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Winning in the Information Environment: Recent Successes in Combating Adversary Disinformation and Recommendations for the Future

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Justin Brockhoff


Before invading Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russian officials were planning a false-flag operation, which called for a staged video depicting the aftermath of a Ukrainian attack against Russian-backed separatists or Russia itself, with Russian-speaking actors posing as mourners and corpses. This fabrication was meant to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pretext for launching military forces into Ukraine and to enable Russia to frame its actions as a humanitarian intervention, not a naked act of aggression. However, having caught wind of the disinformation plans, the US government shrewdly declassified the intelligence it held and announced Putin's intentions. With his false-flag operation exposed before it could begin, Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine weeks later without the benefit of disinformation to obfuscate his intentions.[1]

US officials' novel approach to this situation effectively neutralized one of Putin’s greatest strengths. Russia had a proven track record of being the first to move, swiftly spreading falsehoods with adept skill while the US kept its intelligence data out of public view. Rather than reacting to Moscow's disinformation, the US seized the initiative in the information environment (IE). Building on this recent success, the US should continue to gain an advantage in the increasingly complex and contested IE by increasing the amount of intelligence made publicly available.

Today’s Information Environment: The Need for Speed

The US Department of Defense (DoD) defines the IE as the “aggregate of social, cultural, linguistic, psychological, technical, and physical factors that affect how humans and automated systems derive meaning from, act upon, and are impacted by information, including the individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or use information.”[2] In plainer terms, the IE is a complex web of interconnected senders and receivers exchanging thousands, if not millions, of pieces of information daily that results in a global competition for attention. With today’s IE containing more data than ever, it has increasingly become a contested space that often rewards the actors who can move faster than their opponents.

The sheer volume of data available in today’s IE makes it more challenging to break through to an audience than ever. While only a handful of credible news sources existed in the past, there are now hundreds of thousands of sources of information refreshing multiple times per hour. In addition, technological advances, such as mobile applications and social media algorithms, push out information, thereby making it easier to flood an audience with data. Quickly overwhelmed, people are forced to limit which sources receive their attention.  However, the narrow selection of approved sources, coupled with the proliferation of mass media messaging empowered by aggressive social media algorithms, provides a rich opportunity for a communicator to completely encircle their target audience. Thus, today’s IE can offer a dream scenario for a propagandist.[3]

The IE has become increasingly contested as news sources compete for revenue and international actors compete for influence. Russia, as demonstrated through its extensive disinformation portfolio, understands the value of levering today's IE and takes two overarching approaches. In its 'near abroad,' Russia uses the IE to sow favorable sentiment with the Russian-speaking diaspora, as it did during its invasion of Ukraine. Globally, Moscow uses the IE to foment resentment of the liberal international order led by Western powers.[4] In turn, Western powers push back on Moscow's messages, resulting in an international tit-for-tat in the IE in which both sides compete for attention, influence, and power.

Due to the aforementioned characteristics of today’s IE, the actor that moves fastest is often better rewarded. Communication expert Helio Fred Garcia calls this the “first mover advantage.”[5] A RAND Corporation study showed that an individual is “more likely to accept the first information received on a topic and then favor this information when faced with conflicting messages.”[6] Therefore, the first to communicate not only has the advantage of winning over the intended audience, but the opposing side faces increased resistance when trying to deliver a counter message because the audiences’ first impressions had already been framed.

Recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) can facilitate this need for speed. Compared to previous manmade efforts, platforms such as ChatGPT can craft a convincing narrative and still or moving imagery in seconds. Therefore, humans with nefarious intent, such as a Russian troll farm, can now produce vast volumes of false information at never-before-seen rates. Thus, an AI-armed adversary that seeks to obfuscate the IE will have more opportunities to communicate first, faster, and in greater volumes which will only make it a greater challenge for the US to combat these disinformation efforts. The DoD’s Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment (JCOIE) summarizes this challenge as the fight to maintain “perceptions, attitudes, and other elements that drive desired behaviors” in an “increasingly pervasive and connected IE.”[7]


Defined as “all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented, and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or profit,” disinformation is used in international relations by actors seeking to gain an advantage by subduing their adversaries rather than reasoning with them.[8] By putting false information into the IE, the actor aims to create an advantage by either swaying the international audience to their point of view or sowing enough doubt to impede outside intervention. These disinformation efforts can range in scope from a singular story to a campaign of multiple stories linked to one event to a long-term operation aiming to systemically deceive a target audience.[9]

