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.


The CNN Effect circa 1910

July 14, 2016

Having dug pretty deeply in the literature on the impact of the media on policy making I recently discovered that I’d missed Oron Hale’s Publicity and Diplomacy.  Published in 1940 it examines the role of the press in creating the hostility between Britain and Germany in the quarter century before the First World War.

It’s valuable for two reasons

Firstly,  the research design is rather more sophisticated that a lot of the more recent writings on the topic as Hole recognizes that he needs to look at firstly, the effect of the press on policy makers, secondly, the effect of the policy makers on the press in both countries and thirdly, at the interaction across national boundaries.  Of course this is something that it’s much easier to do in a historical study where documents and memoirs are available that it is in a more recent period.  The mass circulation press (along with the expansion of the franchise) was still something of a new media at this point and policy makers gave it a great deal of attention because of their perception of its mediating role between public and policy makers, policy makers and public and across borders.  Policy makers studied the press to track public and party opinion. They were also aware that they could address audiences at home and abroad through the press but balancing the two was not easy. Press coverage could be partially managed by policy makers but was partially autonomous and this generated plenty of scope for misunderstanding.  The overall thrust of the analysis is that from the Boer War there was growing mutual antipathy between the press of the two countries.  As with other studies that look at media coverage over time (eg Bahador 2007) he sees a ratchet effect where repeated escalations in tension do not fully recede, at the core of these escalations was the naval arms race.  This is important because the reduction in tensions between the two governments from 1912 was not reflected in the press and he sees the sustained period of tensions as producing the alliance system and perspectives on Germany that led Britain to enter the war in 1914.  If this study was published today you’d probably see constructivist and structurationist themes at work.

Secondly, it also suggests that it’s very easy to overstate the differences between the diplomacy and media of today and those of a century ago.  Contrary to our image of ‘secret’ diplomacy Hale finds that there were few developments that did not find their way into the press.   Hale provides plenty of examples of journalists willfully placing the most negative interpretations on events.  The German representative at the Algeciras Conference in 1906 complained that he’d been the subject of  three fabricated interviews in one week.  During the Boer War a news agency operating from London did good business selling fake news calculated to appeal to the anti-British German press.


Hale, Oron J. 1940. Publicity and Diplomacy: With Special Reference to England and Germany, 1890-1914. New York: Appleton Century.

Bahador, Babak. 2007. The CNN Effect in Action: How the News Media Pushed the West Toward War in Kosovo. New York: Palgrave.


The Chilcot Report and the Problem of Strategy

July 6, 2016

I’ve got no intention of spending too much time on the Chilcot report but I was interested to see some of the comments about policy making after the initial invasion in light of the repeated concerns about the quality of UK foreign policy decision making.

From Section 9.8 Conclusions – The Post Conflict Period

175. Between May 2003 and May 2007, there were more than 20 instances in which UK strategy and objectives were reconsidered

177. Crucially, UK strategies tended to focus on describing the desired end state rather than how it would be reached. On none of the 20 occasions when UK strategy was reconsidered was a robust plan for implementation produced. Setting a clear direction of travel is a vital element of an effective strategy, but strategies also require a serious assessment of the material resources available and how they can best be deployed to achieve the desired end state. That is especially important when the strategy relates to an armed conflict in which it will be actively opposed by organised and capable groups. There is very little evidence of thorough analysis of the resources, expertise, conditions and support needed to make implementation of UK strategy achievable.

179. In the absence of a Cabinet Minister with overall responsibility for Iraq, leadership on strategy rested with Mr Blair…

180.… Mr Blair’s ability to solve the strategic problems he identified therefore relied on his Cabinet colleagues, and the departments they led, working together.

181. A recurring issue between 2003 and 2007 was the difficulty of translating the Government’s strategy for Iraq into action by departments. The system that drove policyon the invasion of Iraq, which centered on No.10, could not be easily transformed into a system for the effective management of the aftermath, in which a coherent collective effort was needed to pull together the many interrelated strands of activity required. Although Iraq was designated the UK’s highest foreign policy priority, it was not the top priority within individual departments. As a consequence, Whitehall did not put significant collective weight behind the task

I’ve added the emphasis here.  This was the era of modernization in government, of the apogee of Gordon Brown’s influence.  From my work on the FCO its possible to see how in the first years of the Labour government departments got targets but by the middle of the noughties the expectation was that resource allocation should follow targets.

