Archive for the ‘Strategic Communication’ Category


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.


NATO Strategic Communications in Afghanistan

October 24, 2016

At the beginning of this year the NATO Centre of Excellence for Strategic Communication published a 400 page report   “We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us”: An Analysis of Nato Strategic Communications – The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, 2003-2014, written by Brett Boudreau, a former Canadian military public affairs officer, it’s a very useful resource that takes a hard look at the ISAF experience.   I’ve finally got around to having a look through it and I thought that I’d share a few thoughts.

The largest chunk of the report is a description of the evolution of the communication function of the ISAF across the intervention. This covers the overall approach, main challenges and responses at each stage.  In addition the report covers the evolution of doctrine and organization in NATO, gives an assessment of performance, and a look to the future.   It’s quite possible to dip into the report, all the arguments and conclusions are signposted at every stage.

If you’ve followed any of the discussions of the problems of strategy and organization in Afghanistan from the coexistence of ISAF with Operation Enduring Freedom, different national approaches and capabilities, frequent rotations of commanders, personnel and HQs Boudreau gives us all of this with added spice of the standard Stratcom arguments – what’s the relationship between the different communication functions?  These weren’t just conceptual arguments but reflected real  conflicts between different groups (the report helpfully provides a matrix with what different groups thought of each other)

Conceptually Boudreau takes the view that the communications field consists of three capabilities: Public Diplomacy, Public Affairs and Psyops and two integrating functions IO and Stratcom.  The rise of Stratcom and the eclipse of IO is, in part at least, a function of the difficult relationship between IO and PA.  In doctrinal terms IO includes deception and more generally influence and too close a relationship with PA can (in the theology of the field) compromise the credibility of the PA function.  One of the recurring issues in the history here is how the mandated policy separation between PA and other information activities could be preserved while ensuring that PA and everything else point in the same direction.

One of the components that I found most interesting was the discussion of Stratcom in NATO as distinct from the US (or UK) debate.  As the argument played out in the US the core of the Stratcom argument is that everything we do or say is communication.  The next step is what do we do about it?  This is both a conceptual/theoretical argument and an organizational one.    Do we need to build new capabilities?  Do we need a system of coordination? Or is it basically a matter of incorporating the understanding that everything is communication into what we do it?  The US position eventually came round to the latter partly through the fear that an organization that could coordinate strategic comms would never do anything.

In contrast Boudreau argues that although this may work for the Americans it can’t work for NATO.  The difference is that the US has plenty of capabilities but non-US NATO doesn’t.   Hence Stratcom as overarching approach will have nothing to coordinate.  NATO has to get nation states to build capabilities.    Boudreau argues that to push this forward NATO needs to define Stratcom doctrine thus create a demand for capability that can cascade down.

Boudreau points to the importance of the Ukraine/Crimea situation in lighting a fire under NATO to make some progress on Stratcom questions.  While NATO certainly needs to develop its communication capabilities there’s a limit to the extent to which the experience in Afghanistan can really be a model. There’s a danger of preparing to fight the last war.  Stratcom was a wartime improvisation, the Russia problem is much more like a ‘classic’, Cold War, NATO scenario, where there are a) persistent attempts to undermine alliance solidarity on a long term basis and b) risk of escalating ambiguous crises that may or may not carry a risk of armed conflict.   In the second case NATO (and NATO member states) will need readily accessible communications capabilities which can be used to manage a crisis that may involve large scale use of IO type actions as a coercive threat or as part of an offensive action.  This type of situation is will require a much closer integration of communication, kinetic capabilities, intelligence, cyber, electronic warfare than were achieved in Afghanistan.  It’s a also a situation where offensive Stratcoms and cyber operations might play a useful deterrent role and help to deescalate an  ambiguous situation.  This is quite likely to be problematic in a NATO context and this may be an area where national strategic capabilities in the intelligence/information/cyber space have an important role to play


The Russian Firehose of Falsehood

September 1, 2016

I haven’t been able to keep up with the torrent of publications on Russian propaganda/soft power/deception etc but I’d recommend the newish RAND paper by Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews on The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model.

