The world of psychological operations and information warfare is complex and often controversial. Our investigation explores the role of the United States government in this sphere, its partnerships with private enterprises and academia, and the emergence of a new Department of Defense (DOD) doctrine that views the entire world—both real and digital—as a battleground.
The DOD has adopted a euphemistic term, “the information environment,” which it defines as “the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information—consisting of physical, informational, and cognitive dimensions.” This concept is at the heart of a recent report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) entitled “Information Environment: Opportunities and Threats to DOD’s National Security Mission.”
While the GAO and DOD do not explicitly refer to the “information environment” as a battlefield, it is difficult to read their documents without concluding that they perceive it as such. By using the term “information environment,” the DOD effectively obfuscates the true nature of its objectives—not only to its soldiers but also to other branches of government and the general public.
The DOD’s interest in information is diverse, but one key concern is the “fusion of ubiquitous information and technology,” which has granted various entities—both benign and malign—the ability to target the cognitive foundations of individuals, such as their beliefs, emotions, and experiences. On the pretext of “national security,” the DOD seeks to achieve full-spectrum dominance in the information environment even if it means employing counter-psychological warfare against its own citizens.
Lieutenant Colonel Daniel “Plato” Morabito’s report in the Fall 2021 edition of Air & Space Power Journal captures the essence of the DOD’s evolving perspective on the information environment: “The global trend toward faster data transfer across increasingly connected devices—the so-called internet of things—means adversaries now maintain a presence in American homes, delivered through smartphones and other technology.”
Throughout history, governments have attempted to influence both foreign and domestic populations via information operations. The United States military has employed “strategic communication” since World War II, and during the Cold War, the United States Information Agency (USIA) disseminated pro-American propaganda worldwide. The infamous CIA project, MK-Ultra, secretly funded behavioral psychology research in an effort to control individuals’ minds.
The rise of the internet in the 1990s led to a significant expansion of the military’s information operations, and in the wake of the 2001 September 11 attacks, these operations took center stage. The first deployment of weaponized social media can be traced to the 2010 Arab Spring, which saw the US military utilize platforms, online messaging, and strategic communication to support pro-democracy movements and suppress authoritarian regimes.
Even before the Arab Spring, however, the US State Department established “Digital Outreach Teams,” at least in part, to counter false narratives and conduct psychological operations to encourage pro-American sentiment abroad. The creation of the 24-hour Arabic-language radio station Radio Sawa provided extensive coverage of the protests and amplified pro-democracy messages.
The media, often referred to as the fourth branch of government, played a crucial role in shaping public opinion during these events, acting as a proxy for the government’s objectives.
Another disturbing revelation, scarcely reported by the media, has emerged: the Pentagon’s alleged use of fake social media accounts as recently as last year, according to the Washington Post. While such accounts are permitted under the guise of ‘countering foreign disinformation campaigns,’ the Pentagon itself determines when such a campaign is underway. This grants them unbridled discretion to engage in covert information warfare.
The disquieting truth, discernible only to the vigilant, is that the Pentagon need not rely on ‘countering foreign disinformation’ as a pretext. On December 31, 2012, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual legislation that sets the budget and expenditures for the DOD. In 2023, $816.7 billion was authorized for the DOD. Although some allocation of funds is warranted for defense, the NDAA is often exploited as a tool for policy and politics.
In 2012, Republican Mac Thornberry and Democrat Adam Smith introduced the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act. The original Smith-Mundt Act, originally enacted in 1948, authorized the State Department to develop methods to disseminate propaganda outside US borders. Over time, however, it evolved into a program used to target American citizens. The 2012 NDAA allowed for this, citing the threat of foreign terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda, attempting to persuade the American public to abandon Western ideals.