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  • On War, Comprehension and Persuasion

    Posted by Zenpundit on September 23rd, 2007 (All posts by )

    There must be something in the water lately as I have been getting an upsurge of inquiries and public comments regarding information operations, public diplomacy, “soft power” agents of influence, 5GW and similar matters. There are other blogs I can recommend as being better on this score – Beacon, MountainRunner, Kent’s Imperative, Swedish Meatballs Confidential and Whirledview to name but a few. Also, I would suggest that interested readers search the archives of Studies in Intelligence, PARAMETERS, The Strategic Studies Institute, Combined Arms Research Library and the threads at The Small Wars Council. Genuine expertise may be found there and for discussions of theory and emerging trends, I recommend Dreaming 5GW.

    That being said, I will offer my two cents anyway.

    One point of agreement across the political spectrum and that of informed opinion is that the USG has not done a particularly good job of managing “the war of ideas” in the conflict with Islamist terrorism. Or against state adversaries. Or with persuading neutrals and even our own allies to our point of view. When you are having difficulty drawing even in global popularity contest with a crowd of bearded fanatics who put beheading videos on the internet, it’s time to admit there’s a problem.

    Our difficulty did not start with the Bush administration, they simply ramped up a negative dynamic that began in the 1990’s with the budgetary dismantling of USG public diplomacy, information agencies and CIA clandestine operations, in order to “reinvent government” or to save “Peace Dividend” pennies for pork barrel expenditures. Official America’s withdrawal from the information playing field also happened to coincide with the rise of baby boom, New Left, ’68-ers as the managing editors, producers and shapers of opinion in European media, as well is in places like South Korea, that had its own veteran cadres of dissenters against the ROK’s old military regimes.

    Harboring relatively critical and anti-American views from the outset, this generational class interpreted clumsy, abrasive and at times deliberately antagonistic rhetoric from the second Bush administration through their own negative political lens. It was a particularly unfortunate combination as far as American interests in foreign policy were concerned. Nor has there been much interest or competence applied subsequently by Bush administration officials in order to make their ongoing global communication more effective.

    Ironically, strategic communication was once a field in which Americans in the private and public sectors excelled. The First World War brought the management of news and propaganda through the Committee on Public Information under journalist George Creel, who had the help of two brilliant men who became giants in the field of influencing public opinion, Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays. After WWI, Lippmann had a long career as an adviser to presidents and consensus-builder for the Eastern Establishment (playing the role of America’s ur-Pundit) while Bernays virtually created the field of public relations, applying principles of mass and Freudian psychology to commercial advertising.

    Lippmann’s focus upon the elite and Bernay’s manipulation of the crowd represent two poles of communication with, and comprehension of, an audience. In their case, the audience was primarily a domestic one while the exigencies of WWII and the Cold War forced American policymakers to look overseas and try to grasp the perspective of foreign worldviews boasting complex and alien ideologies of a militant character. Again, the dichotomy of examining elite leaders and the mass-society were followed in the respective landmark studies by Ruth Benedict and Walter C. Langer.

    Benedict, a disciple of Franz Boas, carried out a cultural anthropological analysis of the Meiji-Taisho-Showa era Japanese mind, culminating in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Benedict characterized the Japanese people as “debtor’s to the ages” and explained the apparently suicidal fanaticism of the Imperial Army soldier as a psychological legacy of the “On-Giri” honor and debt social traditions of Japanese society. This technique of cultural analysis, which is also visible in Raphael’s Patai’s The Arab Mind, elevates deep-set cultural behavior patterns ( though it can also lead to distorting exaggerations and a misplaced attempt to apply aggregate stereotypes to explain individual behavior).

    Langer and his team of psychoanalysts, likewise made their study from a distance and began the field of pychological profiling with their study of Adolf Hitler and other top Nazi leaders. While Benedict’s effort was explanatory, Langer’s was also intended to be predictive. In both instances, their work was available to high level policy makers for the making of strategy, propaganda and operations that were termed for the first time, “psychological warfare“. The integration of social science expertise into official and “black” USG communications and diplomacy would continue to evolve during the Cold War until the Vietnam War brought a serious break between the academic community and the CIA and Pentagon, that continues, for the most part, until this day.

    While our political appointees, diplomats, CIA officers, military IO and PSYOPS specialists are getting a beating (often deserved) in the MSM and the blogosphere for the poor state of affairs in which they labor, fairness requires the observation that their task today is immeasurably more complex than that of their forerunners. This is a point that cannot at present time be overstressed. Set aside the deficit of trained linguists in “hard” languages, the paucity of firsthand HUMINT with which to work, the normal interagency obstructionism and bureaucratic warfare and the frustrations of out-of-touch management. Those are tactical and organizational difficulties that could be remediated.

    Here are the daunting structural and strategic challenges faced in crafting a unified and persuasive “American message” in the war of ideas:

    The cultural multiplicity of the global audience, which is/are:

    – Tiered from real-time postmodern transnational elites down to pre-modern tribal villagers still relying upon an oral tradition who receive their information flow hours, days, weeks or later.

