PSYOPS are designed to win ‘hearts and minds’ – all without shooting anyone!
What are Psychological Operations (PSYOPS)?
Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) influence the emotions, motives, and behaviour of governments, groups, organisations or enemies.
PSYOPS are planned and coordinated Intelligence Operations designed to target people’s vulnerabilities to influence them.
Explain it like I’m six… PSYOPS are used to get people to do things or stop doing things. Alright, onwards…
PSYOPS used during Operation Desert Storm
During Operation Desert Storm Coalition forces dropped thousands of leaflets advising the Iraqi forces to surrender or be destroyed by artillery and missiles.
The PSYOPS campaign used images of Iraqi prisoners being treated well and eating bananas which are a highly prized delicacy in Iraq.
Coalition forces were soon overwhelmed by surrendering Iraqi forces looking for safety (and bananas).
The PSYOP campaign was credited with saving thousands of lives and avoided millions of dollars worth of infrastructure from being destroyed.
PSYOPS are Information Operations
Information Operations are conducted at all levels of war, and across the spectrum of conflict.
PSYOPS contribute to mission success by targeting enemy information systems while defending our own.
PSYOPS Along the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)
Along the DMZ between North and South Korea, the North Koreans built a farming town called “Peace Village” (above) to encourage South Koreans to defect.
On the other side of the DMZ, the South Koreans used giant billboards and loudspeakers to broadcast news to show the North Koreans how attractive life is in the South and contradict the North Korean state-run news.
How do PSYOPS Work?
PSYOPS are used at all levels (strategic, operational and tactical) to influence policy, decisions, command, and the will of the target audience.
PSYOPS targets a groups:
- will to fight,
- will to obey, or
- will to support.
PSYOPS are designed to shape the behaviour that supports national policy objectives and the Commander’s intentions.
Who does PSYOPS?
Most foreign militaries will utilise a PSYOPS as part of their Intelligence Operations to support allies and other government agencies.
In the United States, PSYOPS are assigned to the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)
PSYOPS teams are usually led by trained Intelligence Officers and consist of a team of analysts or cultural experts.
PSYOPS detachments typically have graphic design, media, and photography skills to support their Intelligence Analysts.
When are PSYOPS Used?
PSYOPS are one of the oldest weapons and proven effective in both combat and peacetime.
PSYOPS are key to shaping the international security environment and reacting to events.
The Russians used information operations to disrupt the 2016 election, and PSYOPS made front-page news when it was used to manipulate votes à la Cambridge Analytica.
PSYOPS are used for:
- Supporting humanitarian activities,
- Maintaining or restoring civil order,
- To portray friendly intent and actions correctly,
- Counter enemy propaganda, misinformation, disinformation; and
- Deny the enemy the ability to polarize public opinion against us and our allies.
Could You Recognise Counterpropaganda?
You know that famous Sun Tzu saying about subduing the enemy without fighting…?
Well our opponents have always used information in support of their objectives (and they still are).
Understanding hostile propaganda is important to know how they use PSYOPS.
Here are examples of counterpropaganda:
Disinformation – Is falsified information used to deceive public opinion.
- Operation INFEKTION was a Soviet KGB disinformation campaign to influence opinion that the U.S. invented AIDS.
- On 30 Nov 2020, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao posted a fabricated image which portrayed an Australian soldier killing an innocent Afghani child.
Misinformation – Is unintentionally incorrect information to solicit a response or interest.
- Misinformation is basically ‘fake news’… like that intentionally false click-bait headline by the non-existent Denver Guardian.
Propaganda – Is intentionally incorrect or misleading information to disrupt or influence any sphere of national power—informational, political, military, or economic.
Opposing information – Information coming from anyone that represents an opposing view based upon factual evidence.
- The “Let’s Go Shell” website was designed to look like an official website of the oil company Shell, but was in fact a fake produced by Greenpeace.
PSYOPS in War and Conflict
During war, PSYOPS focuses on supporting offensive and defensive operations by undermining the enemy’s will to fight.
In Offensive Operations PSYOPS brings psychological pressure on hostile forces by persuading civilians to assist the tactical commander.
Or, PSYOPS could be used as a Call to Arms, to garner support, and mobilise troops for the war effort!
In Defensive Operations PSYOPS helps to expose enemy to counterattack.
- During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, PSYOPS handouts and leaflets were designed to encourage local nationals to report on Taliban.
How to Create a PSYOPS Campaign
So, you want to create a PSYOPS campaign huh?
But, where do you start?
Let’s step it out!
Step 1 – Planning and the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace (IPB)
Any PSYOPS operations begins with analysis of the Operating Environment.
In the military, this process is known as the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace (IPB), a detailed study of the environment and enemy.
The IPB process involves a study of the operational area including:
- Terrain Analysis,
- Weather Analysis,
- Key Stakeholders; and
- Threat evaluation.
