After Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, influence operations have become a central focus among American policymakers, foreign policy pundits, and publics alike. Yet, influence operations remain under-explored and under-theorized in international security studies, with disagreement over how to define the phenomenon implicit in the existing literature. In this paper, I engage in concept building by constructing a definition in component parts and showing how influence operations differ from related forms of statecraft. I then argue that security studies should pay greater attention to influence operations for two reasons: First, they are policy-relevant and likely to remain so; they are cost effective, propagandists are prone to inflate their impact, and they are difficult to deter. Second, studying influence operations can contribute to the academic discipline of security studies by helping to expand restrictive notions of state power and challenge dominant models of foreign policy decision-making. I conclude by describing new tactics and trends in social media disinformation, drawing on a dataset of 147 publicly announced takedowns by Facebook and Twitter from 2018-2020.
Josh A. Goldstein is a DPhil Candidate and Clarendon Scholar in International Relations at the University of Oxford. For the 2020-2021 year, he is a CISAC pre-doctoral fellow with the Stanford Internet Observatory and part of the inaugural class of non-resident Hans J. Morgenthau Fellows at the Notre Dame International Security Center. Josh’s 3-paper doctoral dissertation takes a multi-method approach to studying the challenges that democracies face from influence operations. His broader research interests lie in international security, political psychology, and foreign policy decision-making.
Josh completed an MPhil in International Relations at Oxford with Distinction and a BA in Government from Harvard College, summa cum laude. He has assisted with research and writing related to international security at institutions including the Belfer Center, Brookings Institution, House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Department of Defense.