Saturday, October 13

Strategic Communication: how to get your message across when the enemy's agitprop is better than yours

"One point of agreement across the political spectrum and that of informed opinion is that the [US government] has not done a particularly good job of managing "the war of ideas" in the conflict with Islamist terrorism. Or against state adversaries. Or with persuading neutrals and even our own allies to our point of view. When you are having difficulty drawing even in a global popularity contest with a crowd of bearded fanatics who put beheading videos on the internet, it's time to admit there's a problem."
-- Mark Safranski

It so happened that Zenpundit Mark Safranski published his knockout essay On War, Comprehension and Persuasion on the same day that Pundita turned her attention to the gathering storm of events in Burma. That was on September 23.

I have a vague recollection of sending the essay to colleagues at that time and hurriedly writing Mark to say that I wanted to comment on it. That seems forever ago, as day by day the protests in Burma played out to their inevitable horrific conclusion.

The failure of the international community to persuade Burma's rulers to halt their brutal crackdown is a grim coda to Mark's analysis of the challenges facing diplomacy in this era. Although he focuses on America's strategic communication problems, the discussion applies to all democracies in this era.

America's wonks are still reeling from the post 9/11 discovery that many people around the world not only don't want democracy, they think it's the sign of the devil. As for human rights and that terribly odd term "freedom," millions are convinced they're a plot by the rich nations to rob the poor ones.

Just how does one's government talk to such people? How do you persuade them to see your point of view? And how do you get them to act on your recommendations without having to bomb them into seeing sense?

The first two questions form the heart of diplomacy; the last properly belongs to agitprop, which today is subsumed under the nice clinical term strategic communication. The latter simply means "getting the right message, through the right media, to the right audience at the right time."

After giving a crash course in America's 20th Century strategic communication efforts, Mark wastes no time wringing his hands over the sad state of affairs today. He rolls up his sleeves and defines the broad areas of challenge and their most striking characteristics:
The cultural multiplicity of the global audience, which is/are:

- Tiered from real-time postmodern transnational elites down to pre-modern tribal villagers still relying upon an oral tradition who receive their information flow hours, days, weeks or later.

- Viewing events from worldviews based upon five or more major civilizational traditions and many times that number of major subnational or subcultural traditions .

- Often times the audience is locked into a feedback loop with relatively sophisticated and influential (or impoverished and alienated) expatriate communities in the West and United States.

A multiplicity of information platforms which are:

- Spreading access to information with increasing rates of economic efficiency in a way that leapfrogs people over Gutenberg and directly into the World Wide Web.

- Are evolving technologically both in terms of processing power and parameters of expression that defy linear trend predictions (there are really more usable app ideas than ever get fully developed for reasons of return on investment and IP issues).

- Are evolving at a speed beyond which bureaucratic acquisition and budgetary schedules can adjust in order to keep USG employees in line with the tech capabilities of the private sector.

A multiplicity of information messages in a net volume that:

- Creates sheer "Attention scarcity" problems in target audiences -usually elite - which have begun to operate psychologically under the dictates of the "attention economy". [Visit Mark's site for a link that explains the term.]

- Creates a deafening "White Noise" through which critical messages to the target audience can neither be seen nor heard nor reinforced with reliability or be perceived in the proportion or perspective desired. [See site for links to terms under discussion.]

- Ratchets up the Darwinian velocity of the marketplace of ideas to snuff out or mutate memes faster than IO planners can adjust while also trying to bring along the portion of the audience still processing at much slower rates of comprehension.
After performing that feat of analysis and synthesis, Mark leaves it to the reader to brainstorm solutions. Several solutions are 'technical' and thus relatively easy to implement, and Mark's essay identifies some of these. Other solutions can only be arrived at heuristically. And some can only derive from a philosophy that integrates Zenpundit's three categories of challenges.

Meanwhile, we have a war to fight. I know this observation will elicit laughter but the US invasion of Iraq is the greatest communications coup by a government in modern history. To understand why this is not a crazy statement, consider that winning attention is prior to communication of one's message.

Before the 9/11 attack, the American government's foreign policy attention was focused on free trade, expanding America's global trade initiatives, and helping post-Soviet countries establish themselves. Al Qaeda's attack took control of the ground of discussion by forcing the American people's attention to the issues Qaeda wanted to talk about.

The Afghanistan invasion still stayed within the discussion parameters that Qaeda laid down. However, the Iraq invasion captured al Qaeda's attention. They had to place their attention where President Bush wanted it placed. He completely shifted the ground of discussion. Al Qaeda was forced into arguments about democracy, freedom, voting practices, etc. -- stuff that was not on their list of talking points.

Another way to say all this is that communication follows on actions, not words, and that attention creates meaning. Provided the US government never forgets this, they will stumble in the right direction in the information battlespace.

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