Saturday, January 9, 2016

Counter-Terrorism Strategic Communications: Can we really fight by proxy?

Counter-Terrorism Strategic Communications:  Can we really fight by proxy?
Pascale Combelles Siegel

The State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) is going to increase its outreach to third party in a bid to better reach its target audiences more convincingly. A well-intentioned effort, but not an easy one. Those who expect a silver bullet might be disappointed. 
After the latest review of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), it is likely that the center’s outreach to third parties will increase.  A panel of experts convened by the Center last fall to assess the policies and programs concluded that the U.S. Government was not the most credible voice against Daesh. Richard Stengel, currently Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, confirmed the orientation during a refreshingly candid talk at New America right before the holidays. 
The outreach strategy stems from a well-documented problem. Since 2001, the U.S. favorability ratings in the region have fallen dramatically, even among close allies such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where large majorities (60% to 83%) hold negative views of the U.S. according to the Pew Charitable Center. This matters because message internalization is a function of both the content and the messenger. In other words, for an audience to accept a given message, it needs to agree with the content and to view the speaker as credible. If the U.S. is not a credible messenger, then the message may just be disregarded out of hand, no matter the quality of its content.
This is where third parties can come in. These new partners are geographically, culturally, and linguistically diverse. They speak the language and share the culture of the different target audiences and therefore can fine-tune messages that resonate better than the State Department employees. They also are likely to be more credible than the U.S. Government. Considering the U.S. favorability ratings through the Muslim world, this is not a high bar. They potentially offer a diversity of services that the government can only dream of. Woven into a network of network, they can become a force multiplier – maybe strong enough to crowd Daesh out of the marketplace of ideas.
Yet, like any good idea predicated on reliable assumptions, the devil will likely creep up as the policy is implemented. Those wishing for a quick, cheap, fix will be disappointed as significant obstacles lay ahead. 
  • The first issue will be to identify, vet, and select the appropriate third party candidates. Are we yet able to identify those willing to take on Daesh and its propaganda? Do we even have a census of efforts in the world up to date? Will we impose a litmus test on those partnering with the U.S. Government? The Center for Counterterrorism Strategic Communications has a dual mission: countering terrorist propaganda and combating misinformation about the U.S. Will partners be forced or encouraged to fight misinformation against the U.S. If so, who decides what constitutes misinformation? Can we protect those who are willing to put their neck out?
  • The second issue will be to define what the partner can and should do. As Stengel put it during his lecture at the New America, “We are still trying to figure out how to best use partners.” Well, partners are likely to have their own ideas about how they should be supported by the U.S.G. To be productive, this process will have to be a two-way street. Are we truly prepared for this?
  • The third issue pertains to the business model and sustainability. Some in the civil society, whether businesses, non-profit organizations, and other good wills, might be interested to get into the ideological fight against Daesh. However, their engagement can only be sustained over time if they can make a living or a profit in it. Without a business model, it becomes fairly unlikely that their efforts can be scaled up or sustained over time to make a significant difference.
  • The fourth and last issue is metrics. How do we assess the success of such an initiative? Growing the network, increasing output, and increasing audience could be indicators to determine that whether the initiative finds a market. However, at the same time, Daesh could also grow its own market shares. The two results are not mutually exclusive. At New America, Stengel rightly pointed out that Daesh’s audience remains small. Small, but very committed.
In all likelihood, it will take time for such a strategy to be implemented, overcome the obstacles outlined above, and reach critical mass. Unfortunately beyond money, time and patience are commodities that Washington does not have a surplus of.  Maybe this initiative is worth giving patience a try. 

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