So How Do We Fight An Information War?

Update: see followup above

The usual suspects are going bonkers – bonkers! – over the notion that the Pentagon briefed a cadre of retired military men who served as ‘expert commentators’ in the media.

So here’s my problem. If we’re engaged in counterinsurgency, public diplomacy and information warfare – which the insurgent side are very good at, spends a lot of time doing, and where the mainstream media only recently grudgingly backed away from the most egregious, falsified examples of their work – is a critical component, according to pretty much everyone who has written on the subject.But – our government can’t play. Not only are there legal restrictions, but the simple fact that information was given to commentators, bloggers, or reporters by the government – in the hopes that it can shape the information battlespace – is illegitimate, and is itself a major meta-story.

I don’t think it’s wrong to be concerned about the government shaping the news. I think it’s necessary to shape perception as a part of any successful counterinsurgency.

But those two principles seem to be in a midair collision, and as a consequence it’s going to keep raining aluminum.

Here’s a quote from Betz on the importance of information war:

Third, by contrast, we do not focus enough effort on winning and maintaining the hearts and minds of the most critical and accessible population: our own. Clearly, armed forces do not want to be concerned with the management of domestic perceptions of conflict; nor should that be their responsibility – although soldiers of all ranks must be ever aware of the impact on the virtual battlefield of everything they do on the real one. Indeed, in the United States there is a specific legal impediment to doing so in the form of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act (establishing the USIA) which required that propaganda intended for foreign audiences ‘shall not be disseminated within the United States, its territories, or possessions.’5 Yet T.X. Hammes argues that the war we now face is one in which our opponent,

… uses all available networks – political, economic, social and military – to convince the enemy’s political decision-makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. It is rooted in the fundamental precept that superior political will, when properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power.6

And if that is the case then we are ignoring the defence of a critical vulnerability. It is as though we had entered some gladiatorial combat with helmet visor closed, sword dull and bent, and shield lying in the dirt. The United States, in particular, it is argued, possesses a ‘quagmire mentality’ which gifts its enemies with a playbook for its defeat.7

…and one on the problem I cite above:

Thinking of Freedman’s second point, we can see that there are other disadvantages we face when it comes to creating compelling strategic narratives. In the West narratives which are deliberately constructed by Government are almost immediately rejected for that reason whatever their inherent accuracy or falsity. The public is highly sensitized to ‘spin’, the media excels at revealing (and counter-spinning) it, and no narrative can long survive the perception that it is based, even in part, on a lie. Narratives which reinforce already existing ideas, on the other hand, are easily portrayed as ‘populist’ demagoguery. Arguments which appeal to the reason are deemed more trustworthy than those which appeal to emotion and historical analogy, but, at the same time, generally people lack the patience for long argument. Basically, if you need to target your base and find that it is fractured and lacks purpose, lacks the attention span for in-depth appeal to argument but is exquisitely sensitive to manipulation and possesses an innate mastery of semiotics then you have a problem. And if, moreover, your opponent’s base is unified, has a sense of purpose, a rich oral tradition which lends itself well to story-listening (and telling) and is fairly credulous when it comes to conspiracy theories then you have got a very serious problem.

(emphasis added)

I’ll try and extend this and talk more about this conundrum. But for now, let’s set the problem out there and talk about it.

62 thoughts on “So How Do We Fight An Information War?”

  1. A.L., the principal “problem” in the Bush Administration’s campaign to “sell” the public on support of the Iraq war (actually an ongoing occupation) is simple: the “compelling strategic narrative” you cite above really doesn’t exist. Or rather, the “strategic narratives” which the architects of this war have employed to gin up support for their policies with the American public have been a) shifted over time from rationale to rationale; b) proven to be so much BS and spin; and c) bolstered mainly (until quite recently) by orchestrated attacks on critics of Administration war policy rather than addressing the issues of whether those policies might be flawed or not.

    So what is the ultimate victory aim of this “information war” you seem to think is so vitally important? Convincing the American people that George Bush’s Iraqi adventure really IS the Great And Noble Crusade For Democracy, Justice And Goodness the Administration and its creatures have been trying to convinced us it is for 5+ years now? (Rather than simply a botched attempt at hegemonism-by-force gussied up in fine rhetoric)

  2. I clicked on AL’s links to see some examples of that rare spectacle, a blogger going “bonkers – bonkers!”

    Glenn Greenwald says: “it is difficult to take the article’s underlying points seriously as though they are some kind of new revelation.” Kevin Drum says that military analysts “turned out to be outstandingly pliable as regurgitators of Pentagon talking points” and Atrios suggests (ironically I think) that it’s time for another blogger ethics panel. There was a bit more fire in the comments, but even there much of the reaction expressed weary resignation rather than outrage.

    AL, I think you need to re-calibrate your excitability meter. Otherwise, one of these days you’ll be telling us that Paul Krugman is just shrill! – SHRILL!!

    As for “the notion that the Pentagon briefed a cadre of retired military men” there doesn’t seem to be anything notional about it, and the mere fact that they were briefed is not of any particular concern. If you are going to accuse people of going bonkers, you might at least give them credit for going bonkers about an issue of some importance (to liberals at least). What’s bothersome is that the retired generals were clearly intended to push the Pentagon line, but with the media presenting them to the public as independent commentators. For the most part the resulting farce was performed in accordance with the Pentagon’s script.

    Any liberal from John Locke onwards would have seen something to worry about there. The nearest AL comes to acknowledging that there’s an issue here is: “I don’t think it’s wrong to be concerned about the government shaping the news.” Okay, so it’s not actually wrong for liberals to take the basic tenets of liberalism seriously. That’s reassuring I suppose.

  3. A democratic republic such as ours can never be united for long. Indeed, I see no evidence in history that when such a country is united, that that is an unalloyed good. So to expect all of the various social factions to get behind a war effort, or even to admit that there is a war, or even to admit that there is a long term (generations long) cultural/religious/ideological/social conflict between Islam and the West — to expect that any of this will be universally agreed or nearly so is unrealistic. Worse, our “first past the post” electoral system has created an us-or-them political culture where there are only two choices, and one reflexively opposes the other in all things.

    So for there to be anything approaching a common understanding of the situation, as there was during the Cold War or during Manifest Destiny, it requires both major parties to have ownership of the situation, in a way undeniable to them. They then might not have the same idea of solutions, but at least they are both invested in a similar world view. The Republicans were forced by 9/11 to move from a caretaker presidency to owning the problem of jihadi terrorism. The Democrats’ last caretaker president (remember “the end of history?”) escaped the problem, just barely, and so the Democrats have not yet had to be serious about it. Once they win the White House, and are confronted with how to govern, this will change. But it will likely take three or four more administrations, barring some horrible event like a terrorist nuclear device being used, before there is some consistent agreement between the Democrats and Republicans on what we face, and on a basic grand strategy to deal with it.

    The Republicans have put forth a reasonable proposal. The Democrats have bleated, and continue to bleat. Note the first two responses to this post alone, both of which posit that the government has no right (never mind any duty) to put forth a view of the world. This will change as soon as there is a Democrat in the White House; not before. And sadly, many Republicans who right now sound sensible will be changed by their innate opposition into raving loonies.

  4. Jeff,

    I will readily agree that a government has a right, and frequently a duty, to put forth a view of the world. I never said otherwise. But as a general rule a government ought to do that in a transparent fashion, as for example in a Pentagon press conference.

    Apologies for the funny symbols in my comment above. I typed it in MS Word which seems to be a no-no.

  5. The commentators in question have a variety of sources, and should. Which should include the government, given that the media is absolutely incompetent at providing the kind of battlefront briefing that might be of any use. If you’re going to talk about what’s happening on the field, you have to have an idea of what’s happening on that field.

    I understnd AL’s point, but I’m sorry, it’s wrong because it has been taken too far. AL’s concept as presented amounts to the government not talking to the media or influential figures – and that’s just stupid.