Having long understood the value of disinformation on the international stage, Russia had used it to influence foreign audiences. The US Department of State identified five overarching themes Russian disinformation campaigns leverage, ranging from “Russia is an Innocent Victim,” to “Reality is Whatever the Kremlin Wants It to Be.”[10]  In addition to the aforementioned false flag operation thwarted by the US, Putin has tried – using the themes mentioned above – to use disinformation to accuse Ukraine’s Western allies of starting the war and question Ukraine’s status as a sovereign nation.[11] Russia has also demonstrated an adept skill at leveraging the “first mover advantage” to seize the initiative and create problems that the West must chase reactively. Dubbed the “Firehose of Falsehood,” Russia’s disinformation operations rely on speed and volume to flood the IE to maximize its effects.[12]

Conversely, the US technique has been to reactively engage in the IE from a position of fact and transparency. Operating in the wake of Russian propaganda, the US is left playing a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ to address disinformation stories as they arise. However, the American’s reactive counter-disinformation efforts either go unnoticed or ignored in many cases. Given Russia’s continued attempts to exploit the IE against its opponents, the US must adopt new processes to gain a position of advantage in the future. Thankfully, glimpses of the necessary changes to the US approach are slowly coming, as evidenced by recent moves to declassify intelligence data to foil Russian disinformation efforts before the disinformation can take root.

Recent Examples of Counter-Disinformation Success

Recurring Department of Defense News Briefings on Ukraine

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, US officials have been holding weekly press briefings on the war's progress. While it is unusual for the US and DoD to provide such detailed information about a conflict it was not directly engaged in, this approach has been beneficial. By aggressively placing the most up-to-date declassified intelligence and assessments into the IE, the US has seized the initiative. With the “first mover advantage,” Ukraine and its Western allies have been able to frame developments in the war as they are unfolding, which has degraded Russia’s ability to employ disinformation.

This approach is a stark departure from how the US has operated in the past. Based on the author’s experience as a public affairs officer for the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan, far more press briefings are held now than were hosted during the war in Afghanistan (in which the US was the lead combatant). The result was that the Taliban had the time and space to shape the IE, spreading disinformation and undermining ISAF operations. The US’ new approach is a dramatic improvement and should be benchmarked as a standard practice in the future.

Chinese Lethal Aid to Russia

 The US's changing approach to IE can also be seen in the way it used the IE to isolate Russia from potential allies. As the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine approached, US DoD officials took the proactive step to declassify intelligence data indicating that China was considering giving Russia munitions and other lethal aid for Russia’s war in Ukraine.[13] In doing so, the US highlighted to the global audience that Beijing was considering clandestine support for a war of aggression. By getting out ahead of both Russia and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the US was able to seize the “first mover advantage” in the IE. By preemptively communicating publicly on the issue with corroborating declassified intelligence, the US shaped how this information was received by the international community, which left the CCP and Russia on the defensive.

Russian Unprofessionalism in Flight

The US has also declassified footage to highlight Russian aggressive behavior against Ukrainian allies. In March 2023, the US European Command declassified and released video footage of two Russian pilots harassing and ramming a US Air Force remotely piloted aircraft over the Black Sea.[14] While intercepts and harassment by Russian military aircraft are not necessarily new phenomena, this most recent example included Russian pilots dumping fuel on the remotely piloted aircraft and ramming the aircraft’s main propeller. Rather than wait for Russia to spread disinformation on the incident, US European Command made a masterful stroke in declassifying the drone’s footage to show how the Russian pilots behaved in an aggressive and unprofessional act. While a senior Air Force official released a verbal statement about the incident, the accompanying declassified intelligence video made it impossible for Russia’s government to shape the incident through disinformation.[15]

Looking Toward the Future

While all of these examples demonstrate how the US can effectively seize the initiative in the IE by taking proactive measures to declassify intelligence and use that information to get ahead of Russian disinformation efforts, these measures will likely only be effective in the near term as Russia (and others) look for ways to adapt. To build off recent successes and prepare for the future of a faster and even more contested IE, the US should strive to obtain a position of advantage by rehauling the US classification system, conducting more profound studies to assess the impact of AI, and developing a more efficient method for synchronizing US strategic messaging efforts.

Future information operations will require more rapid access to information that our current classification does not support. Last updated nearly 15 years ago, the US classification system desperately requires an overhaul.[16] Defense leaders have criticized overclassification for unnecessarily complicating processes to the detriment of productivity.[17] By pushing down classification levels, a new system would allow information to be released at a faster pace which would allow the US to better shape the strategic narrative or, if necessary, respond to an adversary’s disinformation efforts. Additionally, such an approach would fulfill the US's commitment to conduct its business as truthfully and transparently as possible.

