Information has always been used in conflict to sway opponents and mobilise supporters. In recent decades, the growing speed and accessibility of modern communications have increased the reach of persuasive messaging and audience engagement, and in so doing challenge previously held assumptions regarding the legitimacy, jurisdictions and degrees of acceptable influence. The qualitative evolution of modern propaganda techniques abetted by technological advancements creates a new, if not mysterious, terra incognita in the information space, the exploration of which to-date attracted much attention, and yet generated little consensus. The seeming complexity of a hyperconnected information environment, lack of commonly accepted definitions explaining it, and often conflicting priorities between tactical versus strategic objectives of persuasion are only a few of the problems encountered by those addressing threats related to organised persuasive messaging, or propaganda. This chapter contributes to this exploration by arguing that the changing nature of propaganda poses numerous epistemological, legal and political challenges that require a more nuanced attitude toward legitimate persuasion. By analysing current approaches to “information warfare” in the West and Russia in the context of an evolving information environment and propaganda methods, this work identifies and discusses challenges faced by liberal democracies in countering unwanted foreign propaganda. It concludes by arguing that Western democracies must reassess their uneasy relationship with propaganda in a proactive and transparent manner, in line with evolving realities of the 21st century. This includes articulating a coherent political philosophy that explains information’s role in a modern society and reconciles its use for persuasion purposes, at the strategic level. Until then, current attempts by Western governments to rush into the uncharted territory of “information warfare” (of semantic meanings and values rooted in comparative cultural historiography of nations) must be accompanied by careful analysis of how perceived foreign information threats may lead the targets of those campaigns to adopt and legitimize policies used by foreign actors in the first place

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Source Publication

Wanless, Alicia and Michael Berk. “The Changing Nature of Propaganda: Coming to Terms with Influence in Conflict.” In The World Information War: Campaigning, Cognition and Effect by (Eds) Timothy Clack and Robert Johnson. Routledge. (In Press)

Cover Image: Propaganda poster form the People’s Republic of China (1969) – Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in our Hearts

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About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.

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