Threat Inteliigence / OSINT / NETSEC / NATSEC

French doctrine of cyber operations - influence operations

Information operations, impact operations or the so-called active measures are quite a specific aspect of cyber activities. It would seem that this is an issue completely separate from cyber espionage or sabotage. However, due to the great role played by the Internet, social media and other forms of digital communication, it is often the threat intelligence teams that track and analyze them. More precisely, it results from the fact that the creation of infrastructure, the use of communication channels, or the creation of credible characters largely coincides with the metrology of activities in classic cyber operations.

In the previous post we dealt with the French doctrine of offensive operations. This time we will look at a newer document that deals with IT-driven influence operations (Lutte Informatique d'Influence, L2I for short). The document was published in October 2021 Public Elements of the Doctrine of Information Operations of Influence (Éléments publics de doctrine militaire de lutte informatique d'influence (L2I)) focuses on this area. The publication of the document was announced during a press conference attended by the then head of the Ministry of Armed Forces Florence Parly and the Chief of the General Staff General Thierry Burkhard. Disinformation and attempts to influence public opinion are tools that are obviously associated with authoritarian rather than democratic states, and open admission to this type of action has therefore aroused controversy. On the other hand, Parly emphasized the power and importance of information activities, even stating that they can make it possible to "win without a fight". So how did France deal with the dilemmas related to involvement in disinformation activities while trying to operate within the framework of international law and the principles of liberal democracy? Let's look at the document itself.

The preamble to the doctrine clearly defines information activities as an integral element of the military strategy, which is caused by the need to prevent hostile operations of influence and create one's own narrative. Further, the role of social media is emphasized and the related possibilities of instant dissemination of information, and thus the possibility of inspiring attacks and undermining trust in institutions operating in times of crisis.

The doctrine concerns IT impact operations, so in the preamble we can also find a reference to the close relationship between information operations and cyberspace, which I mentioned at the very beginning of the post. The authors emphasize how the properties of cyberspace and the related availability of information distribution means translate into an increase in the number and intensity of politically and financially motivated incidents. Therefore, the document implements the assumptions of the 2017 Strategic Defense and National Security Review and the 2021 Strategy Update, and provides the Ministry of Armed Forces with tools to counter this new type of threat. In the further part of the preamble, we will again find a reference to the concept of "winning the war before war" and a reference to the need to limit operations of this type to military operations.

The actual content of the doctrine begins with the description of cyberspace, with the special role of social media as an environment of information warfare. France treats social media almost as a synonym for the information space - the infographic at the very beginning of the chapter presents statistics showing how much activity takes place per minute in individual means of communication:

As we can see, e-mails that some time ago could be identified with the basic means of digital communication have become only one of many communication channels. In addition, the doctrine emphasizes that content communicated via popular social networks is not just a simple pass on user-generated material. Algorithms shape which content is promoted, which affects the visibility of individual ideologies and communities, and as a result may affect decision-making by recipients.

In this part, a key statement is also made for the functioning of the doctrine - war is not only about clashes between the armed forces, but also a fight between arguing reasons. We read here that at each stage of the conflict, the warring parties try to impose their will on each other, and the information struggle is a method of building support for their own efforts and undermining the support of their rivals.

The doctrine lists six characteristics of the cyberspace information layer:

  1. Fast spread of information and independence from borders and geography.
  2. Removal of once disseminated information is impossible due to the ease of copying and storing the content.
  3. The methods of creating, storing, and disseminating information are constantly being improved.
  4. Possibility of anonymous dissemination of information.
  5. Anyone can be a content creator and publish it without any external control.
  6. The application of statutory law is difficult, in fact website administrators create their own regulations.

Then, the challenges that the Armed Forces of France are already facing in the field of information warfare are described. Since 2015, France has been observing an increase in propaganda activities by terrorist groups, which are recruiting and inciting acts of violence. Additionally, attacks on the morale of French soldiers and dissemination of false information are observed in order to obstruct the operations of the troops. The document also lists two types of entities involved in hostile operations:

  1. Other states aiming to destabilize, weaken, and undermine the authority of state organs.
  2. Criminal, terrorist, and other quasi-state organizations that use information operations for propaganda, fundraising, recruiting, and coordination.

On the other hand, it is advisable that effective information measures are necessary to ensure operational advantage. The activities of the French forces are intended to hinder the formation of hostile communities on social media, prevent recruitment in areas of operations and promote support for French forces. It is worth paying attention to the focus on terrorist groups and recruitment, which is probably the aftermath France's extensive involvement abroad, especially in African countries.

