top of page
  • Daniel Cohen

Spiders and Flies: Developing Diplomatic Influence Operations in the Cyber Era

An increasing number of governments are engaged social media to advance foreign policy goals. Despite the growing importance of the virtual arena in international diplomacy, Western foreign ministries are losing the “cyber war” to militant and extremist groups. How can they gain the upper hand?

In February 2018, federal prosecutors representing the United States government indicted thirteen Russian citizens and three corporate entities for allegedly attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election. The indictments revealed a sophisticated operation designed to sway millions of American votes, ultimately interfering with the conduct of the election. This attack was allegedly spearheaded by three Russian-based companies: the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and two other corporations referred to as Concord. Acting in concert, these companies conducted influence campaigns using “troll farms” – a virtual army deployed to spread disruptive content on social networks. The companies’ employees reportedly worked under strict secrecy and compartmentalization.

Western intelligence agencies now strongly believe that the operation was directed by Russian intelligence services, and that senior officials at IRA and its later manifestations have ties to the Kremlin. This clandestine operation is suspected to have exerted significant influence on the outcome of the election, including the alleged installation of Moscow’s preferred candidate, Donald J. Trump, in the White House. His victory, which ran counter to all expectations and forecasts, indicates the potentially severe consequences of online influence operations.

Social networks allow the distribution of information on the Web to a general or specific audience. Through customized strategies for processing and distributing information, messages are targeted to a single user or demographic. Campaigns can be micro targeted and customized according to behavior, geography, interests, needs, and other user characteristics. This targeted approach is gaining popularity not only among profit-driven commercial entities but also among state actors, who are utilizing social media campaigns to reshape global politics.


None of the 28 agencies and entities mentioned in the Oxford study are affiliated with their country’s foreign ministry, but rather with various security agencies and bodies


One analogy for the actors arrayed on this virtual battlefield is the comparison between spiders and flies. Modern non-state actors, such as extremist organization, and states wishing to challenge the existing world order, such as Russia and North Korea, are reminiscent of flies – a constant nuisance carrying disease wherever they go. They are inherently flexible, operating across borders and without standard constraints. In contrast, government agencies – virtual spiders – spin their webs in strategic locations and patiently await their prey.

The use of state-sanctioned social media manipulation and influence campaigns has intensified in recent years, as nations worldwide develop digital capabilities and designate agencies to pursue cyber activity. Yet in many of these countries, the foreign ministry - the executive agency that is traditionally responsible for conducting foreign affairs, and whose personnel are constantly in contact with the populations of foreign nations – have not taken a leadership role in these activities. Instead, influence operations are usually operated under the auspices of defense or security departments.

This lack of participation in influence operations makes foreign ministries less relevant to modern-day diplomacy, diminishing their importance in setting foreign policy. This article will examine this institutional failure. Using a single case study, it will show how spiders can evolve, refining their tactics to trap more flies.

Diplomacy in the Digital Age

A study conducted last year at Oxford University found that at least 28 countries conduct influence operations on social media, investing hundreds of millions of dollars and substantial bureaucratic resources. For instance, the study notes that in 2015 the British military established the 77th Brigade, responsible for planning and executing psychological warfare campaigns in various media channels overseas, including social networks. The UK was preceded for example by Vietnam, which formed a similar unit in 2013, and by Brazil, which allocated an estimated three million dollars for social media “warfare.”

The interesting thing about these respective entities, as well as other equivalents created by countries seeking to develop similar foreign policy tools, is that none are affiliated with their country’s foreign ministry. Their efforts focus on building psychological warfare capabilities, creating deceptions at the strategic level, manipulating social media algorithms to increase exposure, and conjuring a false depiction of reality through manipulation of information channels. Despite this clear alignment with foreign policy and national security interests, this activity occurs mostly outside foreign ministry oversight.

To be sure, foreign ministries also operate extensively in the digital sphere. However, their current role is limited to promoting public diplomacy and strategic communication. For example, representatives of the US State Department fund and implement activities to promote freedom of speech on the Internet in countries such as Iran and Lebanon, with the aim of reducing tension and hostility through direct contact with civilians and the establishment of open dialogue. These activities can be overt – when the agency creating the messages identifies itself – or “low signature,” when it does not.

The Internet is a highly effective platform for promoting various state interests. It enables the cultivation of existing bonds and the forging of new ones, providing information to citizens in order to motivate them to act in constructive ways, and promoting citizen activism through transparent dialogue.