This study helps us understand;
- History of the country, region or people,
- Natural Environment,
- Political System,
- Political Economy,
- Foreign Influence,
- Regional Perspectives,
- National Interests,
- Ethnicity; and
- Role of the Media
There’s a bunch of tools used for a detailed IPB (like ASCOPE, Stakeholder Analysis, PMESII etc). For more, do our Online Intelligence Training Course.
Output of Step 1 – Understand your PSYOPS Audience!
Step 2 – Determine PSYOPS Objectives
PSYOPS Operations need to have specific and measurable outcomes.
Is the PSYOPS goal to reduce acts of violence against friendly forces?
Or, to ease tensions between ethnic groups?
Whatever it is, you need to know what you want ->
Other PSYOPS Objectives:
- Influence a population to eradicate illicit crops
- Influencing the enemy to surrender.
- Influencing the local population to vote in elections.
- Reducing acts of ethic / tribal violence.
- Increase local national reporting of enemy locations or mine / IEDs.
This famous piece of PSYOPS during WWII offered Germans a choice;
The obvious goal was to sway public opinion away from the Nazi’s and offer the German people a peaceful alternative.
Output of step 2 – A clear objective for your PSYOPS campaign.
Step 3 – PSYOPS Target Vulnerabilities
Here we determine the target audiences’ vulnerability.
Where are they susceptible to influence?
Without identifying vulnerabilities, PSYOPS will have a difficult time influencing the target.
A vulnerability is an unfulfilled or perceived ‘need’.
Remember this: The desire to fulfil, alleviate, or eliminate a need will motivate a target to change their behaviour.
Social scientists have identified there are two types of basic needs;
- Biological – Those needed to sustain life (food, water, shelter and procreation).
- Social – Need to fit in, (belonging, acceptance, self-esteem).
Different cultures place different priorities on certain needs. But identifying the audience needs is like finding the pressure point to push.
You could go deep on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs (and vulnerabilities)….
But, just remember the following:
- Critical needs are needed to satisfy life (food, air, water or shelter in a hostile environment).
- Short-term needs could lead to critical needs (money, medical, etc) .
- Long-term needs include freedoms (self expression, creativity, etc).
The majority of PSYOPS in war situations relate to safety. Providing safety to a threatened or at-risk population.
Target vulnerabilities can be exploited to influence.
Tip for young players: A line of persuasion that addresses more than one need will likely be more persuasive to the target. 😉
Output of Step 3 – Identify what your targets’ vulnerabilities are.
Step 4 – Access Your Target Audience
In Intelligence ‘access’ is everything.
When it comes to PSYOPS, you need to access your target to influence them.
Makes sense right? There’s no point in developing a television campaign if they don’t have TVs.
No point in writing a PSYOPS newspaper article if your target can’t read…
Russia’s 2016 memetic warfare campaign used internet culture to influence the US election.
This PSYOPS campaign subtly furthers Russia’s strategic goals by pushing republican support (US election), and lends credibility to the annexation of Crimea. :O
Whether it’s online, in forums, or on Social Media (think TikTok if you’re targeting Gen Z’ers). Determine where your audience is for PSYOPS access.
This will tell you the type of product (the medium) you will need to use to best target your audience
Output of Step 4 – Find where your audience frequents, and go there!
Step 5 – Determine the PSYOPS Product
Whether your PSYOPS is a poster, leaflet, newspaper or video – the goal is to maximise exposure of the message to the target.
Here’s why I suggest using visual products for PSYOPS
- Messages can be read in private;
- The target can re-read for reinforcement;
- Higher degree of credibility, and acceptance;
- Printed matter can be passed from person to person;
- Message cannot be changed unless physically altered; and,
- Messages can be printed on almost any surface, including novelty items.
Taiwan’s PSYOPS Centre has developed “psychological warfare foods” to convince PLA soldiers to surrender in the event of a war.
Visual PSYOPS products:
- newspapers; and / or
Operation Cornflakes was an Information Operation by the British targeting the morale of German Soldiers during WWII
The British disguised anti-Nazi propaganda to look like genuine German mail and placed it near the wreck of bombed trains with the expectation it would be picked up by the Nazis and introduced into the delivery system.
Audio and Audio-visual PSYOPS Products
PSYOPS can be broadcast via audio and audio-visual transmissions.
A PSYOPS radio station can provide more than just one message, including; news, entertainment or music all supporting the PSYOP message.
Advantages include; Speed, coverage (access), versatile medium (news, media, music) and most people can hear (even if they can’t read).
Types of Audio PSYOPS:
- scripted interviews;
- talk-back and opinion; and,
- Television Shows
- Music Videos
Using Novelty Items for PSYOPS
- Key rings; or
- Soccer balls ->
During Operation Enduring Freedom (2008) American troops dropped soccer balls from low-flying Blackhawk helicopters to gain the trust and friendship of Afghan children.
Unfortunately the PSYOPS team didn’t realise the Saudi Arabian flag has the Shahada (Muslim declaration of faith) which states “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Messenger.”
Some of the target audience felt kicking the holy statement was heresy. Ooops. 😕
Online PSYOPS provides the capability to reach thousands or (potentially millions) in minutes. And can include:
- Forum posts;
- Websites; and of course,
- Social Media.
