Hostile Social Manipulation by Russia and China a Growing but Poorly Understood Threat

For Release

September 4, 2019

With the role of information warfare in global strategic competition becoming much more apparent, a new RAND Corporation report delves into better defining and understanding the challenge facing the United States by focusing on the hostile social manipulation activities of the two leading users of such techniques: Russia and China.

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.

RAND researchers recommend that democracies urgently undertake rigorous research on social manipulation to gain a better understanding of its dynamics.

“We found a growing commitment to tools of social manipulation by leading U.S. competitors such as Russia and China,” said Michael Mazarr, lead author on the report and a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. “The findings 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.”

The report argues that leading autocratic states have begun to employ information channels for competitive advantage. Russia and China believe themselves to be engaged in an information war with the West and have begun to invest significant resources in such tools, according to the report. Yet the research also finds that social manipulation campaigns are effective to the degree that vulnerabilities in a society allow them to be effective. Such techniques can seldom create from whole cloth the situations that allow an aggressor to manipulate political life.

Partly as a result, these techniques remain in their preliminary stages, have so far had relatively marginal effects, and may reflect far less coherent strategy in Moscow and Beijing than is typically assumed. Significant gaps remain in our awareness of what has happened and how effective current social manipulation campaigns have been, the report finds. Indeed, some efforts appear to have been counterproductive.

Nonetheless, the report concludes that hostile social manipulation has the potential for greater impact in the future, and the United States should invest significantly greater resources in understanding and countering these techniques.

“We have little conclusive evidence about the actual impact of hostile social manipulation to date—particularly when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of attempts to influence the attitudes and behaviors of specific audiences,” said Alyssa Demus, an author of the report and senior policy analyst at RAND. “Yet the marriage of the hostile intent of leading powers and the evolution of information technology could significantly broaden the reach and increase the impact of these techniques over time. The attribution of efforts is particularly challenging. In many cases, available evidence indicates a link between observed efforts and Russian sponsorship, for example, but it is rare to definitively prove a link.”

RAND researchers conducted 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.

Other authors of the report, “Hostile Social Manipulation: Present Realities and Emerging Trends,” are Abigail Casey, Scott Harold, Luke Matthews, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga and James Sladden.

The research was sponsored by the Office of Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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