Digital diplomacy encompasses the use of the Internet in combination with novel information and communication technologies to promote diplomatic goals. Diplomatic overtures to the general public are a primary focus, but digital diplomacy is unique in that it is carried out over the Web, mainly using social media tools. Connecting with audiences through social networks offers several advantages. Popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other dedicated websites provide access to large global audiences. These networks also facilitate a high level of interpersonal communication.

This raises several important questions: Can influence operations support digital diplomacy efforts under the supervision of foreign ministries? If so, is it possible to conduct such campaigns against an opponent solely on the overt level, considering foreign ministries' structurally limited freedom of action? Finally, what level of diplomatic impact can be achieved when foreign ministries are restricted in their use of influence tools on the Web? Can “spiders” truly evolve to deal with the speed and flexibility of online “flies?”

Screenshot of the now-defunct US State Department's Twitter account, "Think Again Turn Away"

The State Department vs. ISIS A unique recent case study illuminates the challenges faced by foreign ministries conducting influence operations. For over a year and a half, the American State Department headed the US-led struggle against the extremist "Islamic State" organization (ISIS) on the Web. This online campaign demonstrated the extent to which a relatively weak non-state actor – ISIS – can project power and cause damage on a global scale. In this case, the state actor – the State Department – encountered severe difficulties in developing an effective response, essentially failing to achieve its objective.

The State Department agency initially tasked with leading the online fight against the Islamic State was the Center of Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC). The CSCC operated between 2011 and 2016 with an annual budget of $5 million, employing a team of about 50 analysts. In 2016, it was dismantled and assimilated into another State Department body called the Global Engagement Center, or GEC.

In an effort to dissuade citizens from joining ISIS, both the CSCC and the GEC fought to spread State Department messaging to audiences in the United States and foreign countries. In service of this goal, the State Department prepared two main types of messages. The first type was aimed at a broad target audience, and they incorporated narratives that undermined the credibility and glory of the Jihadist organization. The second type of messages targeted potential recruits, who were located on the Web, in a more personal and focused manner. These included emotional narratives directed at the first circles of recruitment contacts, such as family, friends, and local community members.

Throughout most of the CSCC's period of activity, messages were posted on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube with the US government logo attached. In 2015, the State Department ceased disseminating official messages on behalf of the US government. Instead, the State Department transmitted messages through a network of various organizations and individuals who were not affiliated with the US government, including foreign governments and moderate Muslims. Many of these auxiliary agents were critical of ISIS and its activities. This strategic change was implemented after it became clear that these organizations and individuals were more likely to reach target audiences. Their unaffiliated status made them a more reputable source of information for target demographics and thus a more valuable asset in messaging campaigns. To take one example of this overall shift, in July 2015 the State Department established a body called the Sawab Center in the UAE. The Sawab Center employed 15 analysts at the time it was established, most of them locals. In cooperation with the CSCC, analysts at the Sawab Center focused on formulating counter-narrative messages against ISIS in the Middle East, as well as among Arab-speaking communities in other areas.

Anti-ISIS video created by the Sawab Center | Sawab Center Launch Video source: Youtube

The ongoing virtual war against ISIS includes myriad other examples of US State Department involvement, including a diverse array of social media campaigns. For instance, the US State Department organized a competition for students, encouraging them to create viral campaigns with positive messages promoting tolerance. This competition was organized in conjunction with Facebook, as part of an initiative aimed at strengthening working relationships with major technological companies. To achieve this goal, senior administration officials met with senior executives of various technological firms in New York in November 2015 and San Francisco in January 2016.

Despite this substantial investment of resources and activity, the State Department’s Internet campaign to destabilize ISIS bore no tangible fruit. This failure was acknowledged in an internal State Department document that was leaked to the New York Times in June 2015. The document detailed multiple challenges the US administration faced while fighting ISIS propaganda online. It also described the capabilities of the Islamist organization, which demonstrated great efficiency and faster response times than advanced technological powers such as the United States, Britain, and their allies.

Multiple flaws in the campaign were also highlighted, including a lack of uniformity in messaging and a dearth of cooperation among the Western organizations leading the struggle against the prolific Islamist propaganda machine. Additionally, although the State Department did not publish relevant data on its reach, many argued that the campaigns did not engage the desired target audience and thus did not actually have demonstrated impact.


An Army cyber warfare campaign launched in 2016 proved far more successful in disrupting ISIS's activities online than the State Department's efforts


The leaked document elucidates the dynamics of the State Department's reorganization in its war against ISIS, culminating in the dissolution of the CSCC and the creation of the GEC. The GEC's mission is to serve as the central hub of an international network that coordinates the dissemination of messages. This oversight role includes both organizational and technical authority. The State Department’s revamped structure enhances institutional flexibility, achieving a new level of versatility that includes outsourcing campaigns and running them in cooperation with security agencies.

