Recently, you’ve probably heard a lot about Influence Activities or Influence Operations, usually in the context of Russia and the 2016 election. For many Americans, this topic may seem to have come out of nowhere. At SOFREP though, we’ve been talking about it for a long time. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Many news sources either dismiss the matter or clutch their pearls, depending on their partisan leanings. The fact is that foreign adversaries will use all elements of national power in order to pursue their objectives. Attacking the US directly is generally a poor choice. Instead they invest in non-kinetic approaches to achieving political ends.
For years now those of us involved in the profession of Influence have been writing about problems that hamstring our efforts. Occasionally RAND Corporation (Research ANd Development) or another think tank joins the chorus. More often than not American policy makers focus on the delivery platform (social media or cyber, for instance) rather than the Art and Science of the field.
Now the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins is directly asking the Intelligence Community to support and fund scientific research in Influence, arguing:
[Influence] is a critical capability in contemporary conflict. Its success depends upon the application of social and behavioral science to analyze target audiences, craft messages, and measure the outcome of their dissemination. Recent operational experience has exposed weaknesses in US capability that require redoubled effort to conduct research on the mechanisms and methods of influence and their effective application. In particular, the US needs to better understand the doctrines of adversaries and to develop countermeasures against them.
Johns Hopkins has the right goals, but possibly the wrong target. While our Intelligence Agencies certainly play a role in Influence Activities, analogs to Active Measures reside primarily with Defense and State. What we really need is inter-agency support for this research.
The Applied Physics Lab is renowned for bringing science and technology to bear in support of US National Security. The reality is that Influence is fundamentally a Human Domain issue, not a technical one. Succeeding in Influence requires that we actively counter our bias towards technical solutions.
If Johns Hopkins takes the lead on technology related to Influence, there is another university that is uniquely suited to focus on the human aspects of such research: the University of Texas at Austin.
Helmed by a man who once led the command responsible for Psychological Operations (PSYOP) proponency, it has top ranked programs in relevant academic fields such as psychology, neuroscience, regional studies, and political science. The Clements Center for National Security is located there, and the university has a novel interdisciplinary program focusing on the Human Dimensions of Organizations.
Texas is also home to more uniformed Influence personnel than any state but North Carolina, with the 17th PSYOP BN and its subordinate units, as well as the Texas National Guard’s 71st TIOG and SOD-A. Coincidentally, the University of Texas at Austin was recently the first American university to identify and deny foreign influence efforts aimed at its own campus.
We need to take Influence research and development seriously. A partnership between schools like Hopkins and Texas would be a tremendous step in the right direction.