Digital Trenches: Influence Operations and Asymmetry of Values


By Riccardo Catalano.

In the rapidly evolving information environment of the 21st century, a new battlefield has emerged, one where influence operations have taken center stage. Transversal to the “Cognitive Dimension” of warfare, and the six domains, the Information Environment is a battleground that knows no geographic boundaries, and is accessible from any point around the globe through a few taps on a smartphone or keystrokes on a computer.

According to NATO’s doctrine, “the information environment is an aggregation of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information”.

While western democracies champion the virtues of a free and open Internet, certain adversarial nations are exploiting this openness to their advantage. China, Russia, and Iran have weaponized social media and press freedom in a sophisticated and strategic influence campaign, while maintaining a tightly controlled media environment within their own borders.

The openness of Western societies provides fertile ground for disinformation campaigns. Adversaries can easily disseminate false or misleading narratives through social media platforms and digital news outlets, exploiting freedom of speech to sow discord and confusion.

In contrast, the highly controlled media landscape in countries such as China, Russia, and Iran, effectively shields them from reciprocal influence operations.

One primary example is Russia’s activities during the conflict in Ukraine and more broadly across western democratic elections. With state-sponsored troll farms and the use of artificial intelligence bots, the Russian government has systematically spread disinformation to create societal divisions and challenge democratic values.

Similarly, China’s influence operations are not only aimed at promoting a positive image of China globally, but also at creating divisions within western societies. China’s combination of strict domestic censorship, such as the “Great Firewall,” and its prolific use of platforms like TikTok and WeChat for influence operations presents a particularly asymmetrical threat.

Iran, while technologically behind China and Russia, has also engaged in digital influence operations. Their efforts have focused on inciting discord among western allies and spreading anti-western propaganda.

Confronting this asymmetry requires a multi-pronged approach. The western alliance must prioritize the protection of their own information environment while developing capabilities to penetrate the adversaries’ information barriers. This includes investing in technologies to detect and counteract disinformation, and educating the public on how to recognize and respond to foreign influence efforts.

Civilian professionals with experience in digital marketing, social media, and information security can play a crucial role in this battle. Their expertise can be used to create compelling narratives that support democratic values, while their understanding of information flow and audience analysis can help identify and neutralize adversarial influence operations.

In an era where ‘the pen is mightier than the sword‘, we are in an arms race for narrative control. The challenge for western democracies is to strike a balance between protecting our information environment from adversarial influence operations while upholding the principles of freedom of speech and open information access that define us.

In this tug-of-war, the key is not to choose between one over the other, but rather to find a way to uphold both commitments simultaneously. This requires a nuanced and multi-faceted approach. A purely defensive posture, focused solely on identifying and countering disinformation, is not enough.

Democracies must go on the offensive, leveraging the skills and resources of both the government and private sectors to effectively communicate democratic values, reinforce societal resilience against disinformation, and promote critical thinking. Initiatives like digital literacy programs, fact-checking services (truly independent ones), and public awareness campaigns can go a long way towards equipping citizens with the tools to discern reliable from unreliable information.


Author: Riccardo Catalano is a former SGT in the Italian Air Force. He is now a copywriter and editor. His writings can be found on his blog at