The world of psychological operations and information warfare is complex and often controversial. Our investigation explores the role of the United States government in this sphere, its partnerships with private enterprises and academia, and the emergence of a new Department of Defense (DOD) doctrine that views the entire world—both real and digital—as a battleground.
The DOD has adopted a euphemistic term, “the information environment,” which it defines as “the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information—consisting of physical, informational, and cognitive dimensions.” This concept is at the heart of a recent report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) entitled “Information Environment: Opportunities and Threats to DOD’s National Security Mission.”
While the GAO and DOD do not explicitly refer to the “information environment” as a battlefield, it is difficult to read their documents without concluding that they perceive it as such. By using the term “information environment,” the DOD effectively obfuscates the true nature of its objectives—not only to its soldiers but also to other branches of government and the general public.
The DOD’s interest in information is diverse, but one key concern is the “fusion of ubiquitous information and technology,” which has granted various entities—both benign and malign—the ability to target the cognitive foundations of individuals, such as their beliefs, emotions, and experiences. On the pretext of “national security,” the DOD seeks to achieve full-spectrum dominance in the information environment even if it means employing counter-psychological warfare against its own citizens.
Lieutenant Colonel Daniel “Plato” Morabito’s report in the Fall 2021 edition of Air & Space Power Journal captures the essence of the DOD’s evolving perspective on the information environment: “The global trend toward faster data transfer across increasingly connected devices—the so-called internet of things—means adversaries now maintain a presence in American homes, delivered through smartphones and other technology.”
Throughout history, governments have attempted to influence both foreign and domestic populations via information operations. The United States military has employed “strategic communication” since World War II, and during the Cold War, the United States Information Agency (USIA) disseminated pro-American propaganda worldwide. The infamous CIA project, MK-Ultra, secretly funded behavioral psychology research in an effort to control individuals’ minds.
The rise of the internet in the 1990s led to a significant expansion of the military’s information operations, and in the wake of the 2001 September 11 attacks, these operations took center stage. The first deployment of weaponized social media can be traced to the 2010 Arab Spring, which saw the US military utilize platforms, online messaging, and strategic communication to support pro-democracy movements and suppress authoritarian regimes.
Even before the Arab Spring, however, the US State Department established “Digital Outreach Teams,” at least in part, to counter false narratives and conduct psychological operations to encourage pro-American sentiment abroad. The creation of the 24-hour Arabic-language radio station Radio Sawa provided extensive coverage of the protests and amplified pro-democracy messages.
The media, often referred to as the fourth branch of government, played a crucial role in shaping public opinion during these events, acting as a proxy for the government’s objectives.
Another disturbing revelation, scarcely reported by the media, has emerged: the Pentagon’s alleged use of fake social media accounts as recently as last year, according to the Washington Post. While such accounts are permitted under the guise of ‘countering foreign disinformation campaigns,’ the Pentagon itself determines when such a campaign is underway. This grants them unbridled discretion to engage in covert information warfare.
The disquieting truth, discernible only to the vigilant, is that the Pentagon need not rely on ‘countering foreign disinformation’ as a pretext. On December 31, 2012, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual legislation that sets the budget and expenditures for the DOD. In 2023, $816.7 billion was authorized for the DOD. Although some allocation of funds is warranted for defense, the NDAA is often exploited as a tool for policy and politics.
In 2012, Republican Mac Thornberry and Democrat Adam Smith introduced the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act. The original Smith-Mundt Act, originally enacted in 1948, authorized the State Department to develop methods to disseminate propaganda outside US borders. Over time, however, it evolved into a program used to target American citizens. The 2012 NDAA allowed for this, citing the threat of foreign terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda, attempting to persuade the American public to abandon Western ideals.
Thornberry, one of the sponsors of the update, claimed that the amendment was necessary to “effectively communicate in a credible and transparent way.” Despite assurances from lawmakers, recent history has revealed otherwise. The Russiagate affair, which accused President Trump of being a Russian asset, is a prime example.
In 2017, the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) was formed, consisting mostly of former senior US Intelligence and State Department officials. This organization played a pivotal role in feeding stories to the press, which were then disseminated to the public with little scrutiny. The ASD created the now infamous “Hamilton 68 Dashboard,” which purportedly tracked social media accounts linked to Russian influence campaigns. Journalist Matt Taibbi exposed the dashboard’s flawed methodology and lack of transparency.
