The term ‘information operations’ – or ‘info ops’ – is usually used in a military context to describe operational influence activities designed to degrade an enemy's capability and impact their decision making. In more recent times the terms have been thrown around by the media as a kind of ill-informed panacea to their exposition of the information space being trolled, amplified, infested with bots and manipulated for political gain.
Unsurprisingly, the media’s continual inclusion of the term in a nefarious context, has left many people worried about all manner of information manipulation. These concerns are not unfounded. From data breaches to blatant propaganda, the quest for the truth has resulted in a global decline in trust over the past 3 years as the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer. attests.
However the inconvenient truth that info ops can be, and has been, used for good for decades, is worthy of note. Not because the manipulation was perfect or the behavioural change significant – but because these campaigns are nearly always run to benefit the individual or the greater community. That’s right – these are campaigns for-good.
To the average person, the definition of info ops may seem quite complicated. It isn’t. RAND defines Information Operations as:
Information operations (and warfare) also known as influence operations, includes the collection of tactical information about an adversary as well as the dissemination of propaganda in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent.
In plain english that’s “using the information we have at hand (statistics, demographics etc) and crafting a communications campaign that will influence the target audience to a particular outcome. If this sounds familiar it should – because the commercial sector do it all the time. Only they call it “advertising” and “marketing”.
So instead of thinking of world powers and their propaganda machines; think with your marketing hat on and the fundamental principles of info ops can be applied to a range of civilian for-good campaigns to raise awareness, creating better outcomes for people and even saving lives (I’m not kidding, info ops saves lives – refer to the examples that follow).
So let’s take another look at that RAND definition:
Influence operations – you want to influence your target audience to believe something else, change or modify their behaviour, or make them do something (usually voluntarily). Let’s think about this in business terms as your objective.
Collection of tactical information – when any strategic communicator prepares a plan to reach a particular audience they collect ‘tactical’ information. Let’s call it market research. Census data, a range of statistics, behavioural insights and even previous campaign outcome information.
About an adversary – let’s trade the word adversary with target audience. Smokers can be a target audience for example, or parents or cyclists or pet owners. Pretty much any group of people who have something in common we can term a ‘target audience.’
The dissemination of propaganda – the P word ‘propaganda’ due to the misuse of the information terrain throughout military and political history has left the word with very negative connotations – but as you’ll soon discover, propaganda can be used for good too! Let’s think about this as the spread of messages about the campaign.
In pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent – having already exchanged the concept of a ‘adversary’ with the less combative term of target audience, the pursuit of advantage may be for the good of the individual or many. Let’s call this the outcome.
The pursuit of advantage could be that a state Government runs a campaign to increase physical activity in a population that is obese. The advantage/outcome? Lives saved, less costs and pressure on healthcare services.
Another pursuit of advantage includes superannuation – incentivising young people with bonus co-payments to save today for their retirements which are 40 years away. Humans are wired for instant gratification so that avocado on toast NOW is a more appealing decision than putting that $20 into your superannuation. The advantage to this is two fold, those people are not then reliant on the Government for welfare during old age and the Government and/or their superannuation funds can turn a profit (employ people, drive economical factors such as construction for example) with the funds savers invest.
So what do these types of campaigns look like?
Let’s look at some real-world info ops for-good examples:
The British Heart Foundation featuring Vinnie Jones in ‘Hard and Fast’ hands-only CPR.
The influence operation (objective): Teaching the public CPR
The tactical information (the research): Heart attack deaths in the United Kingdom
The adversary (the target audience): A lack of awareness and education; the perception that CPR is ‘too hard to learn’
The propaganda (the messages): Using a well known character to the target audience ‘Vinnie Jones’ paired with an iconic song; the character then delivers the key messaging and demonstrates the CPR technique to the rhythm.
The competitive advantage (the outcome): Lives saved – heart attack sufferers have an increased positive outcomes if a bystander can perform CPR before the ambulance arrives.
Victorian Transport Accident Commission – Australia. Everybody Hurts: 20 years of TAC advertising.
The influence operation (the objective): Prevention of traffic accidents, in particular drink driving (alcohol intoxication). Later, these campaigns reflected advances in technology to show driver distraction (text messaging) and speeding.
The tactical information (the research): Preventable transport accident deaths in Victoria.
The adversary (the target audience): This audience is statistically young in age – and their perception of invincibility is high because their brains have yet to full mature.
The propaganda (the messages): To the iconic REM song, the Transport Accident Commission features 20 years of raw, hard hitting (ironically often criticised during its early television campaign for being too realistic) television commercials that depict the physical and mental trauma caused by traffic accidents not only on the victims but survivors, families and friends.
