The military ‘kill-chain’ concept as a meta-strategy for countering disinformation

US Army Intelligence and Security CommandTHE UNPRECEDENTED GROWTH OF digital access in our time has revolutionized online user access to information. Yet, the same phenomenon is behind the growing power of individuals, groups and state actors to create and disseminate misinformation and disinformation with unprecedented intensity. In the case of misinformation, false, mistaken or otherwise misleading information is disseminated by unsuspecting users. When these actors are acting deliberately with the intention to mislead, deceive or confuse, their actions amount to disinformation.

Both phenomena are dangerous, especially when utilized by well-organized malicious actors with political motives, as part of broader influence operations aimed to shape public narratives and mass perceptions. Moreover, as the methodologies and techniques of misinformation and disinformation continue to mature, increasingly sophisticated actors engage in such practices in pursuit of broader goals. The latter can be associated with rapidly evolving forms of hybrid warfare. This worrying phenomenon can be said to pose direct challenges to our understanding of national and international security. Disinformation in particular has been termed by a number of observers as the existential threat of our time.

What is to be done? In an article entitled “Information Warfare: Methods to Counter Disinformation”, published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Defense & Security Analysis, two experts suggest that a military approach to the challenge may be beneficial. The authors, Dr. Andrew Dowse, of Edith Cowan University, and Dr. Sascha Dov Bachmann, of the University of Canberra, argue that the military concept of “kill chains” could form the basis of an effective strategy to counter disinformation. The military approach, they point out, takes us away from other approaches to the problem, such as the planning approach, the truth theory approach, and the systems approach.

The planning approach focuses on re-active or pre-active attempts to correct false narratives with accurate information —for instance by drowning false information on social media in a sea of truthful information, or by amplifying accurate messaging in anticipation of a disinformation campaign. The truth theory approach is based on the premise that consumers of information are primarily influenced, not by its content, but by its source, which they have previously grown to trust. It therefore seeks to increase the visibility of mainstream sources, such as reputable media and national institutions. The systems approach addresses each element in the taxonomy of communication —i.e. the audience, the medium, the agents of information, and the messages themselves.


In their article, however, Dowse and Bachmann propose that the military concept of “kill chains” can compensate for the inconsistencies and shortcomings of all other approaches to the problem of disinformation. They point out that military bodies have already begun to respond in a concerted fashion against the disinformation. This is reflected in the establishment of the First Special Operations Command’s Information Warfare Center in the United States and in Britain’s 77 Brigade, whose mission is to combat disinformation as a form of hybrid warfare by foreign actors. Similar efforts are underway in Australia, as well as in operations carried out by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) more broadly.

What is the main approach of the kill chain model when it comes to disinformation? The term “kill chain” refers to a deliberate process aimed at targeting and systematically engaging a disinformation adversary, with the goal of disrupting the sequence of activity that generates successful disinformation. The roots of this concept are to be found in tactical modeling in the military. However, it is now making its way into the realm of cybersecurity, and —in the view of Dowse and Bachmann— could now be effectively applied to combatting disinformation.


The main principle is straightforward: attack disinformation efforts at their root, before harmful messages are delivered to social media platforms —that is, before they have an opportunity to be amplified. This, the authors suggest, can be done by actively deterring the creators of disinformation —i.e. through “the threat to expose disinformation activities”. It can also be done via the identification and neutralization of fake sites and accounts before the latter begin to spout malicious messaging. Another method focuses on the time-sensitive detection of disinformation, which can then be either removed en masse, or prevented from spreading by carefully tweaked filter algorithms that demote the damaging content.

A question that arises here is whether the kill chain approach necessitates that a military actor should be the one to implement it. Dowse and Bachmann’s view is that the nature of the coordinating body would “depend upon the nature of the threat, including whether it may be part of a broader conflict”. In the absence of an actual all-out conflict, the threat might be “deemed more of a national security responsibility”, and thus be led by a civilian entity. In times of war, a military body would be more suitable, they argue. In either case, “given the consequences of influence operations, overall co-ordination and survival chain action should be a matter for oversight at the highest levels in a nation’s government”, they conclude.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 September 2022 | Permalink

2 Responses to The military ‘kill-chain’ concept as a meta-strategy for countering disinformation

  1. Why not establish a government backed (eg NATO) Disinformation Database whose status is enshrined in law and which can be used for not only reference purposes by anyone but also as a means whereby anyone can discredit a false statement (eg about a virus or vaccine or any other important matter) by providing a genuine reference to the website. If the website is properly publicised and controlled it will soon be trusted and used by many.

  2. Pete says:

    This “kill-chain” counter disinformation activity for the UK has its roots in century old activities:
    – now receiving policy coordination from the UK Home Office and Foreign Offices
    – MI5 (in its century old counter-subversion mission)
    – GCHQ, with worldwide electronic connections staffed by civilians and military long having a kill-chain approach; and
    – the more public face (fronting for GCHQ a bit) of counter-disinformation in the UK’s 77th Brigade (mentioned in the IntelNews article).

    The kill-chain approach is less problematic when the main opponents are non-NATO or non-Five Eyes. So less problematic is countering the efforts of Russia’s St Petersburg based Internet Research Agency

    However kill-chain does get highly problematic and sensitive when the entities of interest are wholly or partly domestic eg. kill-chain against Wikileaks which was working with Russia’s Internet Research Agency in coordinated efforts to support Trump’s 2016 Presidential Campaign.

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