Ultimately, nothing is new under the sun when it comes to influencing and organizing groups of people. Humans have done just that for thousands of years. The difference in today’s world is that modern telecommunications make identifying and connecting with like-minded people easy and virtually immediate. However, many believe that just conducting influence operations on various modern telecommunications tools – social media, blogs, chat apps, email – is enough to move people in the wanted direction. This is a fallacy.
Gene Sharp, Saul Alinsky, Frances Fox Piven, and Srdja Popovic are known as both thinkers and practitioners in the building of social movements and revolutions. All published their views on how to organize people to meet a goal and create overarching messages or concepts that everyday people can get behind. The approaches that each of these influence leaders use(d) and advocate for are nothing new – examples ranging from the Trojan Horse to Sam Adam’s use of the Boston Massacre would fall into the range of tools they teach those who wish to change their society. What is new to these thinkers and those who undertake influence operations is the tools available to organize, identify messages that resonate, and build global support. All of the thinkers view in-person connections and events as key to building a core group of supporters and moving a populace to support a particular viewpoint.
In the current day context, there are some rules to adhere to when strategizing and implementing an influence campaign. Note that the term campaign and not operation is used. Influence is a long-term effort and inherently political in nature, not a one-off event that is grounded in military objectives. Even tactical military propaganda should support a longer-term strategy and goal to be most impactful.
Pulling from communications, political science, sociology, social movements, and data science, a set of campaign guidelines or rules were created to aid practitioners. The following ‘rules’ will aid in creating an influence campaign strategy, implement the strategy, and adapt the strategy to changing realities on the ground. The rules are universal and will work equally as well for a counterterrorism goal as a counternarcotics or building a pro-U.S. sentiment.
1. Respect your adversary.
Nasty nicknames, denigrating their way of life, and calling their followers ‘stupid’ (or the like) only reinforce their message that you are the bad actor. The adversary is in power or has followers for good reason. Respect them.
2. Have a long-term strategy.
Take time to understand and identify the desired end state. What are the milestones to reach the end state? What timeline to you have or need to reach each milestone? If there is not a fixed end date, select an arbitrary date sometime in the future. Depending on the issue set, it could be months or years in the future. Establish milestones to meet that end date and hold to it.
3. Your fight is political – and political fights are emotional.
Though we may not want to admit it, political actions and views are often based in emotion. Often, the logical part of our brain doesn’t engage when emotions are involved. Identify ways to overcome the positive emotions, defensive positions, and the audience’s “lizard brain.” Use emotion to capture the audience and bring them in.
4. Nothing is new under the sun.
The adversary is building a support base doing exactly the same things that were done thousands of years ago – use divides in society to build support, seed dis- and misinformation to mislead and manipulate, and co-opt community groups to do what you want. These are the same things that you will do. The only change is that you may use modern tools to reach and understand your audience – social media, chat groups, online engagement data.
5. Identify your audience.
The adversary’s stronghold (base of support) is not your audience. They are the most unlikely to be swayed and not worth the resources to change their minds. Your audience is those that agree with you, those who are apt to agree with you, and those who provide support to the adversary. The goal is to grow the number of supporters you have while persuading those who support your adversary to stop their enabling.
6. Every activity has a purpose.
No action is taken for the sake of it. Every event, rumor, news placement, social media engagement, and community group creation supports the strategy. Activities can be big or small, but directly connect to an aspect of the strategy and to meet a milestone. Anything that does not support the strategy or help to meet a milestone should not be undertaken. Nothing is done ‘just for fun’ or ‘because it will be funny.’
7. Establish 3 to 5 concepts that will be used to drive a wedge in your adversary’s efforts to grow their base of support, maintain control, garner funding, and operate freely.
Concepts should be based on historical ills that plague the group, community, or society and tied directly to your adversary. These concepts are used to discredit the adversary and their place within the community. Similar to technology platforms such as Facebook, use A/B testing to understand which messages are resonating with the specific audience of interest. Drill down over time to understand exactly which message incites an emotional response to motivate your audience in your favor or against your adversary.
