Written evidence from Professor Philip
M. Taylor, University of Leeds
[The author is Professor of International Communications
at the University of Leeds. The author of 14 books relating to
the history and impact of propaganda, military-media relations
and military information operations, he has lectured all over
the world, especially to military educational establishments,
on aspects of his thirty-five years of research in these fields.]
Summary: The conduct of
Strategic Communications (SC) has become an indispensable requirement
of democratic foreign policy in the 21st century Information Age.
Different nations organise their overseas information activities
in different ways but most identify the three essential components
as being Public Diplomacy (usually conducted by Foreign Offices
or State Departments, sometimes through proxy organisations like
the British Council or BBC World Service), Information Operations
(usually conducted by Defence Departments or Ministries, mostly
through specialised military in support of military operations)
and Public Affairs (cross-governmental cultivation of relationship
with the media). This memorandum will concentrate on military
information or "influence" activities, although the
successful conduct of SC requires all three components to be fully
co-ordinated - an aspiration that is harder to achieve in practice
than in theory.
Military Information Operations:
Regardless of specific successes or failures of "influence
activities" in support of tactical and operational military
campaigns in the AfPak conflict (which can be discussed in detail
later if required), this memorandum will focus on more general
institutional, organisational, doctrinal, cultural and even strategic
shortcomings when democratic nations like the UK - either singly
or in coalition - undertake military operations in the 21st century
information age. These can be summarised as follows:
1. AN ALMOST
- ESPECIALLY AMONGST
Historically, since the Boer War, most democracies
have understood the necessity of conducting propaganda and counter
propaganda against hostile combatants in times of conflict ("psychological
warfare"). The British, through the experience of Crewe House
in World War One and of the Political Warfare Executive in World
War Two, have a reputation for deploying "munitions of the
mind" to considerable effect, especially on battlefields,
utilising ever more sophisticated media for the dissemination
of messages designed to undermine adversary morale. This became
more complex with the extension of battlefields into "battle
spaces" in the post 1945 period, especially when civilian
target audiences also became significant in colonial low intensity
conflicts, counter-insurgencies and, more recently, counter-terrorism
campaigns. The obliteration of dividing lines between soldier
and civilian, first through Total War and now through the "War
on Terror", has been encapsulated by the phrase "struggle
for hearts and minds". But it is no longer so clear cut who
friends and potential enemies are, or even where they are located.
This, combined with the obliteration in the age of the internet
of traditional lines between domestic and foreign audiences, and
even between friend and foe, has created significant problems
for the focussing of any official targeted messaging operations.
Seepage across the traditional boundaries is inevitable and, with
it, increased nervousness about what can and cannot be said at
any given time.
2. Internal Agonising about the Meaning and Definition
of "Influence Activities".
Because of the historical acquisition of pejorative
meaning surrounding the word "propaganda", democracies
have done everything they can to distance themselves from this
otherwise useful word. Instead, propaganda has become something
which only the enemy does whereas democracies engage in something
else, such as "information operations" or "strategic
communications". This is most vividly illustrated by the
Pentagon's decision earlier in 2010 to change the well established
military phrase "psychological operations" with MISO
or "Military Information Support Operations". The British
tried a similar exercise in euphemism when in 1998 the 15 UK PSYOPS
Group briefly changed its name to the 15th Information Support
Group. The fear of being accused of conducting propaganda may
be due to an understandable fear of being accused of telling lies
(the popular association with the word) but it does reflect as
astonishing failure on the part of professional military persuaders
to explain what precisely it is that they do in this field, which
has a time-honoured democratic tradition of "truth telling"
and "credible truths" (although for various reasons
it rarely tells "the whole truth"). The most effective
form of targeted information activities, military or otherwise,
was recognised by Edward R. Murrow when, back in the 1960s within
the context of the Cold War, he argued that "truth is the
best propaganda". However, far too much time is wasted upon
internal disputes about the relationship of influence activities
to other communications strategies, especially "Media Operations"
or Public Affairs.
3. Military Culture of Secrecy vs. Proactive
This nervousness and the resultant euphemism business
is evident both at home and abroad within the democratic system.