  6. Looking again at AL’s post, I see that I did him an injustice; apologies. He makes a stronger statement than “I don’t think it’s wrong to be concerned about the government shaping the news.” He also says: “…the simple fact that information was given to commentators, bloggers, or reporters by the government…is illegitimate….” I failed to process that, probably because I’m not sure what AL means by it. The mere fact of the government giving information is not a problem, surely? The problem is that it was passed off as independent commentary. Also I would say that the fault lies mainly with the media. Any government will exploit a subservient press corps if it gets the chance.

  7. Joe – I’m not sure where you get that reading…expand?

    Kevin – so the US gives press conferences in front of hostile media, while Hezbollah and the PA (as an example) falsify pictures, which are then happily reprinted in the media. I’ve got to tell you, that’s not a recipe for a successful information war. Do you think ‘information war’ as a concept is a legitimate one?

    If not, how do you circle the square in counterinsurgency?

    Obviously one component is to walk the walk. But there are significant other ones which go to ‘selling’ your narrative, devaluing your opponents’, etc.



  8. AL,

    Maybe I’m misreading you but you seem to be saying that the good guys are at a disadvantage if they can’t emulate the bad guys. True enough, but how far do you want to push that logic? During the cold war, would you have wanted the FBI and CIA to have the freedom to use any tactics the KGB could use? I presume not. Freedom ain’t free and constraints on the methods of suasion available to a democracy are part of the price.

    But even on a pragmatic level working within the accepted liberal-democratic rules (not just the explicit laws) has its own propaganda value. People do notice that debate is more open in America than it is in Syria. Much as you may deplore the outcome of the 2006 election, the fact that the like doesn’t happen in Iran is part of your case. Likewise the fact that the NYT got this story by using freedom-of-information laws.

    Obviously this is a huge topic, and as I say maybe I am misreading you. So I’ll sign off until you get around to presenting a fuller account of your views.

  9. Shorter Armed Liberal: We put ourselves at severe disadvantage in the information warefare area of counterinsurgency efforts if we cannot employ information warfare tactics on the American public in order to get the country into the war in the first place.

  10. [Hey, LWM – you’re no smarter under this name than the other one; and now you’re banned. We don’t use multiple identities on this site. Bye, now. – AL]

  11. Bas, I’ve used the “shorter” tact in the past. Trust me, it just bounces off.

    Jeff Medcalf says

    The Republicans were forced by 9/11 to move from a caretaker presidency to owning the problem of jihadi terrorism.

    Indeed, prior to 9/11 the administration was startlingly ingorant and uninquisitive regarding the threat of terrorism.

    He continues

    The Democrats’ last caretaker president (remember “the end of history?”) escaped the problem, just barely, and so the Democrats have not yet had to be serious about it.

    I call foul. When was the WTC first attacked? And who complained that during the presidential transition period that the Clinton national security team was obsessed with bin Laden?

    Now, some democrats have gotten a little silly about it (read Kenneth Pollock and Michael O’Hanlon) but they are being rejected by the party at large these days. But to claim that a democratic administration has never “gotten serious” with terrorists one would have to believe gotting serious about terrorist attacks means advancing the cause of Al Qaida and Iran. As we’ve happily been doing for 5 years now.

  12. [Your combination of zero prior record here, wiggly-eyebrow punctuation, faux-politeness and leading-with-Goebbels, ending with a no-doubt-satisfying-to-you generalization, marks you as someone to chide. Consider this your only warning…. Particularly since it appears you might still be LWM posting with yet another pseudonym.

    Chill out and participate here, great. Otherwise, take a hike. BTW, the terms “moonbat” and “wingnut” have both recently been banned here. –NM]

  13. _Kevin – so the US gives press conferences in front of hostile media, while Hezbollah and the PA (as an example) falsify pictures, which are then happily reprinted in the media. I’ve got to tell you, that’s not a recipe for a successful information war._

    Credibility and attention are the currencies in the information market.

    _Do you think ‘information war’ as a concept is a legitimate one?_

    I certainly do — but like you, I think we have reason to be concerned about government manipulation of the public. The government should tell the truth. We can forgive them being wrong — any bureaucracy of any size will be wrong more often than right — as long as they’re being direct.

    In addition, we expect the military to be nonpartisan. This program originated in the Office of the SECDEF (OSD), which is a civilian, political office. It is allowed — even required — to be an arm for administration policy. Insofar as the program was a SECDEF function, with the military participants merely offering interviews b/c OSD required them to do so, it’s not problematic. (This also, by the way, is why it’s not illegal IO in my reading — OSD is allowed to do this, and the military participants seem to be doing it because OSD made it a requirement.)

    One of the biggest parts of this NYT piece is really a critique of the media, not the government. This is the surprising detail is how many unreported conflicts of interest there were.

    It’s not really the government’s duty to be aware of who General Analyst’s other friends and contacts are: but it is the responsibility of the news agency using them as a source to ask that question, and make it clear to their viewers.

    I met General Scales in Iraq, for example, but I had no idea he was tied to any contracting firms. As you know, I’m a contractor myself, so I obviously don’t think contracting is immoral by nature — it can be done honorably, or dishonorably, like most professions.

    That said, if So-And-So News is using him as a source, they probably ought to have made clear what his ties are. That’s a _media_ responsibility, not a government one, and the media failed.

  14. bq. Maybe I’m misreading you but you seem to be saying that the good guys are at a disadvantage if they can’t emulate the bad guys.

    I don’t think emulating the bad guys is the proposed solution. Once you accept the concept of terrorism as a “media war” or “information war”, I think the generally accepted assumption is that the good guys _are_ always at a disadvantage precisely because information provided by a state entity is automatically treated as spin, or propaganda, etc. This treatment is a Good Thing(tm) when applied to the normal workings in a democracy–cynicism should always be aimed against any given government–but it is a Bad Thing(tm) when that government is trying to fight an information war on behalf of its populace.

    It’s long been pointed out that this problem is specific to modern liberal states; authoritarian states have less trouble with information wars because they already crack down on the free flow of information within the country (cf China). The hard question that liberal states have yet to figure out is, how can a central government communicate a message contra the enemy’s propaganda that can be accepted as authentic by both the domestic audience and foreign audiences? Governments are not traditionally equipped to do this, and the closest they come to it is direct communication from charismatic leaders.

    If I had to suggest a solution, it would probably be a decentralization of information dissemenation: actively promoting the milblogs, increasing the number of embeds, providing raw footage of enemy atrocities, etc. Not sure how well it would work–I think this may be one of those inherent limitations on government efficiency that will be hard to overcome.

    bq. Norm Gearass: What would you do with the UN? Joe Katzman: Three words: low-rent housing.

    This is a horrible idea. It is inhumane and discriminatory to make poorer families live in structures that were infested with trans-national bureaucrats. The stench is harder to remove than floodwater mold.

  15. It is as though we had entered some gladiatorial combat with helmet visor closed, sword dull and bent, and shield lying in the dirt.

    If I knew that was the case, the first thing I’d do is avoid stepping into the gladiatorial arena. Then, I’d realize that gladiatorial games were a unnecessary waste of lives and resources expended to make their fans feel better about themselves, and then I’d start thinking that the entire enterprise is stupid.

  16. OK, let’s do a moment’s worth of cleaning up. The words in indented italic or double-indent? Those aren’t mine. I’m citing Professor David Betz, of King’s College in London, who is – in turn – citing F.X. Hammes.

    I’m not remotely in favor of government lying and manipulation; in a democratic republic like ours it’s especially pernicious. But – I’m not in favor of losing wars either; and whether you think the war in Iraq is a ‘chosen war’ or not (I do), we’re going to have to figure out how to solve the problem of defeating 4th generation combatants with something short of ‘Hama rules’, and that’s likely to require some form of information warfare.

    So there’s a conundrum.

