Image credit: DRDC
by Brett Boudreau
Disinformation poses a fundamental threat to peace, security and democracy…1
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau & European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
The three-fold objective of this Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) study is to:
- Better understand the near- and longer-term research and capability needs of the DND/CAF to more effectively deter and counter adversary disinformation;
- Improve the resilience of National Defence against disinformation; and,
- Describe issues germane to achieving greater resilience and more effective deterrence.
The report is informed by a broad review of relevant literature, media content and civil society reports about disinformation; unclassified DND/CAF reviews of inform-persuade-influence (cognitive domain) information-related capabilities; and 31 interviews with select serving and retired military officers, senior officials/thought leaders, and subject matter experts in the information field.
This report identifies five uncomfortable truths about the informational space:
- The CAF approach is ad hoc, tactical and bottom-up, not deliberate, strategic and leader-driven;
- Home-grown disinformation is more dangerous than that which is foreign-inspired and enabled;
- People are more vulnerable to disinformation because of underlying social issues that remain unaddressed: exposure to false information amplifies vulnerability, but this is not the root cause;
- More “good” and less “bad” information does not provide immunity to disinformation. A protective measure (not a cure), is a commitment to much more transparent internal and external communications, thereby bolstering public trust and credibility in national institutions; and,
- There is a real imbalance of resources and effort put toward countering just Russian disinformation. While important, that is a very well researched field and comes at the expense of focus on more serious domestic, and foreign information manipulation and interference threats.
The report findings demonstrate that National Defence is poorly placed and inadequately prepared to substantively defend its interests and equities against mis- and disinformation, particularly in the domestic context. Many in the DND/CAF acknowledge the informational space needs to be central to its operations and activities, but this is not yet realized through actions or effort by senior-most leaders and remains an aspirational view. This blatant “say-do” gap is the inevitable outcome over many years of a lack of strategic-level, institution-wide direction and guidance for information-related capabilities, no strategic command HQ, and no institutional champion. The problem set is habitually viewed mainly through a public affairs lens and as an Army Reserve force generation issue, not as a joint, command-led integrated capability requirement. Doctrine and rules that govern public communications are nearly all more than twenty years old, predating the invention of the iPhone (2007) by a decade. The organization in large measure remains allergic to outside advice to help inform the progressive development of fit-for-purpose policy, and is reluctant to “share” or meaningfully collaborate with external partners. Fear of public missteps and further reputational damage stalled important reform initiatives for years, though there is now evidence of some welcome momentum in the key area of policy and doctrine development.
This situation should be of particular concern to an organization in a self-described “existential crisis,” which makes the DND/CAF more susceptible to harm by mis- and disinformation wherever the provenance, but especially to domestic forms. On overseas operations as part of a NATO or coalition effort, the CAF is substantively better placed to defend itself and manoeuvre in the information space even if not able to decisively counter and obtain strategic success. There is significant extant DND/CAF capability to more effectively tackle mis- and disinformation, but this remains largely untapped due to an institutional mindset toward the informational space that is rooted firmly in the pre-Internet Cold War. This analysis is explained in 25 key findings grouped in five observations in each of five thematic areas.
1. Public (external and internal) trust in the institution is the key variable.
2. Strategic-level direction, guidance, planning and oversight is a prerequisite, but is lacking.
3. Significant extant and prospective capability: problem is mindset and organization, not resources.
4. Treated as a CAF Public Affairs and Army Reserve problem, not an integrated/joint requirement.
5. The institution is spooked: progress on information-related capability reform has atrophied.
6. Institutional transparency translates to more public and internal trust, and a more resilient force.
7. Identify the “one neck to choke” to lead related reform initiatives.
8. No effective “5F” capability lead to Force Generate, Manage, Develop, Employ, Support.
9. Related policy, doctrine, orders, and legislation are antiquated and unfit-for-purpose.
10. Shift to a proactive deliberate strategy from an ad-hoc reactive approach.
11. Know the baseline.
12. Learn from benchmarks.
13. Adopt “open source” information-related policy development.
14. Widen the communications aperture.
15. If you like current outcomes and effects, keep doing the work that way.
16. Protect the force and family.
17. Train and educate the force, treating information-related capabilities like a joint enabler.
18. Develop professional information practitioners.
19. Reinforce and amplify success.
20. Leverage inherent civil society advantages to help build resilience.
Organization Of Effort
21. Need a federal government strategy, and a DND/CAF strategy.
22. Need effective coordinating bodies at a Central Agency, and at DND/CAF.
23. Need better mechanisms for senior-leader direction, guidance, oversight and governance.
24. Need to re-energize the public affairs (PA) functional authority.
25. Need to publicly explain the need better.
Five Key Research Areas
This report also suggests five key areas for targeted DND/CAF research-related and capability investments in the short and medium term:
- A tool to visualize the information environment to assist planners, practitioners, and leaders;
- A model to replace the broken IO/Influence Activity construct, and formally acknowledge “cognition” as a sixth operational domain (alongside air, land, sea, space, cyber);
- Guidelines to reduce ambiguities about what DND/CAF information-related activities are permissible, not permissible, and situation-dependant in the informational space;
- A comprehensive open-source repository of tradecraft, techniques, case study examples, and lessons about military-related counter-disinformation needs and requirements; and,
- Create appropriate cognitive domain education, training, and talent management for the force.
1 News Conference, 07 March 2023; see: https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/news-releases/2023/03/07/joint-press-releaseoccasion-visit-canada-european-commission-president-ursula-von-der-leyen.