Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop—Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act— is a powerful model for making decisions in contested environments. Strategic use of information can defeat it. Understanding narrative strategies can protect it.
The basic idea of an OODA Loop is to operate in a fast and relevant decision cycle, while getting an opponent to make slow or irrelevant decisions. Information can subvert, even stupidify, decision cycles by collapsing Observe and Orient (OO) into a single step. Flipped onto us, we ingest information. “Smart” 5G networks make us more susceptible to this, with the illusion that faster is smarter. The problem is that if we simply absorb more information, we think like a 1G computer:
As a result, we are reduced to less than machine learning. Even narrowly intelligent machines (narrow AI) accept unstructured data, process data in multiple languages, and produce innovative solutions. At the same time, we face humans who wage unrestricted warfare.
So, how can we out-think competitors an information environment filled with uncertain motives and fast-processing machines?
We can begin by understanding how strategic narratives target decision-making for influence by arranging information.
The OODA Loop is a vulnerable target because it is seductively simple in concept yet complex in application. To demonstrate this, we use information tracked by the Hamilton 2.0 Dashboard (Alliance for Securing Democracy) and a model of terrorist recruitment narrative (Plato’s Fear by Dr Ajit Maan) to show the following:
John Boyd’s OODA Loop began as a fighter pilot’s technique to shoot down enemy aircraft before they did the same to him. OODA had to be fast, accurate, and holistic enough to anticipate changes in the environment:
An in-depth explanation of the entire OODA Loop is beyond our scope here. A comprehensive collection of John Boyd’s briefings, and the articles and books about his thinking, may be found on Chet Richard’s website. However, many who have written about the OODA Loop regard the Orient phase as the most important one, myself included. This focus, however, gives short shrift to Observe while technology is expanding it.
Orientation (slide 13) is our mental perception of the world. This cognitive process may happen in an instant, but it is a complex environmental outcome. Boyd described its determinants as heritage and culture, analysis and synthesis, historical experience and new information. Technological advancements enable us to observe more, from mechanical gauges that sense pressure to spectrometers that sense electromagnetic radiation. So much so that we have more observations on which to fixate. Or, on which to lose focus and become lost in a flood of data and information. We seek the best of both–details in context.
Fixation and lack of focus pose acute problems for OODA, because we are supposed to orient on an observation to figure out what it means. If we fixate on data and orient it into a narrow context, the information is minimally useful. If we fail to orient data into a context at all, we get meaningless information. Our struggle inbetween these extremes involves various frameworks, algorithms and networks. This is where narratives enter to play a strategic role, at a subliminal level.
Narrative strategy is “changing the way power works.” The Narrative Strategies (NS) team of scholars and professionals delve into the many ways and means of how, to include narrative warfare, strategic influence, terrorism and insurgency, violent extremism, radicalization, information warfare, and social media. For our purpose of focusing on how narrative strategy can impede OODA, we draw from the work of Dr Ajit Maan, founder of the NS cohort.
Narrative is a method whereby the experiences of a life time can be provided with meaning by tying them together in a certain “culturally sanctioned” structure.Ajit Maan, Internarrative Identity, UPA, Kindle Edition (location 158)
From Maan’s perspective, narratives are taken-for-granted cultural contexts that provide meaning. For instance, being “Chinese” means identifying with harmonious traditions from a long-standing China-centric civilization–without consciously thinking about it. Being “American” means identifying with democratic values of freedom and equality. While their details can be contentious (who imposes harmony, what kind of freedom and equality, e.g.), narratives are baked-in expectations of one’s environment. As such, they are tacit sources of stories, stories that express meaning more overtly. As a method, this has strategic implications for observation and orientation.
What we observe may be “true” empirically, but how we frame our observations is what assigns meaning, or significance, to them. Sometimes we are enculturated to accept deformed facts because they conform to our narratives. As Maan tells us, we disinform ourselves. Let’s see how can this happen in an OODA Loop.
To Boyd, observing meant using human insight and vision (slides 3-4) to detect and monitor changing conditions (circumstances, interactions, and outside information in Figure 1 above). If we can change more quickly than an adversary, we are more likely to win a contest. This sensing function is part of our implicit guidance and control (see Figure 1), or command & control (C2) system. That is, we observe for a purpose. Generally it’s to orchestrate actions for desired effects. Details matter.
For instance, if our C2 model is built around the need to process messages (technology can do that), how will we manage the command part of C2? That requires leaders with a broader view of C2’s purposes. If our C2 over-emphasizes proactive command, how will we manage individual biases? That requires leaders with mature situational awareness. A predatory C2 system that disseminates disinformation and exploits biases can undermine ill-built, ill-led observation and orientation.
Ideology is such a C2 system, one that orients its preys’ observations in order to overpower its ideas. Make no mistake: both authoritarian and democratic societies are filled with ideologies and ideologues. The aims of ideological C2 systems tend to be exceptionalist, as in the following claims:
All pure ideologies rob individuals of freedom to observe and orient on problems. Used strategically to achieve desired effects, they strategically arrange information into purposed narratives.