    I’m pointing out the conundrum in part because the smarter Democratic defense thinkers I read are all about the ‘information battlespace’ – but actually fighting in that space looks a lot like what happened here.

    So there’ll be a deluge of comments from people who say that because it is service of the war in Iraq, it’s inherently immortal, fruit of a poisoned tree, and so on. Sorry, no.

    But let’s branch off that endless dispute and have a constructive one. How does a democracy fight an information war?


  17. Here’s a “good comment”: from Phil Carter on the issue:

    There is a legitimate place in warfare for this kind of activity. In describing the trinity necessary for a nation to make war (the army, the state and the people), Clausewitz understood the role of domestic public opinion. Political and military theorists alike have built on this understanding and elaborated on the role between public opinion and military success. Suffice it to say that this connection is especially important for a democracy. There’s a fine line, however, between rallying the support of the people for a cause, and deceiving the people in order to maintain their support. I think Churchill got it right during WWII when he leveled with the British people while exhorting them forward. This initiative seems to get it wrong.


  18. Armed Liberal: “How does a democracy fight an information war?”

    The result of the war will be determined largely in advance, as any story is good if it’s being told to an audience sufficiently receptive to it.

    The right place to do nation-building is not in civilizations, countries and cultures hostile to the kinds of nation we should want to build, but in our own countries. It we build strong, united and tolerably homogeneous national cultures, starting with the right decisions about who we let into our countries and following through with firmly assimilationist citizenship education, then we are in good shape against any enemy that wages information war against us, since their narrative seed will fall on stony ground.

    On the other hand, if through tacitly anti-natalist policies, immigration from countries that will alter or overwhelm the traditional or “old settler” ethnic cores of our countries and strong multiculturalism we make our states into snake-pits of ethnic competition and mistrust, we prepare ourselves for defeat. And – to mention the gorilla in the room – Islamic immigration ought to stop.

    When the state has done what it can to build up the nation, I thick its proper role ends, and the initiative in any information war should pass to the people, away from state involvement or correction.

    I can’t accept that it’s wise for the government to manipulate the process of data sifting and public debate that ultimately reviews its own performance. That’s why a top down model is a wrong model.

    Again to relate this to the jihad wars that we are in, I think on and after 11 September, 2001 George W. Bush should have encouraged the American people to get as active and invested in the war as possible, and stand aside for the government only when only the government could act, as in invading Afghanistan. The right model was a bottom-up model. Instead, his idea was that the people should go shopping and the state would take care of the problem. That’s a top-down approach, and it was, is and always will be a bad approach.

    It’s the fundamentally mistaken top down approach that leads to the government trying to manipulate the information made available to an ethnically fissured nation that is not receptive to its message.

  19. Let’s think carefully about how responsibility is divided here.

    The uniformed military has no role here, beyond participating in things according to OSD orders. This “maintenance of political support” is a key role in COIN, but it is a political function, and therefore has to belong to the political branch. OSD is part of that, and the uniformed military is not.

    OSD (and State, for example) may “do” political / public-opinion work. I like the Churchill example, but I don’t think that Phil is right to say that “this initiative” was about something other than that. I don’t see any reason to believe that Rumsfeld himself didn’t believe what he was putting out. He seems to have been very certain of his opinions. The question isn’t whether he was _right_, but whether he was _honest_. If you believe it, you’re not “deceiving the people.” Again, any bureaucracy of this size is going to be honestly wrong a fairly large percentage of the time.

    Now, things that the government _can’t_ be held responsible for:

    1) Knowing whether a given analyst or other person to whom they reach out actually agrees with them, or is just parroting them for access. Reading minds is not a DOD function.

    2) Knowing what conflicts of interest a given media personality, retired military or not, might have. I don’t think we want a state in which members of the media are deep-background investigated by the government, right? Nor does the military has time, or intel assets to spare, on such things.

    Those two things, it seems to me, are the responsibility of the press itself — the given agency that is going to use the source has to do due diligence. I don’t see that we can hold the government responsible for either question.

  20. I think this entire idea is terrible and would suggest that the Pentagon and indeed the entire government immediately cease providing information to the media.

    /snark off

    This entire article is a classic example of “The Chickenhawk Conundrum” – if you are in the military your opinion on the war is the subject of a conflict of interest and therefore invalid; if you are not in the military and are in favor of the war, you are a chickenhawk; if you are not in the military and are opposed to the war you are the only one with a valid opinion.

    So the Pentagon tries to get the facts (as it sees it) out to folks in the media – and if you are appearing on a major network as a military expert you _are_ in the media – and this is wrong how?

  21. _So the Pentagon tries to get the facts (as it sees it) out to folks in the media – and if you are appearing on a major network as a military expert you are in the media – and this is wrong how?_

    The only serious violation of ethics I can see is of _journalistic_ ethics: the fact that the media did not disclose the conflicts of interest its own chosen analysts had. I don’t see that OSD did anything wrong; but CNN and FOX may have been negligent with regard to their responsibilities to their viewership.

  22. To expand on my long-winded rant in the prior thread on the topic, it’s not worth playing the ‘information war’ in any guide, shape, or channeling sense in much the same way, and for the same reasons, that it makes no sense to have the government running the economy. I reject the notion that centralized control, or even regulation of information makes any sense at all. I reject the notion that tyrannies and dictatorships in fact have any real advantage in the game in the first place.

    The Soviet Union controlled information flow fairly thoroughly, not just internally but even put effort into manipulating Western media. Yet by the 80’s every Soviet citizen knew that the West was a magical place of wealth where even the poorest lived in the lap of luxury. The rumors grew with each retelling. Indeed the biggest problem after the fall was the fact that capitalism when it was attempted didn’t in fact magically usher in a golden age immediately. The expectation had gotten to the point where it actually far outstripped reality.

    If the lying, spinning, cheating autocrats had such an information control advantage over us, how in fact did we tromp them so thoroughly?

    Reality trumps illusion. Quit trying to engineer better illusions.

    Time to unleash the capitalism side of our democracy/capitalism nature. Flood the zone. Crush them under with sheer weight of resources. I’ve never seen a soldier back from Iraq yet that didn’t complain about how off in la-la land the media reporting was. So use them. Let relatively small units do webcasts and compete amongst each other for the judges best ones. If nothing else inter-service rivalry will take it from there. Have NGOs, contractors, and other civvie groups do the same.

    Censor nothing. Some of it will likely be inappropriate. Some of it will probably be counter-effective. Doesn’t matter.

    As long as it’s our media spin experts against their media spin experts, they win. But our million amateurs versus their handful of media spin experts? Reality wins. They just won’t have the resources to spin everything, everywhere, all the time.

    Forget trying to shape, direct, or channel things; throw open the flood gates, relax and enjoy the wonders of the invisible hand.

  23. And since it’s all the rage…

    Shorter Treefrog: Quit lapsing into Philosopher-King mode and instead unleash the Hoi Polloi…

  24. This seems like an applicable thread for my favorite Goebbels quote, along with a fairly long comment First, Goebbels:

    bq. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

    Note that his conclusion applies only to a State (or perhaps a Media Entity!) that is not securely founded in telling the truth in the first place.

    The strength of a liberal democracy is its ability to seek truth (and therefore efficacy) through competing viewpoints, thus partially trumping the universal human tendency to emotionally defend that which is believed to be true (whether it is or not).

    “Seek truth, but beware of certainty!” is a good guideline for developing pragmatic solutions among divergent viewpoints. Unfortunately, it seems to be almost entirely absent from professional Media and Political circles, whose echo-chamber driven coverage and policy are in my view are 20% due to bias and 80% due to incompetence (and only fractionally due to malice).

    So part of the answer lies in understanding how people come to emotionally defend ideas, and structuring information flow so that it discourages that tendency from kicking in without first getting a reasonably balanced input, and making sure that people who make decisions are talking to other people with different viewpoints before they make their decisions. Functioning checks and balances must be restored to media and politics, which also must find ways to attract people more emotionally committed to truth than to power.