8. Know your enemy, their culture, their society and history.
The only way you will be best positioned to understand what 3-5 concepts will resonate is to be a student of the society that you are targeting. In an American context, race/ethnicity, north vs. south, pro-life vs. pro-choice, and big government vs. libertarianism are all concepts which cause division. Other societies have similar divisions which are both emotional and deep seated. The key is to work with local actors to understand these divisions and how they can be leveraged to meet your goals.
9. Hope for the future is a powerful motivator.
Negative concepts need to be balanced with the hope that is your vision for the future. People want things to be better and your view, policy, group, political system is the answer. Future-focused, positive, and simple language is used to grow your base and its problem solving.
10. Layering is key.
The concepts should be used across outlets and groups, from social media, to civil society, to academia and political figures. Your audience needs to hear the same/similar messages from different perspectives, at different times, and from different outlets/channels. This repetition will help your message be front of mind, become an everyday viewpoint, and ensure that various audiences are exposed to the concept or message.
11. Rotate concepts so that your adversary is always on the defensive.
The goal is not to counter your adversary. Your goal is to dominate your adversary. This is done by keeping them on the defensive. Do not give them the time, bandwidth, or opportunity to go offensive. By rotating concepts and messages, the adversary is forced to keep up with your timeline, your message, your pace of operations and not their own. By constantly responding to your messages, they are unable to project their own and (hopefully) use up their valuable resources trying to convince audiences your message is wrong.
12. Welcome defectors from the other side.
Those who change sides provide you with a deep understanding of what you did well – and wat the adversary did poorly. Defectors can provide an understanding of what you said or did that made them change their minds. If they are willing to go public, they can be a credible voice who can speak to those in your adversary’s camp.
13. Plan to fill the power vacuum.
Toppling the adversary is one thing, having a plan to backfill them is another. People need to know and buy into the new leader, structure, organization, etc prior to the adversary being overtaken. In best case scenario, the option you provide should instill hope in the future and inspire people to overcome the adversary. The backfill needs to be established and ready to go well before the adversary is on the decline or removed all together.
14. Provide a forum for action.
Everyday people need guidance on what exactly they can do to provide support to your cause. They need to be organized and managed so that their efforts are not wasted. They need a venue to come together to see that they are not alone. In-person events will always trump virtual/digital events. An action that makes people feel as though they accomplished something tangible will always be better than impersonal actions like signing a petition on change.org. Ensure all outreach and activities have a human touch where participants feel that they are a part of the team and contributing – even if it is in very small ways.
15. Evaluate your progress without emotion.
Take a hard look at what activities you have undertaken, concepts you are using, and people or groups acting on your behalf. Are the activities engaging to your audience? Are your activities growing or shrinking your audience and their engagement? Are your concepts being picked up by third parties as “true?” Is your audience taking your concepts and building upon them? Are the people and groups you rely on productive? If something is not working, cut it out of your program. Do not waste your time, money, and energy on activities, concepts, or people/groups that are not moving your campaign forward.
16. Adjust the strategy based on the evaluation.
There will always be areas to make changes to, both big and small. Perhaps one of the messaging concepts is not inciting the emotion hoped for or the means of delivery is not reaching the intended audience. In some instances, the strategy itself may be missing the mark. On a quarterly or bi-annual basis, evaluate where the program of campaign(s) is at and what can be done better. Political campaigns do this weekly and start-ups do this daily, only a critical eye will make your efforts stronger. Changing peoples’ minds and behaviors takes time, so a quarterly or bi-annual evaluation provides time to gather data and identify trends which will inform whether or not adjustments are needed.
For those implementing influence programs and campaigns, the rules provide a baseline to create and manage the wide variety of people, resources, and messaging concepts needed to meet various national security goals. Even more importantly, the set of rules provide practitioners with a roadmap to base their programs off of and leaders a means to evaluate if programs are meeting their policy or political aims.