Ideologies and narrative strategies select, omit and manipulate information. Some information is true and some is false, often partly so. The use of true but harmful information, and false information—intentionally so or not, creates what Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan describe as information disorder. This threat erodes trust on a global scale. The following diagram and definitions are from their insightful Council of Europe report:
What can we do?
We can keep Observation and Orientation consciously discrete and consciously combined. Doing both is necessary because the two processes interact with each other. Separating O and O enables us to observe complex problems and be aware of how we orient to frame them. If we fail to do this, we are likely to be blind to complex problems and exclude relevant solutions. This filtering (or, echo chamber) leads to sub-optimal decisions and actions. Combining “O and O” prevents O&O as a cause of Loop collapse.
Observe what’s happening. Orient on the situation to discern meaning. Decide what to do. Act to do it (and what not to do).
collect Feedback and repeat
Having merged OODA with Narrative Strategy, we are better armed to understand how strategic use of information can con observation and orientation into a single cursory step. Weaponized and delivered, information becomes a stratagem that denies its victims an independent capability to sense what is happening and to discern meaning.
Narratives are so powerful, Maan explains in Plato’s Fear (12-13), because they evoke emotion that overrides reason. Powerful narratives create receptive audiences by appealing to the internalized identities that organize their experiences, sub-consciously. The pithy book includes a four-step model of how such “colonization of the mind” works. Drawn from terrorist recruitment narratives, Maan’s model describes how narratives are weaponized.
For each stage in this psychological assault, we see what is happening to OODA in the bolded sub-bullet:
As an assembled weapon system, the narrative functions as follows:
Observe is Orient; Decide is not a hypothesis; Act is not a test; feedback is Closed Loop Learning
The above cycle may seem abstract, so let’s see some evidence. Using the italicized ideas above as pointers, we discover ample examples of Chinese information tracked by Hamilton 2.0. In a few places, I have inserted comments (marked by “Note:”) to provide a comparison or explanation.
Hamilton 2.0 is a dashboard that “provides a summary analysis of the narratives and topics promoted by Russian and Chinese government officials and state-funded media on Twitter, YouTube, state-sponsored news websites, and via official diplomatic statements at the United Nations.” The tool provides a starting point for more in-depth analysis by scraping and processing data then converting it into a visual tracker.
Ideally we would track official China’s information all of the time, looking for structure, re-description, internalization and prescription. For our baseline inference in this paper, we will look at Tweets and Broadcasts over two successive days. As explained on the website, the broadcasts are videos of 20-minutes or less uploaded to CGTN America or CCTV. This is part of a longer term effort to understand narrative warfare waged by authoritarian regimes.
Next, we look at Tweets and Broadcasts from official China on the website.
Here are the top 10 Tweets by Retweets on 9 April 2020 from official Chinese sources, all with hashtags that relate to the coronavirus:
Here are the Broadcasts, 33 in all, from official China on 10 April 2020:
We also looked at the Top 10 Tweets by Likes (not ReTweets). There were only three differences:
China’s official information flow fits the Maan model in all respects. We conclude with how, for each of the four elements of the narrative.
China’s basic narrative is:
China is a benign and blameless model of global cooperationinferred from content on Hamilton 2.0
The narrative‘s structure consists of disciplined faulty cause-and-effect logic and selective use of evidence.
Discipline comes in as leader’s intent and Party doctrine. This is standard operating procedure for the Communist Party of China, especially since the elevation of Xi Jinping, who is General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Preeminent (or Core) Leader. Moreover, his Thought has doctrinal status.
The causes are faulty in an under-determined way, which may not be obvious to uninformed or indoctrinated observers. Under-determined arguments cite causes (such as US sanctions) of effects (such as Venezuela’s economic and COVID-related struggles) as if they are the only causes of the effect. It’s up to the reader/listener to think of alternative explanations. Other determining factors (such as corruption in Venezuela) are not mentioned.
Many effects related to COVID-19 also are omitted —such as Chinese authorities delaying notification about the outbreak and under-reporting COVID cases. So are their causes—such as systematic suppression of dissent in China. Unless the reader has a broad orientation or is broadly familiar with the topic, these tricks escape observation. The risks of running a free press in China further empower the Party-government narrative.
Social media assists selective use of evidence. To wit, 140-character-or-less Tweets. With such small space for puny attention spans (on the order of 40-100 characters max), short posts are defensibly effective. This works en masse and over time. ReTweets are particularly guilty of disseminating like-filtered thinking because they overwhelmingly are sent by those who agree with the original message.
Overall, the narrative’s structure hides a globally obvious cause—China as the secretive initiator and negligent accelerator of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Building upon the above structure, the narrative gets re-described via false analogies and opportunistic blaming of others. Re-telling the story with new metaphors and new partial content in different contexts helps calcify the threat of new ideas, in two ways. First, loyal repetition buries inconvenient facts (COVID-19 emanated from China). Second, nuanced repetition raises new facts (US surpasses China in COVID-19 deaths). Done repeatedly, repeatedly, audiences lose the particulars of contexts (China-US differences with respect to sharing public health information and accurately reporting deaths). The new context becomes the repeated narrative itself.