Another factor which comes out quite clearly is the impact of the decision made in June 2004 to deploy the HQ of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps to Afghanistan in 2006.  Once this decision is made it placed a major constraint on what could be done in Iraq because of the need to resource the new deployment.  Given the way the bureaucracy seems to have operated this effectively removed the option of increasing the forces deployed in Iraq.  Indeed it appears, to me at least that there was reluctance to acknowledge the deteriorating situation in Iraq because of the disruption that might cause.

183. Throughout the UK’s engagement in Iraq there was a tendency to focus on the most positive interpretation of events.

184. One manifestation of that was failure to give weight to the candid analysis that was regularly supplied by the JIC, by some commanders in theatre, and by others that things were going wrong.

185. The default position was to judge that negative events were isolated incidents rather than potential evidence of a trend which should be monitored and which might require a policy response. This meant that underlying causes were not always investigated and brought to light.


Des Browne, the Minister of Defence from May 2006 to October 2008 gets a particular battering for this

The report notes

197…. On several occasions, decision-makers visiting Iraq (including the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Chief of the General Staff) found the situation on the ground to be much worse than had been reported to them. Effective audit mechanisms need to be used to counter optimism bias, whether through changes in the culture of reporting, use of multiple channels of information – internal and external – or use of visits.

It seems to be me that the British government and armed forces managed to get into two wars without considering that it might be necessary to stop following its normal bureaucratic routines.







Brexit: Three Thoughts

July 4, 2016

On one level I was suprised by the result of the Brexit referendum – I expected the torrent of doom laden projections – to achieve their intended effect.  On another level the result was not surprising at all.  Having lived for nearly a quarter of a century in Yorkshire it was extremely obvious how strongly scepticism both about the Westminster political class and the EU are well entrenched.

Brexit has spawned a mountain of commentary and I’ve been a bit hesitant to add to it.  Gary Rawnsley has pointed to some public diplomacy implications but I wanted to make three broader points about how to interpret the vote.  I want to comment on nature of democracy, the problem of elites and publics in the EU and the issue of history versus politics that haven’t been widely aired.

Firstly,  much of the reaction to Brexit has pointed to the defects of the campaigns and in particular of the voters who are seen as ill qualified to pronounce on such complex matters.  This is understandable if you see democracy as a process of producing a rational consensus in the Habermasian mode.  Personally, I’ve always been persuaded by a more realist view of democracy as a blunt instrument

In The Phantom Public Walter Lippmann (1927) offers the following

In disputes between nations, between sectional interests, between town and county, between churches, the rules of adjustment are lacking and the argument about them is lost in a fog of propaganda.

Yet it is controversies of this kind, the hardest controversies to disentangle, that the public is called in to judge.  Where the facts are most obscure, where precedents are lacking, where novelty and confusion pervade everything, the public in all its unfitness is compelled to make its most important decisions.  The hardest problems are those which institutions cannot handle.  They are the public’s problems.

For Lippmann government is a function of experts and institutions but expertise and institutions are domain specific which is why it is the job of the public to resolve the issues that cut across them.

Secondly, this division between public and elites is one of the basic problems of contemporary politics: elites think that they know best and the public is sceptical.  Although this a problem that is found in many countries it is one that has a particular resonance in the EU.  The French political philosopher Pierre Manent argues that the EU has detached democracy from the demos and the result is a bloodless “democratic governance“, an administration of things, detached from any real political community (2001, 2007).  The political scientist,  Christopher Bickerton makes a similar poin: the polities that make up the EU are member states rather than nation states in that their legitimacy comes from their membership in international organizations and adherence to international standards not the claim to represent the people.  The consequence is a gap between the executive, on one hand, and the legislature and public on the other, indeed the characteristic line of cleavage in European politics is not between left and right but between “technocrats” and “populism” (2012 and here).  Neither Manent or Bickerton would claim that that these issues stem only from membership of the European Union but they provide a useful lens to view Brexit.

Schattschneider (1960) argues that in any political system some lines of cleavage are institutionalized (“organized in”) by the party structure while other are “organized out” – divisions exist but the institutional structure obstructs their expression and mobilization around them.  The traditional party structure in England consisted of two parties that were lukewarm on Europe and the Liberal Democrats who were more enthusiastic.  Europe was largely organized out because it was an issue that cut across Labour and Conservative parties – but this did not mean that there were not groups, particularly in the Conservative Party who were concerned with it.  David Cameron’s attempt to manage this issue in his party by promising a referendum allowed mobilization around Europe.  It also allowed a class mobilization against the elite, particularly in the traditional Labour supporting post industrial areas.  Essentially people who were excluded from any significant political voice by the combination of the electoral system and professionalized political campaigning mobilized to support – and if we follow the Manent/Bickerton analysis did so on perfectly rational grounds –  their argument being  “we are being ignored and part of the reason we are being ignored is because of the EU” (eg see here).  We want leaders who respond to us not Brussels or 27 other countries.

