It’s time to focus on information warfare’s hard questions

Written by Gavin Wilde

In 2016, Russia sparked our current era’s obsession with online information operations. By meddling in that year’s U.S. presidential election via a plethora of online tools, Moscow’s operatives illustrated what seemed like the boundless potential of digital manipulation.

Since then, social media companies and governments have made massive investments in catching these efforts. As a report published by Facebook parent company Meta at the tail end of 2022 illustrates, these efforts appear to have reached something of an equilibrium with Russian information operators. Russia, along with several other states, still run malign online information operations, but these campaigns to influence public opinion are detected and taken down with such speed that they rarely reach significant audiences.

This state of equilibrium means that it’s high time to ask more fundamental questions about online information operations and the resources being mustered in countering them. Such efforts — and the coverage of them — means that our collective attention is far more focused on content and mechanics, rather than real-world impact and our information ecosystem more broadly.

Six years into our collective preoccupation with information operations and how platforms wrestle with them, the question of whether they even work in the first place — and if so, how — has gotten lost. The incentives for all parties — platforms, governments and illicit actors alike — are stacked in favor of operating on the assumption that they do, while the science looks inconclusive at best.

Meta capped off 2022 by detailing how it has performed more than 200 takedowns of covert influence operations on its platforms, the culmination of a strategy first used against Russian actors in 2017. In a short five years, Facebook’s threat analysts have arguably served as the vanguard of a new industry — monitoring and countering malign activity online.

Five years on, this industry and those responsible for carrying out information operations — in particular, Russia — have become co-dependents….