Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wading into the Media War

Chris Townsend,

image from

The Department of Defense was recently handed a decidedly non-kinetic mission in the ongoing war against extremists. The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (S-1356) tasks the DoD with the following:
The Secretary of Defense should develop creative and agile concepts, technologies, and strategies across all available media to most effectively reach target audiences, to counter and degrade the ability of adversaries and potential adversaries to persuade, inspire, and recruit inside areas of hostilities or in other areas in direct support of the objectives of commanders.
The directive limits the battlefield to “all available media,” restricting the battle space to the messaging and not necessarily the means of communicating.  How then does the DoD conduct a media war, especially when considering the number of other players already in the counter-messaging game like the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which already boasts DoD involvement? This limitation would seem to preclude options like the Counter-electronics High-powered microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) which purports to function like a smarter version of the old CBU-94 Blackout Bomb. Instead of cutting the power to entire cities like its predecessor, CHAMP can “shut down electronics in a single building.”
The DoD could contribute to the degradation of information on these networks. Kalev Leetaru offered some potential projects in his article “A Few Good Twitter Trolls.” Among his recommendations is the registering of hundreds of accounts with similar names to Islamic State (IS) accounts in an effort to confuse those seeking the messages. Another possibility suggested by Leetaru is the creation of YouTube videos with thumbnails and titling that suggest IS affiliation, but really contain counter-messaging or blank space to create what David Martin dubbed a “Wilderness of Mirrors” where one is hard-pressed to identify what is real or fake. His idea is not without merit and could be a DoD task to crowd the media battlespace with so much chaff that true content is harder to locate, but first a decision must be made whether to disrupt or exploit the existing networks. There could be intelligence value in the maintenance and monitoring of these networks. Word Cloud tools that use text to create trend maps could be programmed to harvest from known IS accounts and their re-tweeters to create a graphical representation of the current message allowing for more targeted counter-messaging efforts. Such a tool might even have predictive value as certain words or phrases may trend prior to an attack. A final potential quasi-kinetic option for degradation is the development of hacking squads that can identify routers and computers that propagate IS messaging and destroy them remotely.
The more difficult task for the DoD to contribute to is the countering of actual narratives offered by the IS. I would be the first in line to volunteer for a PhD in Islamic Studies to better understand the source of messaging and develop challenges to IS interpretations, but there is a readily available cadre of civilian experts that could be hired by the DoD. Experts in Islamic theology could point out contradictions between IS behavior and Islamic scriptures, or challenge the interpretations of scriptures that the IS uses to justify its actions. Another potential source of counter-messaging is the victims of IS atrocities. Refugee camps in the Middle East are full of those who can speak directly to information seekers. Internet cafes or wifi services provided in these camps could give them an avenue to add their voice to the fight. DoD has tools for providing communications networks in remote locations that could facilitate such efforts with the side benefits of providing avenues for education and communication for the displaced.
Finally, the DoD will need to devote more effort to public diplomacy. Operational efforts should be explained in terms that highlight the benefits and justifications for military interventions. A significant part of the IS narrative is the war with the West. Efforts must be made to communicate that military actions are not a battle against Islam, rather against extremists who pervert the faith for political ends. Public diplomacy in today’s world requires technical savvy on which the DoD is ill suited to capitalize. Social media expertise and a better understanding of creating resonance in online messaging are necessary to avoid the current tone-deaf efforts of government messaging with no re-tweet value. Studies on what makes online messaging resonate can help create more effective communications that gain traction beyond the initial effort. Maximum proliferation from minimal efforts represents a potential force multiplier that should not be overlooked.
Ultimately, DoD efforts must be nested in a larger specific strategy aimed at degradation and disruption. US Cyber Command will be a powerful tool in the fight, but must operate in concert with the efforts of the CSCC while leveraging expertise from the civilian sector in social media and culture. It will be interesting to see how the DoD interprets and implements its new mission in the unfamiliar battlespace of social media. Degradation or exploitation of networks, counter-narratives, and public diplomacy should be a part of that strategy.

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