“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war”. Julius Caesar, Shakespeare

Fighting propaganda with propaganda will only lead to mutually assured mental destruction. The ultimate winner in a Content War will look beyond the traditional top-down messaging to a more refined approach empowering a target audience to build the transparent, accountable and engaged society a Digital Age should produce.

The Cold War is supposed to be over – won by the West with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet within 25 years a new conflict is well under way featuring the same Cold War actors in similar roles.

Many things seem familiar in this new conflict. The same foes are publicly sparring, testing enhanced capabilities in changing theatres of war (albeit more digitally now) via proxy forces (private “troll” armies). As with the Cold War, Russia is accused of being “the greatest threat to <US> national security”, and allies are pressed to unite and invest in strong counter measures.

What is different in this conflict, however, is the battlefield. A borderless Internet and technological advances are facilitating a war in the information space where both sides engage in influence operations on a qualitatively new level.

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A Content War of meanings, myths and concepts pitching ‘this view’ against ‘that view’ is in full swing, as is a new type of arms race. Both sides believe that he who controls and successfully manages critical information in the 21st century will dominate in the next world order. As a result, the enhanced counter-measures sought now are subtler than the physical bombs of the past, but arguably they present a more lasting and grave threat to societies regardless of the ideological persuasion.

Yet, if both sides vigorously pursue proactive counter/propaganda measures in a similar manner to how they approached a nuclear deterrent, the greatest loser in this conflict is likely to be the very thing many claim to be protecting: the freedom of individuals to access information and form their own opinions – or, in other words, the foundation of a democratic system.

Dr. Strangecontent?

During the Cold War, a threat of nuclear devastation was physically frightening and horrific. Naturally, the consequences of mutually assured destruction often vividly displayed on television screens were easily understood by all.

But what is a Content War and what are its effects? As it stands, its impacts on individual perceptions and societal behaviours are not fully understood and, thus, often underestimated.

Historically, wars were fought over territory and resources, which translated into power, with religion and king’s army motivating the masses. However, it was only with the rise of concepts such as ‘nationalism’, ‘citizenship’ or ‘national identity’ in the 19th that the acquiescence of a conquered population to new rulers became a more complicated affair. In the post WWII landscape, with largely fixed borders and states whose sovereignty is enshrined by a plethora of UN and international conventions, striving for power by traditional means of occupation or colonization became both a risky and expensive proposition. Hence, the new role for propaganda, or influence operations, directed at target audiences abroad (to win over) and at home (to legitimise support and sacrifices). Yet if the new conflict is about winning hearts and minds, what does this mean for the populations caught in the fighting? The battleground is essentially our thinking, and our perspectives are now the weapons – a murkier terrain for conflict there has never been before.

Waging a Content War is complicated. In a traditional war, it is easier to understand what gains are to be made in physical space. Likewise, casualties – of both life and property – are easily counted and visually apparent. In a Content War, measuring the effectiveness of an information attack is no simple task. People are not likely to have died or lost a home from a propaganda campaign, and assessing their perspectives is resource intensive and prone to error depending on how the audience was polled or surveyed. Indeed, the very attack itself can be used against the aggressor.

Thanks to the Internet, this distortion of information happens quickly. The Internet has created an echo chamber where (dis)information is seamlessly repeated across media, fuelled by a perpetual and immediate news cycle. The speed at which content moves, means that the message a propagandist carefully disseminates to persuade a population to perceive developments in a particular way can easily be distorted, becoming itself a counter-propaganda message and spread just as widely. Look at any brand hashtag disaster as an example.

What’s more, peculiarities in human thought processing only further destabilize the battleground for Content War. Cognitive biases or mental shortcuts help people process information more quickly, but they also distort perceptions of the world around them. These biases have their origins in culture, language, history (mythos, heroes, traditions), social relations (power, gender) and belief system (religion, ideology). Depending on what triggers are used, these biases will influence how messaging is received by a target audience. This means a Content Warrior requires a degree of specialization in Strategic Communications such that every message crafted considers the implications of human thought processing.