They characterise this by four features

1. High volume across multiple channels

2 Fast, continuous and repetitive

3. It doesn’t seem to be concerned with ‘truth’ and

4. Neither is it interested in consistency.

They also connect each of these four elements with discussions in the psychological literature  It’s the third and fourth of these that draw particular attention since they go against what might be thought of as the conventional wisdom on propaganda contests (and in political communications) that consistency and credibility are important.

Their conclusions and recommendations are also important – particularly in the context of discussions of ‘post-truth politics’.  They are sceptical that efforts at rebuttal can work against the volume and speed of the Russian attack as they put it “don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth” – emphasis in original.  While some degree of rebuttal is required they place more weight on forewarning people about the existence of the Russian information effort.  Here what I called the propaganda panic probably serves a role in flagging the presence of the effort.  They also emphasize the importance of focusing on blocking the achievement of the objectives of Russian activities, for instance if the Russian objective is to undermine NATO solidarity focus on supporting the factors that consolidate this rather than on rebutting falsehoods.  There are other types of asymmetric responses that can be used such as full enforcement of broadcasting rules.

Although Paul and Mathews look for explanations of the lack of concern over truth and consistency in the psychological literature an alternative explanation might come from the changing media environment.  In the era of the Second World War or The Cold War information is in relatively speaking in short supply so a piece of news gets raked over and its credibility assessed, the result is the kind of personalized propaganda duel discussed here where recognized individuals get drawn into personalized tests of credibility ‘X said that y would happen.  It didn’t. Why should you believe anything else they say?’  Where there’s a continuous stream of information individual statements don’t get subject to the same average level of attention – for most people they just get replaced by another tweet – after all as McLuhan argued media is an environment.

It’s also worth noting that in a Second World War style duel(you also probably find this in exchanges between Arab radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s)  the protagonists confronted each other directly with the intention of damaging each other.  This is something that under normal circumstances diplomats are reluctant to do or that modern international broadcasters do.


Counter-Propaganda: Do I Detect a Propaganda Panic™?

December 16, 2014

Before thinking about the counter-propaganda question specifically I’ve been struck by the volume of recent writing on the threat posed by Russian and ISIS propaganda. Having spent much time with the history of the informational instrument recently I’m feeling qualified to detect signs of a full on propaganda panic™

Before thinking about the counter-propaganda question specifically I’ve been struck by the volume of recent writing on the threat posed by Russian and Isis propaganda. Having spent much time with the history of the informational instrument recently I’m feeling qualified to detect signs of a full on propaganda panic™. This is not to say that there aren’t things to be concerned about but it also seems to be me that the current excitement is a bit overblown which in turn suggests some observations about how we think about these things.

The propaganda panic can be seen as a variation on the good old media moral panic

The classic propaganda panic starts with an event that comes as a surprise to a group of political leaders (and to the journalists that commentate on them). Such an unexpected event needs an explanation and ‘propaganda’ provides an answer.   The attraction of ‘propaganda’ is that it appears to stand somewhere outside the normal responsibilities of politics or diplomacy and helps to insulate those in charge from an accusation that they weren’t paying attention or that their policies have failed. The explanation can then be offered that it is the inadequacy of our propaganda/public diplomacy/ information efforts. The additional twist is that the people who have been responsible for the ‘inadequate’ response have been saying all along that their work is totally underfunded and so instead of coming out swinging at their critics gratefully pocket the increased appropriations.

This isn’t entirely cynical on the part of the people involved because underpinning the attribution of effect to ‘propaganda’ is the classic misperception of seeing an opponent as more capable, unified and coherent than they actually are, and to see oneself as more benign that you actually appear to other actors (eg Jervis 1976, part III).  Hence once a group of leaders have undergone a surprise and started to pay attention to a situation they attribute the negative aspects of the situation to the carefully laid plans of the opponent that are generating opposition.

