Yesterday, I spent the afternoon delivering a speech on deception to the Royal United Services Institute at the Land Warfare Conference.
This is what I said in my opening remarks:
To the general public, the notion of seeking information advantage on the battlefield – of fighting information wars – is a fairly novel concept.
It conjures up images of ISIS and AQ videos or Russia and Putin directed social media campaigns.
Of course, the truth is that deception has always been one weapon in the armoury of the military and state.
We’re 75 years on from one of the most ambitious and devastatingly successful examples in recent history – operation Fortitude. Deception is as old as warfare itself.
But some things have changed…the channels and techniques have shifted dramatically with digital; networks and the internet of things has increased our vulnerability; and weaker states militarily are able to project a larger shape through cyber operations.
But moreover, public attitudes in respect to the use of deception are being tested in a way they never have before.
In the past it was much easier to control the message and control the media. In the era of Twitter, you can’t say that with any real confidence, anymore.
Imagine the innocent tweet from Kent if we tried to pull-off Fortitude today: “Has military spending come to this – inflatable tanks #Torycuts.”
Communications is now horizontal, not vertical.
And the age of deference is dead – there is cynicism and suspicion of the old power structures. The pyramid of authority – with elites on the top - has upended.
Which sees the mass now shaping the world like never before, through horizontal digital networks and loose values-based affiliations.
The hive mind of the internet – or if not that, Bellingcat or its equivalents – are constantly scouring public information for legitimate journalistic reasons and to achieve state advantage.
More fundamentally, as we will see, the overhang of Iraq and the run-up to war means that much of the public still are deeply sceptical about the Government or its proxies making the case for conflict.
Now, to get into my remarks, I always come at these discussions from the perspective of data. What do people really think – and when it comes to the question we are discussing today (attitudes to the use of misinformation and deception) the results are very nuanced indeed.
With peace and war blurred, what permission is there to use deception in this grey zone?
Does permission change during times of peace versus war?
Can you deceive your enemies while retaining public trust?
Which spokespeople do you deploy to deceive, and what channels should you use?
So, just under a fortnight ago we did some polling on just these questions with a nationally representative sample of Britons.
A context point first. This is not a definitive picture of how the public feel about the specific tactics required to win on the information battlefield. More research would be required here.
We asked the questions at a time of relative calm from a national security point of view – in my research in this space, I have seen views shift within a range depending on the public’s threat perception, at that moment in time.
The result do though clearly point to higher level attitudes to deliberate subterfuge; and the profound risks the military and other arms of national security take when deploying deception – the biggest being, of course, public trust becoming collateral damage.
So to the data.
The first question, in some respects is the most important question. Do the public trust the British military?
The answer, if you benchmark against others, is a very solid yes – with 60% saying the trust our military to do what is right – and within that 60%, 33% saying they trust the military a great deal.
This isn’t a binary question – it’s a 9 point scale – and is a question we’ve asked over 20 million times in the last 19 years.
You can see that the military is nearly twice as trusted as the British Government. And more trusted than NATO too.
There aren’t many institutions that score higher – the monarchy, the BBC, rank a little higher, as do elements of our national security apparatus.
Why does it matter?
Well, if reputation is the rearview mirror, trust is a predictor of public support for your future actions. It allows you to take risks. A score of 60% means the British military starts on a strong foundation.
But what can you do with that trust? Does it follow that because 60% of the public trust the military, you have a similar number supporting the use of deception.
Yes, in general terms, more than half of the public understand that it’s better to keep something from someone in order to protect them, to keep troops safe in a conflict situation, for example.
And they get that to achieve strategic military goals sometimes you need omit or deceive.
But there is no free pass – it really depends on circumstance.
As you can see on the slide, just over half of people are comfortable with deception to support a secret mission or even if couched under the banner of ‘protecting national security’.
The public are pretty savvy here. They make a distinction between these circumstances versus a terrorist threat or real-time terrorist attack. In these situations they want facts and information. Not alternative facts and disinformation.
What’s even more interesting is the final bar here – less than a quarter think it’s ok to not be completely honest if the country is on the brink of war. That in my mind is the long-tail of Iraq and the case for war, including the 45-minute claim – the public have long memories.
So, we have established that the military is quite highly trusted – certainly in relative terms – and that the public understand that there are circumstances in which you have to deceive.
But, if the military was to share intentionally inaccurate information, does it matter where they do so? Are social media channels less trusted and therefore a better venue for lying, carrying less reputational risk if you get found out?
No. Not one bit.
It doesn’t matter whether you use an official twitter account or a fake one, or if you put it out through the BBC or newspapers, the public consider a lie, a lie. Channel doesn’t matter.
Don’t think you can get away with deceiving on social media because it’s a morass of truth, lies and stuff mixing the two. It counts the same for the public.
You can see in this slide the conflict at the heart of public opinion on this topic. We know the majority accept that sometimes you have to lie – but look at their attitudes to who delivers the lie.
They don’t really like anyone doing it. And if they were forced to choose, they’d prefer someone in uniform. Put it another way, they are the least, least acceptable in the eyes of the public.
It should come as no surprise then, that in this context concealing information or deceiving comes with a price. And the price is felt most by the least trusted institution that we measure – the government.
We know that if an arm of the State hides information, it isn’t the organisation that gets blamed it’s the government writ large – people think of government in this context as a big umbrella under which sit all the institutions, including the MOD and the military. If information is concealed or deception occurs there is a potential cost to the mothership.
Three out of four people say it decreases trust in government and two in three say it makes them wonder what else the government is hiding.
It also risks exacerbating the polarisation we are experiencing in Britain today. Over a third of people say it makes society more divided and increases propensity for protest or civil disobedience.
In short, by the government and military using disinformation and deception you may win a tactical military victory, but risk losing the wider battle for public confidence and trust – which you need.
The political reaction may well be greater restrictions in policies and permissions, inhibiting your ability to deliver effectively in the future.
However, it is possible to make deception more palatable…
Come clean. Be honest after the fact. Not thirty years, perhaps not thirty minutes, but certainly within a realistic time that means the lie still has salience or recall with the public.
Over half say that if the government tells the truth after a deception relating to national security it makes that deception more acceptable.
Not only that – it actually builds trust, with over a third saying they would trust the government more if it did so. Not that I am making the case, you understand, to lie to rebuild trust – that would be rather counterproductive…
My final point is an important point to round off my remarks. There is one area where the public feel very strongly that misinformation and deception should NOT be used – to cover up funding, resourcing and capability gaps.
We don’t like shadow puppets – or digital hands in pockets, declaring ‘stick em’ up’. We would rather, that the military was properly funded. The public would prefer that you had the right equipment and the right numbers.
Nearly three quarters would rather the military got more funding and rarely had to use deception tactics. An important message to land with whoever becomes the next Prime Minister.
So, to conclude. You – the British Military – are trusted by most people, and highly be a third. The majority understand that there are some exceptional circumstances where you have to deceive.
Furthermore, I would argue that there is a spectrum of action from a big public lie to a small-scale tactical omission, that yield different public responses.
However, any deception comes at a cost.
If deception is used to paper over funding gaps, or project a military capacity that we simply don’t have, you risk losing the strong public support you have today – and with that, your ability to act effectively.