Little, if anything, is known of these types of operations. How was this secret army deployed domestically during the COVID-19 pandemic? We are just now learning of the British Army’s use of psyops on its own citizens through its 77th Brigade.
The non-profit Big Brother Watch recently revealed this. The 77th Brigade propagandized social media users and swarmed posts by users they deemed as spreading “dangerous misinformation” related to COVID-19. They also used the tactic of mass reporting so social media companies would take action to suspend accounts, amounting to a clandestine Ministry of Truth.
It’s not entirely inconceivable that these types of psyops were and are used against US citizens. The Twitter Files exposed the FBI and CIA for actively flagging accounts and badgering Twitter about it while using veiled threats if they didn’t accommodate their censorship rampages.
In 2015, shortly after yet another coup occurred in Ukraine via a NATO-backed color revolution, Donald Trump entered the political scene. Although he was an establishment figure most of his life, he differed in one key area: foreign policy. Promising to end the war in Afghanistan and attempting to open up lines of communication with Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was a bridge too far for the neoliberal and neoconservative ruling class. When Trump won the presidency, the old boy network, intelligence agencies, FBI, and bureaucrats jumped into action.
This is when it appears the full force of psychological warfare and the accompanying censorship infrastructure was built and unleashed on the Western world. Russiagate, we now know, was one of the most successful psyops ever perpetrated on the public, surpassed only by the recent “pandemic.” It involved arguably all aspects of the government, including the DOJ, Congress, the FBI, and the State Department. It also relied on support from academia, the entertainment industry, and most importantly, the media at large—especially social media.
There are large swaths of people walking the earth right now who still unequivocally believe, with great conviction, that Donald Trump is a Russian asset doing the bidding of Putin even though this has been proven to be a lie over and over again. They continually cite completely false information as proof and laugh in your face if you question it or show them it’s not true. The power of psychological warfare should not be dismissed. It is evident all around us every day.
Mainstream news channels now routinely feature former US State Department and intelligence officials as experts, further blurring the line between news and propaganda. CNN alone has hired at least five: James Clapper, former director of national intelligence; John Kirby, former State Department/Pentagon press secretary and current coordinator for strategic communications for the White House’s National Security Council; Lisa Monaco, former DHS advisor and current US deputy attorney general; Spider Marks; former head of US Army Intelligence Center; and Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA. Other networks have also gone down this path. MSNBC hired former CIA Director John Brennan, the architect of Russiagate, for on-air analysis that amounts to blatant propaganda.
The Pentagon has a directorate dedicated to developing tools for psychological operations (psyop) missions and information warfare, including social media mapping, behavioral manipulation, surveillance, and target influence campaigns. The Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate (IWTSD) acts as a miniature Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), specializing in powerful psyop tools and intelligence entities.
The IWTSD appears to be similar to another clandestine network estimated to include 60,000 individuals under a program called “signature reduction.” Operating both on foreign and domestic soil, this secret army is more than ten times the size of the CIA’s clandestine elements. In 2021, Newsweek published an exposé titled “Inside the Military’s Secret Undercover Army,” publicly disclosing the existence of this force for the first time. It received minimal, if any, coverage. This lack of attention left what they termed a “signature reduction” force operating unbeknownst to the world without regulation or oversight.
The legality of this secret army, particularly its operations on domestic soil, remains uncertain. No congressional hearings have been held, and the force’s true size and scope are unknown. Newsweek’s two-year investigation, which included dozens of FOIA requests and interviews with program participants and decision-makers, revealed a sprawling network of at least 130 private companies assisting in these covert operations. The annual cost to taxpayers is estimated to be around $900 million.
These companies engage in various activities, from creating false documentation and manufacturing disguises to building invisible devices for surveillance.
As Newsweek reported, the companies do “everything from creating false documentation and paying the bills (and taxes) of individuals operating under assumed names, to manufacturing disguises and other devices to thwart detection and identification, to building invisible devices to photograph and listen in on activity in the most remote corners of the Middle East and Africa.”
