Disinfo Wars

A taxonomy of information warfare

By Hossein Derakhshan*

In the Information Disorder report for Council of Europe (2017), Claire Wardle and I identified three types of bad-information (mis-, dis-, and malinformation), three phases (creation, (re)production, distribution), and three elements (agent, message, interpreter) to information disorder.

Here I would like to expand that model and focus on various categories of information warfare, based on their agents and targets, divided as state, non-state or non-state organisations, and the public. Agent is the creator of dis-/malinformation, target is whom the agent wishes to influence or manipulate in order to reach a specific goal which intends harm. This model not only somewhat clarifies the current debate on the topic, it informs potential ways to tackle each type of campaign, implying where fact-checking is the most effective.

The diagram above (in draft) shows nine possibilities, depending on which agent intends to influence which target’s perceptions or decisions. Some categories have existing labels, such as propaganda which is when a state targets the public in its own or another country, or competition that is when non-state actors try to harm or manipulate each other. But some categories have no labels.

State vs. state (SS): When a state targets its own or another state’s organisations, such as when the US and the UK governments fed other states (such as Poland or Denmark) false information about the Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in order to form a military coalition to invade Iraq.

State vs. non-state (SN): When a state feeds a non-state organisation such as the UN, local or international NGOs, etc. to influence their perception or decisions. An example is when the American and British governments leaked false information about Iraq’s imminent WMD threat to the likes of BBC and the New York Times.

State vs. public (SP): Known as propaganda, it refers to when a state targets its own or another population directly with false information to influence their decisions or perceptions. Examples include most authoritarian system’s broadcast television or radio, or when they use advertising on social media to target their own or other populations.

Non-state vs. state (NS): When a non-state organisation feeds its own or another state with disinformation. For example, when pro-Assad or anti-Assad human rights groups tried to manipulate US or European governments with false reports on use of chemical weapons by their opponent.

Non-state vs. non-state (NN): When non-state organisations feed each other with disinformation. Motivation is mostly competition.

Non-state vs. public (NP): When non-state organisation feed the population with disinformation. For instance, when the pro-gun lobbies in the US feed the public with false information.

Public vs. state (PS): When citizens of a country send disinformation to state organisations. For example, bogus bomb or fire or terrorism reports, or fabricated reports about rivals in one’s own or other country.

Public vs. non-state (PN): When public feed non-state organisations with disinformation. For example when indoctrinated photographs or videos or false witness reports are sent by public to non-state media organisations.

Public vs. public (PP): When public target others in their own or another country with disinformation. Examples include spreading rumours or lies or private chats, pictures, etc. against an individual on social media or with mass emails etc.


One immediate conclusion is that from all the categories, those three where non-state organisations are targeted with dis-/malinfomation (i.e. SN, NN, and PN) are the most effective in enabling the agents to reach their malicious goals. Best example is still how US and UK state organisations duped independent and professional media outlets such as the New York Times into selling the war with Iraq to the public. But tackling badinformation in these categories are more effective and less costly, because non-state organisation are primarily rational structures and predominantly smaller in scale.

Whereas states are difficult targets because of their intrinsic rational structure, administrative rules, and verification mechanisms, the public is easy to target but very hard (and expensive) to protect – mainly because of their vast numbers, their affective tendencies, and the uncertainty about the kind and degree of the impact of badinformation on their minds.

The model, thus, encourages to concentrate funds and efforts on non-state organisations to help them resist information warfare.


Hossein Derakhshan is a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab and tweets at @h0d3r.