Thirdly, much commentary on Brexit is posited in on the inevitability of globalization and thus the perversity of the vote.  Hence the British vote is a vote against history.  I suspect that for some people nostalgia played a role but I think history is being used here as a way of emphasizing the lack of alternatives.  This is noticeable in the way that some American commentary lays out the rejection of globalization by ‘the left behind’ but then demeans them and fails to offer any alternatives beyond a vague hope of ‘better policies’ or ‘global governance’.   To my mind this implies a double failure of the liberal political imagination, in the inability to imagine any different policies but more seriously in the unquestioned acceptance of the liberal teleology.

The classic Clinton Administration/New Labour policy synthesis was globalization plus better training and education for those affected.  This has not worked in practice and the task now is to find new ways of balancing openness and protection.  Although most countries have undergone a degree of opening in the last three decades they extent to which this has happened has varied – which suggests that policy retains a role to play (eg Mann 2013).  Policy matters and British politics needs new approaches.  The claim that there is no alternative is a political one not a statement of fact.

This leads to the broader question. Although Frances Fukuyama was derided for his writing on the end of history all he was doing was giving voice to the teleology of liberalism that the world is on a path to an inevitable domination of secular liberal rationalism.  This is a belief that is deeply embedded in the history of liberal thought (eg Koselleck 1988) it is one that reappears in different forms whether modernization theory or the belief in technology (Gilman 2003, Morozov 2011).  The problem is that it leads to an exaggerated belief in the capacity of international action to change the world and thus to repeated policy failures.  Just as with communism liberalism displaces political responsibility onto history, it justifies the failure of European elites to listen to their people.  The irony is that the EU is more unpopular in France than in the UK but I don’t think that we can expect a referendum there any time soon.

Overall, people in the UK made a political choice: that they would rather be out than in.  As far as I can see it was based on an acceptance of risks not on guarantees and now it is up to the political elites to make something of this.  Whether they can do this is another matter, it will require both sustained pressure from below and an effort to remake the assumptions and skills of policy makers and given recent assessments of the capacity of British governments to think five minutes into the future will not be easy.

Bickerton, Chris J. 2012. European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Gilman, Nils 2003. Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Koselleck, Reinhart. 1988. Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Lippmann, Walter. 1927. The Phantom Public. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Publishers.
Manent, Pierre. 2006. A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State. Translated by Marc LePain. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Manent, Pierre. 2007. Democracy without Nations?: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe. Translated by Paul Seaton. Wilmington DE: ISI.
Mann, Michael. 2013. The Sources of Social Power, Volume IV: Globalizations, 1945-2011. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Morozov, Evgeny 2011. The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. London: Allen Lane.
Schattschneider, E. E. 1960. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt,R.& W.

The Future FCO Report

May 11, 2016

On Monday the FCO issued Future FCO a report commissioned by the Permanent Undersecretary in the wake of the November 2015 Spending Review that looks at how the FCO can improve its ‘internal working, policy making and impact’.  Given that the lead author was the FCO’s leading digital diplomacy enthusiast Tom Fletcher it wasn’t surprising that press coverage focused on technology and how the ministry needed to become more like Spooks or 24 and it was hopelessly out of date.  There’s some of that here but surprisingly little.

This is a report the management of the FCO and its staffing not foreign policy.  It is not written for public consumption it assumes a high degree of knowledge of systems and procedures and it rarely bothers to explain its reasoning.  In fact much of the conclusions are foreshadowed in the terms of reference the first of which is ‘identify opportunities for better, flatter and more flexible organization of policy capabilities, including through delayering and greater clarity on roles and responsibilities.’  The report claims that this is the ‘first post-internet review of the FCO’ which is pretty odd given the serial reviews that went on under the Labour government.