With the recent accelerating growth of AI, the US must dedicate more government resources to researching how it will impact the future IE. In addition to the aforementioned capabilities for generating fake text at great speeds, AI has also been used to create “deep fake” imagery that appears genuine until scrutinized by fact-checkers.[18] While the US DoD has announced investments in AI research, most relate to autonomous systems or enabling faster decision-making in military conflict. Little focus is given to how the US will approach AI's implications on disinformation operations. Considering the speed with which disinformation and propaganda can spread, coupled with the abilities of AI to create compelling imagery to support such efforts, this area requires more US investment and attention.

Finally, the US government needs a more efficient system for synchronizing strategic messaging and counter-disinformation efforts. A 2018 RAND study found that there was an “absence of a clear overall lead agency to coordinate U.S. government activities to respond to Russian disinformation.” [19] This situation is increasingly troubling as the importance of IE continues to grow. Furthermore, current processes already in place should adopt a more proactive approach. For example, the National Security Council currently sends out a nightly email with talking points that react to the day’s news, but it would be more effective if the NSC also included guidance for senior leaders that better prepared them to be on the lookout for IE opportunities. This would create a distributed network that would be able to simultaneously engage on a topic with an opportunity to secure the “first mover advantage” in the IE.


By quickly distributing the same message across multiple voices supported by declassified intelligence, the US will be able to proactively flood the IE which is a much more efficient and effective approach than past reactive efforts to counter disinformation.

As disinformation operations by Russia and other future adversarial actors will continue to seek to contest the US’s global influence, the government must quickly take measures to ensure that it can seize the “first mover advantage” and act from a position of strength in the ever-evolving IE.  While the aforementioned suggestions may sound ambitious, they are necessary if the US seeks to retain its global power and influence in the face of the ever-increasing threat of disinformation.

Lt Col Justin Brockhoff
Lt Col Brockhoff is a public affairs officer and recent Air War College graduate. He previously served as the public affairs advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force, commanded a cadet squadron at the US Air Force Academy, and held a variety of public affairs roles, including as a coalition spokesman during OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM in Afghanistan.


This article was originally written as a paper for Dr. Robert Hinck's "Geopolitics of Misinformation" elective at AWC. 



[1.] Julian Barnes, "U.S. Exposes What It Says Is Russian Effort to Fabricate Pretext for Invasion." New York Times (Washington, D.C.), February 3, 2022.

[2.] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Information in Joint operations JP3-04 (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2018), GL-5,

[3.] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 10.

[4.] Todd C. Helmus, Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, Andrew Radin, Madeline Magnuson, Joshua Mendelsohn, William Marcellino, Andriy Bega, and Zev Winkelman, Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018), x.

[5.] Helio Garcia, The Power of Communication (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2012), 240-241.

[6.] Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model: Why it Might Work and Options to Counter it (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016), 4.

[7.] Ibid.

[8.] Deen Freelon and Chris Wells, “Disinformation as political communication,” Political Communication 37, no. 2 (2020): 145.

[9.] Christina La Cour, “Theorising digital disinformation in international relations,” International Politics 57, no. 4 (2020): 708.

[10.] US Department of State, Russia’s Top Five Persistent Disinfomration Narratives (Washington, DC: Department of State, 2022), Russia’s Top Five Persistent Disinformation Narratives - United States Department of State

[11.] Associated Press, "Putin Falsely Claims It Was West that "Started the War" in Ukraine Almost a Year After He Ordered Invasion." CBS News online, February 21, 2023,

[12.] Paul & Matthews, “Russian “Firehose of Falsehood””, 1.

[13.] Doina Chiacu and Sarah Lynch, "China Lethal Aid to Russia Would Come at Real Cost, U.S. Says." Reuters online, February 26, 2023,

[14.] Oren Liebermann, Natasha Bertrand, and Jim Sciutto. "US Military Releases Footage of Russian Fighter Jet Forcing down American Drone over Black Sea." CNN online, March 16, 2023,

[15.] David Vergun, "Russian Fighter Strikes U.S. Unmanned Aircraft." U.S. Department of Defense, March 14, 2023,

[16.] Exec. Order No. 13526, 75 FR 705 (2010),

[17.] Aaron Mehta, "'Unbelievably Ridiculous': Four-star General Seeks to Clean up Pentagon's Classification Process." Defense News, January 29, 2020,

[18.] Tiffany Hsu, "As Deepfakes Flourish, Countries Struggle With Response." The New York Times online, January 22, 2023,

[19.] Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, Todd C. Helmus, Andrew Radin, and Elina Treyger, Countering Russian Social Media Influence (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018), 14.

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