In conjunction with State Department activity against ISIS, and perhaps as a result of its shortcomings, in late 2016 then-US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter ordered the establishment of a task force to combat Islamist Web infrastructure under the auspices of the US Cyber Command. In the fall of 2016, Joint Task Force ARES was established under the Army Cyber Command, in cooperation with US intelligence services.

ARES focused on disrupting ISIS' recruiting operations on the Internet using cyber warfare. The Task Force’s activities involved hacking into e-mail and social network accounts that were linked to the Islamic state. This concerted disruptive effort included changing passwords, destroying information stored on servers used by the organization, and disrupting or destroying communication networks used for internal communication. This type of warfare, while vastly different from State Department efforts, and mainly operated by covert actions, proved far more successful in disrupting ISIS activities online. Conclusions By their very nature, liberal democracies such as the United States are committed to a set of norms and rules that mandate state accountability. They also often lack an internal consensus, which in turn prevents the formation of a single, unified message. They are characterized by bureaucratic and political hurdles that complicate the situation further.

In contrast, terror organizations, non-state actors and non-democratic states, like Russia and North Korea, have little regard for democratic rules of conduct, social norms, and the principles of international law. They believe that the existing world order must be challenged and transformed, and their radical stance includes political norms adhered to by Western powers such as the United States. Their lack of concern for the rule of law allows them to manipulate social media networks more efficiently. Their lack of respect for democratic consensus, bureaucratic consistency, and public transparency aids them in presenting a uniform message. This in turn enables quick and easy recalibration of their activity in the battle for hearts and minds.


In the cyber age, a foreign ministry that wants to achieve public perception goals must develop "soft" cyber capabilities


Perversely, the US State Department’s degree of freedom is narrow in comparison. Unfortunately, this includes the range of operational tools at its disposal to carry out cyber and influence operations in a covert manner. Although this limitation does not constrain overt activity, which involves fewer flexible tools such as anonymity and cyber attacks, we have seen how crucial covert assets are to successful social media campaigns.

Foreign ministries’ advantage vis-à-vis other government ministries and agencies lies in content creation. Because they have representatives stationed all over the world, in constant contact with local populaces, they are second to none in formulating narratives, strategic communication, and public diplomacy finely calibrated to the specific audience.

However, foreign ministries currently find it difficult to deal proactively with the challenges posed by the Internet. This deficit reflects the basic asymmetry in the rules of perception warfare. Foreign ministries are not built to take the initiative, typically reacting to existing events rather than preparing for future scenarios. In comparison with security and military agencies, they are also disadvantaged by the limited resources they can utilize to deal in various ways with activity online.

These difficulties partially explain the State Department’s inability to independently combat ISIS. Its staff did not formulate a proactive message, only responding to existing Islamist messaging. Moreover, the State Department lacked the technological capacity to efficiently engage target audiences. Finally, due to a lack of cooperation with other agencies, its campaigns failed to effectively counter its rivals’ thrusts.

In the cyber age, a foreign ministry that wants to achieve public perception goals must develop "soft" cyber capabilities. These new strengths provide the flexibility to rapidly deploy new technological tools, quickly tailoring messages to target audiences. Given the complexity of digital communications, it is also essential to conduct campaigns that include simultaneous activity at the overt and covert levels. To achieve this comprehensive model, foreign ministries must build a wide range of capabilities. This effort must include the cultivation of dedicated assets for digital influence, part of a comprehensive strategy that engages online communications in general and social networks most directly.

This goal can be accomplished by creating a "hybrid model" that will enable government bodies such as foreign ministries to cooperate with various government- and private-sector entities, each with its own comparative advantage - research, intelligence gathering, low signature activities, cyber warfare, and more. This effort must coincide with coordination between all the involved parties, in order to achieve effective influence operations at the tactical and strategic level.

Until then, foreign ministries will continue to find themselves at a permanent disadvantage in the online battle against state rivals, terror organizations, and others. These traditional bulwarks of state power must venture out of their comfort zones and get their hands dirty through the pragmatic deployment of digital assets. Otherwise, the flies will forever continue to evade the spider webs on the virtual battlefield.


Daniel Cohen is head of the Strategy and Intelligence desk at the Abba Eban Institute, at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. He is also a senior researcher at the Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center (ICRC) at Tel Aviv University, and a counter-terrorism and cyber expert for the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe (OSCE). Daniel holds a Master's in Security Studies from Tel Aviv University, and a Bachelor's in Government studies from the IDC Herzliya. Before joining the Abba Eban Institute, he worked as a research fellow and coordinator at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), and as a consultant in the government and security sectors.


bottom of page