Abstract: Since the 2016 US presidential election, there is a greater appreciation and increased appetite for information operations across the US government and within the intelligence community. While this enthusiasm is welcome, one of the central problems in waging this information warfare is the ability to execute swift actions in the information environment. This article will detail the doctrinal, structural, and philosophical problems within the current Psychological Operations approval process and provide a recommended solution, which incorporates blockchain technologies, to expedite the process.
Estimated Time to Read: 18 minutes
By Daniel Riggs and Soma Mayazadeh
“Be quick but don’t hurry.” John Wooden
The Problem: Current PSYOP Approval
Since the 2016 US presidential election, citizens, military, and policy-makers recognize the criticality of informed and influenced activities. The summer and fall of 2016 witnessed a competent Russia navigate the cyber domain to sow discord. In contrast, it showed the US government behind its peer competitors, and their need get effectively into the fight. The Department of Defense (DoD) has been wrestling with how to employ influence operations to overcome this deficit. To remain relevant within the modern, and future, geopolitical environment the DoD needs to be effective in the information environment.
One of the sub-problems for the DoD is the current approval process (e.g., how fast it takes to get a product into the information environment) for messages, products, and psychological actions. A lack of response was notably conspicuous, and still is, in countering Russia’s information warfare. Simultaneously in US civil society, political observers could witness 4Chan “guerillas” exploiting the plodding and exacting nature of Madison Avenue advertisers and traditional political operatives. Whether it was paralysis by analysis or rule preventing a response, both cases showed a monolith unable to react. The DoD needs to be quicker in the information environment in the future. Two questions are, how do we fix this and who gets us there?
In terms of the latter, the group that needs to be at the forefront of this fight is Army Psychological Operations (PSYOP). While competent and willing, the approval process institutionally constrains this asset from being the fighter DoD needs it to be. The delayed approval for messages and products is so well known even initial PSYOP students recognize it will be an obstacle for them when they get to the force. For instance, one product may take close to a year for final approval and dissemination. In its inception, that product was fresh. Fast-forward a year and the PSYOP message is now likely irrelevant and ineffective.
This legacy and arguably archaic process impede PSYOP personnel (PSYOPers) creativity, speed, and effectiveness. US Army PSYOP has the potential to be extremely effective, but it needs to be quicker. It is unable to do so under the current model. The tension lies within how the DoD is able to balance safety (see 2017 Afghanistan leaflet case study) and efficiency.
The following will look at the drawbacks of the legacy PSYOP approval system and advocates the integration of blockchain technology. It will show that blockchain can help PSYOP by improving expediency, security, and transparency of the legacy approval system and helps DoD compete in the information environment.
The legacy PSYOP approval process lacks responsiveness due to doctrinal, structural, and philosophical impediments. The first of these, doctrine, stems from texts such as Army Field Manual 3-53, Military Information Support Operations, Joint Publications 3-13.2 Joint Military Information Support Operations Process, and others. These key manualscall for PSYOPers to anticipate and predict adversary propaganda and prepare products and tactics to mitigate the slow, but “judicious”, approval process.
The consequence of this is all enemy influenced and informed activities are expected to be known by PSYOPers prior to any mission. Limitations of human capacity and knowledge make this unrealistic. In addition, not being on the ground during their mission analysis in pre-mission training prevents the intimate knowledge of key atmospherics. These atmospherics often make up the critical pieces for development and design of products that would have the strongest opportunity for behavioral changes.
There are pre-approved products (e.g., JIPOE, PSYOP Estimate, PSYOP Program) to help mitigate future predictions, however, this method forces a general audience approach and gets the PSYOPers away from targeted, relevant products. These inhibit a PSYOPers ability to tailor a message to a target audience. When the information environment differs from the requisite planning assumptions or pre-approved products, their plan falls flat. Forced into a perpetual reactionary role, PSYOPers cannot establish a proactive or preemptive position to increase their advantage.
Furthermore, PSYOP approval is bureaucratically dense. Product approval requires a summarized Concept of Operation (CONOP) of the proposed product and the product’s effect on the supported commander’s objectives. PSYOPers route the CONOP through higher headquarters and it is evaluated by multiple officers. These include, but are not limited to, the operations officer, information operations officer, and/or the PSYOP staff officer at each level throughout the chain of command. Every individual through the chain possesses the authority to approve and forward or disapprove and return for corrections. Once it achieves final approval, typically at the Geographic Combatant Commander (GCC) level, the approval chain routes it back down to the PSYOP team for action. This densely bureaucratic process relies upon a seamless and problem free process that often does not materialize in that manner.
