Weapons and the skills to use them are not the only decisive elements in warfare. Rhetoric and imagery are important, too. They are essential for constructing the good and the bad, legitimatizing one’s actions and influencing the events and the result of a conflict. The cyber era has only just begun to highlight the importance of perception management as a part of war.
Perceptions matter enormously: perceptions of us, our opponent, the environment, and the situation on our side, on the opponent’s side, and among the wider public. Perceptions determine how each actor chooses to act. If you can affect the opponent’s policy goals or convince your own following by manipulating perceptions, you can have a great influence over the battlefield. The cyber era has widened the battlefield to cover entire societies, and has made the global public into the audience.
Information operations, the vector for manipulating perceptions, are integral to cyberwarfare. Propaganda and disinformation campaigns can both deceive the opponent and influence what is accepted as true. Think, for example, how Russia fought (and won) an “information war” during the run-up to the Crimean vote. Subtle information operations try to persuade the target audience to view this information in a positive light. For example, the idea behind the recent “Hearts and Minds” operations has been to make the US and American values appealing to the target audience.
In addition to spreading information, denying access to information is a tool in cyberwar. Information operations exist not only to advance one’s own message, but also to block or disrupt the flow of opposing ideas. However, in the cyber era, controlling information flows is complicated, maybe even impossible. Even if the former Egyptian regime managed to take the country offline for a while, people found ways around the maneuver and managed both to receive and disseminate information differing from the official truth.
The pervasive presence of mass media in conflict zones gave us “media wars” in the 1990s. Governments have learned the importance of perception management the hard way. Technological advancement in the new millennium has turned today’s conflicts into something that are present all of the time around the world. Opportunities provided by social media and other forms of citizen journalism have made all of us producers and intermediates as well as targets of information operations. Any form of information—whether fact or rumor—spreads quicker and more freely in the cyber era.
Keep in mind three more points about information operations and cyberwar. First, drawing the line between preparations for cyberwar and the actual fighting is difficult. We live in the gray area between war and peace.
Second, active cyber operations may inflame any conflict. Cyberspace has been a battleground in all recent major conflicts, yet it is difficult to say how and to what extent this activity influences the conflicts’ logic or results. For example, Israel has lately put a lot of effort into social media. “Social media soldiers” have advanced national goals on platforms usually associated with the free exchange of information among private citizens. What influence this has had in the on-going conflict or how it will change the nature of social media in the long term remains to be seen.
Third, intelligence communities actively use cyberspace to collect and manipulate information. Information operations not only influence public opinion; they also influence what we hold as true in any relationship that involves information exchange. The higher the level of political decision making using information, the more substantial the effect of information manipulation will be. In today’s operations, manipulating perceptions is already combined with intelligence and cyber espionage, military deception, and disruptive or destructive cyber operations. Thus the cyberwar information front is key to advancing a nation’s or organization’s goals.
Thanks to the complex connections of information production and dissemination in the cyber era, in principle all information from any source may be compromised, manipulated, or even blocked. Whether to believe a source is a question we all must answer. We need not doubt everything, but we must critically investigate arguments and claims that influence how we perceive the world around us. War is waged on the mental front—to a greater extent than ever before.