The competitive advantage (the outcome): Lives saved. Safer drivers. Less accidents also result in economic benefits to insurers and the healthcare system.
Live Aid: ‘The Day Rock and Roll changed the world’ – raising funds for the African famine.
The influence operation (the objective): Fundraising to support humanitarian and relief support services dealing with the famine in Africa.
The tactical information (the research): With Government failing the starving people of Africa, Bob Geldof led celebrities, musicians and notable members of the public on a fundraising drive of an epic scale in a pivotal ‘power to the people’ moment.
The adversary (the target audience): Starvation. Government inaction.
The propaganda (the messages): Music.
The competitive advantage (the outcome): Lives saved. Awareness raised. The establishment of an ongoing ‘brand’ that could deliver similar responses to future humanitarian needs.
Read more about Live Aid here.
Elmo – “it’s time to brush your teeth!”
The influence operation (the objective): Dental hygiene.
The tactical information (the research): Children who typically don’t want to do anything their parents ask them to – particularly brush their teeth.
The adversary (the target audience): Have you ever tried to negotiate with a toddler about anything?
The propaganda (the messages): Everyone loves Elmo, but particularly small kids with his childlike voice, actions and diminutive size. Music. Bright colours. Other kids (see-do).
The competitive advantage (the outcome): Increased dental hygiene in children, but more importantly positive habit forming behaviours that will last a lifetime. Less dental issues, better health overall.
Notice the incredible range of diversity in the video?
While kids don’t notice differences between people as something significant until they’re about 5 years of age, the adults watching the show do. In any case, a great opportunity to normalise ‘differences’ and demonstrate to the adults how inclusion is done right.
Come home Cardinal Pell – by Tim Minchin
The influence operation (the objective): Justice for survivors of child sex abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church in Australia.
The tactical information (the research): The Australian Government. Led by Minchin’s song in an activist style campaign to ensure Cardinal Pell is brought – in person (which he resisted, instead hiding out in the Vatican) to Court in Melbourne to give evidence to the Royal Commission into Child Abuse.
The adversary (the target audience): The Catholic Church. Cardinal Pell. Australian Government.
The propaganda (the messages): Truth satire sung to a catchy tune.
The competitive advantage (the outcome): Increased public awareness of child sex abuse survivors, application of public pressure on the Catholic Church, Cardinal Pell and the Australian Government to bring Pell home to testify.
Kate Miller-Heidke’s version is equally impressive:
Kuwait Telecom company ‘Zain’ airs anti-radicalisation video during Ramadan depicting the victims confronting an actor-attacker.
The influence operation (the objective): Prevention of suicide bombing attacks and showing would be jihadi’s the consequences of their violence.
The tactical information (the research): Violence in the Middle East, and the recruitment of Muslim men to terrorist organisations has statistical significance in the region.
The adversary (the target audience): Terrorist organisations grooming and recruiting youth; and youth being influenced by extremist beliefs.
The propaganda (the messages): Using a range of cultural cues (music, video style and depictions) a story is told that centres around a prospective bomber who is confronted by real-life victims of similar attacks.
The competitive advantage (the outcome): Lives saved. The projection of consequence into prospective action amongst youth on the radicalisation trajectory. The solidification of social cohesion amongst mainstream Muslims.
Read the full story here.
You get the idea – so here are some info ops for-good in images (no explanation required)
Behavioural change or modification campaigns – essentially info ops for-good, shouldn’t be viewed through a military lens. In fact, the civilian uses of the same principles (usually called marketing or advertising) has us all making better, healthier and potentially life saving decisions in a healthcare and safety context.
So next time you fasten your seat belt or wait for the green ‘walk’ sign to illuminate before stepping out onto the road at an intersection – consider the thinking behind those processes that we abide by on auto pilot. That thinking was designed to ensure you make safer, healthier decisions for your own sake, and that of those around you.
Info ops for-good.
Also known as marketing and advertising.
Sometimes you buy crap you don’t need, other times you fasten your seatbelt, go to the gym and quit smoking.
A quick word on why so many examples (and campaigns) are focused on the healthcare sector.
Healthcare is the largest environment in which influence is applied due to the costs of preventable accidents, illnesses and diseases. With the best of intentions – saving your life or saving you from getting ill in the first place, Governments go to great efforts to try and make their communities healthier and happier.
Essentially because it saves resources and expenditure- both of which are your tax dollars at work. Imagine if those tax dollars went toward schools instead of smokers.
“The goal of helping people better manage their own health (and make better decisions) is an important one given estimates that 40% of our health status is driven by our behaviour and some chronic diseases that are particularly sensitive to it.”
For essential reading in this context Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s seminal work on healthcare behavioural economics ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wellness and Happiness’ is essential reading.