According to the definition of IT influence operations included in the doctrine, this term refers to military operations conducted in the information layer of cyberspace to detect and counter attacks, support strategic communication (StratCom), provide intelligence support and use deception, independently or as part of other activities. The definition is based on the previously described information layer, which means that L2I will be based on the dissemination and promotion of content in digital communication channels. It can therefore be assumed that the features of the information layer, such as the speed of disseminating information, the possibility of anonymous publication or the lack of regulations, will be fully used by the French army to maximize the effect obtained. The classification of activities into three categories is also interesting: observation, defense and activity. Observation includes identification of hostile operations, and analysis of intentions; defense is opposing hostile actions and limiting their effects, and activity is supporting the actions of the armed forces, hitting the credibility of enemies and supporting kinetic actions with deception. Let us dwell for a moment on the last category, as it is this category that may contain potentially controversial elements, such as the dissemination of false information by France. The examples mentioned in the doctrine include supporting the armed forces on social media, influencing the decisions of entities in crisis situations, verifying false information disseminated by the enemy and the use of deception. While promotion on social media and the fight against fake news are acceptable elements for everyone, the influence on decision-making and deception operations may raise doubts. Army obviously he employs deception and deception as long as there is war, however, in this context, it will mean the dissemination of content that will necessarily reach civilians, and possibly on a global scale.

However, the document clearly states that influence operations are subject to the norm of national and international law. Therefore, in times of peace, these activities are to not violate the principle of non-intervention and respect the principles established by the Charter of the United Nations. They are also subject to the legal regime appropriate to the operations of the armed forces. Conflict measures, on the other hand, are not to infringe the law of armed conflict and, like kinetic operations, must be conducted in accordance with the principle of the distinction of aims, necessity and proportionality. Each use of the measures in question is also to be preceded by the creation of rules of fighting taking into account political, operational and legal circumstances. France has therefore decided that information activities will in principle be subject to the same rigor as kinetic operations. This underlines the seriousness of the situation and the approach to the problem that realistically regards information and propaganda efforts as potentially as severe as "classic" military activities. It may, however, stipulate how strictly the principle of distinguishing goals can be followed in a situation where, by its very nature, cyberspace is to distribute content immediately, regardless of geographic limitations. One can imagine methods limiting the scope of influence, such as the use of a language popular only in a specific area, or the manipulation of algorithms for promoting content in a specific region. However, while we are not talking about propaganda disseminated in closed groups, the content will be available to third parties and consumed by them anyway. So it seems that the most important thing will be to adjust the content so that it does not affect decision-making by people who are not the target of the operation - remember that shaping the decision-making is one of the assumptions of the L2I.

As befits activities related to cyberspace, one of the challenges faced by the French forces is the recruitment of specialists and meeting staffing needs. It is worth emphasizing that due to the interdisciplinary nature of information activities, the scope of the required skills is actually very wide. On the one hand, we have contact points with offensive and defensive cyber operations, and on the other hand, we have all the knowledge needed to effectively create propaganda materials that affect recipients. Of course, it is not necessary to find people with all these skills at the same time - after all, the teams leading CNO also consist of a number of different specialties, such as developers, analysts, implant operators, administrators. The information elements, however, add another brick to the range of required roles, and what is more, a specialist focused on the psychological and propaganda side of activities is probably more to a cyber operator than, for example, to an infrastructure administrator to a tool developer. Finding the kind of staff that can navigate both levels can therefore be a problem for France. The doctrine, however, provides for an additional EUR 1.7 billion, which is to be allocated to L2I capabilities.

Like the doctrine of offensive actions, this document also strongly emphasizes the role of cooperation with allies in defense against information operations, as well as supporting NATO and EU initiatives in this regard.

While manipulation and propaganda by the state services may be a controversial issue, the approach taken by France seems to be more appropriate in this respect than avoiding the subject in public space. The adopted doctrine, equating information activities with other types of military operations, places them in a legal regime assuming the principles of proportionality and the necessity of applied means, as well as the distinction of goals. Such an approach emphasizes the importance of the consequences that may result from them, examples of which we observe every day in the context of successive Russian "active measures" aimed at European countries. The specificity of the influence operation means that the French Armed Forces will probably have to face many dilemmas regarding the methods used, such as the indicated problem with distinguishing targets. However, perhaps this will be the driving force behind the development of a framework for information activities used by democratic states.

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