Cyber Psychological Operations

Tim Thomas, LTC, US Army, Retired, has done extensive research and publishing in the areas of peacekeeping, IO, and PSYOP. He currently serves as a Senior Analyst in the Foreign Military Studies Office, Ft Leavenworth, and has written a fascinating piece entitled Hezballah, Israel, and Cyber PSYOP which I encourage y’all to peruse and comment upon. 

However, an evolving cyber phenomenon is underway: the concept of cyber psychological operations (CYOP, pronounced “PSYOP”)—which are cyber operations (those that use the computer chip) that aim to directly attack and influence the attitudes and behaviors of soldiers and the general population.

While armies continue to compete in digital battlespace, local populations are now caught up in digital influence space battles.   As a result armies can no longer stand between an enemy and the public as they once did.   [And America cannot rely on Regulars to neutralize and mitigate the effects of enemy propaganda on its national will — Cannoneer].  CYOP is also awash with “unintended consequences,” since we are only now starting to understand what degree of influence, persuasion, deception, and mobilization the cyber environment offers. For example, mobile (cell) phones became “tools for citizen journalism” in Lebanon since they provided people the capability to transmit audio, video and photographs by shortmessage service. Such contributions from “the street” carry their own form of psychological persuasion. 

CYOP is characterized by speed, precision, and creativity.  Speed is recognized due to the quickness of the message-response mechanism.   An incident happens and is reported on the Internet, or via cell phone or video messaging, before legitimate [I’d put “scare quotes” around the word legitmate — Cannoneer] news services can adjudicate its authenticity.  Notably, these message have infinite—yet precise—reach (some call CYOP precision guided messages ‘PGMs’).  We can target friendly or enemy soldiers and populations with equal ease.  Plus, creativity is an emerging issue.Technologies offer the ability to update time tested PSYOP techniques with new applications not tried or tested.

The cyber element enables traditional psychological operations (PSYOP) such as loudspeakers and leaflets to penetrate not just a few miles into enemy territory, but to intrude directly and pervasively into the local populations’ homes or across continents. The cyber element does so privately and quietly, invading not only computers and cell phones but the psychological well-being of the population as well. Local citizens on both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict are victims of an intense propaganda and counterpropaganda campaign, for the maintenance of public and international support.

According to Yonit Farago of, [click on Israel backed by army of cyber-soldiers  for a description of exactly what an American Civilian Irregular Information Defense Group should be doing] there is also an intense monitoring and counterpropaganda campaign underway by Israeli supporters.  Special software termed “megaphone” is used to alert Jewish students to anti-Israeli chat rooms or Internet polls.  These students then attempt to influence the course of a debate or an opinion survey by marshalling friends and supporters to take part.  This allows a place where “networks of US and European groups with hundreds of thousands of Jewish activists can place supportive messages.” 

US IO doctrine is weak (in fact, almost nonexistent) on the issue of counterpropaganda, and this is reflected in coalition operations.

. . .  future wars will be personal, deceptive, civil-military, and involve worldwide recruitment. All of these items will be managed and performed by cyber elements . Ye l l o w journalism may also become a real threat.

One thing is very clear: CYOP is not only personal—but persuasive in new ways—some more powerful than any earlier PSYOP attempts. CYOP strikes raw nerves in a different way than a leaflet, due to its targeting precision with all forms of communications—auditory, visual, and print. CYOP appears to be a very invasive form of PSYOP that allows no mental sanctuary.

We must follow the CYOP phenomenon as it picks up momentum. Groups will initiate new and varied techniques, and everyone must be on guard to counter the unexpected.  E-flets, silent loudspeakers, Google Earth, ring tones, and YouTube represent only the start of this phenomenon.  Traditional PSYOP personnel will play a key role in uncovering the advantages offered by these technological advances, and then must creatively apply counters to them in warfare.  [Non-traditional PSYOP personnel such as civilian auxiliaries will be quicker and more flexible, but Colonel Thomas was writing for a military readership — Cannoneer] CYOP can be private, silent, deceptive, intercontinental, and as full of hatred and prejudice as the initiator wants it to be—and all are issues that should concern us.

Good stuff.  Put your thinking cap on and read it.  The part about hard CYOP is downright scary.  We aren’t fighting Industrial Age warfare between legitimate nation-state peers with Westphalian concepts of combatant and noncombatant, civilian and miltary.  Everybody who can see this blog could be monitoring hostile sites and disseminating counterpropaganda.  If the Israelis can do it, why can’t we?  Y’all could be Cyber Guerillas.

Any cat wranglers out there?


Filed under PSYOP, PSYOP Auxiliaries