I’d pick out three  particularly interesting aspects

  1. Shrinking the Whitehall Ambition.  One of the things that leapt out a me was this ‘the FCO should neither seek to lead not dedicate significant standing resource in London to thematic work’.  Non-security thematic work should be brought under a single multilateral directorate.  This isn’t really explained but it does imply a concession of policy space to the National Security Council and to other ministries, it’s not something I can imagine the ministry in Paris or Berlin doing without a big fight.
  2. Defend the Embassies.  There is quite a bit in the report about strengthening the capability of the embassies to support all UK overseas functions this is something that has been going on for a while under the banner of One HMG – trying to get as many departments as possible under the same roof.   There is a definite push to get the Embassy to be a more joined up activity with a more of a country plan and a soft power plan.  There are some good ideas for trying to take some of the ‘corporate’ weight off embassies and to provide a better service to other government departments.  If the FCO is conceding policy space to other departments I’m not sure that ambassadors will have much success in keeping those other departments under control in the field.
  3. Flexibility at all costs: Since the days of the Know How Fund in post communist Europe the work of the FCO has increasingly been organized around projects.  There’s an interesting discussion in the report about way this works in managerial terms – with strict oversight of relatively small amounts of money  – and some suggestions for reforming ‘programme’ as its referred to here.  Future FCO goes further and suggests that FCO directorates should have 25% of their staff in campaign pools rather than in permanent jobs in order to give more flexibility, in fact in an appendix the possibility is raised that the relationship with some countries (Nigeria is an example) should be managed on a campaign basis.  I can see the argument for flexibility but at the same time one of the features of diplomacy is its permanence.  As a student of British government I can also predict that the campaign pool will be the first thing to be cut when things get tough.

This report is very much in line with the past 20 years of FCO managerialism.  I think the difficulty is that in the UK these reports can be written without any consideration of foreign policy.  In them the FCO inhabits a kind of abstract policy space where what it does is ‘delivers policy objectives’ without any consideration of what the world is like and how well things are going.  In reading French or German reports the ministry is located within a more recognizable geopolitical world which gives some sense of what it has to be configured to do.


Plans! We Don’t Need No Stinking Plans!

April 5, 2016

One of the points I was making at the ISA Convention a couple of weeks ago was that in the real world public diplomacy organizations find it difficult to be strategic in the sense of creating a strong connection between their objectives and their means.  In part this is because public diplomacy organizations are always on, the routine logistical requirements of running a programme both on a day to day basis and in the longer term overwhelm the capacity of organizations to be strategic.   There’s no point worrying about SMART goals if you are more worried about keeping the show on the road at all.

Anyway another exhibit to buttress my cases emerged yesterday a US State Department Inspector General’s report on how the public diplomacy work of the embassy in Baghdad was contributing to the counter messaging part of the overall strategy against ISIL

The first item from the summary:

“Embassy Baghdad’s public diplomacy activities operate without formal strategic planning and goals.”

Public diplomacy is not discussed within the embassy’s Integrated Country Strategy  and there is no Public Diplomacy Implementation Plan.

The report obviously thinks that there should be plans but that’s not my point: lots of public diplomacy is reactive, and improvised rather than strategic.  From an analytical perspective it’s often better to look public diplomacies it through an organizational lens rather than an intentional one.


Hard vs Soft Power as Metaphor

March 30, 2016

One lament that I heard at the International Studies Association this year was the fact that ‘mainstream’ International Relations doesn’t attach much importance to questions of narrative, metaphor and meaning, that is to ‘soft’ aspects of world politics.

Of course having been primed to think about metaphors it leapt out at me that advocates of ‘soft’ approaches are never going to get anywhere as long as they keep using the hard/soft metaphor.   Poststructuralism 101 teaches you that binary oppositions always privilege one side of the pairing (hard over soft) and that the correct response is to ‘deconstruct’ that opposition etc, etc.

Leaving aside the technical literature on soft power, even in an academic environment  ‘hard’ gets used in a casual way to mean different things:  coercive, material, the geopolitical.  This ambiguity means that the assumption of the primacy of the ‘hard’ is easily accepted.

We can’t escape from hard/soft entirely.  The embrace of hard/soft in policy circles is an interesting area for investigation (as are policy categories in general) but as a scientific concept I think hard/soft is a major obstacle to intelligent discussion and I would employ with extreme caution.

The main reason is that when you put the hard/soft distinction to one side it is pretty clear that ontologically everything is mixed up.  Social formations and situations involve meanings and structures.   Armies have morale, and mechanics and doctrine not just tanks, the effects of armed forces are more often to do with the way that they are represented than the use of force.  Public diplomacies have buildings, computers, magazines and run on money, narratives need networks to circulate them.  Markets and exports depend on images of countries and networks of relationships.  In general terms influence emerges from combination of factors economic, cultural and political relations.  Resources matter but so do ideas, narratives, images.  From my historical research it’s quite clear that public diplomacies are just as much a part of  geopolitics as navies.  Competition for influence applies to the languages that people speak, the universities they attend, the legal systems they use, and the films they watch.

Methodologically and pragmatically we can choose to focus on different aspects of that reality, for instance on narratives or tanks but this doesn’t change the fact that hard/soft is a metaphor not an account of how the world really is.

The moral of the story is that metaphors really do matter in International Relations especially if they’re the ones academics use.