Overall, re-description of the narrative spews thoroughly negative coverage of the US paired with thoroughly positive coverage of China. This dichotomy invents differences. If sustained and thoughtlessly absorbed as received truth, the stratagem preempts questioning the narrative.
There is plenty of urging others to blame others. Such stoking is easy to do during a global crisis. Even if internalization does not recruit many sympathizers, blaming others helps authorities deflect attention away from domestic grievances. It seems doubtful that blaming rivals during a pandemic which originated in China will attract more adherents. Similarly, we do not expect the narrative will perpetuate itself outside China.
The main reason is the circularity of the narrative—China is benign and blameless because China does benign and blameless things. Cyclical thinking is certainly appealing. However, this narrative is testable. It follows that those with access to evidence that contradicts the narrative are not likely to embrace it unless doing so serves their interests.
If people identify with a narrative, they conform to what it says. This implies accepting official China’s version of benign behavior. With regard to the People’s Republic, that means going along with Beijing’s blameless aggression in Tiananmen Square, Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South China Sea, East China Sea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Aksai Chin, Kashmir, and the Ussuri River. Completing the narrative’s circular reasoning, China’s interests are global interests. Is this far fetched?
Caution: Beware in a world victimized by planetary threats.
China’s narrative is utopian (benign and blameless authoritarian governance), with a conflicted middle (arguably where we are now), and a conclusion to act for a better future (more order, less chaos). China’s proposed new order is cloaked by claims of cooperation. The myth contains all of the elements of a strategic narrative.
Our purposes were twofold: (a) to show how narrative strategy dupes victims into taking an Observe & Orient shortcut; and (b) to show why Observe and Orient should be discrete, but combined.
Strategic use of information arranged in a meaningful narrative can collapse the OODA Loop, converting a speedy decision cycle into a vulnerability. The psychological assault seeks to destroy critical thought. Once observation and orientation are conflated, thinking flows in a closed circuit. To avoid this collapse, we need to keep the O’s separate, but combined in a holistic OODA Loop.
Why separate? Observation should not be influenced too much by Orientation, if we are to see what is really happening. Orientation is for assigning meaning to observations after the observations have been made. This can happen in nanoseconds via human intuition and “fast” thinking, or AI. For the former, we need to be aware of our own biases (experience-based, and cognitive). For the latter, we need to know the bias (bias-variance relationship) in that neural network.
Whether the orientation is being done by humans, machines, or the interface of both, orientation must be functionally separate or deep enough (multi-layered learning) to avoid replicating observation. Fused O&O does not learn; it is predictably repetitive.
Why combined? When we combine the effects of O and O, we can get more competitive results.
Observation’s effects include interactive relationships in the information environment, not just objects in that environment. For instance, China’s narrative includes these observations: US COVID-19 deaths are on the rise while China’s are in decline; and, China sent a medical team to the Philippines to fight COVID-19 while the US threatens to reduce medical supplies to an ally. The observations interact with each other to induce a desired conclusion: China can and will help us more than the US can and will. That is China’s desired effect. Rather than jump to such pre-shaped conclusions, we need to treat each observation discretely. Then we can anticipate how all observations relate to and interact among various audiences. This gets into orientation.
Orientation’s effects include the conclusions of analysis and experience (see Figure 1). Advanced analysis (see Information Environment Characterization) also considers new information, culture, heritage, and observed interactions among linkages. Applying this orientation to the observations in the previous paragraph enables us to think critically about observations rather than ingest China’s induced conclusion. We discover other factors that account for COVID-19 death rates and medical assistance:
Orientation, like observation, is a contest. A broad orientation on China’s information environment can anticipate activities such as opportune assistance to states in territorial disputes with China and in security relationships with the US. With proactive analysis and leadership, we can dynamically set conditions to counter China’s assault. That assault uses a weaponized narrative in a scattered campaign spewing a disciplined stream of information.
We need to track official China’s information flow over a longer period of time to evaluate its consistency. After all, we looked at only a portion of two days worth of content. Don’t expect the regurgitated narrative to change, due to China’s one-Party authoritarian rule. Until that end-state changes.
The approach taken in this paper, blending OODA with narrative strategy, intends to improve and protect decision-making cycles. The threat from official China is flexible and extensive. Narrative strategies of warfare influence decision-makers indirectly, personally and professionally, across private and public sectors.
Our main assumption is that official communications constitute a deliberate, identifiable narrative. This is less valid for governments and organizations that deliberately foster contending ideas. Given the controlling character of China’s political system, however, the assumption is reasonable.
Armed with this insight, we can observe a narrative that orients a target to ingest a Party line fiction. That information effect is being exploited to cause other effects that combine confrontation with cooperation. To compete, our narrative and decision-making need to model broadly accepted values and produce superior combined effects.
We now know more, but this makes us more, not less, certain. The latest reports do not arrive all at once; they merely trickle in. They continually impinge upon our decisions, and our mind must be permanently armed, so to speak, to deal with them.
― Carl von ClausewitzCarl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. Howard and Paret (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1984), 102.