Influence Operations (IO), also known as Information Operations, are a series of warfare tactics historically used to collect information, influence, or disrupt the decision making of an adversary. IO strategies intentionally disseminate information to manipulate public opinion and/or influence behavior. IO can involve a number of tactics, including spreading false information intentionally. This is known as “disinformation.”
101: Influence Operations,
Disinformation and Misinformation
What are Influence Operations?
Influence Operations (IO), also known as Information Operations, are a series of warfare
tactics historically used to collect information, influence or disrupt the decision making of
an adversary.2,3 IO strategies intentionally disseminate information to manipulate public
opinion and/or influence behavior. IO can involve a number of tactics. One of these tactics, most recently and commonly seen in an effort to disrupt elections, is spreading false
information intentionally, known as “disinformation.”4
Skilled influence operations often
deliberately spread disinformation in highly public places like social media. This is done
in the hope that people who have no connection to the operation will mistakenly share this
disinformation. Inaccurate information spread in error without malicious intent is known
Disinformation is false or inaccurate information that is spread deliberately with malicious intent.
Misinformation is false or inaccurate information that is spread mistakenly or unintentionally.
IO tactics can include using non-genuine accounts on social media sites (known as ‘bots’),
altered videos to make people appear to say or do things they did not (known as ‘deep fakes’),
photographs or short videos with text embellishments or captions (known as ‘memes’), and
other means of publicizing incorrect or completely fabricated information. Content is often
highly emotive, designed to increase the likelihood that it will be further shared organically
2 “Information Operations, Joint Publication 3-13” Joint Chiefs of Staff. November 20, 2014.https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/
3 “Information Operations” Rand Corporation. https://www.rand.org/topics/information-operations.html.
4 “Information Disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policymaking” Claire Wardel, Hossein Derakhshan,
Council of Europe. September 2017. https://shorensteincenter.org/information-disorder-framework-for-research-andpolicymaking/.
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These are only some tactics using information to influence. This Playbook explores mis and
disinformation incidents that specifically focus on elections operations and infrastructure.
As an election official you may not often see or know what the motivation is behind the incidents you encounter, or whether they are mis or disinformation. Throughout these guides we
refer to mis/disinformation incidents together, as the strategies for countering or responding
to them are the same.
Who is Engaging in Mis/Disinformation?
Social media has made it easy for bad actors, including nation states, to organize coordinated
influence operations at an unprecedented scale. These same technologies have enabled
individuals to engage with mis and disinformation, independently of coordination by nationstates or other actors. Individuals that engage with malicious intent in spreading or amplifying mis or disinformation are often referred to as ‘trolls’. Their engagement in furthering this
information can help spur its spread and traction.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded that the Russian government ran a disinformation operation to distort U.S. public opinion during the 2016 elections.6
officers created hundreds of fictitious U.S. personas to polarize and pollute our political discussion. But Russia is not alone. China is conducting a long-term disinformation operation
to manipulate sentiments of American audiences into supporting and voting for pro-China
Iran is similarly recognized as a state actor emergent in its use of IO tactics.
In the past couple of years, there has been a rise in domestic use of disinformation whereby
domestic actors capitalize on either domestically or foreign-generated disinformation by
pushing it aggressively on social media to further their agenda. In 2016, foreign actors largely
created false content that they perpetuated, now their prevailing tactics seek to amplify
domestically created content. This trend raises cause for concern that election targeted IO
can also be used by foreign or domestic actors for political purposes, and election officials, in
particular, have voiced alarm about how to counter domestic disinformation campaigns.
6 “Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident
Attribution.” Office of the Director of National Intelligence. January 2017. https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf.
7 “China’s Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance.” Hoover Institution, Stanford University. November
Harvard Kennedy School / Defending Digital Democracy / The Election Influence Operations Playbook Part 1 8
Why do Mis/Disinformation Incidents Matter?
By feeding U.S. social media and daily news a steady diet of misleading information, adversaries are trying to erode Americans’ trust in election processes and outcomes. These attacks seek
to influence policy priorities, sway voter turnout, disrupt the timing and location of election
processes like voting and registration, and undermine the public’s faith in election officials.
In 2018, Pew Research Center found that 47% of Americans feel somewhat confident in the
accuracy of their vote being counted.8
In 2020, research from Gallup showed that a majority
of the public (59%) feel low confidence in the honesty of the elections process.9
Mis and disinformation incidents can exacerbate issues of confidence and distrust in the integrity of the
election . As an official, your ability to recognize and counter these incidents to ensure voters
are not deceived in exercising their right to vote, is essential.
Although reporting these incidents has been an important part of countering them, we
believe the equally important countermeasure is your response. Your ability to be a trusted
voice in sharing accurate information that counters false information is important. Always
consider how your responses may interact with the complex factors behind these incidents,
which may be difficult to predict and plan for.
During our work to write these guides, we collected some example scenarios that are drawn
from past events, or narratives we judge to be highly likely in the coming election. While mis/
disinformation vary, common mis/disinformation messages most likely to gain traction in
• The voting process is confusing and difficult (particularly with the rise in vote by mail).
• There has been a failure in the mechanics of how elections are run.
• Political partisans are “stealing the election.”
• The people who run elections are corrupt.
• COVID-19 concerns are impeding voting or delaying the election.
8 “Elections in America: Concerns Over Security, Divisions Over Expanding Access to Voting Pew Research Center” Pew Research
Center. October 2018. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/10/29/confidence-in-accurate-vote-counts-electionadministration/
9 “Faith in Elections in Relatively Low Supply.” Gallup. “https://news.gallup.com/poll/285608/faith-elections-relatively-shortsupply.aspx. Feb 13.2020.
Harvard Kennedy School / Defending Digital Democracy / The Election Influence Operations Playbook Part 1 9
• Results that are not in by election night call into question the administration or legitimacy of the election.
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