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Research Questions

  1. How are other nations using disinformation on social media to advance their interests? What is the U.S. response to these campaigns, and how has it evolved?
  2. What does the Joint Force—and the U.S. Air Force in particular—need to be prepared to do in response?

How are state adversaries using disinformation on social media to advance their interests? What does the Joint Force—and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in particular—need to be prepared to do in response? Drawing on a host of different primary and secondary sources and more than 150 original interviews from across the U.S. government, the joint force, industry, civil society, and subject-matter experts from nine countries around the world, researchers examined how China, Russia, and North Korea have used disinformation on social media and what the United States and its allies and partners are doing in response. The authors found that disinformation campaigns on social media may be more nuanced than they are commonly portrayed. Still, much of the response to disinformation remains ad hoc and uncoordinated. Disinformation campaigns on social media will likely increase over the coming decade, but it remains unclear who has the competitive edge in this race; disinformation techniques and countermeasures are evolving at the same time. This overview of a multi-volume series presents recommendations to better prepare for this new age of communications warfare.

Key Findings

Disinformation campaigns on social media might be more nuanced than commonly portrayed

  • Russia and Iran have used this tactic abroad more than China and North Korea have.
  • State-led disinformation campaigns on social media are a relatively recent phenomenon.
  • The campaigns can intimidate, divide, and discredit, but there is limited evidence that they can change strongly held beliefs.
  • Smaller, locally popular social media platforms could be at higher risk of disinformation than larger, mainstream ones.
  • Disinformation campaigns on social media have clearly notched operational successes, but their strategic impact is less certain.
  • Disinformation campaigns on social media will likely increase over the coming decade.

Much of the response to disinformation remains ad hoc and uncoordinated

  • The U.S. government's lead for countering disinformation, the Department of State's Global Engagement Center, lacks the necessary political and institutional clout to direct a coordinated effort.
  • The joint force's efforts to man, train, and equip forces for counter-disinformation remain ad hoc and service-dependent.
  • Allies and partners have tried other countermeasures, mostly with ambiguous effects.
  • Industry—particularly after the 2016 election interference—has made an active effort to counter disinformation, but companies' responses are shaped by their business models.
  • Civil society groups play an important, often overlooked role.

Although disinformation campaigns on social media will likely increase over the coming decade, it remains unclear who has the competitive edge in this race because disinformation techniques and countermeasures are evolving at the same time

Recommendations

  • The USAF, in general, and Air Force Special Operations Command, in particular, should expand their information operations capabilities and responsibilities.
  • The joint force should know the information environment and look beyond U.S. platforms. It should also train for disinformation, focus on key demographics, minimize widespread bans on smart phone and social media use, increase transparency, enforce message discipline, and conduct a Department of Defense–wide review of the information operations force.
  • The U.S. government should publish a counter-disinformation strategy, leverage civil society groups and industry without outsourcing the counter-disinformation fight, avoid bans on social networks, balance counter-disinformation efforts with a commitment to freedom of speech, and carefully weigh risks while focusing offensive influence efforts on truthful information.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Combating Foreign Influence Efforts on Social Media

  • Chapter Two

    Understanding the Threat

  • Chapter Three

    A Divided and Uncertain Response

  • Chapter Four

    Conclusions and Recommendations

Research conducted by

This research was commissioned by the Air Force Special Operations Command and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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