The deficiency of "information"
Reflecting on the Cognitive Crucible pod interview of Russ Burgos + my Friday video chat
I recently listened to the Cognitive Crucible podcast with Professor Russ Burgos entitled “Information supply, demand, and effect.” Recorded two weeks ago, on 13 September, this was a terrific and timely discussion that had me rewinding and taking copious notes. [Full disclosure: I’m on the Board of Advisors of the Information Professionals Association, which hosts the Cognitive Crucible podcast.]
With the CC interview with Russ focused on the military, incidentally, this past Friday, 30 September, I participated in a Glasshouse video chat where I talked about national-level (and non-military issues) around what I prefer to call political warfare. I will repeat my near-mantra that I oppose the label “information warfare” because information is a munition and because the term evokes a narrow aperture, which Russ spoke to in his discussion on definitions.
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Back to Russ. The following is not a summary but my comments on some of the points raised in the interview. If you’ve read this far, you’ll likely find Russ’s comments worth the one hour of your time.
First, Russ pointed out that the military “talks a lot about information” but lacks a definition of information. He exposes the point that information in the Defense Department is or can be, just about anything. In these “continuity errors,” the effects of the misuse and even misappropriation, these are my words here, of information is relevant and critical. We need to know, he said, what terms mean so we know what we mean when we use those terms.
“Definitions can lead us astray,” Russ pointed out, correctly implying that good definitions can foster focus. I enjoyed Russ’s focus on the semantics of defining information while labeling DOD’s use of “information” as promiscuous. While “cyber” was not mentioned, it was felt in the examples Russ gave to demonstrate the promiscuous or “loosey-goosey” use of “information” that leads to the overly expansive use of “information” that dilutes its meaning and value.
The “social dimension of information and influence” is, he said, “mostly present by omission in our current doctrinal understanding.” This point is understated in the interview and quickly passed over, yet it’s a critical point in his argument that our information operations are heavily “supply-side” focused.
Russ’s argument that we focus too heavily on the “supply-side” of information operations is important. We all have examples of hearing arguments that since country/actor x is doing y, we must do something to negate y. Russia does this, so we must do that. Setting aside this framework is inherently reactive, focusing on supply ignores the consumer and, by extension, if and why it is effective. Russ provides a great analogy with counter-battery fire: their artillery hurls a shell, so we must hurl something back to cancel it out. Edward R. Murrow’s famous “last three feet” statement also spoke to the defectiveness of this hurling idea: sending information thousands of miles (i.e., radio broadcasts) was easy, while the personalized and adaptable face-to-face, the last three feet, was the truly important part of influence.
It seems that the focus on the “supply-side” reflects post-1970s propaganda studies. I haven’t done a detailed analysis, but in my lay review of texts on discussing propaganda, texts from the 1940s and 1950s focused on why information operations were successful, while after the 1960s, texts tended to ignore questions around enabling efficacy and focus on the mere existence of information operations. Again, this is not the result of a serious literature review, merely my takeaway from reading books from these different periods. For example, a key takeaway of Nazi domestic propaganda by contemporary observers during and after WWII was not that the messaging existed, but a critical factor of success was dependent on the elimination of alternative sources of information. This lesson was a supporting argument for the Smith-Mundt Act, despite what some writers have suggested (without contemporary support for their modern theory around their false assertions of a prohibition on domestic access to the materials of the vast information operations authorized by the legislation).
Russ discussed focusing on the message could mask the need to focus on the desired effect. He brought up campaigns against drunk driving and smoking and how awareness was there but changed behavior was limited. Here, I was thinking about the difference between “the battle for hearts and minds” and “the struggle for minds and wills.” Readers are likely familiar with the former, and long-time readers of my writings should have heard the latter. For well over a decades, I’ve said publically that I’d love to see a dissertation looking at the likely effects “hearts and minds” had on US foreign policy post-9/11 while considering the potential differences if “minds and wills” were substituted. First, the former “battle” suggests a sports match where we chalk up a W or L and move on to the next event. Contrast this with the latter’s “struggle” which properly sets up an enduring event that may continue to exist even if there is an apparent pause. I’ve used the analogy of a tug of war: the two sides may have laid down the rope, but someone else pops in and gives the rope a jerk because it suits them, for example, and activities may resume. (You may see the connection to political warfare.)
Second, “hearts and minds” focuses on a popularity contest while “minds and wills,” a term used in the 1940s and 1950s, naturally focus message creators on affecting the will to act. “Why don’t they like us?” is a natural product of the former, while seeking if and why their information is effective is embedded in the latter, just as is embedding effects into our thinking about our “information” operations.
Consider this story shared with me many years ago. A bombmaker in Afghanistan is rolled up and asked why he makes bombs for people targeting ISAF forces. His reason: he is trying to make enough money to move his family to the US. We won his heart but did not affect his will to act appropriately.
