An image of the two spys from the comic "Spy vs. Spy" shaking hands

Roger Trinquier, the French counterinsurgency theorist, said, “The sine qua non of victory in [insurgent/counterinsurgent] warfare is the unconditional support of the people.” In Influence Operations, success is ultimately about the ability to overcome one’s status as an outsider.

The past few months have seen cyberwar intersect with Influence Operations, in Russia using chicanery along these lines to influence the U.S. presidential election. In wanting to learn more about Influence Ops, I stumbled across a paper from the Naval War College entitled “Influence Operations & the Human Domain.” They helpfully give an example of their offensive playbook, from their Influence Ops campaign in the Philippines. But as I read it, I felt my expression of horror intensifying.

A gif of Britney Spears reacting with shock, of the negative kind

The similarities in the U.S.’s Influence Ops strategy in the Philippines and Russia’s Influence Ops strategy for the U.S. presidential election are stark. The primary difference is the Philippines campaign mentions leveraging social media, but it occurred at the dawn of its ubiquity, whereas Russia had access to social media’s fuller potency. I’ve pulled quotes on the U.S. strategy from the paper, and written my thoughts on how it maps to the Russian ops below — judge for yourself.


The first step is determining the worthwhile targets of your Influence Ops campaign. These targets seem to be referred to as your “mobilizable population,” which falls into three distinct categories:

  1. Core supporters of the state (think: offense’s side — supporters of the Philippines government in the USG case; Trump’s supporter base in the Russian case)
  2. Core supporters of the insurgency (think: offense’s opposition — terrorists in the USG case; the “establishment,” and more specifically the Democratic party in the Russian case)
  3. Large middle group who are prepared to support one side or the other depending on circumstances (think: swing voters)

[The third group’s members] are the fence sitters weighing the cost and benefit of aligning with one side or the other. This group is the focal point of the influence struggle. The first two groups are generally ideologically driven and are highly unlikely to change sides.

The enmity between groups of individuals in the United States that are party-first is well known— they’re intransigent and will only ever vote for their party, no matter the candidate’s actual qualifications or policy positions. However, it’s also known that winning swing voters is the only way to achieve victory — only winning the party’s base is not enough to guarantee success.

For the core supporters of the state, a specialized U.S. task force conducting Influence Operations and working with host-nation forces generally provides the host government with the resources, training, and/or support that is most appropriate for the operating environment

If we equate “core supporters of the state” with “our side,” this translates to: “A specialized Russian task force conducting Influence Operations and working with U.S. forces generally provides the Trump campaign with the resources, training, and/or support that is most appropriate for the operating environment.”

That large middle group, the impressionable majority of the population, becomes the focal point in a struggle between the insurgents and counterinsurgents for decisive influence. Many in this group will have an initial preference toward one side, but the side they choose to support depends on the expected costs and benefits of their alternatives.

Commonly, you hear that swing voters went to Trump for economic reasons. The goal is also to minimize the perceived cost, however — making it seem like the cost of a Trump Presidency was minimal. And indeed, the cost to cisgender, heterosexual, middle class and up white people is most likely minimal.

The primary target audience for JSOTF-P’s Influence Operations was the diverse Philippine population within the joint operations area. Secondary audiences included local Philippine government officials, Philippine security forces, and the Philippine population not directly affected or targeted by the insurgents.

I’d argue the “operations area” here is the electorate with the highest chance of turning towards Trump — so the Minivan Majority plus disaffected swing voters and Democrats. Secondary audiences included local American government officials, American security forces (likely Comey & the FBI, given their seeming fealty to Trump), and the American population not directly affected or targeted by the “establishment” (upper middle class, educated white voters).

The phrase “as they create a secure and stable environment” was particularly significant. It remained critical for the Filipino population to see their own government in the lead, which made enhancing the Philippine Security Forces’ capacity to operate autonomously and more effectively a primary JSOTF-P mission.

It was crucial that American voters saw Trump as a candidate with his own agency, rather than as a Russian puppet.

The method of application began with a targeting process to identify which communities were most vulnerable to a particular threat or hostile influence.

Russia thus identified the communities, primarily white and non-urban, that felt most vulnerable to a “particular threat” — in this case, the multicultural globalization movement that they feel has left them behind socially and economically.

1. The first PSYOP LOE supported JSOTF-P’s civil-military engagement by personalizing AFP and JSOTF-P support to local communities

Russia’s Influence Ops and the Trump campaign did an excellent job of tailoring the message to each rally and to propaganda spread throughout social media channels.

2. The second PSYOP LOE was focused on disrupting insurgent operations by creating dissent among the insurgents as well as between the insurgents and the communities that traditionally supported or tolerated them.

The Russian Influence Ops campaign published the DNC emails via Wikileaks specifically for this scurrilous purpose — by making it seem that Bernie Sanders had been robbed of the nomination, they drew some of his supporters to Trump. The leaks in general were the foundation for their polemic against “the establishment,” and implicating Clinton in it.

3. The third major PSYOP LOE was the Rewards for Justice Campaign. This LOE identified the most heinous insurgent leaders, offered rewards leading to their arrest, and, more importantly, made personal connections between the atrocities committed and the insurgent leaders responsible for them.

In general, the Russian ops was adroit in making Clinton the boogeyman — painting her as the putative zenith of USG’s and the “global elite’s ” corruption and haughty ways. In particular, the “Lock Her Up!” chant I think is an exemplary use of this sort of seditious tactic. Not to mention flouting Clinton’s “Wall Street ties” and global focus — both seen as enemies of Main Street.

4. JSOTF-P’s fourth PSYOP LOE — the Mass Media Campaign — provided operational-level influence support to the task force as a whole and galvanized all three previous PSYOP LOEs together through an extensive and overt commercial multimedia campaign.

While they received some help from Fox News, for the most part the Russian Influence Ops campaign disseminated their calumny against existing U.S. power structures and Clinton via alt-right and white nationalist sites like Breitbart, or set up new domains for propaganda dissemination, such as americanlookout.com or endoftheamericandream.com. These became “mass media” through rampant social media sharing, particularly through Facebook.

Creating dissent within and between the two insurgent groups and the populace was dependent on fostering trust and developing favorable options for the affected people, thereby providing a viable and desirable alternative to living with an insurgent presence.

Trump decisively labeled Clinton as being part of the “establishment” and thus not for the “people.” However, what helped him appear contumacious the most was breaking away from the GOP, labeling them the establishment as well, and significantly departing from their policy positions — for example by being against free trade and pro-Putin.

A unique aspect of JSOTF-P’s influence messaging was the primacy of using CME and face-to-face engagements to validate the influence messages instead of employing reactive messages to address events after they occurred.

Trump held countless rallies, personalizing apoplectic messaging for each local community.

Our PSYOP messaging mediums capitalized upon these seams by amplifying the population’s silent-majority concerns and grievances with the ASG.

An example of amplifying the population’s “silent-majority” concerns and grievances were Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric, but also dog-whistling white nationalism by tying black communities to inner cities, Mexican immigrants to rapists and even leveraging anti-semitic global-banking-conspiracy / New World Order themes.

The PSYOP detachment paid careful attention not to show carnage but to encapsulate the fear and anguish of the witnesses, as well as the grim determination of the AFP and U.S. forces that were often the first to arrive on the scene with medical aid and security.

Ironically, it tends to be Trump’s base that talks about “feels over reals,” but ultimately Trump’s campaign was about suppurating their feels— the white middle class is afraid of being less relevant in a globalized world, afraid of the erosion of their privilege that greater equality — both on a national and global scale — brings. Trump gave very few tangible policy, let alone execution, strategies, but preyed on the “anguish” of his base that their jobs have been lost to automation and globalization.

The U.S. supported the Philippine government and security forces with access to information, intelligence, and modern technology to assist their efforts to build and maintain situational awareness, provide predictive analysis, and react to insurgent threats.

Replace with “Russia supported the Trump Campaign (and Wikileaks) with access to information, intelligence, and modern technology to assist their efforts to build and maintain situational awareness, provide predictive analysis, and react to threats from the Clinton campaign.”

Key to JSOTF-P’s Intelligence LOE success was the ability of U.S. intelligence personnel to “export” the processing, exploitation, and dissemination of the collected intelligence to the partner or host in order to build their capacity and give them ownership of the decision-making cycle.

A good chunk of this was giving hacked data from the DNC over to Wikileaks, but assuredly also to the Trump campaign.

The desired effect for terror groups is dissent within their ranks, discord from the populace, and their surrender, dissolution, and demonstrated defeat

Well, Russia certainly succeeded in sowing dissent within liberal ranks and discord from the populace…but they aren’t to demonstrated defeat yet.

Each village, community, province, and hostile group was unique within the concept of population-centric warfare, but they all shared cultural and personal commonalities.

Trump’s base shared a few key cultural and personal commonalities, such as being white as well as typically being less educated and living in more rural areas.

In the affected nation, the relevant population will generally choose the side that provides them with the greatest stability.

While many who recognize the instability that a Russian puppet brings to our democracy, you can see why voters — primarily those who are white, in the Midwest, and lacking the skills to compete in an increasingly globalized, technological society — would view Trump as the candidate who would provide them with the greatest stability by his theoretical rolling back of the clock to the days of yore.


This, of course, is just one case study, but why I like it is that it shows that the U.S. IC was well aware of how a nation state conducts an Influence Ops campaign in the social media era. However, I couldn’t find any papers on countering a nation state’s Influence Ops campaign. Perhaps it’s classified, or perhaps we never assumed that a nation state would use our playbook against us.

That’s not to say that creating such a strategy would be trivial — I personally don’t have a great notion of how a playbook to counter nation-state Influence Ops would look. I’m all too aware of the realities a decentralized media ecosystem brings and how puissant social media has become — it is prohibitive for the government to squash damaging propaganda distributed through those channels.

The Grugq recently wrote about the challenges in countering such a campaign, and I’m inclined to believe he’s correct in his analysis. I also agree with McCain’s strong suggestion recently of starting a new USIA, though it will require a radically different approach than what was employed before.

Finally, if you buy into my pattern-matching above, it’s challenging to arrive at the conclusion that the Trump campaign did not have a Russian retinue to coordinate their efforts with Russia’s influence ops campaign. It’s either an exceptionally convenient coincidence they were so in sync in pulling off this strategy, or something is rotten in the state of Denmark.