While the terms ‘disinformation’ and ‘misinformation’ are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Knowing the difference is the first step toward understanding how information warfare is waged across the globe every day.
Mobile technologies and social media connect the world in ways unimaginable even a decade ago. As a result, an informational environment now exists parallel to the physical world. The information environment is where data—information and ideas—are transmitted from the real world to the mind.
There are four types of challenges in an information environment: disinformation, misinformation, rhetoric information, and missing information. As with the physical environment, state and non-state actors pursue their agendas and interests leading to an information war within the environment. Global populations are constantly targeted and affected in a multi-dimensional Information War seeking to accrue power and influence behavior change.
Here are five things to know about the Information War:
Disinformation and misinformation are not the same.
Disinformation is when an adversary knowingly puts out a lie. The key to understanding disinformation is intent, knowingly spreading a lie in the hopes of achieving an objective. Some adversaries rely heavily on disinformation because of the disruption or confusion it creates. The result prevents or delays audiences from taking correct actions or drives audiences to take confident, but imprudent, actions.
Misinformation occurs when someone spreads a lie believing it to be true. This could be a result of disinformation or even a misunderstanding of the truth. Everyone is susceptible to spreading misinformation, though the level of susceptibility often depends on the audience’s self-awareness.
“We see this close to home, when your family or friends don’t know they’re spreading a lie, and you try to correct the record,” said Shawn Chenoweth, technical program manager. “How do you go about that? We have all experienced that challenge.”
Not everything you disagree with is a lie.
Not everything you dislike is disinformation. It might be rhetoric information, the battle of ideas and values. This is the chief challenge faced in information warfare—something that is not a lie but may not be wholly true. It depends upon perspectives—beliefs, biases, education, or even cultural references.
“These are conversations that should be framed in terms of opposing value propositions, not in terms of truth,” said Chenoweth. “If you’re the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and you’re saying the U.S. is in decline and the CCP is on the rise, that’s not a lie. That’s a belief. If we dismiss it as disinformation, we take ourselves out of the discussion to win the value proposition argument.”
“This is a battle of core ideas, and the U.S. needs to take this engagement seriously,” said Chenoweth. “What’s required is building a bipartisan agreement about what the U.S.’s value proposition is, resolving that the American Dream is very much alive, and participating in the debate at a scale that matters, so we can make it difficult for adversaries trying to exert control over the information environments in other sovereign nations. Shaping these opinions can be the key to avoiding conflict.”
Adversaries will block or eliminate information to influence opinion.
Missing information is when a target audience lacks information to take informed actions. Both China and Russia practice a form of active missing information, creating information firewalls to block populations from accessing information required to make decisions, especially rhetoric information. Both countries’ governments use their ‘sharp power’ might to shut down non-conforming media, replacing it with appropriately-aligned replacements.
“Missing information used to just mean a target audience wasn’t messaged appropriately,” said Chenoweth. “In the past decade, we’ve seen near-peer adversaries using their economic power to shut down channels. We’ve seen them buy satellite TV providers and absorb financial loses to undercut the competition, putting them out of business.”
Feeling good is not doing good.
It is critical to accurately assess the information environment and keep a focus on behavior change, not just how the messaging makes people feel.
“When you read about scrappy Ukraine volunteers ‘defeating’ Russian elements or see a meme about how the Russian tank’s natural predator is the farm tractor, you might feel good and think that Ukraine is winning the information war,” said Chenoweth. “But this is an example of attitudinal communications. It’s not focused on behavior change, and it’s not really helping Ukraine and its people—or to dissuade Russia from what it’s doing.”
No one can win an information war; they can only participate.
The U.S. traditionally thinks in terms of domains that can be controlled by military force. An armored brigade can control a street corner, a naval carrier group can control a strait, and a fighter squadron can control the skies over key terrain.
Peraton Technical Lead Program Manager Shawn Chenoweth recently joined Defense One to discuss how to engage in the Information War domain, what mission success can look like, and why this is one battlespace where no one can ever win.
That makes the information environment a unique battlespace. Since it concerns how belief and opinion manifest actions in the physical environment, there is no such thing as permanent control or a decisively won battle. It is about people speaking to each other, and ideas being communicated over billions of mobile devices. It is participation only.
The capabilities and solutions Peraton deploy internationally for U.S. government agencies help build successful brands and platforms that drive behavior changes in target audiences, whether engaging with general populations in foreign lands or at the micro levels by influencing a key decision-maker.
According to Chenoweth, the solution is clear. “We must choose to participate. The good news is that when the U.S. participates at a level and scale that matters, we’re good at changing behaviors. We do it every day, and I’m proud that Peraton is the global leader in supporting these efforts.”