In the contemporary case I would add a tendency of the current security community to abstract threats from their specific situations. I’ve been struck by the number of blog posts about how one the ISIS/Putin situations marks the rise of a new unconventional-hybrid-asymmetric-Mad Max – conflict threat or something like that. Essentially this is converting a situation or a pair of situations with quite specific characteristics into a category. Rather than looking for responses that are tailored to these situations and question becomes how to come up with the optimum weapons and organizations to defeat the category of threat.

The crux of responding effectively is to put the problems back in their real political, historical and media context. The problem with the propaganda panic is that encourages thinking in terms of myths.

Next up I’ll take up some of the specific challenges of counter propaganda in the digital space.

Jervis R (1976) Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.


Strategic Communication at NATO

July 30, 2014

In March the National Defence Academy of Latvia put out a report by Steve Tatham and Rita Le Page on Nato Strategic Communication: More to be Done?

They argue that despite the importance of Strategic Communication in NATO’s operations in Afghanistan the alliance has failed to properly institutionalize the practice or develop a doctrine for it. If the key argument within the US military has been over whether Strategic Communication is a communication function or an approach to operations Tatham and Le Page argue for the latter while seeing NATO as too committed to former.   In addressing this they argue that responsibility for Strategic Communications should move from the Public Diplomacy Division to the International Military Staff.


Strategic Communications: Discredited Tool or User Failure

December 13, 2013

The Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College have just put out a paper with an awesome subtitle US Governmental Information and Strategic Communications: A Discredited Tool or User Failure? Implications for Future Conflict. This is part of a series of publications stemming from a joint Army-Marine-Special Operations Command project on Strategic Landpower, which I presume is trying to figure out what to do after Afghanistan.

Given that the author is Steve Tatham Britain’s leading military expert on strategic communications and IO it’s probably not surprising that his answer is user failure – there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with SC it’s just that the way that it was implemented by the US military was wrong. Most of the argument will be familiar if you’ve read his earlier publications.

There’s too much reliance on attempts to influence the attitudes of poorly understood audiences by contractors who are primarily motivated by maximizing their income. What’s the alternative? A focus on influencing behaviour, rooted in a primarily qualitative target audience analysis.

Looking to the future he points to the need to do more with less (compared with past decade where he comments that “the US has achieved less with more”) and to the possible significance of Chinese and Russian approaches to influence operations.

There’s a lot here to agree with implementing more ‘behavioural’ interventions might have been more effective in tactical or even operational terms but the problems with SC in Afghanistan grow out of the fundamental failures of policy, strategy and organization. In looking at the realities of US SC efforts in Afghanistan it’s possible to be overly impressed with Chinese and Russian concepts – if you look at western conceptual discussions they look pretty cool too.


‘A subversive use of facts’: Soldatensender Calais and Black Propaganda

November 13, 2013 has an endless supply of interesting historical documents on psychological warfare.  They’ve just posted this copy of a 1943 memo from the British Political Warfare Executive to its twin supervisors the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, and the Minister of Information Brendan Bracken.  The context is the launch of the most successful British ‘black’ station of the war Soldatensdender Calais, this pretended to be German forces station and was intended to encourage dissension and defeatism.  The BBC feared that it would soon become obvious that Calais was a British station and that this would damage their credibility.  The PWE who controlled the station dissented and this memo sets out the arguments.

I quite often see it asserted that ‘black propaganda’ means that the content of service is false.  The PWE is at pains to point out that even ‘black’ needs facts and goes on to defend the use of black stations even if their cover is paper thin.

(vi) “CALAIS”, while admittedly a “fundamental lie”, relies on a subversive use of facts, not on untruth. Its news is convincingly true; its comment is intelligent selection and presentation of facts and of intelligence derived, in the main, from Service sources.

(vii) For a station such as “CALAIS” an apparent German origin is a necessary and useful convention. That is to say, even those Germans (vide prisoners’ evidence about Atlantik) who suspect its British origin will nevertheless accept its arguments because it is essentially German in its approach, in tune with their feelings and emotions as Germans and providing a psychological alibi which an avowedly enemy station does not. (It provides an actual alibi if caught listening – “We thought it was a German station”). Moreover, “CALAIS” can talk of “We Germans” while the B.B.C. must talk of “You Germans”; the first removes inhibitions, the second creates them.