What you need to know about influence operations

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com

False information spreads farther, faster, and more broadly than the truth. As observed across several election cycles and a pandemic, fabrications, inaccuracies and distortions muddy public discourse, sowing confusion in times when trustworthy information is scarce.

But the problem of disinformation is not limited to false claims produced by individual sources. In recent years, dubious actors have increasingly taken advantage of digital platforms to employ a range of tactics and organized campaigns to distribute not just false information, but also truthful but twisted narratives.   

These are commonly referred to as “influence operations,” which include the proliferation of disinformation and false narratives using covert influencers or public personalities, but they can also involve the spread of controversy around truths. 

What are influence operations? 

Philstar.com defines influence operations according to the criteria agreed upon by a shared network of media organizations dedicated to identifying, analyzing and investigating influence operations. 

Influence operations refer to orchestrated efforts involving the spread of information by various actors, whether they're connected to governments, private groups or foreign interests. These efforts are driven by financial, political, cultural, ideological, or policy interests and often aim to disrupt the flow of accurate information, targeting important aspects of democratic values, social well-being, safety and peace. 

It involves the use of disinformation, propaganda and other harmful content (such as harassment and attacks), delivered in different formats, in a manner that coerces or manipulates behavior and polarizes society. 

Some forms of information operations use inauthentic, deceptive and/or concealed procedures. It is implemented in a coordinated manner through traditional media, social media, and other digital mechanisms such as messaging applications and over-the-top (OTTs) media service, privately or publicly distributed.

It also includes techniques that disrupt the distribution of and undermine reliable information such as distributed denial of service attacks, hacking and other forms of technical interference.  

What are common indicators of an influence operation? 

We consider an information cascade a form of influence operation if it shows any of the following attributes, among others:

  • Same or similar types of messaging or commentary used by accounts spreading falsehood or half-truths
  • Information cascade among different accounts taking place within a few seconds, hours or days of each other
  • Sudden spike in the number of posts that contain the same messaging
  • Appearance of bots, anonymous accounts or troll-like behavior 
  • Simultaneous revival of false claims that have been posted or shared before  

Do all influence operations contain false information? 

Not all influence operations use false or inaccurate narratives. There are influence operations that do not even make definitive claims about an issue. Some types of influence operations merely express opinion or commentary, but in a manner designed to sow confusion among the public, attack a personality or institution, or corrupt public discourse. 

Are influence operations the same as trolls?

Trolls typically engage in online behavior aimed at provoking, harassing or misleading others — the same techniques commonly deployed in information cascades.

Accounts that exhibit troll-like behavior may sometimes be considered a part of influence operations, but influence operations encompass broader and more organized efforts, involving various actors with specific motives to disrupt information ecosystems and institutions, often with far-reaching objectives beyond what trolls typically aim for.


This analysis was produced with support from an Internews initiative aiming to build the capacity of news organizations to understand and monitor disinformation and influence operations in the Philippines.

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