On paper, it appears step one dovetails into step two and so forth; however, this delay negates any possible positive effect. When a message, story, or argument needs to be pushed out, time is of the essence! The timing piece is critical when pushing something out that is specific and relevant.
Simultaneously, PSYOP products must receive concurrence and approval from the Department of State’s (DoS) country team and Ambassador before dissemination of the product is legal. The time-consuming, but risk-mitigating, process of approval mirrors that of the military with the exception that the offices are within the DoS.
Finally, it is important to address first principles when one is calling for such a radical change. The DoD should understand it is encountering a metaphysical problem that may have not been considered. The basis for the PSYOP approval runs up on the rocks of Aristotle’s problem of future contingents. In philosophy, future contingents are conditional statements about the future — such as future events, actions, states etc. and are further defined as a predicted event, state, action or whatever is at stake must neither be impossible nor inevitable. Expecting PSYOPers to anticipate near infinite possibilities to mitigate slow approval falls into this Aristotelian logic trap. A further elucidation of the future contingent problem is below:
If there are several possible decisions out of which one is going to be made freely tomorrow, can there be a truth now about which one will be made? If “yes”, on what grounds could something which is still open, nevertheless be true already now? If “no”, can we in fact hold that all logically exclusive possibilities must be untrue without denying that one of the possible outcomes must turn out to be the chosen one?
The inherent latency and redundancy of the existing process expose the PSYOP process to flawed logic which the approval process rests upon.
A historical example of this is Afghanistan. For 20 years, PSYOP has relied upon the legacy approval chain to put out information at both the tactical and operational level to try and generate large scale behavior changes. At present, it appears that there are very few large-scale behavioral changes in Afghanistan, and this is partially due to the legacy system. PSYOP approval would benefit from a process change through blockchain integration.
A Brief Explanation of Blockchain
When explaining blockchain it is often difficult to separate it from Bitcoin. Bitcoin’s meteoric rise in 2017 dominated market news, earned Bitcoin status as digital gold and chic investment, and introduced the term, blockchain. The blockchain might be the “secret sauce” to Bitcoin’s burger. This technology underwrites security of the currency and provides its strength. By definition, a blockchain is a chronologically updated and distributed digital record that comes with cryptographic protection and allows an approval processes to occur simultaneously instead of in a long hierarchical chain. The graphics below will visually depict this.
The irony is that blockchain may be more valuable than earnings made from cryptocurrency speculation and investment. Banking, healthcare, elections, real estate, education and others are anticipating incorporating blockchain as transformative to their current way of doing business. These industries are welcoming it, because blockchain increases the efficiency and decentralizes key tasks in these industries to those who are not gatekeepers, but are nonetheless capable.
How it Works
Blockchain starts when a user inputs data into a device, which could be a transaction or data transfer. When the user creates a transaction, the information is stored in a block, starting the process (see figure above for execution). Through a process known as crypto-hashing, the data stored on the block is converted to a unique string of programming text that is almost impossible to hack. In a sense, crypto-hashing is similar to someone providing two dollars to a cashier and receiving 4 quarters, 5 dimes, 5 nickels, and 25 pennies from the cashier, however, in this analogy all would be distinct coins. This exchange converts the input into an output that might be more applicable and still is representative of the input. In the case of blockchain, it adds a level of protection to the data in a matter of seconds.
After this encryption, the stored data moves along the chain as a new block. When it does join, it does so as part of a particular sequence. A cryptographic formula subsequently locks in that sequence. This formula ensures that altering the blocks in any manner disrupts the formula that safeguards the block’s recognition and sequence. The new block then moves along a queue to wait behind other blocks for approval of the network nodes in order to fulfill its instructions. This blocked together area produces the chain, hence the term blockchain.
After the creation and movement of the block, the nodes and users of the network receive notice of block creation. This becomes important for transparency. The premise of utilizing multiple, decentralized ledgers protect against the corruptibility of the transaction by providing an immutable record and reducing instance of fraud.
Each of these users possess a ledger with full view of all action. When a block comes up for network approval, the network nodes simultaneously evaluate the block and its information. Nodes must reach a consensus to evaluate the validity of the transaction and ultimately approve it, which provides a rapid way to verify the integrity of the entire transaction. The consensus acts like a trust, which provides the validity each transaction needs in order to execute upon approval. Once approved, the network executes the transaction or the data is stored.
The technology’s goal is to streamline peer-to-peer interactions, transactions without a third party in a secure manner, and uses advanced cryptography in order to protect the content transmitted from one person to another.
