START Team Identifies Key Contributors to Effective Influence Operations

START Team Identifies Key Contributors to Effective Influence Operations

Earlier this month, researchers from START’s Unconventional Weapons and Technology (UWT) division—Megan RutterRhyner Washburn and UWT Director Dr. Steve Sin—presented the progress and results of their Developing Impact and Effectiveness Assessment Tool for Influence Operations project at the 2021 Laboratory for Analytic Sciences (LAS) Symposium.

With the project’s objective being to develop a social science model that would help determine whether influence operations were successful in getting people to change their behavior, Sin said that the team, “first consulted the extant literature in the cognitive sciences, sociology, political science, marketing, communications, information sciences, terrorism and radicalization, and cybersecurity to determine a set of variables that have been found to be relevant [in influence operations].”

After identifying common variables, the team then sought to understand what and how many individual factors (emotional appeal, threats to the individual’s identity, threats to a way of life or culture, reaffirming a person’s identity, victim affirmation and victimization) and societal factors (a sense of persistent and increasing threats, presenting a clear alternative and often better future, a purported lack of response from anyone else, clearly identified in-/out groups and social validation) resulted in behavioral change. They found that the more factors from the model that were present in the influence operation, the more successful the messaging was in terms of being spread across the community receiving that messaging.

“Crafting a campaign that is clearly targeting a specific audience, that utilizes messaging that contains the factors identified in the model, and that places them in the target audience’s cultural context had a higher impact than those campaigns targeting broader, or multiple audiences at once,” Sin said.

Drilling deeper, the team also conducted a survey in an attempt to find out what specific messages would make the U.S. general public want to share, respond or act – such as making financial contributions or volunteering time.

“Overall, 33 percent of respondents answered that they would act if the messaging makes them feel affirmed about who they are and what they represent,” Sin said of the survey’s results, which have a margin of error of +/- 3% at 95% confidence level. “Additionally, 30 percent of the participants responded that they would act if the messaging makes them feel they are doing something to make the world a better place.”

Altogether, the project’s research indicated that the more narrowly focused the influence operation, the higher impact it tends to have. And, more than any other types of messaging, people tend to respond to messaging that contains identity affirmation and a clear, better alternative future.

“Given our findings, we consciously suggest the possibility that messages conveying identity affirmation and a clear alternative future could prove to be fruitful counter-narrative approaches to combat mis- and disinformation campaigns,” Sin said.

The project team has finished its first year of the study, but the funder has since extended the project end date so that the team can conduct a second round of surveys and obtain a more nuanced understanding of their findings, therefore enabling them to develop a better measurement metric as well as the Influence Impact Assessment Tool.

Article by Erin Copland and image courtesy of the UWT team's 2021 LAS Symposium presentation.

December 14, 2021


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