    – Viewing events from worldviews based upon five or more major civilizational traditions and many times that number of major subnational or subcultural traditions .

    – Often times the audience is locked into a feedback loop with relatively sophisticated and influential (or impoverished and alienated) expatriate communities in the West and United States.

    A multiplicity of information platforms which are:

    – Spreading access to information with increasing rates of economic efficiency in a way that leapfrogs people over Gutenberg and directly into the World Wide Web.

    – Are evolving technologically both in terms of processing power and parameters of expression that defy linear trend predictions (there are really more usable app ideas than ever get fully developed for reasons of return on investment and IP issues).

    – Are evolving at a speed beyond which bureaucratic acquisition and budgetary schedules can adjust in order to keep USG employees in line with the tech capabilities of the private sector.

    A multiplicity of information messages in a net volume that:

    – Creates sheer “Attention scarcity” problems in target audiences -usually elite – which have begun to operate psychologically under the dictates of the “attention economy“.

    – Creates a deafeningWhite Noise” through which critical messages to the target audience can neither be seen nor heard nor reinforced with reliability or be perceived in the proportion or perspective desired.

    – Ratchets up the Darwinian velocity of the marketplace of ideas to snuff out or mutate memes faster than IO planners can adjust while also trying to bring along the portion of the audience still processing at much slower rates of comprehension.

    What is to be done? I fear that I have no silver bullet solution. Reader Dominic C. suggested yesterday in the comment section:

    “On 4GW front, there is a constant debate about why “public diplomacy” and “information war” / propaganda is poor. Surely the basic reason is that there are very few top quality marketing professionals who understand psychology and the few who exist do not work for the govt/mil. To the extent they are involved in politics, they usually roll in for elections and roll out.


    If I were in charge of a 4GW campaign, I wd integrate professionals like Cialdini in my comms structure. There is an abyss between (a) the subjects studied in traditional politics, history, military etc and (b) marketing, psychology, cog sci, evolutionary bio etc.

    America plus allies needs a 21st Century version of Moltke’s Prussian General Staff that combines these two branches into a training system so that politicians and soldiers have inter-dsciplinary skills”

    This seems quite sensible as a first step to gaining a strategic grasp over what is really an “information ecosystem as a battlespace”.

    Crossposted at Zenpundit

     

    9 Responses to “On War, Comprehension and Persuasion”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      Quote of the day:

      “When you are having difficulty drawing even in global popularity contest with a crowd of bearded fanatics who put beheading videos on the internet, it’s time to admit there’s a problem.”

      The “information ecosystem as a battlespace” presents a lot of problems. The “4GW” terminology has accomplished one important thing: It has shown that the main front is in the public perception of the war, on all sides. “Win” anything else, anywhere else, but lose on the main front, and all the blood and ammo expended add up to nothing. One thing to do is keep such a small footprint that no one notices. That is the main method emphasized by Robert Kaplan in his new book, and in his whole body of writing. The other is to only fight major wars you can win quickly, where the public will not be presented with too many mental or moral challenges. As George Bush I put it, “go all the way to Baghdad? That’s crazy. We’d have to occupy the place.” So, don’t go. (This rules out another full-scale World War II-type mobilization, something which has been made impossible and unnecessary by nuclear weapons.) The problem lies in the middle range — wars like Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. What about medium-sized wars that you cannot opt out of? If you are a quasi-island power like the USA are there any such non-optional wars? Now that the Cold War is over, are there any non-optional medium-sized wars? If so, it even possible to win the information war and maintain support? Even pictures of dead enemy soldiers can bring protesters out into the street in postmodern democrat countries. And just as it takes time to ramp up a war, it is taking time ramp up the Anti-War, which is escalating. We will soon see a spate of Hollywood films which vilify the American military. The more the USG pushes its unsuccessful medium-sized war, the more the ideologically charged information specialists will successfully attack the very foundations of American military power in the information ecosystem. The military cannot retaliate, cannot launch its own popular film industry, cannot even engage the main enemy on the main front. Battlespace dominance belongs to the implicit enemies of the United States military because that is what they know how to do. Checkmate.

      (Or am I wrong?)

    2. Shannon Love Says:

      Information warfare is largely the domain of the articulate intellectuals and most articulate intellectuals have been drifting to the other side since the 1930’s. We succeeded with information warfare in WWII due in main part because the articulate intellectuals hated Fascism. When the war shifted to the more AI supported communist, our info-war began to falter.

      A more important factor, however, is the profoundly different way in which liberal-democracies relate to information compared to autocracies. Worse, in the modern world, few informational boundaries remain. Campaigns directed at foreigners can end up effecting one’s own citizens.

      Liberal-democracies thrive due to the free-market in information. A democratic election system is actually a mechanism for harvesting the vast and diverse information that electorate holds. Informational warfare threatens that system and the advantages it creates. We all have warm, fuzzies about WWII but when you look at the “public education” campaigns of the era, such as the “Finish the Job” campaign, you soon realize that the government was actively telling the people what they should be telling the government to do. Such overt campaigns such as that died out soon after the war but had the war continued for a long time the effects of internal propaganda might have turned sinister.

