Military Intel Officials Highlight Efforts to Counter Online Disinformation

Hendra Su/

Adversaries take advantage of moments in real time, such as when efforts are focused on withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Disinformation and malign influence online are among nascent digital threats the U.S. military is actively countering, top officials said on Monday.

“Watching Facebook and Reddit and Twitter and [Russian social media site] VK and [Chinese search engine and internet company] Baidu after and during the Afghanistan mission—everyone should take a look,” Army G-2 Senior Advisor for Science and Technology, and Innovation, Alex Miller noted. “It's a great example of what happens when we have a serious traumatic issue that we're trying to respond to in real-time, and our adversaries are deliberately messaging. They're putting out malign influence messages. They're putting out misinformation. They're putting out true information, just spinning it. So all of that is out there, and it's really hard to do anything about it if you don't understand what's happening.”

Miller joined top officials from the Space Force, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps during a panel at the Intelligence and National Security Summit hosted by INSA and AFCEA. 

The G-2 in Miller’s title refers to certain military intelligence staff in the Army. He said one of the routes personnel take to confront timely, malicious efforts to spread falsities online involves the OODA loop—a four-step approach to decision-making established by military insiders meaning to observe, orient, decide and act. Army insiders, he noted, are also figuring out what to do in this realm under the auspices of “information advantage,” or a concept the Defense Department is embracing that has evolved from information warfare.

“I want to highlight that there are nascent efforts that are producing results and that as soon as we can share those results with each other, and the lessons learned, that that would be helpful,” Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Cyber Effects Operations Lt. Gen. Mary O’Brien said. “And some of the people who are working in this effort are our mavericks.” 

An Air Force joint team was recently nominated for national intel meritorious students work for the work they did for the 2020 election defense work—“a lot of malign influence there,” O’Brien noted. 

“So there are pockets of people that have experience in how we could get after this. We need to make sure that they're part of our whole effort, and not some group over on the side doing something that other people don't understand or value,” she said. “We absolutely have to value people who are working in this space.”

Marine Corps Deputy Commandant, Information Lt. Gen. Matthew Glavy further pointed to a culture around “convergence” that he said the Air Force has implemented—and that his own branch is working to emulate. 

“They've been able to take their intel apparatus, their [online intelligence] apparatus, their cryptology apparatus and a lot of the capabilities kind of under the 16th Air Force now with a commander, with unity-of-effort, unity-of-command and unity-of-purpose,” Glavy said. “So the Marine Corps is trying to mimic that as well.”

Moving forward, added Coast Guard Assistant Commandant for Intelligence Rear Adm. Andrew Sugimoto, a key element of military and intelligence community efforts to curb disinformers and digital malign influence will be working with other nations to declassify and share data to then collectively dispute sources of such potentially harmful content.

The officials discussed a range of other intelligence- and security-aligned topics during the more than hour-long chat.

Offering an overview of the newest military arm’s early priorities, Space Force Deputy Director of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Joseph Rouge said officials intend to nurture “a new culture of” space ISR professionals and offerings. From the very beginning, he noted, officials are starting on the premise that modeling and simulation form the basis for how they make decisions. 

“It's very hard to test space systems in all environments, so that's a very key move there,” he said. “Our highest priority right now is establishing the service as an ISR-capable service. We have already joined the [intelligence community], as the 18th member of the IC. That was done in record time.” 

Space Force officials are beefing up threat and analysis capabilities. Rouge added that they also aim to set up a science, technology and intelligence hub in the National Space Intelligence Center by early next year if they can secure support from Congress.

Among other topics, the panelists also reflected on existing pursuits associated with advanced and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning. Noting the complexities of various, modern tech, they expressed a need for their outside partners to guide them in the right direction based on their needs—not just buzzy options they might ask for.

“One of the things I would ask as we do leverage advanced technology is, if we're talking to you, and we say, ‘Hey, give us some of that AI,’ but then we describe something that sounds like data aggregation—call us out on that,” O’Brien said.

National Maritime Intelligence Integration Office Director and Office of Naval Intelligence Commander Rear Adm. Curt Copley added that, in his view, “there's so much work to be done” associated with automation and machine learning in his realm. With petabytes of data to work with, his office plans to partner with industry on algorithms they’ll need in the future “to deliver that decision advantage.”

“But I would agree, you know, let's have a good conversation—make sure we understand what we are talking about and what we are saying we need—because I will admit, I certainly am not the best articulate exactly what I read in terms of the language-of-the-day when it comes to machine learning and artificial intelligence,” he said.