U.S. should test propaganda before using it, psy-ops commander says

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Photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Defense: U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Jameson Dudley, left, and U.S. Army Sgt. Nijoku Odom, right, throw leaflets from a KC-130 Super Hercules aircraft over southern Afghanistan, Aug. 28, 2013.

The Pentagon’s propaganda activities — what it now euphemistically refers to as “military information support operations” (MISO) — have a long history of both using trickery and deception to provide incredible tactical advantages in some cases, and failing spectacularly in others.

“When employed correctly Military Information Support Operations (MISO–formerly PSYOP [psychological operations]) as a force multiplier enjoys unparalleled capability to shape, and ultimately win, the hearts and minds of the populace who are the key terrain in any COIN conflict,” writes Brian Hancock, Commander of the 1004th Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Training Company in Encino, California, in a recent article for Small Wars Journal. “By the same token, MISO improperly employed, can have a serious and deleterious effect on the overall war effort. It is for this reason that release authority for Military Information Support Operations comes directly from the Secretary of Defense.”

Indeed, despite decades of development of psychological warfare doctrines and theories, the U.S. military’s persuasion efforts continue to frequently go awry. A case in point is the Pentagon’s “WebOps” effort to counter jihadist recruiting online, which was revealed earlier this year as a mess of corruption and ineptitude.

Hancock’s article focuses on a seven step process presented in the Army field manual on psychological operations tactics, the seven steps of which are: planning; target audience analysis; “series development;” product development and design; approval; production, distribution, and dissemination; and evaluation. Specifically, it focuses on psychological warfare “product testing in a non-permissive COIN [counter-insurgency] environment,” which takes the form of pre- and post-testing psychological warfare messages for their effectiveness.

“MISO product testing is an essential, and often overlooked, part of the Seven Step MISO Process,” Hancock writes. “By doctrine, MISO Product Pre-testing is to be accomplished in Phase IV, Product Development and Design. Post-testing on the other hand is relegated to Phase VI Production, Distribution, and Dissemination. Due to severe resource constraints, the all too frequent reality in the combat zone is that focus is placed on product creation and distribution, rather than on planning and evaluation. As administrative processes are cut product testing, which many consider superfluous, is often one of the first to go.”

Hancock notes that investigations into psychological operations messages which fail or backfire “often attribute the lack of pre-testing as a primary cause.” Yet in the chaos of a war zone, following optimal procedures is often impractical if not impossible.

“There is no set formula for emergency testing,” of psychological warfare messages, Hancock points out. “Sometimes there is enough time to throw together a quick mission to a local source. In other instances there is only enough time to have a translator who is not on the MISO payroll take a quick look at the product and render his opinion. Ultimately the Commander (CDR) must determine the level of risk he is willing to assume by disseminating product which has received inadequate testing. The less testing performed, the greater the chance that the message is misunderstood, ineffective, or potentially offensive.”

Hancock offers some advice to psychological operators as to who to test out their messages on, and in what context. Avoid locals who are doing work for the military, he says, as they’re likely to tell you what you want to hear. Good places to find locals to survey, he writes, include cafes and airports — and, somewhat chillingly, detention centers.

“Detention Centers require some planning and coordination to access,” Hancock writes. “For legal reasons MISO soldiers can only interact with inmates that are in a special transition status. Those who wish to access these inmates must go through special training conducted by the detention facility. Typically MISO will only be able to interview a handful of insurgent prisoners (…) but their insights are often invaluable.”

While Hancock may not mean anything more sinister than conducting interviews in relatively humane, albeit coerced conditions, discussing the testing of psychological operations techniques on detainees conjures up dark chapters of not-so-distant history. Psychological operators like Hancock may like to portray their profession as an innocent game of winning hearts and minds and avoiding bloodshed through persuasion, but there is a decidedly uglier side to it.

When the infamous photos depicting torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq surfaced in 2004, they were first blamed on “a few bad apples,” but it later emerged that they were in fact taken as part of an organized psychological operation. Obviously, when this particular psy-op was exposed, it backfired on its planners, hurting America’s image in the world. It’s also worth noting the impact the photos may have had on one inmate, at least, who had been transferred to Abu Ghraib shortly before they made headlines — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

Hancock’s article also touches on problems associated with post-testing of psychological operations media materials in real world situations, as contrasted with the ideals of the Army’s psyo-ops field manual.

“Unlike pre-testing, post-testing must be conducted with the actual target audience” he notes. This, of course, is easier said than done. “Shortage of MISO assets, combined with limited mission access, unfortunately makes ongoing post-testing impractical in many theatres of operation,” Hancock writes. “Every effort should be made to conduct a post-test of key products in a series by the time the series is complete.”

Hancock seems to put great faith in the testing of psychological warfare messages before and after broadcasting them to the target audience. “Those units which gloss over the testing process greatly increase the level of risk that they assume,” he writes. “This risk may manifest itself in failed programs, broken relationships, or cultural misunderstanding which may increase sectarian violence or even drive insurgency.”

When propaganda messages are properly tested, Hancock maintains, they can be incredibly effective — and there is no doubt he is correct. Many people, from top military planners to the general public, frequently seem to underestimate the power of psychological warfare. Yet it is also clear from Hancock’s article that psy-ops are a double-edged sword. Like so much else that our military gets involved in, they are often horrendously counterproductive.

 

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