Losing the Information War and How to Win
We are losing the information war. We face an enemy ideology that crafted and shaped an enduring, effective message, near perfecting dissemination and application to relevant target audiences- the disaffected around the globe- while we remain, at best, reactive and, at worst, counter-productive in our own messaging. The extremist ideological message of groups across the Islamic spectrum from Sunni to Shia, Al-Qaeda and affiliates, or ISIL, and other splinter group across the Levant, Maghreb, and the world, are even drawing adherence from developed nations. To secure the proliferation of Western ideals and values of freedom and free-thinking, there must be increased focus on the information war, reshaping the approach to messaging, bringing it on equal or superior footing to the physical efforts across the globe combating the enduring tide of extremist thought infecting the world’s disaffected.
In principle there is a new worldwide, existential ideological struggle, reminiscent of the Cold War of the 1950s-1990. This time the Western public is failing to acknowledge the degree of the struggle. The power and influence of public opinion is seen as either indifferently effecting the messaging struggle or counteracting what limited efforts are attempted.
The Cold War began with open acknowledgement of what the struggle was about, famously enunciated by Winston Churchill’s Westminster speech- “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent… The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern States of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control.” These opening Cold War comments sound eerily familiar for a new ideological war with new protagonists and antagonists. There was a clear strategic message of democracy versus communism. In a broader context this applied a consolidated, unified message giving motivation, spirit, and resolution for the long struggle of the West against the onslaught of communist persuasion. This came from clear, consistent messaging, even if reality at times was complicated with “democracy” supporting convenient totalitarian regimes to combat communist spread in Latin America and Asia, or communist tolerating democratic/economic facades to support their states’ attempts to materially keep up with the West. The message today needs to be a clear one, crafted to speak to freedom of choice (not particularly democracy as understood in a political sense) versus total subservience to a singularly allowed dogma (essentially oppression of choice). Instead the West mainly conducts an emotional counter-messaging response to “atrocities” and “horrors” perpetuated by extremist ideologies. While this is relevant and should be an aspect of the messaging campaign, it lacks the resonance alone to effect persuasion in the disaffected fence-sitters, nor does it demoralize the enemy.
Like the Cold War, this has not been a total war of physical dominance, with zero-sum dilemmas, although, like the Cold War’s so-called “hot spots”, there has been elements of physical violence utilized to influence the broader context. Where there was Korea and Vietnam, there has been Afghanistan and Iraq; where there was low-intensity struggle over Latin America’s future, there has been over Africa’s. More importantly than the shooting wars strategically is the war of messaging ideology: support and reassure the final rightness of the cause and victory, persuade the undecided and disaffected, meanwhile undermining the claims of the other, discouraging their will to continue and faith in their victory.
Extremist ideologues are not united among themselves, and neither were the Soviet Union and Red China. Extremist of the Sunni-Shia split are in no way unified, but both pose a threat to an ideology of free choice. For the West diversity is part of the strength and message, and even in the Cold War – what was perhaps the greatest unity among free-thinking societies – had splinters, such as the temperamental relationship between De Gaulle’s France and NATO. What is different is the unity of messaging, and the extremists cleverly and effectively target the discontented audiences and identify their vulnerabilities. The predisposition of the disaffected audiences in the new global connectivity and individualism of the West allows them to reach across borders more effectively than communist messaging ever did, exponentially increasing the insider threat and demanding improved unity of internal messaging as well as external. This goes to the West’s failure to properly message its ideological stance versus the extremist view, resulting in a lack of internal fortitude much less capitalizing on free-societies support for the fight.
In fact, the West has been more effective messaging its societies that they are not in an existential struggle with few people realizing the magnitude of the ideological struggle and nature of the current “war on extremism”, or that the West is even still at war with extremist ideology after repetitive assertions about “no boots on the ground” or “advisors only” in these extremist contested hot spots, while rhetoric highlights other growing nation-state threats. Lost on most is the full extent Americans and military assets regularly deployed on nearly every continent supporting local forces- serving essentially as “proxies”- or even the residual combat forces in Afghanistan and uptick in the Middle East. Of course, there is the sensational raid or attack that breaks through and gets Americans tuned in for a news cycle, but that fades.