    Another part of the answer lies in the information itself. In this information war, we all have access to the technological megaphone, but that access is nearly useless unless we can figure out how to articulate what we are fighting for, as opposed to what we are fighting against. Negative definitions are a good start when trying to establish consensus, but in the absence of a positively stated core they accumulate until they are far too cumbersome to wield effectively–see the ineffectiveness of over-regulating anything for a perfect example. They are also fine for defensive sprints, but not sufficient to power marathons.

    In essence, then, this is a philosophical question. Articulate the philosophy, then build the legal and cultural equipment to utilize it. The technological infrastructure is already there.

    Easy, right?


  25. You fight well by NOT saying stuff like this:

    The insurgency in Iraq is “in the last throes,” Vice President Dick Cheney says, and he predicts that the fighting will end before the Bush administration leaves office.

  26. Armed Liberal: “I think it’s necessary to shape perception as a part of any successful counterinsurgency.”

    OK, but who does this? In a democracy, since we are thinking about getting democracies to win these wars, who should mainly be driving this?

    Look at this from a Clausewitzian point of view for a moment. In war, we see policies and state aims, the calculation of chances and the clash of arms, and sentiments that inhibit or facilitate war-making. Policy often resides mostly with the civilian government, though not entirely so. Calculation of chances and exercise of strategic, operational and tactical arts resides mostly with the military, usually, but not always, and that is not all the military does, or it would lose. Sentiment resides mostly with the people, though not only there, because if either the governing elite or the military were destitute of spirit they would collapse; and they people are apt to be pushed out of the calculation of chances, if only through military secrecy, and out of the formulation of policy, by the ways bureaucracy works. Though in a democracy the people should have a more active role in all sorts of matters than they would in other kinds of states.

    The kinds of stories that have a decisive role in information war are apt to be those validated by sentiment. If something has a big effect on how a lot of people feel, it may be important, even though its operational military significance might otherwise be slim or nil. The Abu Ghraib scandal illustrates this. If people had not cared about it, its military (as opposed to its moral) significance would have been nil.

    I think the part of the democratic state that mainly has responsibility for sentiment is the branch that should mainly guide information war. That means the people, plus democratically elected cheerleaders – acting as cheerleaders, not primarily as wielders of bureaucratic and official power.

    That means, there is little room for subtle, devious and tactical narrative control. That means, ultimate validation of the narrative war has to be in the hands of cave man and cave woman voters.

    The movie Three Kings (1999) has an example of the difference between the kind of story that works for bureaucracies and the kind that works for people. An Iraqi torturer works over a poorly indoctrinated American, and finds the going easy. What, asks the Iraqi, is the American fighting for? “Stability.” And why should he care about that? To this, the American has no answer, so the Iraqi (and the movie) has a clear opening to supply an answer damaging to the American cause, that is: you are here for our oil!

    “Stability” by itself will always be a perfectly good cause for a bureaucracy. “Progress towards stability” is almost by definion a good thing. But healthy democratic sentiments will not endlessly validate stories about “progress toward stability” with many billions of dollars and rivers of blood spent on hostile strangers in far-off lands.

    The bureaucrat’s tale may be dishonest, though with Donald Rumsfeld I don’t think it was. (Donald always seemed to me the kind of man who would rather tell the truth, as in: you’re goddamn right I ordered that Code Red!) It will often be mistaken. It will always be prone to self-reinforcing loops. And it will often be ineffective, because irrelevant.

    Top down manipulative approaches produce endlessly evasive and useless reformulations of the name of the war we are in. Like: the Struggle Against Violent Extremism. Which of course is Bad, just as “progress towards stability” is Good.

  27. “The Republicans have put forth a reasonable proposal. The Democrats have bleated, and continue to bleat. Note the first two responses to this post alone, both of which posit that the government has no right (never mind any duty) to put forth a view of the world. This will change as soon as there is a Democrat in the White House; not before. And sadly, many Republicans who right now sound sensible will be changed by their innate opposition into raving loonies.”

    Well put.

    This is my understanding of the situation as well.

  28. *AL at 16*
    _But let’s branch off that endless dispute and have a constructive one. How does a democracy fight an information war?_

    ‘It is the absolute right of the state to supervise the formation of public opinion.’

    I think more telling is how close these analysts and the administration/Pentagon approached this.

    The problem that I have in this is not that influential people were given information – it’s not even that these people used this information to profit, or had (at best) other financial interests that could have been threatened by going off the party line. It would have been very easy for the administration to come out and say:
    bq. OK, we’re giving these guys access. But in order to make sure accurate information gets out, none of them are going to be allowed to do work towards government contracts – or at least make it widely known they are, we’re not going to use their words to buttress our own arguments, and we’re not going to limit access if they start saying things we don’t like.

    By coming out, cleanly, and laying everything out – we don’t run the risk of knowing our government is actively shaping opinion to fit their viewpoints.

    More interestingly, what “about this”:—-000-.html
    _Appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose._

    These men were publicity experts, one assumes that appropriated funds were uses in the various flights/tours/etc, and not specifically appropriated. Really, it would only hinge on if the cost of the flight was paid by these men, or by the government – and provided flights are generally regarded as compensation. Thankfully, we have lawyers to shield us from common sense.

  29. “The strength of a liberal democracy is its ability to seek truth (and therefore efficacy) through competing viewpoints, thus partially trumping the universal human tendency to emotionally defend that which is believed to be true (whether it is or not).”

    I’m far more cynical than this.

    I don’t think liberal democracy’s are any better than any other sort of society in seeking truth amongst competing viewpoints. As just one example, as a society, they have a tendancy to be blind to things that are totally obvious to people not in liberal democracies.

    No, I think the strength of a liberal democracy in this area is its inability to reach consensus or agreement over anything. As such, a liberal democracy never has all of its eggs in one basket. If an idea fails, it can be sure that there is a ready supply of competing ideas and it can be fairly sure that it will never devote 100% of its resources to any cause.

    But obviously, these strengths are also weaknesses as well and they are things that a competitor can exploit.

    Also, I’d like to point out that I think Goebbels was wrong in the quote that you cite in a variaty of subtle but highly important ways. First that not just any big lie will do. The only big lies that you can get people to believe by repeating long enough are those that people want to believe in the first place. Big lies are also enherently unstable means of controlling opinion because while its possible to repress dissent its not possible to repress reality. Further the ability to repress dissent implies prior control of the populace that exists independently of the big lie. Hense, the big lie isn’t doing as much for you as you think. Generally what really controls a population in a totalitarian state is a mixture of apathy and fear – sooner or latter everyone sees through the propaganda. Lastly, its worth noting that Goebbels lost. A lie is of little profit to a state except in the very short term, and generally does more harm than good in the longer term. The best practice is feeding the public alot of truth and being very selective about what you hold back. A little truth works better at deciving than a big lie. This is basically the US approach to propaganda which worked so well during WWII.

    “So part of the answer lies in understanding how people come to emotionally defend ideas…”

    Oh, that’s easy. People generally start out ignorant. In general, the first time someone says something authoritative that they don’t know, they will agree with it and there after emotionally defend it because they don’t want to experience that feeling of being ignorant. The longer that they do so the more embarassing it would be to have been wrong all this time, so the more emotion they invest in thier position. While holding a position, people will seek out opinions that tend to validate thier position because this produces feelings of satisfaction and happiness. And the great irony is that they will do all of this solely as the result of a chance conversation with someone whose expertise in the subject they really never verified (largely because they were too ignorant to do so).

    This is true of absolutely everyone regardless of IQ, political position, educational level, or anything else. The surest sign that you do this all the time is that you don’t think that you do.

    Incidently, this is also why Goebbels is so wrong about the utility of big lies. The only way to break this cycle is for reality to hit the person over the head hard or repeatedly. The smaller and more obscure the deception, the less likely it is that reality can impinge on a person’s awareness. Really big lies only take in people who have already swallowed a large number of smaller deceptions and who are so desparately committed to some position that they’ll accept anything before abandoning it – and really even only a fraction of these.

