On Reflexive Control

Denys Kolesnyk 6 min read November 26, 2019 1162 words

In democracies, public opinion lies at the very heart of how society functions and is a factor that influences decision-making by the authorities. However, public opinion can not only exert pressure on the government in decision-making, but the government can also take steps to influence public opinion to support its decision or create support for reform. But with the advent of digital technology and the massive proliferation of the Internet, public opinion can be shaped from the outside, particularly by foreign powers.

The “non-military” part, in the conventional sense of Information Warfare, is intended to influence public opinion in a target country and, consequently, to influence decision-making in democracies. Therefore, it would be interesting to examine its integral part - Reflexive Control (рефлексивное управление).

The roots of Reflexive Control

Vladimir Lefebvre, a Soviet-American psychologist and mathematician, is considered the “father” of Reflexive Control (RC) and theorized it in the 1960s. He defined it as: “the process in which one adversary transmits to the other the basis for decision-making”. Initially, Reflexive Control was considered for military purposes only.

Broadly speaking, there were four general periods in the development of Reflexive Control theory:

  1. research-oriented (early 1960s to late 1970s);
  2. practice-oriented (late 1970s to early 1990s);
  3. psychological and pedagogical (early to mid-1990s);
  4. psychosocial (from the late 1990s).

However, even though Vladimir Lefebvre came up with his idea around 1963-1964 within a scientific framework, it was also taken up by KGB officials and led to a secret report by Panov as early as 1968.

According to Lefebvre, the theory of Reflexive Control became a “secret” subject immediately after the publication of Panov’s report. But he wasn’t the only one working on it. Among those who have worked on the subject were V. Lepsky, D. Pospelov, V. Bourkov on the civilian side, and D. Kontorov, V. Drouzhynine, S. Leonenko, M. Ionov on the military side.

Moreover, according to Druzhynin and Kontorov, Reflexive Control is constructed in two parts: a) reflection - the psychological concept, and b) control - the purely cybernetic concept. According to them, enemy control includes :

Influencing the enemy’s decisions through the use of in-depth knowledge of his policy, ideology, military doctrine, objectives, state of his forces, organization, psychology, qualities of key personnel, mutual relations, and emotional state.

However, by the 1960s-1970s, cybernetics was very much in vogue in the USSR, and we can assume that this had a massive influence on their writings.

Another important point to note is that the theory of Reflexive Control would not be possible without concepts such as disinformation and maskirovka, because without the communication of false information, Reflexive Control could not exist.

On the other hand, while Reflexive Control initially was rather seen as a tool to use in armed conflicts, with time passing by and the emergence of modern technologies, it became also considered in the context of the “non-military” aspect of Information Warfare.

How does it work?

Put simply, it is about provoking or forcing one’s opponent to make decisions based on information (true and false) specially designed to guide him toward a final decision predetermined by the party exercising Reflexive Control. This applies in both military and political contexts.

Reflexive Control is a process of intentionally transmitting certain information to the adversary, which will influence the adversary’s decision-making according to the information transmitted.” - Russian captain F. Chausov, 1999.

However, there are many factors involved in the success of such control.

According to S. Leonenko, successful Reflexive Control requires an in-depth study of the opponent’s ideas and concepts. He refers to a certain “filter” through which all information from the outside world passes. This “filter” can be seen as the intellectual capacity, reflexivity, knowledge of the adversary, experience, and so on that helps to distinguish necessary from irrelevant information or true from false data.

Another specialist in this field who evoked enemy control instead of Reflexive Control was Mikhail Ionov. He identified four methods of transmitting information to the enemy to achieve control over him:

  1. Pression through power, which includes, among other things, demonstrations of force, psychological attacks, ultimatums, threats of sanctions;
  2. Techniques for presenting false information on the situation, including maskirovka, weapons bluffing, provoking the enemy into seeking new directions of escalation or conflict resolution;
  3. The impact on the enemy’s decision-making algorithm which includes the publication of deliberately distorted doctrine, the impact on the enemy’s command elements and key people through the transmission of false situational data;
  4. The change in decision-making time which can be done through the unexpected start of hostilities.

Although he considered Reflexive Control in a military context, we can imagine that a number of the situations (methods) described may also be applicable in the civilian sphere and times of peace.

Komov on Reflexive Control

It is important to mention Soviet colonel Komov, since in his writings, he divided Information Warfare into three categories, including the intellectual category. This category includes, according to him, several elements or methods, including:

  1. Distraction - the creation of a real or false threat at the critical point of the opponent’s troop deployment;
  2. Overload - feeding large quantities of contradictory information to the enemy;
  3. Paralysis - creating perceptions of special threats to the vital interests or weakest points of the adversary;
  4. Exhaustion - forcing the enemy to undertake useless actions to waste his troops' resources and strength;
  5. Ruse - a provocation to force the enemy to redeploy his troops in a (falsely) threatened area at the preparatory stage of hostilities;
  6. Scission (disintegration) - sowing discord within the enemy’s society or coalition;
  7. Reassurance - the reduction of vigilance, as illustrated, for example, by presenting offensive preparations as planned military exercises;
  8. Intimidation - the creation of an image of superiority;
  9. Provocation - forcing the enemy to perform actions beneficial to the allied side;
  10. Inculcation - the transmission to the adversary of legal, ideological, moral, or other information that may force him to undertake a decision beneficial to the initiator. Here blackmail should also be mentioned.
  11. Pressure - the dissemination of information that discredits the government in the eyes of the population.

In my opinion, colonel Komov remains one of the most advanced theorists of Information Warfare.

Reflexive Control ≠ Information Warfare

Although Reflexive Control is very similar to what we hear in the media or political discourse under the term Information Warfare, we can by no means put a sign of equality between the two. Some Western researchers speak of Reflexive Control as a veritable Information Warfare. Recently, I’ve even noticed a certain amount of competition to see who can come up with the most “original” term for Russian activities in the information field.

But I maintain that Reflexive Control is just one of the “tools” in the Information Warfare. There is a link between Reflexive Control and Information Operations (IO), which in turn are an integral part of Information Warfare. Clearly, Information Warfare is a much broader concept, encompassing not only activities in the “information” domain but also in the purely military domain (e.g. Electronic Warfare).