 presidential election, the likelihood emerged that he would not be able to win in the first round. Such a scenario created the risk of significantly weakening Putin’s position and of undermining his legitimacy. Ruling the country in his customary authoritarian style as a “national leader” would become much more difficult.’ Putin.War.  From the reports of Boris Nemtsov, http://4freerussia.org/putin.war/

  42. [2] https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/1601017_Conley_KremlinPlaybook_Web.pdf
  43. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_proof
  44. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/worldwar2/theatres-of-war/western-europe/investigation/occupation/sources/docs/3/
  45. “I stand by my comment that the President’s attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime,” McRaven said, referencing remarks he made about Trump last year.“When you undermine the people’s right to a free press and freedom of speech and expression, then you threaten the Constitution and all for which it stands.” Admiral McRaven, former Commander USSOC.

  46. The use of communications platforms to incite violent attacks by lone wolves or others who are sympathetic to the message and willing to operationalise it on your behalf, for example labeling the MSM an ‘enemy of the people’

  47. https://www.wired.com/story/information-terrorists-trying-to-reshape-america/

  48. A really useful guide to understanding emotional frames: http://publicinterest.org.uk/download/values/Common%20Cause%20Handbook.pdf

  49. [40] https://medium.com/dfrlab/trolltracker-facebooks-midterm-takedown-f3451ee5dc2

  50. https://medium.com/dfrlab/botspot-twelve-ways-to-spot-a-bot-aedc7d9c110c
  51. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2127107-sock-puppet-accounts-unmasked-by-the-way-they-write-and-post/

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