    I’m going to risk saying something I’ve never said publicly before. The 9/11 ‘Truthers’ are idiots. (That’s not it. I say that all the time.) Firstly, they are idiots because they believe something absolutely ludicrous (MIHOP or LIHOP) which all the evidence and even the most basic understanding of human nature would suggest is impossible. They keep looking for the big lie. They are the sort that think Goebbels was particularly wise or observent. But they are also idiots because they keep looking in all the wrong places. The sort of conspiracy that they expect to find is as I’ve said impossible. It involves way too many people and would leave way too much in the way of evidence and it involves an impossible level of coordination of all the parts. It is also completely unnecessary. Anyone with half a gift for social manipulation would immediately see that there is a much easier lever to use and get away with, and one that I’ve never once heard a ‘Truther’ even mention much less focus on as the central theme of thier conspiracy.

    The post 9/11 state of national consciousness wasn’t created by 9/11 alone. Regardless of whether 9/11 motivated you to fear (as most non-Bush supporters), or anger (as most Bush supporters), or elation (as a few people, including some Americans, I know), the central aspect of this emotion was the belief that 9/11 was the beginning of some future series of events. This belief was justified by Al Queda’s attacks prior to 9/11 and by the extended nature of the 9/11 event itself – which just seemed to keep happening and keep happening – but it was most critically sustained by something else entirely and something that most Americans have since largely forgotten about.

    That pivotal event was the post 9-11 Antrax attacks. If I was a conspiracy minded fool, that’s what I would be looking at hard. If I was a diabolical propagandist with non scruples, that would be the lever with which I would have moved the public. Unlike the 9/11 attacks, the Anthrax attacks could be planned and executed by a single individual, and a hypothethical black propaganda/psychological warfare operation involving the Anthrax attacks could have involved just 4-5 people (instead of the hundreds or thousands the 9/11 attacks would have required). Conspiracies that small are viable. While I have no reason to suspect that the Antrax attacks were anything but the actions of a single insane but knowledgable domestic terrorist of the mold of a Theodore Kaczynski, the fact that the operation so clearly worked against what I percieved as Al Queda’s interests bothered me even then.

    Now, I’ve probably just spawned a whole new lines of conspiracy research and nonsense, but my point is that this new line would be far more robust because it doesn’t need a big obvious self-deception nor does it postulate any such grand deception by anyone else.

  30. Orwell had something to say about this subject. The gist of it, I think, is that if you allow the government of your country to broadcast propaganda and lies to its own people – then sooner or later, you end up with the Ministry of Truth.

    On the specific subject of Iraq; the main instigators of this war were George Bush and (to a much lesser extent) Tony Blair. If either of these individuals had the guts to admit that a) they had lied in the first place to get their respective countries into the war and b) having won the war they had screwed up in the handling of the aftermath; then they would have earned a modicum of respect. Given that neither of them do have such moral courage, neither have them have earned much respect either.

    By the way, it isn’t much fun to have your country turned into Airship One.

  31. AL: “But let’s branch off that endless dispute and have a constructive one. How does a democracy fight an information war?”

    It depends on how narrowly you mean to focus the question. Our country is at peace with most of the Islamic world right now.

    a. Taking a broader view, our goal should be to build a stronger sense of common ground if doing so would strengthen those on both sides who do not want to escalate tensions. Three initiatives could be undertaken by the next US administration to help do this:

    1. Emphasize the need for other societies to recover and disseminate their heritage. Help them make their manuscripts, books, and other records available in digitally printable form to their people and schools.

    2. Looking to the future, emphasize our commitment to help other countries achieve intellectual modernization to the extent that they want it. If they want to build and staff new universities and train more K-12 teachers, help them do these things.

    3. Use the Internet (and Internet-capable cell phones) to increase collaborative learning and working between Americans and others as an alternative to physical contacts that may not be economical or safe.

    Whether perceptions of the United States abroad change in the next decade or two will depend on whether there is a sense of common purpose with us. Governments can facilitate this but it must be built between peoples themselves.

    b. If you meant to invite a narrower discussion of how to shape the public sphere to serve our efforts in future wars, I would bear the following in mind:

    1. Any emphasis on our values will strengthen those that oppose us by exacerbating the sense that the conflict is about unchanging truths, rather than about how to change in ways that people can live with.

    2. In terms of outreach, the “broadcast” metaphor (one point to many) automatically strengthens group identities at the expense of individuality.

    3. The problem of our own government’s credibility is primarily one of aligning ends and means. If these fall out of alignment (or are not in alignment), then either one must rise or the other must fall.

    In the future crises to which you may be looking ahead to foresee, the question of aligning ends and means should receive more careful consideration. Whether it will, and how, are probably separate discussions. What I am less inclined to doubt is an inverse relation between the degree of polarization and room for efforts in the public sphere.

  32. I share many of the concerns about government effort of propaganda or manipulating the mediascape.

    The Pentagon or other Government agencies would be less tempted to engage in these activities if our media weren’t so credulous towards other groups, like Al Qaeda or basically every tin-pot dictator on the planet.

    Statements by the US government are looked at with complete skepticism while statements by dictators and terrorist are repeated as facts. Any claims by the press of representing the so called “forth estate” are laughable when this is understood. Let’s just look at CNN’s prewar behavior to make Saddam look better so they could maintain their access.

    It is interesting that the Bush administrations tendency to not fight back against media storms often worked for them. How many times was the press shown to be ridiculous over their own rush to print?

    This is the big story since 2000, IMO. I started out in 2000 largely credulous WRT major media outlets. And now I can’t listen to any news broadcast or read any newspaper without thinking I know more about the issue than the reporter, and that they are trying to manipulate me!

    If these are the folks that the government will use to propagate their big lie or manipulate public opinion then that effort will be wasted on me! I don’t know how many others feel the same way, but declining subscription rates and dropping viewership seems to tell the tale.

    This is one place where the seemingly innate American distrust of authority and elite academia helps instead of hinders.

    God bless the anti-intellectuals!

  33. Third, by contrast, we do not focus enough effort on winning and maintaining the hearts and minds of the most critical and accessible population: our own.

    I’m sorry, but the more I read this quote, the more bogus it comes off. How in the love of God do I win over my own heart and mind?

    A democracy tows its own government behind it, there may be (indeed probably should be) lag and drift in the cable, but government follows the people. There is absolutely no place or purpose in having the tail wag the dog here.

    For that matter, I can make a far better case that we’re ‘winning’ the information war than losing it.

    Europe: Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Merkel, the Brits have backed off a bit after Blair, but that hasn’t made a huge material difference.

    Asia: China is pushing everyone into our lap.

    Middle East: Mostly the same as it’s been for the last 15 years (or longer) except the Palestinians have gone into ‘nobody gives a damn’ territory and Iraq. Reading Totten or Yon or the other embedded reporters gives a very clear indication that in most respects we’ve won the information war. The Iraqis feel safer with and trust our forces more than AQ and ilk. The study done recently about how young Iraqis are so fed up with religiously motivated violence they’re distancing themselves from Islam is another indicator. That should create an effective market for a more tolerant, violence rejecting Islam.

    Domestic: There was a great quote from Chris in the other thread: ‘Although it’s also worth pointing out that “ideological or moral interests” isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a blank check for endless war in support of purple fingers.’.

    That’s a pretty good summary of the whole anti-war movement in a nutshell. Arguments about American ‘evil’ have all bounced. None took. The real argument is one against the Iraq war as being an open ended entitlement program. Which explains a lot of the left’s frustration and rage, I think this is the first time they’ve ever tried to get rid of an ongoing entitlement program. Suckers are a bitch to get rid of, aren’t they boys and girls?

    Questions of future utility and cost are, and always should be, open issues.

    So, someone help me out, how precisely are we losing, or even not effectively fighting this information war?