- The Islamic State use social media along with their publication Dabiq as a propaganda machine to recruit and reinforce their ideas online.
- The Russians were very successful in exploiting Social Media by sharing and promoting pro-Russian sentiment during the annexation of Crimea.
Output of Step 5 – Determine the best PSYOPS product for your audience and your objective.
Step 6 – Consider Risks and Constraints
Each culture (or sub-culture) is different.
So there are always themes to be stressed and others to be avoided in every PSYOPS operation.
This step ensures you consider the themes to be avoided or the limitations to the PSYOPS operation so it doesn’t blow up in your face.
- Violations of rules or law (don’t break the law),
- Funding and resources limitations (time / money),
- Restrictions on access and frequency (inability to go where your audience are) ,
- Logistics (people / equipment); and
Output from step 6 – Consider the risks and potential impacts of a poorly executed PSYOPS campaign.
Step 7 – Develop the PSYOPS product
Ok, so now it’s time to create the product.
Layout – PSYOPS layout is important.
- Check the balance, see how it looks, and how to draws the eye around the page.
Colours – Colours have significance in many cultures.
- Colours synonymous with the target may be used frequently. Eg. Canary yellow is popular in Vietnam, or green in the Republic of Ireland.
- The colour red to an American may signify danger; whereas, in communist countries, red may signify loyalty and patriotism.
- Colours included in the national flags of countries are usually “safe” to use.
- Colours can also have religious connotations. In the Muslim world green is universally “the colour of the faithful”. In the west, it’s often associated with health and nature (like in pharmacy signs).
Shape – Shapes may convey a message in themselves. Geometric shapes often have religious, symbolic or patriotic meanings.
Some propaganda experts believe this piece of PSYOPS did more to break France’s will to resist Germany than any other single piece of propaganda.
Keep it simple – Often a visually appealing, but simple message is the best approach.
PSYOPS Product Principals
- Authoritativeness (tone)
- Instructiveness (call to action)
PSYOPS Product Checklist –
- Should this line of persuasion be used?
- Are the symbols meaningful to the target?
- Are the colours used offensive?
- Is the material addressing the correct target?
- Is the medium the most effective way to present the material (leaflet, TV, radio)?
- Does each product in the series complement the others?
If possible, you might test on a smaller group to validate the idea and refine if required.
Six Tips to Create Killer PSYOPS Products
- Tip 1: Use intense, emotionally appealing words associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs of the target.
- Tip 2: Appeal to emotions such as love of country, desire for peace, freedom, glory, and honour.
- Tip 3: Use transference to push positive or negative emotions onto an object, entity or person. It’s often used in politics a lot to transfer the blame.
- Tip 4: Use culturally sensitive name-calling to arouse prejudices.
- Tip 5: Always use language familiar to the target.
- Tip 6: Any use of Symbols must be easily recognised by the target audience.
Output from Step 7 – Have a PSYOPS product developed (and don’t worry if it’s not perfect).
Step 8 – Distribution and Dissemination of PSYOPS
Go where your audience is and get the PSYOPS to them.
- Internet (Blogs, Official Government Websites, Forums,)
- Social Media
- Postal Mail (Snail Mail)
- Radio Air Time
- Television Air Time
- Paid Advertisements
- Through host nation providers (i.e. local police force or community groups)
- Community Notice Boards etc.
- Face-to-Face Dissemination
Output from Step 8 – Get your PSYOPS message to your Target Audience.
Step 9 – Measure the Effectiveness of Your PSYOPS Operation
Every Intelligence Operations should have success fail criteria.
PSYOP operations need indicators to assess the overall effectiveness of the mission.
Evaluating could take weeks (or longer) due to difficulties and complexity of determining cause and effect relationships with human behaviour.
In theatre, Intelligence teams use the ‘atmospherics’ to describe community and environmental sentiment.
PSYOPS evaluation can be measured through;
- Interviews – (HUMINT sources can comment on community sentiment).
- Focus groups
Impact indicators aid in determining the success of a PSYOPS operation
- Positive impact indicators are actions, events, or behaviours favourable in orientation to the desired objective. i.e. more defectors.
- A negative impact indicator is an event or a change opposite that desired by the PSYOP unit. i.e. fewer defectors.
Output from step 9 – Evaluate the impact of the PSYOPS campaign.
Step 10 – Monitor, Review and Update
With the other steps complete, the final thing to do is to monitor and review.
If the mission is deemed successful, based on the impact indcators, then it’s repeated to create more of the desired effect.
Or, if not? Make changes, modify or manipulate to achieve a different outcome.
Output from Step 10 – Continue the PSYOPS campaign as long as you’re getting results. Update where necessary.
PSYOPS Summary From a Dead General
“All military action is intertwined with psychological forces and effects” (Clausewitz).
PSYOPS is our force multiplier used to get people to do things or stop doing things.
Want to know more about PSYOPS?
Want to know how you’re being manipulated online? PSYOPS: Could this meme be trying to kill you? (Using Memes for Influence Operations)
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