In a Content War, one cannot simply throw propaganda at propaganda and expect to win.

Propaganda vs. Propaganda

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The Internet has altered many aspects of our lives, but the mental paradigm shift explaining the meaning of the emerged order of things to our existence is lagging behind. This is as true for the need to adapt existing legal frameworks, as it is for our understanding of modern warfare. Traditional approaches cannot be applied willy-nilly in a Digital Age. Fighting propaganda with propaganda is just such an out-dated approach, inapplicable to a modern context.

Continuing with the Content War between Russia and the West, below are a few ways in which such an approach will not just fail, but also ultimately hurt the combatants.

Unchanging Beliefs

Presenting an audience with information countering what they already believe will do little to sway them to the other side. Through the cognitive bias of Selective Exposure, people are more likely to accept information based on how it conforms to their existing beliefs. New information – even if it presents a superior argument – is less likely to be accepted by an audience already won over by an opponent. Furthermore, if this new information is presented in a way that insults the audience, or fails to resonate with their existing ideology or beliefs, it will have the opposite effect causing the audience to become further entrenched in their existing perspective.

Counting Lies Has Little Impact

Otherwise setting aside the mathematical challenges of disproving disinformation with proof (it takes far less time to create and spread lies than it does to prove them wrong), fighting lies with facts actually does little to change perspectives. Moreover, those people duped into spreading misinformation are seldom those who view the corrective information when it comes out. While tracking and making available archives countering disinformation is a valiant pursuit, it will not dissuade those who believe an opponent’s propaganda especially if it comes from official sources, such as the White House or the Kremlin, respectively.

The Content War Has a Cost

Due to the nature of a Content War (to be effective, messages must spread profusely across channels), spending related to weapons of mass persuasion is diffused. This pursuit of solutions and mobilization to counter-propaganda at multiple levels can easily become an accountability nightmare, particularly when many of the initiatives aimed at supporting mass persuasion are pursued outside the democratic process.

While some funding is more obvious, such as on counter-propaganda initiatives (e.g. increased broadcasting, training of journalists, or debunking disinformation), additional spending on programs that support information warfare (e.g. military astroturfing or surveillance capabilities) are not always directly or clearly linked. Whether intentional or not, such diffused spending creates the impression (in other words, doubts) of a lack of transparency – which is sufficient to provoke the questioning of budget allocations by opposition parties, much less the Content War opponent. Moreover, the Snowden leaks have done much to ensure Western audiences are skeptical of most new counter-measures enhancing information warfare capabilities.

The very costs and approaches of a Content War can themselves be used against a combatant in propaganda.

Adding Insult to Injury

Any concerns raised suggesting a Content War combatant’s own population is at risk from enemy propaganda is itself insulting.

If a country’s citizens are so naïve as to be susceptible to the opponent’s propaganda, what does that say about the state of that society, its values and cohesiveness? Moreover, how do the Content Warriors know that the populations they claim to protect are so vulnerable to persuasion? For democracy to be in practice what it is hailed as in theory, the populations living under such a system should have the capability of critical thinking even in the face of undue influence. If citizens living in democracies do not enjoy such discernment, counter-propaganda alone will not save such a weakened system

Public confidence has already been eroded in light of the Snowden leaks. Citizens in the West are now aware of how much surveillance was conducted by their own states. The techniques used to influence the public and decision-makers by the likes of big Tobacco are steadily coming to light. If the need to pursue a Content War is couched in terms of protecting the home population from an opponent’s brainwashing, the opponent can easily counter by asking: “who’s fault is it that your citizens may be questioning your existing social, political or economic reality?” And, indeed, in RT’s tagline urging viewers to ‘Question More” the network is already suggesting that the West is brainwashed and thus using such claims to their advantage.

Fighting The Digital Boogeyman

Outside of countries where a Russian Content War was followed by more traditional military engagement, the very need for such a conflict can easily be questioned.

Russia watchers might be following RT, but how many others in the West really are? Independent ratings for the Russian station in the U.S. are difficult to come by – this tends to mean that the station’s audiences are so small it is not yet on many rating agencies’ radars. In comparing statistics such as Facebook Page Likes or Twitter followers, RT’s influence is hardly a serious contender to established media outlets. When speaking about RT to anyone not among the circle of Russia or strategic communications analysts, the most common response I tend to receive is, “what is RT?” Even many Russians have not heard of this supposed media menace, as none I met with on a recent trip to the country in September were familiar with it. It begs the question of how much of a threat are stations such as RT, and indeed, Russian disinformation, to a Western audience.

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Indeed, comparing RT to just one Western English-language media giant is dwarfing.

Unlike RT, BBC regularly reports on its activities. As a public broadcaster, BBC is obliged to do so. According to the latest BBC reporting, the network has “a weekly global audience of 308 million people”, broadcasting news on TV in 12 languages, and publishes to websites in 27 languages. BBC’s audience for global news alone consists of 105 million viewers, up 12 percent over the last reporting period. The networks “single biggest audience for any country is the USA” with 30 million viewers.

Putting this into context, Fox News Channel is reported to have had “1,952,000 in total viewers” during the third quarter of 2015. The Republican Party debate on August 6 brought in a record breaking “24 million viewers overall”, significantly more than CNN or MSNBC combined. And yet these ratings are still lower than BBC.

In comparison, RT broadcasts television in just three languages (English, Arabic and Spanish), with websites in six. RT’s ratings (which are now available in the U.K.), while growing, are not overly impressive. Indeed, on a weekly basis more people watch BBC Parliament – a station that broadcasts “all the work of” UK and EU parliamentary and legislative bodies – than RT.

Weekly Reach U.K. Oct 26 – Nov 1: BARB

All of this is publicly available information. Given the abundance of open source information anyone can make comparisons using publicly available data. All that is required to dissuade a democratic society from supporting a conflict is a bit of doubt. Coupled with the fact that often those making the pitch for a Content War are the same who benefit in a resulting budget increase, such a conflict might be seen as self-serving, and further sow doubt.

Moreover, calls to counter outlets such as RT only help promote the station.

RT positions itself as an alternative voice in news. It’s a strategically smart move. Every time someone, particularly from the West, criticises RT, the outlet can simply refer to its positioning as the motive for such challenge. In other words, Russian media claims that it is attacked because it alone offers a counter narrative to the English-dominated Western news hegemony. Not only does such criticism provide RT with controversy and thus free PR, especially when such attacks equate the outlet to ISIS, but it also lends legitimacy, at least among those who already accept the outlet as a true alternative source.

The Mental Fallout

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The above are but a few ways traditional approaches can backfire in a Content War. While the failure of each attack might seem marginal, the overall collateral damage brought by the resultant mental fallout is enduring.

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As noted, people who are already “brainwashed” will only remain so, if not becoming further entrenched in their existing belief systems. This goes both ways – for each respective combatant population. However, when the propaganda that has been accepted fails to deliver on its promises, affected populations will become disillusioned. This state of disillusionment will only render the population more susceptible to an opponent’s propaganda than they were before the Content War began.

There is no propaganda deterrent in a Content War.

Build a Resilient Society, not an Information Bomb Shelter

Before we cry “havoc” and let slip the dogs of digital war, careful thought should be given to how we approach countering propaganda. Messages put forward to counter an opponent’s view must be based on, reflect, and appeal to the fundamental ‘truths’ shared by the majority in a group. Otherwise, the cognitive dissonance between the day-to-day reality and propaganda messaging would lead the group to disassociate itself from the public domain and seek alternative meanings.

A discerning eye will observe that a certain disconnect between the real and virtual worlds has already developed creating ‘information vortexes’ that pull in marginalized groups. In this context, each public call for action against a conceptual opponent must consider the nature of the threat, tangible proofs to demonstrate it, identify meanings that appeal to both home and target audiences through an engagement strategy before sounding a digital war cry.

Knowing what we do now, what should be done to counter Russian (dis)information?

Focus Targeted Efforts In The Post-Soviet Space

Whipping up mass concern over a vague, digital, persuasive boogeyman will have a limited effect in a war on propaganda. While fear might help cajole people at home during a limited effort, such as in an election, to increase defence budgets or introduce draconian security measures, fear mongering is counter-productive in the long-term. After all, if Russians are not physically knocking on doors in London or Madrid at 4 AM, it kind of spoils the campaign, doesn’t it? The real threat of Russian propaganda is not at home in the West – particularly not in the United States or Canada, at least not yet. Russian influence, however, is a real concern in the post-Soviet space, particularly in countries such as Georgia, Ukraine and the Baltics.

Any efforts to counter-propaganda should be concentrated in Russia’s near abroad – and done very carefully at that. The fact is, these countries are bound to Russia given geographic proximity, and, as a result, have realities very different from those in the West. Whatever support is offered to these countries must consider their actual situations on the ground. This is particularly important if NATO or other Western countries are not prepared to support counter-propaganda efforts with physical force on the ground.

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To that end, a simple blanket approach of increased Western broadcasts will not be sufficient to turn the heads of those already swayed, much less stem the tide of persuasion. A more strategic approached based on understanding is required.

For each country under threat, comprehensive media mapping and monitoring must be undertaken to understand how people are consuming and engaging with media. Such analysis will help identify communities of interest and provide a better understanding of why some populations are more susceptible to Russian propaganda than others. Understanding the grievances of communities is the first step to devising solutions that in turn can bring these populations back into the fold – and is, in fact, a much more democratic process than simply pumping out counter-messages against Russia.

On The Home front

This is not to say that Western democracies should not be concerned with the effects of propaganda at home. Beyond Russian influence, ISIS perhaps has shown itself a greater enemy capable of luring Western fighters to its jihad. In either case, there is clearly a percentage of the population that is susceptible to various subversive messages and relevant research should foster an understanding of the cause. The approach, however, should not be an immediate attempt to counter-propaganda, but one that is more introspective addressing the root causes for societal weaknesses that push some people to be so at risk.

Identification

As with target countries in the post-Soviet space, it is imperative to understand who among the home populations is currently engaging with different types of propaganda and why. Media mapping and monitoring is just as applicable here. In understanding why people are engaging with such content, Content Warriors can begin to work towards addressing the concerns that have driven them to seek different meanings, including extreme ideologies.

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RT Facebook Page Like Network – You’ve Got a Friend in News

Engagement

Answering propaganda with counter-propaganda is out-dated.

This top down approach of swaying populations runs against the principles of democracy. If the intent is to want people to continue believing in the democratic system, then measures against an opponent’s propaganda must be empowering. In a Digital Age, it is not enough to simply persuade people one way or another. Any effective counter-propaganda approach must be authentic, messaging must reflect the home populations’ realities, and it must be backed up with tangible measures that address the grievances that make communities susceptible to external influence in the first place.

Only those countries that are able to empower their populations in a meaningful way will win the Content War. Those that pursue a top-down persuasion approach will remain in a defensive position whereby the opponent is easily able to erode trust and confidence by pointing out the unaddressed deficiencies in their system (i.e. police brutality, wealth imbalance, corruption etc.)

Dropping voter turnout rates suggest that there is room to improve in terms of civic engagement – with or without the threat of external influence. Democracy needs more than the threat of it no longer existing to inspire the populations who have supported it.

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Education

If Western populations are so seriously mentally deficient as to lack the critical reasoning skills required to assess information or contribute meaningfully to democracy beyond an occasional vote, our education system has failed us. And indeed, the education system continues to fail us in a Digital Age, where more than ever before we require critical thinking and an enhanced ability to discern good information from bad.

Any country truly concerned about external influence should first take a look at the fundamentals in education and take measures to inform and equip their populations early on such that not only can they cope in an Age of (Dis)information, but also become more engaged participants in a democratic system.

Choose a Democratic Renaissance over a Content War

Throwing propaganda at propaganda is as advisable as using atomic bombs to counter nuclear war. Both will be short-lived battles that have the longer effect of eroding citizen confidence in the system – be it democratic or totalitarian, but the former will suffer more. The inevitable effect of pursuing this course will be a ‘circling of the wagons’ on each side, entrenchment of existing power structures, ossification of thought, and a degradation of democratic institutions.

The Internet has opened up the world such that leaders no longer have the luxury of simply pretending to act in the interest of a population. Assuming the flow of information remains unhindered across borders, it is only a matter of time until facts begin to emerge. With the ability to listen to what people are saying online, the possibility exists to actually heed the people and act truly in their name. After all, the most accepted propaganda is rooted in the truth – just think how much more effective messaging would be if it were weighted in authenticity and empowerment.

Avoiding Mutually Assured Mental Destruction

In a Content War, fighting propaganda with propaganda will only lead to the mutually assured mental destruction of both unsuspecting populations. Bombarded by counter/propaganda on all sides, people will become disoriented, some retreating deeper into already entrenched views, while others no longer knowing what to believe accept less and less. The effects can range from political polarization to apathy – neither of which is particularly beneficial to a healthy democracy.

For the West and, indeed, Eastern European countries, counter/propaganda raises ugly questions about the state of democracy, and, in turn, the faith of the government in the people it purports to represent. Using propaganda to ensure people continue to believe in the democratic system can only work if the messages used to persuade audiences are based in truth. If the promise of propaganda fails to deliver, it will ultimately erode the basis for democracy and lead to dire consequences. The lingering economic crisis from 2008, the Snowden leaks, and the creeping horror of terror that is spreading from the Middle East are all splashes of gasoline –propaganda will simply be the spark.

Russia, too, should be wary of how propaganda bombs can backfire.

Russians are not as ignorant or brainwashed as Content Warriors in the West might purport. No people are as interested in what the world thinks of them as are Russians. Indeed, without fail the first question a Russian will ask of a foreigner is: what do they think or know of Russia?

This is a population that has survived a societal collapse – experiencing the utter unraveling of system in which many did believe. Having one’s entire political and economic system shattered virtually overnight, the release of intelligence files and the horrible secrets that emerged with them breeds a systemic, and deeply personal, cynicism few in the West can possibly comprehend. The impact of the Soviet Union’s collapse, which continues to linger 25 years after, should not be underestimated in a Content War.

After the despair of the 1990s, it should come as little surprise that Russians want stability and to enjoy in a pride of their past – but internal propaganda messaging will only go so far. Failure to deal with corruption particularly on a local level, curtailing access to information, and continued economic decline will all erode support at home. And this is to say nothing of what happens to a system dependent on a single personality to lead it after that figure is no more.

It would appear, then, that the world is at a crossroads. If information is power, the leaders and elites in every state have two options before them: a road to enlightened information sharing and civic engagement, or a road to an Orwellian ‘permanent war’. Only one road will lead to lasting stability, and it is most definitely not the latter.

Propaganda can only truly be defeated by substance.

About Author

Alicia Wanless

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia researches how we shape — and are shaped — by a changing information space. As the Director of Strategic Communications at The SecDev Foundation, Alicia develops campaigns and strategies for engaging beneficiaries in outreach and behavioural change. Her work includes developing a training program that deals with verifying information and the spread of content online, and has supported projects in the Middle East, Vietnam and the post-Soviet space.

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