13th annual Municipal Finance Conference


13th annual Municipal Finance Conference


The Breakout Scale: Measuring the impact of influence operations



One of the greatest challenges in the study of disinformation and influence operations (IOs) is measuring their impact. IO practitioners acknowledge that measuring the impact of their own operations is a complex process that requires careful study and calibration; it is much harder for operational researchers, whose job it is to identify and expose IO, without reliable information on what the operation is trying to achieve.

This paper seeks to answer that challenge by proposing “The Breakout Scale,” a comparative model for measuring IOs based on data that are observable, replicable, verifiable, and available from the moment they were posted. It is intended for use by the operational research community for real-time categorization of IOs as they are identified.

The breakout scale divides IOs into six categories, based on whether they remain on one platform or travel across multiple platforms (including traditional media and policy debates), and whether they remain in one community or spread through many communities. At the lowest end of the spectrum, Category One operations only spread within one community on one platform, while Category Two operations either spread in one community across multiple platforms, or spread across multiple communities on one platform. Category Three operations spread across multiple social media platforms and reach multiple communities.

Category Four operations break out from social media completely and are amplified by mainstream media, while Category Five operations are amplified by high-profile individuals such as celebrities and political candidates. An IO reaches Category Six if it triggers a policy response or some other form of concrete action, or if it includes a call for violence.

The scale is designed to allow operational researchers to compare the probable impact of different operations in real time and on the basis of measurable and replicable evidence. It also underscores the importance of mainstream journalists, policymakers, and celebrities. Such high-profile influencers can play a pivotal role in bringing IOs to new audiences: It will be important to raise their awareness of the ways in which they can themselves be targeted by influence operators.

As part of his broader research, the author has received access to data from Facebook. Google, Facebook, and Twitter provide general, unrestricted support to Brookings. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions in this report are not influenced by any donation. Brookings recognizes that the value it provides is in its absolute commitment to quality, independence, and impact. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment.