Saturday, June 18, 2016

Quotable: Steve Tatham on using social science in response to Russian propaganda

Friday, June 17th 2016

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“Whatever might be said about Russian foreign and military policy in Ukraine and the former soviet states, they cannot be accused of not taking Information Warfare seriously.”  Retired Royal Navy Commander Steve Tatham so opened his July, 2015, paper, “The Solution to Russian Propaganda is not EU or NATO Propaganda but Advanced Social Science to Understand and Mitigate its Effect in Targeted Populations,” published by the National Defense Academy of Latvia.

The paper breaks into three parts.  Tatham opened with a review of recent Russian initiatives, many astonishing in their audacity.  He followed with a critique of NATO and Western counter-messaging (too often “crafted by European or North American men in suits sat behind a computer in an office”) because it is not informed by social research on target audiences, and he closed with recommendations.  His closing thoughts on risk were telling.

Necessarily omitting many of Commander Tatham’s examples and case studies in the interest of brevity, here are some key points:

  • Russian Information Warfare officers must be having enormous fun at the moment. Unencumbered by the need to be truthful and attributable, mainstays of NATO communications, the depth, breadth and quality of many of the propaganda products being put out by Moscow suggests they may be experiencing none of the problems securing people, budgets or more importantly, the interest of their seniors in their work which besets western militaries and the NATO alliance.

  • . . . nearly 30,000km2 of Ukrainian territory, Crimea, was captured using sophisticated hybrid warfare techniques where the conventional military ‘hard power’ (exemplified by the so-called ‘Little Green Men’) were merely supporting actors to the wider and more important information campaign.

  • In Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova and Georgia aggressive Russian Information Operations is a daily challenge to policy makers. 

  • . . . here lies the real problem.    Our collective messaging tends not to be led not by an innate understanding of audiences but by creativity and follows the ideas of policy makers in Brussels, London and Washington.

  • The principle is “This is the message - send it out”; invariably that message is crafted by European or North American men in suits sat behind a computer in an office. But one cannot help but wonder how that man in a suit knows what messages will resonate with the man in the dirty shalwar kameez in Pakistan, the miner in East Ukraine, the young Muslim ISIS fighter in Syria?

  • . . . how about really understanding the behavioural motivations of an audience before addressing it rather than just sending it messages that we think it may like. This is what the Russians are very good at – they know which buttons to press with Russian populations. If we are to do this better then we need to look to science – not creativity. 

  • . . . make no mistake, social science research does allow us to predict group behaviours and to a verified and validated high degree of accuracy. 

  • [In 2007, the] daily number of IED attacks had increased six-fold since 2003; On one day in May, 101 of the 139 anti-U.S. attacks involved IEDs. The problem to commanders, it seemed, was simple – people hated the US and particularly US values and therefore the ‘solution’ was to change their attitudes. An expensive PR led campaign was waged; iconic images of the US attempted to portray a softer and more friendly face for the US. Almost immediately the campaign yielded results – but not the right ones; the number of IED incidents went up.

  • However, using more sophisticated research instruments it was found that whilst the bomb layers were ideologically and implacably opposed to the US, and thus could not be moved, it was far less clear cut for those that made the IEDs. Indeed a vast majority were making them for one reason alone – money. They wanted money to move them and their families out of Iraq and the destination of choice was the USA. The PR campaign showed them iconic images of the US and they worked harder to achieve ether objective.

  • Thus the solution – and to be fair this was but one part of a full spectrum of counter-IED activities – was instead to show distressing images of dead and maimed Iraqi children and link them to IEDs. This was a message that resonated far more and the result, a reduction in IEDs. 

  • . . . what these examples show us is that the solutions to complex behaviours are seldom obvious and often counter-intuitive. Russian IO may in many instances be blatant lies and fabrications but it is generally well crafted and targets specific known vulnerabilities in societies.

  • But targeting is not enough – we need to know how that translates into possible behaviors. In eastern Ukraine it is clear that there were significant rifts in society already but how much can one attribute the civil war to the Russian propaganda machine and how much to dissatisfaction on the group with central government, with poor life changes, a stagnant economy and rampant corruption?

  • Effective propaganda has to have something to work upon. It also has to resonate with its audience and here my Russian colleague do seem to know their audiences. The problem is we do not.

  • Experience of nearly 30 years in the Information Operations business is that money is always available for implementation but rarely for the vital research that must pre-empt it.

  • And this links to the second problem - this type of research often provides uncomfortable findings often rarely linked to communications.

  • The central truth of Strategic Communication is that words and deeds must match. No amount of glossy communication will cover up for a failure of deeds.   There are some positive actions that can be taken by the West but they require leadership, innovation and funding.

  • Firstly, the EU, NATO and Western nations need to collaborate and find joint funding options for proper social science analysis and research of the issues confronting the ‘frontier nations’ before settling on apparent ‘solutions’.

  • There is already recognition that this needs to be done by places such as the NATO [Center of Excellence] for Strategic Communication but they are woefully underfunded. Such research will undoubtedly reveal uncomfortable truths and thus, secondly, western Institutions need to be prepared for ‘bad news’.

  • Currently NATO StratCom is under resourced (with people), does not appear to enjoy the confidence of the military command structure in the way that more obvious military power does and is probably vested in the wrong part of NATO – namely in Public Diplomacy not the International Military Staff. It also seems distracted by an unhealthy focus on social media and reputation protection.  

  • Linking StratCom to strategy, not just communications, particularly when it is underpinned by sound research, will be uncomfortable to conventional minds schooled in the old fashioned skills of intelligence and diplomacy.

  • . . . [According to Richard Cottam], “our diplomats and policy makers have been trained and experienced in the old style diplomacy and still adhere to its principles and speak its language; the discrepancy between understanding and practice leads to a hit or miss kind of foreign policy ”

  • Finally, there needs to be a far greater acceptance of risk; decentralizing control, often to the point of discomfort, allows for far greater agility and speed of response . . . . but also presents greater risk.

  • We need to see Policy makers and politicians shoulder risk with more comfort; to do so requires they have confidence in the staff, processes and organizations beneath them. Professionalizing key functions across great institutions is now vital and in this particular regard NATO’s StratCom efforts are in particular need of attention.

  • Both Hitler and Putin are (were) very good at propaganda. NATO and the EU are not but nor do they need to be so; the answer to propaganda is not more propaganda. The answer is to properly understand its effect and put in the place the necessary mitigation – which may not be communication - to extinguish its flames.

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