The investigation interviewed an operator who detailed how he helped procure fake ID documents, driver’s licenses, tax documents, and more—all undercover and, in at least one instance in Washington state, unbeknownst to even the governor.
His anonymous name was “Darby,” and he went over the six principles of signature reduction: credibility, compatibility, realism, supportability, verity, and compliance.
According to Darby, they even make agreements with banks and credit card companies’ security departments to look the other way in their identity fraud and money laundering investigations. They can also create fake credit scores, fake bill payments, and much more.
This hidden army operates in the shadows of a nation obsessed with security, bending perceptions and shaping reality with surgical precision. The Pentagon, with its seemingly limitless power, wields these clandestine tools under the guise of ‘countering foreign disinformation campaigns,’ a decision left solely to their discretion. This nebulous authority, granted by legislation such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, has morphed from a well-intentioned endeavor into a sprawling apparatus of manipulation.
These skilled operatives, backed by a labyrinth of Special Access Programs (SAPs) and unknown corporate partners, deploy a staggering array of technological marvels. From silicon face appliances that can alter one’s appearance to infiltrating international databases, this invisible army defies detection at every turn. It is a testament to the ingenuity of human innovation—and a reflection of the depths to which those in power will sink to maintain control.
For all its secrecy, the true horror lies not in its existence but in its unchecked reach. As the line between domestic and foreign operations blurs, questions of legality and morality go unanswered. How can such a force operate within the United States without any clear legal framework or congressional oversight?
The implications of this clandestine warfare are far-reaching as the public sphere increasingly becomes a battleground for hearts and minds. As evidenced by recent events, such as the Russiagate affair and the COVID-19 pandemic, the tendrils of this invisible army have wrapped themselves around the fabric of society. The media now finds itself infiltrated by former intelligence and State Department officials, blurring the line between journalism and propaganda.
It is a bitter irony that those entrusted with the defense of a nation built on freedom and democracy now wield tools of manipulation and deception. Yet even in the face of such overwhelming odds, the resilience of the human spirit endures. A glimmer of hope remains as the light of truth struggles to pierce the darkness of deception.
The story of this invisible army serves as a stark reminder of the eternal vigilance required to safeguard the liberties we hold dear. In a world where perception and reality intertwine, the battle for the soul of democracy is far from over.
The fact that this so-called “signature reduction” force is known to operate on domestic soil harkens back to the chilling days of Operation Gladio, a covert “stay-behind” army established by the CIA, British Secret Service, and NATO during the Cold War. This army lived among European citizens, waiting to be “activated” for operations ranging from coups d’etat and torture to acts of terrorism. The exposure of this secret army by Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Andretti in 1990 serves as a stark reminder of the often hidden machinations of geopolitical players.
The concept of “signature reduction” bears eerie similarities to Operation Gladio, albeit through different means. As the means of warfare evolve, the focus has shifted toward what is referred to as Fifth Generation Warfare (5GW)—a battle for perspectives and information. In essence, 5GW aims to control the perception of reality itself. As the world grows increasingly interconnected, the nature of warfare has undergone a seismic shift. With the advent of 5GW, the traditional boundaries of conflict have dissolved, giving rise to a new kind of battle that is waged in the shadows and is largely invisible to the population it targets. This new form of warfare, defined by the manipulation of perception, information, and cultural divides, poses a unique challenge to governments, institutions, and citizens alike.
At its core, 5GW is a battle of narratives and ideas waged not through conventional military means but through psychological manipulation, disinformation campaigns, and covert operations. Its aim is not to destroy the enemy through brute force but to erode their resolve, undermine their institutions, and sow discord among their populations. This subtle, insidious form of warfare requires a comprehensive understanding of the tools and techniques employed by those who wield it.
One of the primary tactics in 5GW is the use of information warfare. In this domain, governments and other actors deploy a combination of state-sponsored media, social media bots, and other forms of disinformation to shape public opinion, manipulate perceptions, and create a climate of fear and uncertainty. By controlling the flow of information, these actors can influence the behavior of targeted populations, turning public sentiment against adversaries or sowing discord within rival nations.
5GW also encompasses the use of “soft power” to shape the cultural and political landscape of targeted populations. This can include the promotion of certain ideologies, the manipulation of public opinion through media and entertainment, and even the funding of academic institutions or think tanks to advance a particular narrative. In this way, governments can subtly guide the values, beliefs, and aspirations of a population, steering them toward desired outcomes without resorting to violence.
