In a recent Small Wars Journal article, “Losing the Information War and How to Win,” U.S. Army infantry officer Michael Anderson contends that America’s adversaries have been beating the U.S. in the propaganda battles of recent years. While not the first to suggest that the U.S. has been grasping for an effective messaging strategy against extremist groups like the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh), Anderson offers some incisive criticisms of the status quo approach.
“We face an enemy ideology that crafted and shaped an enduring, effective message, near perfecting dissemination and application to relevant target audiences- the disaffected around the globe- while we remain, at best, reactive and, at worst, counter-productive in our own messaging,” he writes. “The extremist ideological message of groups across the Islamic spectrum from Sunni to Shia, Al-Qaeda and affiliates, or ISIL, and other splinter group (sic) across the Levant, Maghreb, and the world, are even drawing adherence from developed nations. To secure the proliferation of Western ideals and values of freedom and free-thinking, there must be increased focus on the information war, reshaping the approach to messaging, bringing it on equal or superior footing to the physical efforts across the globe combating the enduring tide of extremist thought infecting the world’s disaffected.”
Anderson writes that the U.S. should take an aggressive approach, and his suggestions seem to mirror recent discussion elsewhere of a perceived need to further integrate information operations and electronic warfare. “Rhetoric should not be tempered, and messaging be assertive, promoting our ideology over theirs and why it is better,” Anderson writes. “We should not fail to target their messaging preemptively through all means because fear of how it might look. Whether it is doing more to block website access, influence servers and grids, or conduct character assassinations of notable extremist (sic).”
Yet while Anderson would have the U.S. “promoting our ideology over theirs and why it is better,” he points out that America often fails to live up to the ideals of the major political ideology that it officially promotes throughout the world — namely that of democracy. “The message today needs to be a clear one, crafted to speak to freedom of choice (not particularly democracy as understood in a political sense) versus total subservience to a singularly allowed dogma (essentially oppression of choice)” he writes. “Instead the West mainly conducts an emotional counter-messaging response to ‘atrocities’ and ‘horrors’ perpetuated by extremist ideologies. While this is relevant and should be an aspect of the messaging campaign, it lacks the resonance alone to effect persuasion in the disaffected fence-sitters, nor does it demoralize the enemy.”
Indeed, the shortcomings of “atrocity propaganda” have been understood for some time. While groups like ISIS are certainly responsible for actual atrocities, the propaganda technique of focusing solely on negative messaging regarding such crimes –and certainly past instances of fabricating atrocities for propaganda value– has long been criticized, including by such noted propaganda strategists as the World War II psychological warfare expert Paul Linebarger.
Anderson’s frustration with a lack of clarity from military leadership about the reasoning and strategy behind American involvement in conflicts around the world is evident. “The American public accepted over sixteen years of open war, but barely even comprehend what it’s about, or has been for, with some veterans struggling with this and they were the actual practitioners,” he writes. “What is the message? What is it against? Not knowing or watered-down messaging is an inconclusive strategy in a war of ideas.”
Yet Anderson’s suggested solution seems potentially inadequate, given the scope of the problems he identifies.
“Indicators of a way forward exist, exemplified by the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center,” he writes. “This center, an interagency group created in spring 2016 from Executive Order 13721, ‘leads the coordination, integration, and synchronization of government-wide activates directed at foreign audiences abroad for the purpose of countering violent extremism and terrorism.’ It includes elements from the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, the Intelligence Community, Broadcast Board of Governors, and USAID. An important aspect of this nascent tool in the information war is the granting necessary authorities, technology, personnel, and budgetary support to move it to the forefront of the campaign to counter extremist ideology worldwide, not just ISIL. The momentum behind this center is precisely the direction needed, to include balancing direct campaigning against extremist messaging with facilitating likeminded partner nation and non-governmental groups adding credence to the messaging. Though primarily focused on counter-messaging to increase extremists’ group defections and preempt recruitment, it is largely focused on ISIL and is reactive.”
The picture Anderson paints of the Global Engagement Center, however, may not tell the whole story. According to a senior State Department official anonymously quoted in a September report, “things are bad” at the center, which “is struggling to keep up with its missions” of fighting disinformation from countries such as Russia and ISIS recruitment efforts and propaganda online, as analysts have apparently been quitting in frustration.
“Returning to the Cold War model, the Global Engagement Center needs further authorities with independence of action, similar to the Cold War-era U.S. Information Agency,” Anderson writes. “The USIA was an independent agency centralizing the strategic level information campaign against the Soviet Union, but was closed in 1999 for budgetary measures. Closer modeling the Global Engagement Center after this is a fuller step to empowering the current joint interagency attempt.”
Perhaps giving more resources and authority to a propaganda agency that presently appears to be functioning less than optimally, enabling it to treat non-state extremist groups like ISIS as threats of the same magnitude as the former Soviet Union and act accordingly, is really a step towards winning the information war. Or maybe pursuing such a strategy –which essentially amounts to business as usual for propaganda policy, seeing as the “new” Global Engagement Center replaced a “Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications” less than two years ago– only highlights the extent to which America’s status quo approach to state-sponsored persuasion efforts really is contributing to its losing the battle for hearts and minds.