  34. “Shaping the information battlespace” as part of a “counterinsurgency” sounds very manly and all, but let’s be honest. The goal here was not to deceive the (ever more broadly defined) enemy; the program was intended to deceive the American voter and preserve that “permanent Republican majority” the neo-cons and corporatists have been dreaming about. Using the military to do that should be setting off big alarm bells in the head of anyone who really believes in the value of government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

  35. I don’t think the goal was to deceive anyone at all — I think that Rumsfeld etc. really believed what they were saying. The analysts say that _they_ had doubts that they suppressed, and now feel guilty; which is fine. As members of the media, they didn’t give their doubts honestly, and their editors and so forth didn’t explain their conflicts of interest so that viewers could understand their position.

    That’s not a government problem. It’s a media problem.

    The government can be honestly wrong: that’s not immoral, and in fact, is probably the best we can usually expect of the government. Rumsfeld, whatever else you want to say about him, was certainly a true believer.

  36. In order for a democratic republic to fight an information war, one of two things has to be true. Either there has to be a broad consensus across the population that the aims of the information war (that is, the underlying cause of why we are engaging in an information war) are good and just, or the government has to be willing to act like a tyranny in some ways.

    If there is a broad consensus, you get the situation we had in WWII, where the best statements of the American position and ideology came not from the government, but from Hollywood. This is seldom achieved, though, and not always an unalloyed “good thing.” For example, see the American flirting with imperialism of the late 1800’s, from which we get the term “yellow journalism.”

    If there is no consensus, and if the society’s institutions (academia, media, government, etc.) are divided to means and especially ends, then you get the situation we have now, or had during the War of 1812. While one set of institutions is actively promoting the need for the public to stick with the fight, and let the government win it, another set of institutions is actively undermining the very need to fight, and is generally willing to see us lose rather than fight on.

    “Why we Fight” is a perfect example of this. The original, during WWII, was a governmental explanation of our enemies and why we needed to fight them. It was no less than the government explaining the reasons behind the war, because they knew that the need for revenge over the attack on Pearl Harbor was not enough to sustain the fight long term, especially the fight against Germany. The remake, in 2005, is a modern anti-governmental (really, anti-Republican) tirade about how the enemy is us. If the government were to create a film like the original “Why we Fight” today, it would be the butt of jokes, get no serious coverage, and only the mockery of the film would get widespread play.

    So the government, since it is charged with fighting the information war and cannot count on the information warfare parts of our society (Hollywood, academia and the media, mostly) to aid it, and in fact can count on those institutions to actively oppose it, must act like a tyranny. The government must act like a tyranny and put out surreptitious and planted stories, because otherwise it cannot put out any view at all. In order to put out the government’s view of reality, then, the government must resort to deceit as to means. But once the government resorts to deceit on means, the natural tendency of bureaucrats to go to extremes and to be disconnected from reality ensures that the government will also start manufacturing false information (not merely opinions, which are legitimate for the government to express) in order to mislead about the true state of events.

    None of this would be necessary, or even useful, if the media would simply report the facts of what is happening, without an agenda to promote. Then, the government could put out its opinions and other institutions could put out their opinions, and the public could decide whether or not sustaining the fight is right. But when the media is objectively in the tank for our enemies (how else can you explain CNN repeating Saddam Hussein’s propaganda to maintain “access,” or ABC (was it ABC?) showing enemy propaganda videos as news (the “Juba sniper” film), or the AP employing terrorists as stringers (Bilal Hussein), or Reuters publishing photoshopped pictures of American “atrocities,” or Newsweek putting out stories like the “flushed Koran?”), and will not honestly report the government’s views, than how can the government put its views into discussion without being dishonest, at least to how the information gets out there?

    It is a real problem, and as far as I can see, the majority of the issue is that the media has an agenda (the media is anti-Republican, and there is a Republican president). As soon as the media’s agenda is resolved (that is, as soon as a Democrat is elected president), I expect that the problem will go away, at least until another Republican is elected. But that exposes a deep institutional rot in the media, and we ignore that rot at our peril, because the media is still the place where most people get most of their information about what is happening in the world. Far beyond the war, this rot is undermining our ability as a society to deal with real conditions, because it is making it difficult to comprehend the reality of those conditions.

  37. #34:

    “Emphasize the need for other societies to recover and disseminate their heritage. Help them make their manuscripts, books, and other records available in digitally printable form to their people and schools.”

    I’d like to say a word in support of this concept.

    This is one thing that did work well in Babil province, particularly. The US distributed computers with CD copies of the old Iraqi legal codes to Iraqi judges, and trained them in how to use the things. They therefore had a code of law — which had been stored at the UN — that was “theirs” in a way that neither “the Islamic State of Iraq’s,” nor Sadr’s, nor Saddam’s laws-by-fiat could be.

    On the other side of the world, in Indonesia’s Aceh province, the local Muslim culture is deeply conservative. Al Qaeda and its ideological brethren thought they would find a home there; but what they found instead was a people _too_ tied to their own particular heritage to want what al Qaeda was selling. They thought they already knew how to be good Muslims, and didn’t want to be told otherwise.

    Conservatism in one’s own traditions can be a functional hedge against radicalism (except in those cases where radicalism _is_ your cultural tradition, as for example in parts of Saudi Arabia). Showing respect for those traditions helps us, both by strengthening the hedge, and by gaining some sense in the local populace that we are friends of a sort.

    This isn’t information operations, it’s diplomacy — but that’s still part of the larger information war.

  38. RE: “he government was neck-deep in the Hollywood memes promulgated in WWII”

    I’m very aware of that. In fact, “Why we Fight” was specifically a government-produced film, and “Victory at Sea” (John Ford) was sponsored by the government. But there were also films like “Casablanca,” and numerous other films that were unrelated to the government but presented a very American view of the war.

    It was an easy environment then for the government to put out its view of the world, in particular because the media and Hollywood largely agreed with that view of the world.

  39. Jeff –

    …in particular because the media and Hollywood largely agreed with that view of the world.

    ding….ding…ding – absolutely. That’s where – for me – the philosophical issues come into play.


  40. I still believe you to be armed, but I’m really doubting the “liberal” half of your monicker.

    This is simple: You either have transparent government and you are a democracy or you have a system of sock puppets pushing government propaganda to the people–and people, like you, who excuse this as part of the need to “shape perception”–and you’re something else.

    When I served as a public affairs soldier in Afghanistan, we consistently pushed back against administration hacks who wanted us to spin the American public. As I said in one such argument, the American taxpayers are, basically, the military’s stockholders. They’ve invested their money and the lives of their sons and daughters in it and if we lie to them, we’re no better than Enron flacks. We’d be worse, actually.

  41. This isn’t hard. You’ve made it seem hard, but it is not, in fact, hard.

    When the Pentagon wants to spread its viewpoint, have people go on television. Introduce them as people from the Pentagon. If the Pentagon is consistently honest, accurate, and more correct on matters of war than independent analysts, than its viewpoint will come to be trusted by being checked against reality. There’s no inherent reason why information from the government will be declared automatically invalid. Far from it. When George Bush claimed there were WMD’s in Iraq, backed by his government, almost everyone fell for it. The default is to trust an Administration on matters of war until proven otherwise. Anyway, trust can always be earned. By being truthful.

    And, of course military analysts are allowed to talk to the Pentagon. No one really expects otherwise. But the failure to disclose the coordination of the message, in combination with the financial relationships with the Pentagon, is a failure of labeling. They’re either independent, or they’re not. What this is are Pentagon spokesmen who don’t declare themselves as such.

    But the biggest problem here isn’t the financial conflicts of interest, or the coordinated message. It’s the false message being sent from 2003-2006 that things were going great in Iraq. That may not be factually false due to its subjective nature, but it clearly was not the genuine opinion of many of the analysts. That’s when the line is crossed into propaganda.

    The government should not try to win information wars against its own people. You win information wars by lying at saturation intensity and killing all contrary information. When you do that to your own country, you choke off their ability and god-given right to control your strategy. You win the information war and endanger the war itself, or worse, the trajectory of the nation in a greater sense that surpasses any piffling war, such as this one.

  42. The problem with your proposal, glasnost, is that we’re dealing constantly with matters of uncertainty and interpretation. So the issue is when Pentagon spokespeople propose and defend interpretations – how will they be received?

    And – in a media environment that is (I think and am comfortable arguing) pretty committed to anti-Pentagon interpretations – how do you respond?

    Look, we could elect Presidents by having them take a battery of standardized tests and answer questions presented by a panel of domain experts in front of TV cameras, too – but we don’t, because politics doesn’t work that way and never has. It is about constructing and defending narratives.

    The best way to do that is clearly with deeds. But are they enough?


  43. “You win information wars by lying at saturation intensity and killing all contrary information.”

    Information warfare — I speak here as someone who has worked in IO — works best when it is wholly truthful. This is so even for PSYOPs: the comic book or pamphlet that shows al Qaeda recruiters as evil men who will seduce your children to blow themselves to bits works because it is _true_. It is because the message harmonizes with what people know that it is powerful. The truth is a stronger weapon.

    People have an idea that military IO are “about” lying, but that is not so. Military deception is legitimate for things like masking troop movements; but for the most part, IO are about showing people the truth. One of the best IOs is just getting Iraqi reporters out to see new civil affairs projects, like water treatment plants. There’s no deception involved at all — we built the plant, the people now have clean water.

    _That_ is how you win an information war. Lying is counterproductive.

  44. There are several types of propaganda. To really have this discussion, we must distinguish between them.

    a) White propaganda: White propaganda is the open dissemination of accurate information (or at least information you believe to be accurate) through channels which make clear the source of that information.
    b) Grey propaganda: Grey propaganda is the dissemination of accurate information (or at least information you believe to be accurate) through surreptitious channels so as to hide the source of the information.
    c) Black propaganda: Black propaganda is the dissemination of information which you know to be false.

    I have no problem whatsoever with the government engaging in white propaganda. In fact, they arguably have a duty to do so.

    One problem we have in a America is that there is universal skepticism in the US press of any information issued through US government channels which is not in my opinion matched by equivalent skepticism over any information whose source can be traced to other foreign governments. Way too often I’ve seen press reports that demonstrate reasonable and even unreasonable skepticism towards US claims on the grounds that they are ‘propaganda’, while simultaneously demonstrating no skepticism of claims by US enemies. Even more often, I’ve seen press reports where claims by the US government are given equal weight and stature to claims by US enemies. Similarly, its ‘news’ when some detail of a US government claim proves false, but a similar determination to correct or investigate claims of US opponents never manifests.

    This creates the IMO extremely false impression that the US government is more likely to engage in black propaganda tactics than its enemies. In my opinion, it more or less gives US enemies carte blanche passes to insert whatever black propaganda that they can divise into the US memeticsphere knowing that it will recieve only a cursory challenge from the press, while simultaneously exagerrating the otherwise natural and to some extent healthy ‘us vs. them’ attitude between the press and the government. It’s one thing to have a press that is skeptical of the truthfulness of the government, but its quite another thing to have a government that is skeptical of the truthfulness of the press. The government I think needs to feel that if they engage in white propaganda, that they will be rewarded by the press with fair and accurate coverage of that statement rather than having the statement primarily dismissed or spun even on the first take with opinion peices mascarading as news coverage.

    However, that is something of an aside. However bad the press gets, I don’t see alot of value in the government engaging in grey propaganda against its own populace. And incidently, I think we need to be very clear that this was grey propaganda rather than black propaganda. I certainly do not think that there was any attempt to knowingly distribute false information to the American public. Rather, this was I think a legitimate attempt to educate the public. However, the fact that said experts did not clearly reveal thier sources is regretable, and if in fact they were advised not to do so then the whole project is rendered unethical in my opinion.

    Incidently, I can think of more valid justifications for using black propaganda directed at your own populace than I can for using grey propaganda. One example is when you need to release a cover story for an ongoing covert foreign operation where the lack of a cover story (or the open admission of what is going on) could comprimise security.

  45. “That is how you win an information war. Lying is counterproductive.”


    And further, I believe that this practice is widely promoted, adopted, and exercised within the US government and the US military in particular. There are obvious exceptions, but I think in general the US doctrine on propaganda is that Goebbels is wrong and that the truth is the greatest friend of that State.

  46. That is how you win an information war. Lying is counterproductive.

    According to experts, torture is likewise counterproductive. Yet this Administration held special meetings (plural) to devise America’s first official torture program. The President participated. I don’t know whether the producer of 24 was officially enlisted in desensitizing the American public to torture, or thought of it on his own, but besides the television fantasy we’ve been subjected to all number of unverified (and probably false) anecdotes about ticking bombs, telephone calls from safe houses, and so on.

    Maybe the information war isn’t directed at Islamic extremists. Maybe the enemy is the American system of government, including the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party. In that war, preparing a group of “experts” who wildly overestimated the level of success attained, or attainable, in the off-site shooting war makes a lot of sense.

  47. Celebrim,

    My apologies for clumsy editing; I would have done better to find the strength of democracy in ALLOWING competing viewpoints, or at least in not stifling them very successfully. We are in closer agreement than it may have initially appeared.

    You could also say that I appreciate the Incompleteness of Goebbel’s theorem, to coin a phrase, just as much as what it actually says. Even though his conclusion is wrong, his reasoning perhaps unintentionally reveals part of the relationship between truth and power. Power fundamentally derives from truth, not the other way around (which gives “speaking truth to power” its leverage and its resonance), but falling into a self-indentification as “powerful” without identifying the linkage to reality will tend to subvert the drive toward truth into an emotional defense of being powerful–ultimately cutting off the acquired power from its source of legitimacy.

    Thus, Goebbel should have concluded that any government which does not guard carefully against lying about reality as a way of doing business (as opposed to merely being wrong) is inherently unstable, given that information cannot be completely controlled, and must collapse. There is simply too much energy within “the people” for it to be otherwise. An audacious enough Big Lie backed by power can stave off the collapse for a little while–see Zimbabwe–but generally at the cost of making it more complete and damaging when it comes. That he missed this is telling; an organization to which the Big Lie seems an attractive option is probably already fatally distant from reality.

    Although Goebbels framed his argument in terms of government, the phenomenon affects all human institutions at all scales, from goverment to media corporations to individuals–even within the individual. This has profound relevance to the idea of information war, so I’ll try to set it up a bit.

    From what I have been able to glean while poking about the noncomputational fringes of cognitive science, two of the key attributes tied into the process of intelligence are prediction and consistency. This is well illustrated by our fondness for punditry and prophecy, and by the shouts of “Hypocrisy!” from all sides of any contentious issue.

    Predictions of future events based on the memory of past results seem likely to be the basic building blocks of intelligence, and they can be hierarchically layered into complex predictive structures. As these islands of local predictive stability grow, the lower levels sink below the threshhold of awareness, leaving room there for the assembly of new layers, and their structures converge. Where they mesh well, you have an “Aha!” moment and new continents, and where they don’t you have cognitive dissonance and tectonic rift zones.

    Now, if you postulate that all such islands beyond a certain size are emotionally defended, it becomes unnecessary to attack the intelligence of those who spout idiotic inconsistencies. Those idiocies are primarily defenses of conflicting ideals, not necessarily intended as aimed attacks on competing ideals, and are driven by the twin engines of ideological commitment and fear of loss of predictive ability. Instead of faulting their intelligence, use the pattern of inconsistency their positions generate to trace the shape of the fault zones beneath, while highlighting that the insconsistency must be an artifact of the perceptions generated by intelligence, not the reality. A frontal attack will arouse the emotional defenses, so it is more effective to show how those perceptions are incomplete, thus elisting the intelligence (by way of the virtue of successful prediction) of the person you are trying to persuade. There’s more to this, but that’s the gist.

  48. AJL: “According to experts, torture is likewise counterproductive.”

    a) This is threadjacking, and has nothing to do with the topic at hand.
    b) If you mean, ‘not capable of producing usuable intelligence information’, those experts are wrong along much the same lines as ‘violence never solves anything’. If you mean, ‘even the perception that we engage in torture is probably more damaging than the information we might obtain’, then I’d concede that.

    “I don’t know whether the producer of 24 was officially enlisted in desensitizing the American public to torture, or thought of it on his own…”

    a) That’s right, Karl Rove is the secret screen writer of the scripts to 24. The same ones where every season it is ‘surprisingly’ revealed that the terrorists are actually patsies manipulated by a vast right wing government/corporate conspiracy. No doubt he’s the ghost writer of the ‘Bourne’ movies as well.
    b) He’s also no doubt behind the script to ‘Dirty Harry’, which is obviously just more preparation work for the emmenent Bush autocracy. It’s amazing how deep the rabbit hole goes isn’t it?
    c) He’s no doubt also behind the script for Frank Miller’s ‘300’, which was clearly intended as preparatory work for justifying the Iraq War right?

    “Maybe the information war isn’t directed at Islamic extremists.”

    At least you didn’t maintain the fiction of finishing this statement of your opinion with a question mark.

    One thing I can feel certain of is that your informational warfare isn’t directed at attacking anything but the American system of government, and most especially the electoral prospects of the GOP. In that war, threadjacking a topic and advancing all of your crude loony conspiracy theories and nonsense makes alot of sense.

  49. OK, Celebrim, I’ll tie it in very simply for you.

    One. The Bush practice of torture has been a total disaster in the information war. Our enemies, in fact, know more about our torture practices than we do, since they know what’s on the unreleased Abu Ghraib photos. (We can guess, but we’d rather not.)

    Two. Given the point above, it seems likely that the Bush Administration has neither interest nor competence in winning an information war against Islamic terrorists.

    Three. Given the two points above, we can ask, what is the purpose of the Administration’s propaganda? Examples like Mukasey’s completely made-up story about how more unfettered executive power and repeal of the Bill of Rights would have prevented 9/11 suggest that the target is us and our historical balance of state police power and citizen freedom.

  50. bq. a) This is threadjacking, and has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

    I disagree. And to this list I will add domestic surveillance, FISA abuses and the PATRIOT act.

    In each case, Americans are being asked to accept compromises in our freedom and principles on the basis of the “existential threat” that terrorism allegedly presents. All in the name of “keeping us safe”.

    We know this is bunk.

    1) We are perfectly capable of defending ourselves without having to lie to each other to do so.

    2) There are also examples of the PATRIOT act being misused by the FBI, and lord knows what other illegal snooping has already been done in the name of “counter-terrorism”.

    My basic reaction to both of these issues is simply this: Live Free or Die.

    If we can’t defend ourselves with the tools that the founders gave us which have served us so well up to now and are perfectly able to continue to do so even in this “modern age” (Europeans seem to have no trouble doing so), and we must change our government into East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell in order to do so, then America as we now know it will cease to exist. But by our own hands, not by those of terrorists.

  51. So when the government tries to put its POV out into the marketplace, it gets automatically met with cynicism (a combination of the “natural” cynicism of government, the post-Vietnam loss of confidence, and media bias). When they try to provide information for analysts who make a living commenting on the subject matter, they get castigated. When a _private citizen_ puts together a POV and sells it as a popular TV show, we get charges of conspiracy theory. And people wonder why we think there’s a problem here?

    Where are the equal accusations levelled against creators of the movie “Stop Loss”, or does the evil propaganda machine only exist on one side of the aisle? Seems to me certain people have already decided who should win the information war, and the conclusion is not exactly encouraging…

  52. I think you’re right that politics is “about constructing and defending narratives,” but this is all the more reason we must defend a transparent government in which all the politics is confined to the leadership. Public affairs types should be providing the same information to everyone and letting the chips fall where they may, not enlisting the aid of network consultants who are forced to conform to talking points or be booted from the clique.

    And, by the way, you do realize you’re arguing that the weapons of “information warfare” are properly aimed inward, don’t you?

  53. Where are the equal accusations levelled against creators of the movie “Stop Loss”

    On this blog, among others. But has Stop Loss ever been the basis for the conduct of the American armed forces? 24 was:

    Ideas arose from other sources. The first year of Fox TV’s dramatic series 24 came to a conclusion in spring 2002, and the second year of the series began that fall. An inescapable message of the program is that torture works. “We saw it on cable,” Beaver recalled. “People had already seen the first series. It was hugely popular.” Jack Bauer had many friends at Guantánamo, Beaver added. “He gave people lots of ideas.”
    The brainstorming meetings inspired animated discussion. “Who has the glassy eyes?,” [JAG Diane] Beaver asked herself as she surveyed the men around the room, 30 or more of them. She was invariably the only woman present—as she saw it, keeping control of the boys. The younger men would get particularly agitated, excited even. “You could almost see their dicks getting hard as they got new ideas,” Beaver recalled, a wan smile flickering on her face. “And I said to myself, You know what? I don’t have a dick to get hard—I can stay detached.”

    The United States loses the propaganda war abroad because so much behavior was maladroit or reprehensible. For a long time it did better with the propaganda war at home, but when the facts came up short, [each word is a new link there] that was pretty much the end of the Bush Administration’s credibility. Let me tell you, this is not Vietnam-leftover credibility gap. For one thing, the Bush Administration is probably even more mendacious.

  54. AJL: I’m afraid that your logic is so twisted that I don’t have time to untangle it.

    Sepp: “I disagree.” And yet you go on to discuss nothing which has anything to do with how to fight an information war. I don’t know what the ‘We’ and ‘this’ you refer to are, but I do know that you are full of bunk.

  55. bq. And yet you go on to discuss nothing which has anything to do with how to fight an information war.

    Still playing the “Off-Topic” card, I see. Well, if that’s all you’re holding….

    Let me help you understand. If “Fighting an Information War” entails mis-leading the American public using it’s own resources (public airwaves, the US Government), then it can rightfully be undertaken only with the consent of the citizenry.

    If the public is mis-informed, however, (as it has been for the past 8 years), then WE cannot make a reasonable judgment about this.

    Since this is clearly a catch-22, it should never be easy for government to argue a case built on propaganda for the purposes of influencing the electorate on any issue that involves compromising personal freedoms or citizens rights as enshrined in the constitution , without subjecting it to a strong and proportional counter-argument.

    I don’t see why this is so hard for you Bush-supporting 9/11 Keyboard Warriors to understand. I suppose those motivated primarily by fear are typically all too willing to give up their rights and freedoms to purchase for themselves some vague notion of personal security. It’s sad, really.

    Problem is, I’m not.

  56. “The problem is that it was passed off as independent commentary. Also I would say that the fault lies mainly with the media. Any government will exploit a subservient press corps if it gets the chance.”

    What is independent commentary. Surely, to be able to comment you have to receive information. If you have a speciality it is highly unlikely that a Pentagon press conference will suffice. Were these commentators forbiodden to mention where the acquired informatin?

    More acceptable, I suppose, is the furtive telephbne call or e-mail from a government official to his favourite news source, providing non-attributable information before official release date, with the follow on news revelation in the media.

  57. “If the public is mis-informed, however, (as it has been for the past 8 years), then WE cannot make a reasonable judgment about this.”

    How so?

  58. davod asks: “Were these commentators forbiodden to mention where the acquired informatin?”

    Barstow: “The access came with a condition. Participants were instructed not to quote their briefers directly or otherwise describe their contacts with the Pentagon.”

    It’s a longish article, but worth reading I think. Admittedly that may be an indication that I am going bonkers – bonkers!

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