There is an evolving understanding of what exactly 5GW actually is, but in a nutshell, it is a battle of perspectives and information—in other words, control of what is perceived to be reality. This concept relates to a book written in 1999 by two Chinese military officers entitled Unrestricted Warfare. It’s a modern-day Machiavellian warfare treatise.
The authors state that “
while we are seeing a relative reduction in military violence, at the same time we definitely are seeing an increase in political, economic, and technological violence.” Another term that refers to this type of warfare is “irregular warfare.” Regardless of the term, these practices involve the sophisticated use of electronic warfare, propaganda, and psychological manipulation designed to achieve a desired result.
According to the 2010 book The Handbook of Fifth Generation Warfare, each generation is distinct in the history of warfare:
“For instance while 0GW relied on wiping out the enemy completely or Total War, 1GW on defeating him with larger numbers and force. Then 2GW depended on defeating the enemy with better machines. Victory in 3GW comes from better minds. The most famous 3GW was the German Blitzkrieg against France in 1940.”
In contrast, “the ‘Shock and Awe’ defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003 relied heavily on 3GW, as did the 100-hour campaign during the first Gulf War.”
Meanwhile, “4G warfare often involves either degrading the opponent into an earlier generation of warfare that can be defeated conventionally, or else providing incentives for some part of the 4GW force to turn on their comrades.” The book also notes that “4GW war is so peaceful that the warfighter becomes a criminal.” Still, though, the enemy is defined and aware there is a war going on.
As the book explains, “In 5GW, violence is so dispersed that the losing side may never realize that it has been conquered. The very secrecy of 5GW makes it the hardest generation of war to study.” Further, “attacks occur below the threshold of observation” and attempt to be imperceptible. “5GW is the preemptive, system-wide, automatic degeneration of forces into more primitive gradients of warfare.”
The entire point of this type of warfare is to blur the lines between the military and civilians. Objectives are achieved by manipulating perceptions and changing the context in which the world is perceived. It is a war where the frontlines revolve around morality and culture. As the famous Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said (though translations vary) in his book On War, war is “a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.”
By altering how the world is perceived, wars can be won without physical combat. As Sun Tzu wrote, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” This type of warfare makes sense from a strategic perspective. Armed conflict as it has been traditionally employed simply cannot work in the 21st Century. Rather, information must be used to obtain desired outcomes. It’s a much cleaner way of doing things, lacking all the bodies, but it is no less potent—the victims in this war lose their agency instead of their lives.
To borrow again from The Handbook of Fifth Generation Warfare, “While politics is the instrument of culture, strategy is the instrument of politics.” Since 5GW is a war of deception, it’s almost entirely a war of influence. This doesn’t mean 5GW is violence-free. However, most of the violence it incites is committed by third parties whose observational context is manipulated through a war of influence.
These concepts are not new. They have been around for centuries to varying degrees. Indian strategist Kautilya, who dates back to the 4th Century BCE came up with three spectrums of hostilities, as paraphrased in The Handbook of Fifth Generation Warfare:
- Open war: waging war where the war, political desires, combatants, and the strategic forms of power used in the war are visible, energetic, and lean towards violence over influence.
- Secret war: waging war where the war and political desires are visible but the combatants and strategic forms of power used in the war are invisible, moderately energetic, and lean towards a balance of violence and influence.
- Silent war: waging war where the war, political desires, combatants, and the strategic forms of power used in the war are invisible, not very energetic, and lean towards influence.
“Any advanced 5GW is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
Based on this description, it becomes quite apparent that beginning in 2020 with the emergence of COVID, the entire world was subjected to a highly advanced form of 5GW. This idea is backed by the revelation that multiple federal agencies were actively censoring information, deploying a veritable army of censors to control the narrative.
The Brownstone Institute examined the scope of this censorship:
“First, the breadth and extent of the federal Defendants’ censorship activities is massive. In their initial response to interrogatories, Defendants initially identified forty-five federal officials at DHS, CISA, the CDC, NIAID, and the Office of the Surgeon General (all within only two federal agencies, DHS and HHS), who communicate with social media platforms about misinformation and censorship.”
