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The Effectiveness of Influence Activities in Information Warfare


Rapid, globalised power shifts, technological advances, and increasingly interconnected, ungoverned communications networks have resulted in the rise of asymmetric grey zone threats. The lines are now blurred between political, civil, and military information environments. The rise of influence activities is the new ‘sharp power’ in information warfare (the iWar). Western democracies are already at war in the information domain and are being out-communicated by their adversaries.

Building on the commentary surrounding this contemporary threat, and based on a review of the literature across three academic disciplines—systems thinking, influence, and cognitive theory—this paper investigates solutions for improving Australia’s influence effectiveness in the iWar, as part of the Australian Army Research Centre’s Conflict Theory and Strategy Series.

This paper demonstrates how systems thinking can offer an effective approach to holistically understanding complex social systems in the iWar, as well as explaining why understanding both successful influencing strategies and psychological cognitive theories is central to analysing those system behaviours.

This research employed a systems thinking methodology to compare two contrasting case studies to determine their respective influencing effectiveness. The successful case system of the terrorist group ISIS was compared and contrasted with the unsuccessful case system of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign, using a single stock of influence to determine relevant reinforcing and balancing feedback.

The findings validate the utility of systems thinking analysis for holistically understanding complex iWar systems, and reveal why the case systems were effective or not in raising influence stocks, dominating the iWar, and manipulating cognitive behaviour. The results highlight the configurational, behavioural and causal factors contributing to influence effectiveness and are summarised into key themes for each of the research disciplines to provide the Australian Army with tangible iWar strategies.

This paper concludes with a number of recommendations for improving Australia’s influence effectiveness in the iWar, such as having a resonant strategic narrative and cohesive communications strategy, turning democratic vulnerabilities into strengths, adopting systems thinking approaches, enhancing critical thinking, exploiting civilian capabilities, and regaining control over the media. Further research is required across all three academic disciplines to enhance understanding and resilience, refine approaches, and improve the effectiveness of Australia’s future iWar strategy.