      Autocracies rely less on the wisdom of the people and therefor risk little in using informational weapons. The can manufacture facts as it suits them with little regard to how those faux-facts will affect their own political structures. Since the goal of any autocracy is to maintain the internal social status of the autocrats, they usually find that they can deploy the same campaigns against foreigners and citizens alike. The low opportunity cost and high expected return means that modern autocracies place great emphasis on and devote significant resources to informational warfare as compared to liberal-democracies.

      I think we need to plan on being systematically at a major disadvantage when it comes to formal centrally planned informational warfare. For liberal-democracies, informational warfare is like biological or chemical weapons: we risk inflicting as much or more harm to ourselves than we inflict on our opponents.

      On the other hand, our advantage in decentralized informal information warfare is huge. Just the cultural pressure of popular entertainment alone seems to be powerful transformative force (long term) when it bleeds into autocracies. The internet will accelerate the general diffuse information assault on the worlds autocratic governments and movements.

    3. david still Says:

      “The internet will accelerate the general diffuse information assault on the worlds autocratic governments and movements.”—?? not when they censor what can and can not come into their country, as now happens in China and elsewhere.

    4. John Jay Says:

      David Still – China’s success at internet censorship is 50 / 50 at best. Even Suadi Arabia can’t keep out the sat links.

    5. Mrs. Davis Says:

      Set aside the deficit of trained linguists in “hard” languages, the paucity of firsthand HUMINT with which to work

      Then why are we abandoning our interpreters in Iraq and leaving them and their families to their fates in Iraq? The only people acting like we’re in a serious war are the grunts on the ground. It shouldn’t be surprising that that’s the only place we’re doing well. Democracies don’t fight wars well until they move to a total war footing. Not enough Americans are ready for that. Yet.

    6. John Jay Says:

      We do a horrible job of drawing on our immigrant populations. There are Americans who speak pretty much every language on Earth, and we don’t welcome them into the military with incentives.

      People such as Neal Prakash are few and far between. The Army ought to be playing him up to the Indian immigrant population in case we get into it with Pakistan, but no, they still do recruiting the old-fashioned way, which never worked that well in the first place.

    7. Zenpundit Says:

      Hi everyone,

      Lex, I think you summarized our positional dilemma very, very, well.

      Force has to be employed with a ruthlessly Machiavellian political astuteness -literally in the sense of appearing good while vigorously slaughtering selective bad guys – in order not to have unacceptably high political costs. This is very hard to do. Historically, some statesmen had the knack for pulling this off – Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower but it’s a select club. Other figures were “friction magnets”, attracting pro-active and enthusiastic opposition to any kind of forceful move.

      Shannon,

      “A more important factor, however, is the profoundly different way in which liberal-democracies relate to information compared to autocracies. Worse, in the modern world, few informational boundaries remain. Campaigns directed at foreigners can end up effecting one’s own citizens”

      This is the Bernays question of “engineering consent” ( which Chomsky, I believe, has misattributed to Lippmann). Also of simple disinformation “blowback” where our own IC analysts and naturally our journalists end up taking our own bogus IO memes as legitimate information. Either way, it’s a real danger as you correctly describe. The Soviets were excellent at disinformatsiya but their intel system was so clogged with their own crap by the mid-1980’s that KGB agents could no longer report what was actually happening in the West for fear of a severe reprimand from the Center.

      “On the other hand, our advantage in decentralized informal information warfare is huge. Just the cultural pressure of popular entertainment alone seems to be powerful transformative force (long term) when it bleeds into autocracies”

      Well said. Our formats dominate and shape the thinking of the audience even when the message is neutral or hostile to American interests. There really aren’t cultural mass media alternatives to American-style platforms. “Bollywood” is India’s Hollywood, the United States does not have an “American Ganges”. Al Jazeera is produced to look like CNN-Islamist. Hezbollah is allegedly making video games that look like crude and anti-semitic versions of “Hitman” or “Grand Theft Auto”.

      Mrs. Davis,

      “Then why are we abandoning our interpreters in Iraq and leaving them and their families to their fates in Iraq? The only people acting like we’re in a serious war are the grunts on the ground.”

      I didn’t mean to suggest that such deficits are a good thing or are unimportant. They are important but fixable problems, if we had the political will. I simply meant that beyond these are some structural realities that cannot be easily altered and are more or less the not-very-advantageous environment in which have to act

    8. 4GW Quote of the Day « Wolf Pangloss Says:

      […] Zenpundit writes at Chicago Boyz: One point of agreement across the political spectrum and that of informed opinion is that the USG has not done a particularly good job of managing “the war of ideas” in the conflict with Islamist terrorism. Or against state adversaries. Or with persuading neutrals and even our own allies to our point of view. When you are having difficulty drawing even in global popularity contest with a crowd of bearded fanatics who put beheading videos on the internet, it’s time to admit there’s a problem. […]

    9. Larry Goldwater Says:

      “When you are having difficulty drawing even in global popularity contest with a crowd of bearded fanatics who put beheading videos on the internet, it’s time to admit there’s a problem.”

      You are right.

      [edited by admin]