Another critical aspect of 5GW is cyber warfare. Governments and non-state actors alike can deploy cyber weapons to disrupt critical infrastructure, steal sensitive information, and undermine the integrity of democratic institutions. Cyber attacks can range from low-level acts of sabotage, such as the defacement of websites, to more sophisticated operations that target the power grid, financial institutions, or election infrastructure. In many cases, these attacks are designed to be deniable and difficult to attribute, further blurring the lines between warfare and criminal activity.
Proxy warfare also plays a central role in 5GW, with governments supporting armed groups or insurgents to advance their strategic objectives while maintaining a veneer of plausible deniability. By arming and training proxy forces, governments can extend their influence and further their goals without the need for direct military intervention. This tactic allows them to circumvent international law and avoid the political and economic costs associated with overt acts of aggression.
As governments and other actors continue to develop and refine their 5GW capabilities, it is crucial that we recognize the profound implications of this new form of warfare. The invisible nature of 5GW makes it difficult to detect and counter, and its focus on perception and influence means that it can be just as potent as traditional military force. Moreover, the blurred lines between war and peace that characterize 5GW pose a significant challenge to the norms and laws that govern international relations, raising difficult questions about accountability and state sovereignty.
The advent of artificial intelligence has only heightened the potential for 5GW operations. The ChatGPT system, for example, raises the possibility of armies of AI Psy-Warriors being deployed to establish information supremacy on social media networks and the internet at large. The development of such technology by defense agencies like DARPA—the original pioneers of AI—raises questions about the ethics and implications of using AI in psychological warfare.
The world we live in is increasingly shaped by the information we consume, and as AI technology continues to advance, the potential for manipulation and deception becomes all the more insidious. At a time when public trust in institutions is already fragile, the prospect of artificial intelligence being weaponized for psychological warfare serves as an ominous reminder that we must remain vigilant in our pursuit of truth and transparency.
At the heart of the ethical debate surrounding AI-driven psychological operations lies the question of human autonomy. As sentient beings, we possess the inalienable right to think, feel, and act of our own accord. The use of AI for psychological manipulation, however, threatens to undermine the very foundations of human agency. The insidious nature of these operations, carefully crafted to evade detection, risks transforming the public into unwitting pawns in a grand game of perception and power. In an age when truth is a commodity, the exploitation of AI to manipulate public consciousness undermines the sanctity of human autonomy and the principles of informed consent.
Moreover, the application of AI in psychological operations raises serious concerns about privacy and surveillance. As the tendrils of AI extend ever deeper into our digital lives, the potential for our most intimate thoughts and emotions to be mined, analyzed, and manipulated grows exponentially. The capacity for AI-driven psychological operations to exploit our deepest fears, desires, and biases not only compromises individual privacy but also erodes the collective trust that binds the fabric of society together.
The potential for AI to exacerbate existing social divisions and amplify misinformation also casts a long shadow over the ethical landscape. By tailoring narratives to specific audiences, AI-driven psychological operations may deepen societal fissures, fostering polarization and discord. In a world where misinformation already runs rampant, the use of AI for psychological manipulation adds fuel to the fire, destabilizing the very foundations of the truth on which democratic societies are supposed to be built.
The relentless march of technological progress, unchecked by ethical inquiry, threatens to lead us down a path where human cognition is subsumed by the cold calculus of machine intelligence. The risk of losing our humanity, our capacity for empathy, love, and wonder in the pursuit of AI-driven psychological manipulation calls into question the very essence of what it means to be human.
As we confront the ethical quandaries posed by weaponized artificial intelligence, we must resist the temptation to view this technology as an inevitable, unstoppable force. Instead, we must recognize the power we possess as individuals, and as a society, to shape the future of AI in accordance with our deepest moral convictions. By fostering open dialogue, encouraging critical inquiry, and holding our institutions accountable, we can ensure that the development and deployment of AI are guided by the principles of transparency, equality, and respect for human dignity—something we have a lot of work to do in order to achieve.
In the words of Aldous Huxley, “The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.” As we stand on the precipice of a revolutionary AI-driven world, we must remain vigilant, striving to preserve the integrity of the human spirit.