Archive for the ‘Information Operations’ Category

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First World War Propaganda: Thoughts and Lessons

January 8, 2017

In writing about the emergence of public diplomacies as part of the practice of statecraft I’ve recently run up against the First World War and the importance that was given to propaganda. My main concern has been with the way that First World War affected the development of public diplomacies after the conflict but in doing this work I’ve been forced to think about two other issues;  how was the term ‘propaganda’ used in the period used and how should we analyse the effects of ‘propaganda’ during the First World War?  This is important as not only is ‘propaganda’ part of 21st century political discourse but also of academic discourse.  I’ve commented before that I’m not a big fan of the idea as an analytical term.  So three sets of thoughts on the meaning, effects, and relevance of First World War propaganda.

The concept: In looking at the First World War one struck by 1) the frequency with which the term ‘propaganda’ is used and 2) compared with later periods, certainly by the 1940s, the lack of nuance.  Essentially ‘propaganda’ is ‘the internet’ of the era: something new is happening but the conceptual frameworks for thinking about it are not well developed.  This is consistent with a general pattern I see in the history of public diplomacies that practices are improvised first and rationalized afterwards. Obviously the people who are doing ‘it’ have some idea what they are doing but the differentiations of the 1940s – publicity, political warfare, propaganda, information; white/grey/black; source, message, channel receiver aren’t there so ‘propaganda’ gets thrown over everything.  This doesn’t immediately change after 1918   many people (Hitler, Ludendorff, Northcliffe) believe  it to have produced such big effects (collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany)  it is also approached as this huge thing that can has to be explained in sweeping concepts ie Lasswell’s ‘control of public opinion through the manipulation of symbols’.

Why was ‘propaganda’ given such importance?  It was a way of talking about the importance of public support (and lack of support) for the war.  Where support was lacking authorities were quick to attribute it to enemy propaganda.  The comparison with the Second World War is also helpful here.  First World War states had to improvise organizations to mobilize people and resources to fight the war, often relying on civil society organizations, ‘propaganda’ was used to cover this process.  This also means that there was a close relationship between propaganda and organization.  Propaganda was a tool to build organization but organization created the capability to mobilize the population.  As we move to the present there has been an increasing tendency to treat ‘propaganda’ as communication and to lose sight of this organizational dimensions.  In the later war, drawing on the experience of 1914-18, states construct bureaucracies to carry out these mobilizational tasks.  Further, states have much systematic programmes for monitoring morale and repressing dissent.  There is still lots of ‘propaganda’ but it is broken down into specific tasks and harnessed to state organizations so for instance that ‘publicity’ to encourage growing vegetables by the Ministry of Food is differentiated from political warfare carried out by the Political Warfare Executive.  In the First World War this organizational and conceptual differentiation it much more embryonic.

The Issue of Effect:  Recent historical writing (for instance Mark Cornwell’s The Undermining of Austria-Hungary) has made the point that in the post 1918 period there were lots of people on both sides who had an interest in emphasizing the role of ‘propaganda’ in causing the collapse of the Central Powers rather than really analysing what happened.  On one side were the Allied propagandists who could write about what they did (activity and outputs) and could see the collapse of Germany and Austria-Hungary (outcome).  On the other side were those who could see the outcome plus some of the outputs and were quick to connect the two.  Neither group were keen to think about the question of context (activity+implementation+context =outcome).  The impact of propaganda activity cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs.  Effects have multiple dimension.  Some people may be directly affected by an activity but if you cannot produce strategically significant effects leaders are not going to be proclaiming the value of the effort.  Leaving aside the case of the United States, First World War combatants had never waged conflicts with such a level of protracted mobilization and where all, to greater or lesser degrees had significant unresolved social tensions that were exacerbated by the war.  Any discussion of the effects of propaganda needs to locate the activity in the context.

Some pointers to current issues and questions for future research, that I’ve taken away from this work on the First World War.

  1. Influence activities work best on divided targets. For instance, in attacking the Central Powers the Allies could work with nationalist and socialist networks. Divisions allow the attackers to play on existing lines of cleavage but they also inhibit repression and control.  The authorities in Berlin and Vienna were playing a difficult balancing act and were not in a position to clamp down on their opponents,  these divisions also inhibited their own counter propaganda.
  2. This leads to a corollary to arguments about indexing (elite consensus limits the sphere of permissible dissent in the media) and CNN effect (lack of policy certainly leads to media influence on policy).   Elite consensus/policy certainty also enables repression of dissent further reinforcing elite + media consensus (and spiral of silence?).
  3. What’s the relative importance of counter-narrative versus repression or counter-organizational work in dealing with foreign influence operations?  During the 1920s the country that was most sensitive about propaganda was the UK, not least because the Comintern was constantly using agent networks to mobilize against imperial rule.  However, as far as I can see the British response was not counter-narrative but surveillance, arrests and deportations.   In discussions of foreign influence operations and how to counter them breaking up organizations where feasible is an important part of a response.
  4. This leads to a question about changing media environments.  The academic literature on propaganda tends to treat it as a media/communications phenomenon while political writings (eg Communists, Nazis, US/UK political warfare) always connect it to organization.  How does social media effect this communication/organization balance?  Can you get the effect of organization without the costs/risks of building one.

