Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Havel: Wargaming the information environment

The latest issue of Canadian Army Today 6, 2 (Fall 2022) contains an article by Sean Havel (Defence Research and Development Canada) describing a series of three innovative information and influence wargames conducted for the NATO System Analysis Studies (SAS) 151 group last year. The scenario for those games involved efforts by the hostile and authoritarian Illyrian Federal Republic (RED) to exert influence over the neighbouring Hypatian Commonweath (GREEN), with Hypatia enjoying support from the Organization for Collective Security (BLUE), an alliance of liberal democracies. (Full disclosure: I served as RED team lead in the first and most of the third game, and as BLUE team lead in the second.)

  • In the first game, IFR sought to influence elections in Hypatia so as to weaken pro-OCS politicians and further its interests more broadly.
  • In the second game, Hypatia conducted a referendum on joining the OCS, which RED and BLUE sought to influence towards “No” and “Yes” respectively.
  • In the third game, the IFR sought to mobilize ethnic discontent in Hypatia so as to provide suitable conditions for military intervention.

Here is where the games were truly innovative: the effects of information and influence operations were largely adjudicated by having real people play ordinary citizens, each with differing social, demographic, and political profiles, in a simulated social media environment established using Discord. In short, to influence people you actually had to influence them through careful crafting of content, and appropriate targeting and delivery. You will find a much more detailed account in the article above, in this Connections North 2022 presentation by Sean, and (for those with access) a forthcoming technical paper. I’ve also briefly mentioned the games in an earlier PAXsims piece.

How did it all turn out? From a technical and methodological point of view, there were some issues regarding situational awareness and feedback mechanisms. The approach also faces potential challenges of validation and verification—how do you know your roleplay citizens will act like the real thing? Overall, however, I thought it was all remarkably successful for an experimental game.

In term of the scenario, the IFR did extremely well in the first game, dramatically weakening pro-OCS political parties in Hypatia, strengthening pro-IFR parties, and generally fostering political disillusionment and fragmentation. In the second game, the OCS managed to counter IFR propaganda well enough to secure a narrow majority for the “Yes” side in the referendum. In the third game, the IFR was again very pleased with the result, stoking resentment and political polarization to the point of open armed confrontation between the central government and (ethnic Illyrian) minority. What was remarkable was that this was not because of a high die roll or some adjudicator decision, but rather by convincing more than a quarter of the real people playing simulated citizens that armed opposition was preferable to central government rule—an opinion almost none of them had held at the start. Moreover, this was achieved in a relatively traditional way: RED had eschewed the use of deepfakes or other more complex techniques and instead applied a combination of well-established intelligence gathering techniques to understand the political environment; carefully designed and targeted messages; rapid, agile information operations that combined decentralization with overarching strategic themes and guidance; and simple sockpuppet accounts, proxies, and botnets to signal boost its information activities. While the social media angle was new, much of it would have been recognizable to the propagandists of WW2—or diplomats, advertising executives, and political party strategists today. It also proved to be strikingly similar in tone and apprpoach to the very successful information operations currently being conducted by Ukraine and the social media antics of NAFO.

h/t Brian Train

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