Benefits of Blockchain
Blockchain’s intrinsic security is its strongest case for the technology’s use across industry: it provides key protections and benefits previously unavailable. When the block is sealed cryptographically, it is impossible to copy, delete or edit, ensuring the immutability of the digital ledger. The incorruptible nature of blockchain makes it safe from falsified information and hacks. The blockchain network, with its near simultaneous approval coupled with security and transparency, takes the place of the bureaucratic density and the inefficient dual chain approval. Therefore, if a nefarious actor wanted to alter the transaction, the actor would have to simultaneously alter the multiple ledgers across the network that contain the information about the block. The rise of data breaches within the past few decade demonstrates a need for such technology (see figure below) to frustrate potential data thieves and subversives.
Moreover, blockchain increases efficiency. Currently, various intermediaries serve as trusted agents who confirm and manage transactions and communication. Blockchain eliminates the linear approach where anyone in a linear, complicated transaction can hold up the efforts of everyone from proceeding forward (e.g., think of a very difficult surveyor or HVAC person in the case of a home purchase). Instead of waiting on each person in a long, sequential chain, where an error impedes the process, blockchain automates the transaction process. Humans are still intimately involved, but now there are measures and transparency that expedite the process. Due to unified and incorruptible system of records, network nodes serve as the confirmation source of peer-to-peer transactions. The nodes can either simultaneously approve or reject a transaction in contrast to the back and forth between intermediaries, which often inhibits processes. Blockchain can drastically reduce waiting times on tasks while improving safety for all parties involved. The example of purchasing a house provides an excellent example of this expedited timeline. The home buying process that can take a month and a half can now take a couple of days if they employ blockchain technology.
Additionally, blockchain provides transparency, which is critical for trust in communication and transactions. Any change to a single transaction, requires the alteration of all records and the collusion of the entire network. Just as importantly, someone on the network gets to see all the homework and answers in the network for transactions. There are no secrets as blockchain safely logs all activity.
PSYOP and Blockchain
The second question to answer posed at the start of the paper is the “how”. Specifically, how does this look in the operational environment with PSYOPers using this as a means to increase efficiency? From cradle to grave, this is how the process might look on a standard deployment.
Step 1: Product Creation
A PSYOPer creates a product that aims to counter adversary propaganda or offensively establish (or continue) a narrative within a contested area in a named operation. Using relevant media and cultural analysis, the PSYOPer creates something of value and necessity that will assist in mission accomplishment. In previous settings, the inefficient process would encumber the operator, which is doctrinally depicted in the figure below.
In this process, the product might have to wait a few days or longer at each stop before it can be actioned to the next sequential step, which may comprise an overall timeline of 2-3 months in certain situations. Each passing day reduces the prospective effectiveness of the product.
In the proposed blockchain process, the PSYOPer transcribes the created product onto a block, which includes dissemination instructions, therefore it will automatically disseminate upon approval, an index, and timestamp to capture the creation date of the block, and the actual product specifications (e.g., dank internet meme). After approval, the narrative ledger would receive the block.
This narrative ledger is critical in the process. The narrative ledger, named to maintain continuity in the information environment, serves as the actual blockchain, record of creation, and a medium for storing and validating the data. This blockchain would be an immutable consolidation point for all PSYOP products and influence data constructed and maintained for that mission. It would serve as a key resource for future reporting and for new PSYOPers as they rotate into the mission set. Blockchain facilitates a living database for teams to review the approved and rejected products.
This is especially important, because PSYOP is a Congressional Special Interest item. This means the US Congress needs to see all the data and action. The difficulty for some PSYOPers is the collection of data and records during a hand off between units during relief-in-place operations. Things can be lost or misconstrued during this period. The narrative ledger would log and safely account for all activity.
After the PSYOPer has submitted this new addition, the chain of other influence products receives the new block as it waits in the queue for approval.
Step 2: Approval Nodes Evaluate the Product
The next part of the process modernizes and improves the linear and centralized PSYOP approval process by using the “centralized ledger.” The new product added to the chain would generate an alert for the approval nodes on the network to validate the product for approval. The commander would set an appropriate deadline when anyone on the network received the product, and validate it.
This is not without a few difficulties. How would the nodes meet the validation criteria? Would this validation be human, machine, or human-machine teaming? In this new PSYOP approval, it would be solely human adjudication. A machine, for all their possible complexity, is inherently limited. The programming would present it a binary choice with limited criteria to judge against. Does it meet the narrative? Is it legal? Is it going to work?