That’s question for another day.

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Counter-Propaganda: The Case of ISIS

January 13, 2015

I’ve spent far too much time over the last few weeks thinking about counter-propaganda without really getting to a satisfactory conclusion so I’m just going to throw out some ideas and move on.   I’ll post on ISIS, then Russia, then draw a few general conclusions/recommendations.

  1. ISIS exists in two spaces. Firstly, on the ground in Iraq and Syria  and secondly, in the transnational space of the ‘global jihad’. These two spaces are connected but they are not identical.  Recent studies on ISIS have placed more weight on the first of these while a lot of Western political discourse either doesn’t discriminate or places more weight on the latter – in particular on the Western citizens becoming radicalized, travelling to the Islamic State and then returning to carry out terrorist actions in the West.   The argument is that it is the excellence of the IS information offensive that is allowing it to recruit foreign fighters and hence become successful on the ground. I think that this is precisely the wrong way round. The global rise of ISIS is not because of its excellent propaganda: it has excellent propaganda because of its military success.    The capture of Mosul and the defeat of the Iraqi Army gave it the basis for the proclamation of the Caliphate and at that point is launched an international strategic communications campaign to market itself. It’s a basic rule of wartime communications (see for instance the memoirs of British propagandists during the Second World War) that it’s much easier to make yourself look good when you are winning. Of course when you inflict a major defeat on the opponent the international news media will multiply the message while you will have plenty of images of captured equipment and personnel for your own productions.   This is not to say that activities aimed at potentially radicalized groups outside the region are completely useless but they are working at a major disadvantage.
  2. The most powerful counter-propaganda strategy in dealing with the IS will be to dislodge it from the territory that it holds. Where the two spaces come together is in the state-like nature of the IS this allows it to transmit the call to Muslims to come and live in the IS. It’s interesting that the message doesn’t seem to be come and fight but come and live. The more that the IS territory resembles a war zone and the more that its messages are focused simply on fighting (in the context of losing battles and news coverage that is about their defeats) the less potent their narrative will be.
  3. Western political leaders are in danger of forgetting that ISIS is not the only Salafi-Jihadi group out there.  ISIS is successful in the jihadist space because there is a demand for what it is providing. The preferred aim must be for the Salafi-Jihadi social movement to run its course, the defeat of ISIS won’t necessarily do this although the baroque cruelty will probably help to discredit the whole movement. The defeat of ISIS in Syria-Iraq may just create more market space for other Salafi-Jihadi movements ie Al-Qaida/Nusra Front which aren’t that much of an improvement.
  4. What’s the plan B?  The difficulty is that the weakness of the Iraqi army, the lack of any solution in Syria, the history of sectarian politics in Iraq, the ambiguous attitude of Turkey makes it difficult to see when a narrative of military reverses is going to become established.  This leads to the question of the extent to which IS can stabilize itself?  Many observers assume that over time it will alienate local tribes and become progressively more fragile.   One reason to attract foreigners to the caliphate is that that immigration produces groups that are not embedded in the local context and presumably more supportive of the overall project. But if ISIS is going to be there for sometime how to deal with it.  Here a strategy of economic warfare might be the solution.
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IO and SC Going Mainstream?

January 28, 2011

Via the DIME Page at Carlisle Barracks a new memo (dated 25 January 2011)  from the Secretary of Defense on Strategic Communication and Information Operations.  I’ve uploaded a copy at the bottom of the post.

The main thrust of this on a first reading is the need to see IO and SC as integrating function applying across all activities rather than as a set of capabilities.  A couple of items that strike me are that the responsibility for IO moves from the Undersecretary of Defence (Intelligence) to USD Policy with the intention of creating a better policy integration.  There is a new definition of IO that gives more attention to the integrating function.

Responsibility for Strategic Communication will be shared between USD (P) and the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.  The position of the Global Engagement Strategic Coordination Committee will be formalized and a clarified definition of SC will be produced.

I suspect that some of you will be better able to detect the nuances and implications of this document than I can

2011 Strategic Communication & IO Memo 25 Jan2011