Wars are no longer fought only on land, at sea and in the air, but also in the online world, where information is the most powerful weapon. In the digital age of modern conflict, online influence operations have become a powerful arm on the (virtual) battlefield.
Influence operations refer to efforts carried out by warring parties to interfere in the thinking process of individuals with the aim of generating opinions and impressions that are positive towards them and/or negative towards the enemy. In simpler words, they are attempts to manipulate how people think and feel about the conflict actors.
Influence operations are a strong component of psychological warfare. Although psywar has existed since antiquity, its systematization and proliferation are inextricably tied to the advancement of communication technology, particularly mass media. During World War II, the United Kingdom and the United States established specialized units charged with sabotage, subversion, and propaganda warfare against the Nazis – the Political Warfare Executive secret service and the Office of Strategic Services, respectively.
With the rise of social media, influence operations have re-gained momentum. Social media increases the potency of influence operations by expanding the scale of the audience that can be reached. On February 2023, Facebook took down two big Russian networks trying to influence perception of the war, involving more than 3,000 accounts, pages and groups. These networks aimed to create a more pro-Russia narrative on the networks, which would translate into greater public support for Russia.
Today, we also find that social media influence operations are being carried out in peacetime or in what is known as the grey area – that middle ground between cooperation and peace and war. For example, Beijing has attempted to intervene in the elections through coordinated information and disinformation campaigns designed to promote candidates sympathetic to the Chinese government and its actions. However, such operations do not usually have a military objective, but rather seek to increase the power and influence of the malicious actor.
In today’s digital age, the power of online influence operations has emerged as a formidable force, capable of shaping public opinion and perceptions in ways that can sway the course of conflicts. These operations, whether executed during times of peace, war, or within the grey areas of uncertainty, underscore the crucial role of information manipulation in the contemporary landscape of global confrontations.