In the example of employing blockchain to expedite a home sale, it is easy to answer binary questions: is the inspection done, do the buyers meet a minimum credit score, and did the financing meet the necessary threshold? Very little is up for interpretation and one can delegate this to machine judgment for objectivity, fairness, and efficiency.
In contrast, the complexity and infinite possibilities associated with art, messaging, and interpretation makes it fit for solely human judgment. It would be impossible to provide caveats and rules that would exhaustively cover all possibilities. The purpose of blockchain employment would not be to surrender all power to machines, but as a secure means to accelerate progress. In theory, professional military education, operational experience, background, and expertise will equip these senior leaders with the ability to vet PSYOP products. The members selected to be approval nodes can be the same members who exercise approval on PSYOP products, currently conducted in a hierarchical fashion: the GCC, information operations officer, ambassador, select embassy personnel, the Judge Advocate General, PSYOP team’s parent organization, and others as directed by the operations order.
An established product rubric would be provided to supplement their expertise and guide their judgment. The rubric would include CJCSI 3211.01F, which outlines the authorized missions of PSYOP, the GCC objectives, the Embassy’s country strategy, the Ambassador’s objectives, the supported commander’s objectives, and any additional authorities defined in the specific regions’ PSYOP program or specific mission. If the PSYOPer nests the product within the objectives and the nodes see it as beneficial and value added, the network approves the block.
This simultaneity of approval is a vast improvement from a process that takes months even for exceptional products to follow the linear model.
The legacy process utilizes a series of checks and balances as the best means to mitigate risk, but the delays caused by the density of these processes delays action, which also increases risk. The legacy system of sending the product to each approver and waiting for a response is time consuming. Blockchain overcomes this delayed action and still acknowledges, incorporates, and validates two key components, credentials and processes, which matter in bureaucracies. Simultaneously, all key parties receive the product from the tactical level and can evaluate it based off the rubric and their expertise. It will decrease the possibility of someone looking to downgrade something based on a misplaced assumption the senior leaders in the vetting process will not approve it. Blockchain winnows this process down to a few days instead of months.
Steps 3 and 4: Product Approval and Product Self-Execution
Once the network receives the new block, all members will review it within the timeline set by the commander. They would use the assigned rubric, begin the series of checks to validate the PSYOP block, and ensure it meets narrative goals, authorities, and permissions. Once all nodes approve the product by using the rubric as a reference point, the narrative ledger will receive the new block and keep a record of the product for future reference.
Finally, the block is then sent out and the product self-executes (e.g., disseminates on the web) based on the instructions within the individual block. If local insurgents put out disinformation on social media platforms that could degrade a mission, PSYOPers can quickly counter. Now needed products could be out in days, or hours depending on the need. The prospect and expectation of omniscient counter-propaganda products and actions becomes unnecessary. The new process reduces the weeks or months of waiting and maintains an immutable record of all products on the chain for full transparency.
The technological complexities involved with implementing blockchain may elicit resistance. Despite these complexities involved with implementing blockchain into the PSYOPers approval chain, it is well worth the efficiencies gained. In addition, fledgling knowledge of this technology is not an impossible hurdle to overcome. One does not need to understand the mechanics or physics of the internal combustion engine, but one can still convey a car’s utility to a friend. The contracting process would help identify companies that can build this infrastructure and provide training to utilize it.
Nonetheless, the slow approval has to be improved. This legacy process asks PSYOPers to develop a few, deliberate perfect solutions, but PSYOP critically requires a series of quick and holistic measures, to be effective. The current doctrinal, structural, and philosophical restraints constitute perfect is the enemy of the good. The DoD should consider employing blockchain technology in order to improve expediency, security, and transparency for the current and future information warfare. Blockchain is by no means a total solution but is one of many necessary steps for America’s national security in the 21st century.
Daniel Riggs is currently a SWCS Design and Exercise Manager at 5th BN, 1st SWTG (A) at Fort Bragg, NC. He has completed Psychological Operations deployments to INDOPACOM and CENTCOM. He holds a M.S.c in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles. Before joining Psychological Operations, he served as an Infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division deploying to Afghanistan in 2010. He can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Soma Mayahzadeh is a Psychological Operations Officer at Fort Bragg, NC. Her experiences include: serving abroad with 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea; planning and training experience at the tactical and operational levels; and joint and combined professional military education. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army or the U.S. Government.
Featured Image Source: Blockchain And Gears Free Stock Photo – Public Domain Pictures