Returning to the DOD’s promiscuity with “information,” an interesting implied problem was using a typology for “information” rather than a taxonomy. The typology vs. taxonomy point never came up, but, for me, there were neon lights around the issue. Russ described the plethora of definitions in the DOD dictionary that have “information” in their name. As Russ pointed out, in an actual dictionary, there would be “information” and “slugged off,” as he put it, would be the sub-definitions. The existing DOD dictionary is a typology, while Russ’s preference would be a taxonomy.
The taxonomy model also came up when Russ referred to the Russian division of information into two: “information-technical” and “information-psychological.” This recalled, for me, the problem with our use of “cyber” to be nearly anything that touches the digital world. It is important to remember that data is separate from influence, which was Russ’s point. However, this led to possibly the lone disagreement I had with Russ’s comments during the interview.
When asked for his definition of information, Russ said he currently used (subject to revision as he continues to work on this, he noted) a definition from the American Psychological Association: information “is knowledge about facts or ideas that is gained through investigation, experience, or practice to enable choice or reduce uncertainty.”
Let me be pedantic as I focus on the semantic point here and strongly disagree with the above definition. A quick background, first. Way back before I returned to the international relations field in 2004 (by the way, I launched the Mountainrunner blog in November 2004), I was in the technology sector and spent many years working on what was then called “knowledge management” systems (is it still? I don’t know). I was involved in knowledge management system design and development (soup to nuts, so to speak, selecting and customing the software systems, structured and unstructured data capture, including paper, redundant servers, and the storage area network… this was long before any cloud). Back then, data <> information <> knowledge. For example, a piece of data could be the price of a stock, but that means little without a bunch of that data, including dates and other prices on other dates (I worked for a large mutual fund company). Information would be a series of prices with dates, for example. Knowledge may be derived from the broader information pool and generally by joining other information (relevant news events, personal expertise, etc.) and other knowledge. The experience, practice, and experience with choices are what enable the transformation of mere information into knowledge. Reducing knowledge to “information” diminishes the multitude of factors involved, such as history and personal experience, just two elements in the “information” world – the “information-psychological” world – Russ spoke about.
Again, I recommend listening to Russ’s interview.
If you’ve read this far, you may also be interested in my appearance on the Cognitive Crucible pod recorded on 3 May 2021. That discussion with John was largely but not exclusively on the disinformation, misinformation, and facts around the Smith-Mundt Act. Too many think it’s an incidental law about not propagandizing Americans, but it’s not. With the rising recognition of political warfare, or “information warfare” if you must, the law and what it authorized are more relevant now than perhaps even in the 1940s and 1950s. Also, there’s the recent video chat about USIA, political warfare, and why the US has trouble in the “information warfare” space.
[Edit 1630 CET 2 October 2022: my comments above and elsewhere should not be construed as a suggestion that information warfare is political warfare by another name. They are not the same. The narrowness of “information warfare” as inherent by the very word “information” and what “information” evokes is substantively less than political warfare. I would say that information warfare is a subset of political warfare, except that information warfare is a problematic term of dangerous self-limitations. The use of information warfare, as suggested by Russ’s dive into the DOD’s “promiscuous” use of the term, misses the complexities and breadth of political warfare.]
For a historical tidbit for those interested in organizational histories around information operations, Alton Frye wrote about an incredible series of events in his 1967 book, Nazi Germany and the American Hemisphere 1933-1941. I really enjoyed reading this book. Frye really dove into the archives and served up the results with easy to read style that was, at least for me, a joy and a page-turner. (My copy of Frye’s book was, based on the name written in the book, previously owned by Dr. RHS Stolfi, a professor emeritus at the Naval Postgraduate School.) It seems the German foreign ministry before a Nazi was installed as foreign minister, was upset with Nazi influence operations in South and Central America. The Nazi heavy-handedness was interfering with the diplomatic efforts to split the various countries away from the US and into economic bilaterals with Germany and generally supported Germany's aspirations. When Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop was installed as foreign minister, an organizational battle ensued between him and Joseph Goebbels. The point of contention was Ribbentrop’s argument that he owned the international propaganda role and Goebbels owned the domestic propaganda operations. The two even set up rival press clubs in Berlin to “compete for the favors of foreign journalists,” Frye wrote. Ribbentrop convinced Hitler the foreign ministry owned “all propaganda intended for foreign consumption” and had movers from the foreign ministry go to Goebbels’s ministry to remove the machinery for printing, etc. Goebbels’s men “barricaded themselves in their rooms,” the Reich’s Press Chief later wrote, “and the Propaganda Minister himself promptly telephoned Hitler for help.” Hitler ordered both ministers to sit on Hitler’s train and come to an agreement. After three hours, “both men emerged red-faced and informed Hitler…that an agreement [on the division of roles] was impossible. Furious,” the Press Chief wrote, “Hitler withdrew and dictated a compromise decision which largely annulled his [previous] written order.” The power struggle between the two ministers was never resolved until the Allies resolved it later. Think again if you think the alleged masters of propaganda got the bureaucracy turf fights right.
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