What makes an influence operation malign?


Companies, politicians, and governments are constantly working to motivate audiences to think and act favorably toward them. Think of a billboard promoting a fast-food chain, a political campaign video on YouTube, or a government-led polio vaccination drive. But some influence operations go too far and undermine democracy, which depends on the integrity of information. Can influence operations be assessed to distinguish those that are acceptable from those that are not? This paper explores three potential criteria—transparency in origins, quality of content, and calls to action—to assess the acceptability of an influence operation in the context of democracies. It focuses on three case studies: U.S. efforts to sell the war in Iraq; campaigns that fuel climate change denial in the United States; and the WhatsApp-based electoral campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. Each case study examines the following questions within the three criteria: Who is behind the operation? What activities are being carried out? What is the quality of the content involved? Who is the target audience? And what are the means of distribution? By posing such a framework, the paper aims to foster a much-needed discussion in democracies about what kinds of influence operations are acceptable, thereby guiding the policy, government, and military interventions democracies make in the information environment.