From Our Guest Editors

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Winter 2019

Influence operations (IO) are nothing new. Studies of propaganda demonstrate that efforts to inflence the battlefield by, for example undermining the will to fight, are as old as war itself (Taylor 1999). Of great concern in recent years has been the audacious targeting of these techniques upon civilian populations in peacetime, including toward rituals central to the integrity of democratic societies, such as elections. IOs typically mimic and appropriate individuals expressing their rights to freedom of speech but are, in fact, run by agents of foreign powers attempting to manipulate and degrade public debate with the aim of undermining the functioning of those societies.

These experiences seem to intensify with proximity to authoritarian states. Between July 2018 and June 2019, the major digital platforms removed over 40 complex IOs reaching 84 million people (around half of these efforts were taken down before they had the chance to reach the general public). The ‘big three’ of Russia, China, and Iran are often identified as sources, though smaller countries as well as nonstate actors appear to be adopting similar techniques. Relatively objective principles such as history, scientific knowledge, and territorial boundaries are being disputed in the information space by revisionist powers. More controversial fault lines such as cultural identity, migration, and politics are the subject of increasingly intense contestation.

The seven articles in this special issue explore the phenomenon of IO as it has developed in recent years. In the first article, Wanless and Pamment unpack the terminologies used when describing and analysing IOs. They argue that the use of multiple, overlapping terms is symptomatic of a weak un-derstanding of the problem and, therefore, that consensus over terminology is a necessary starting point for a more enlightened field of analysis. In article number two, Martin, Shapiro, and Nedash-kovskaya analyse 53 IOs over a five-year period in order to identify trends and establish a means of classification. They observe attacks targeting two dozen countries and outline how a comprehensive IO database can be established using a codebook derived from mixed social scientific methods.

In the third article, Boyd and Lin move beyond the content- and intent-focused approaches that have more frequently been the focus of research on such activity to explore the effects of IO on audiences and to argue for a greater emphasis on cognition and psychology to deepen understanding of the topic. This piece takes a more practical approach, considering how changing technology will affect the work of the information operations planner, particularly in militaries.

Ramluckan and van Niekerk explore some of the legal and regulatory questions associated with IO. The authors find that there is a lack of appropriate international legislation covering IO, although some legal regimes in close-lying areas are suggestive of fruitful avenues. In the fifth article, Cinelli et al. discuss the cognitive grounds that underlie the diffusion of mis-information in the Italian context. This analysis is used to support a progressive research agenda for further investigating the social media environment and information dynamics, as well as the use of automated systems for exploiting cognitive and environmental vulnerabilities.

In article six, Yang provides a case study of the ways in which reflexive control and cognitive vulnerabilities were exploited in the 2016 U.S.  presidential election.  The article builds on the case to examine how influencers target the biases of groups and organizations, by ire-ating a model drawing on both Russian and Western theories of influence. In the seventh article, Pamment and Twetman explore the question of whether IO can be deterred. Through a breakdown of possible activities within the areas of resilience, deterrents, and countermeasures, the authors outline the elements that constitute a deterrence posture in the field of IO.

Together, these seven articles make a modest but important contribution to forwarding the international debate on IO.  Drawing on a mixture of conceptual, empirical, and policy-oriented approaches, the authors represent a range of academic disciplines, methodologies, and perspectives.  Far from being the final word, it is hoped that the articles in this collection will stimulate and stake out future directions for further research.


Alicia Wanless
Department of War Studies
King’s College, London
London, United Kingdom

James Pamment
Department of Strategic Communication
Lund University
Helsingborg, Sweden


Taylor, PM 2003, Munitions of the mind: A history of propaganda from the an­cient world to the present era, 3rd ed., Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK.


Department of War StudiesKing’s College, London, 
United Kingdom

Alicia Wanless researches how we shape — and are shaped — by a changing information space. With more than a decade of experience in researching and analysing the information environment, focusing on propaganda and information warfare, Alicia conducts content and network analysis, and has developed original models for identifying and analysing digital propaganda campaigns. Alicia applies this learning to support government, military and major tech companies to develop policies and integrate information activities into training programs that better reflect how the information environment is manipulated.  She has shared her work and insights with senior government, military, industry leaders and academic experts at Wilton Park, the Munich Security Conference, the Hedayah Centre, Harvard, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Alicia is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College exploring alternative frameworks for understanding the information environment. Alicia’s work has been featured in the CBC, Forbes, and The Strategy Bridge.

Photo of Dr James Pamment

Department of Strategic Communication Lund University Helsingborg, 

Dr James Pamment is an Associate Professor at Lund University, Sweden, and Non-Residential Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is also co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Place Branding and Public Diplomacy.

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