But it is exacerbated by the military traditions which have done
so much to protect that system, particularly a culture of operational
security and a fear that information released by military and
other sources (including to and via the media) may prove of value
to adversaries. The resultant default psychological position is
to err on the side of caution and withhold information whereas
the realities of our globalised information age (an age of Google
Earth, Twitter, social network sites and citizen journalists that
include soldier bloggers) require organisations to compete in
terms of information and message output. It is not so much an
issue of telling "our truth" to counter "their
lies" but more a battle of competing credibilities in which
silence or reticence is no longer appropriate. This is an age
in which it is near impossible to keep secrets, or at least not
for long (witness the recent Wikileaks controversy), and in which
information vacuums will be filled by misinformation, disinformation
and conspiracy theories that can take root amongst a global audience
as credible "facts"- unless they are countered or discredited
quickly and authoritatively.
4. Information is no longer merely a "Support"
There is an additional disadvantage epitomised by
the euphemism "Information Support". The problem is
not with the first word but with the second. Western democratic
militaries are, for obvious historical and strategic reasons,
steeped in the business, training and culture of war-fighting.
The main focus is on kinetic operations. But in a war of ideas
- for that is surely what the "struggle against violent extremism"
really is - the key weapon is information. Terrorists understand
this because they know they cannot achieve their political objectives
by military means. For them, information is the central tool with
violence serving as a militaristic means to an informational end.
The generation of fear amongst vulnerable publics in open societies,
together with messages designed to foster recruitment amongst
those resentful of perceived western "hypocrisies",
is the dual purpose of terrorist "strategic communication".
Terrorist acts and propaganda are thus symbiotic in their relationship;
if anything, the kinetic act of violence is designed to support
the two-prong messaging in an asymmetric conflict. For western
militaries, it is the other way around. For them, information
is a support tool. For terrorists, it is the primary weapon.
5. Bureaucratic Infighting.
A legacy of the previous ideological struggle that
was the Cold War, too often are informational responsibilities
locked into historical bureaucratic silos within governmental
departments that are anachronistic for the internet age. Decision-making
is reactive, slow, hierarchical and is subject to political sensitivities.
A problem that is perhaps more acute in Washington than in London,
the solution has been sought through co-ordination and inter-departmental
co-operation rather than by the creation of a high level central
information agency which takes charge of the "information
war" in its own right.
6. Coalition Operations.
All the above are compounded within the context of
coalition military operations. Different nations within NATO bring
different interpretations of what can and cannot be done in the
informational realm for legal, cultural, historical and doctrinal
reasons (despite the existence of agreed NATO documents relating
to Information Operations, cyber operations and other aspects
of this activity). Rotation of commands within ISAF and its areas
of responsibility create further difficulties and often the emphasis
which any given deployment places upon the informational realm
can even be traced back to the personalities of different Commanders.
This has been a structural problem throughout the campaign in
Afghanistan where different members of ISAF, for example, have
had different rules of engagement imposed upon them (usually for
domestic political reasons) but which have hardly been conducive
to some of the essential requirements of any sustained "hearts
and minds" campaign, namely consistency and continuity.
7. The Limits of Military Information Operations.
A simple fact remains. Regardless of the strategic
objective in any given military campaign (including peacekeeping,
humanitarian intervention and even counter-insurgency) the information
and influence strategies employed by the military cannot, by themselves
succeed. They tend to be too short-term, too tied to the military
objective and its rules of engagement, and too narrow in their
tactical and operational objectives. What is really required is
strategic thinking beyond the area of operation - and this requires
a fully integrated use of the other tools of Strategic Communication,
especially Public Diplomacy (a long-term influence activity based
upon principles of trust-building, mutual understanding and co-operation)
and Public Affairs (where relations with the domestic and foreign
media are treated holistically as if no such boundaries existed).
Without these other tools, any military influence campaign can
only have short-term objectives and can only have tactical and
operational effects. In reality, the need is for a long-term informational
and influence strategy that attempts to ensure that any future
military deployments are unnecessary.
5 October 2010