If there isn’t a strong message for a war of ideas, persuading internal support much less persuading the undecided, it internally conveys how good things must be if the impact is small enough on daily life to accept a continued struggle- that the opponent’s ideology is depraved enough to support limited engagement but not enough for a full commitment. The American public accepted over sixteen years of open war, but barely even comprehend what it’s about, or has been for, with some veterans struggling with this and they were the actual practitioners. What is the message? What is it against? Not knowing or watered-down messaging is an inconclusive strategy in a war of ideas.
With the decision to not fully marshal the public support behind an information campaign like the concerted one during the Cold War, any attempts to properly wage an information war remain hindered, leaving limited efforts disjointed and ineffective. The messaging war should be the frontline, but remains a secondary effort, whereas the enemy sees it as a primary tool in the prolonged struggle- the long game. We are dominant at the shooting war, but they maximize messaging to recruit and continue the strategic struggle no matter our tactical or even operational successes. Their skills at the information war can negate our actual successes in the shooting war by turning it against us through propaganda, increasing recruitment of disaffected and displaced.
Without properly convincing the West that this ideological struggle is existential and on par with “communist world domination” of Cold War-era, we cater to the safe side of our values and sensibilities. This is not a call to compromise values, but rather accepting hard times call for tough measures. It is war, after all, at least if properly conveyed to public society. As a society, core values must be maintained, and hold those in power accountable. Just like a shooting war, rough things happen, people die and are killed, and if lines are crossed, those are held accountable. Likewise, if in the information war messaging tactics and techniques cross the line then those are held accountable. This largely applies to values like free-speech or profiling, and certain general liberties. It can be a dangerous path, much like prolonged exposure to close combat can be to individuals, but without closely managed and mitigated risk there is no reward.
One of the most concerning dangers involves the backlash of the public against all Muslims if there is a concerted messaging campaign targeting the extremists. A valid concern, and should be definitely addressed through concerted positive messaging of the good done by moderate Muslims both within the West but also internationally. Often the international Muslim communities pay a heavier price in the fight against extremist oppression, and yet, without properly buttressing an internal view of our allies within public dialogue it leads to an under-appreciation of the shared cause, reflecting poorly in occasions of bias and mistrust of Western Muslims, both detracting from unity against extremism, even inspiring extremists more and improving their very recruitment messages.
In the messaging endeavor, it is cherished values of free-speech, equality, openness, and inclusiveness which the enemy exploits. These qualities must not be allowed to completely cripple messaging against the enemy. Rhetoric should not be tempered, and messaging be assertive, promoting our ideology over theirs and why it is better. We should not fail to target their messaging preemptively through all means because fear of how it might look. Whether it is doing more to block website access, influence servers and grids, or conduct character assassinations of notable extremist. This would be the information operations in conjunction with raids and aerial strikes. Self-restricting in any way other than morality, clearly maintaining the rule of applicable law, is detrimental to the overall intent. We need to build a coalition within ourselves against the enemy, the way we were united publically, openly, and energetically against communism in the Cold War. The ability to undermine the opposing message exists in the robust Muslim citizenry supportive of freedom and peace, not to mention a worldwide Muslim community that likewise has a stake in the information war for the “hearts and minds” of its people. With a positive, well-crafted and legitimate message we can have our own citizens sharing the targeted audience’s personal belief system help message why the free-thinking ideals provide a better world to the undecided and disenfranchised around the world, simultaneously disparaging the extremist’s message of hate, persecution, and oppression.
Indicators of a way forward exist, exemplified by the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center. This center, an interagency group created in spring 2016 from Executive Order 13721, “leads the coordination, integration, and synchronization of government-wide activates directed at foreign audiences abroad for the purpose of countering violent extremism and terrorism.” It includes elements from the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, the Intelligence Community, Broadcast Board of Governors, and USAID. An important aspect of this nascent tool in the information war is the granting necessary authorities, technology, personnel, and budgetary support to move it to the forefront of the campaign to counter extremist ideology worldwide, not just ISIL. The momentum behind this center is precisely the direction needed, to include balancing direct campaigning against extremist messaging with facilitating likeminded partner nation and non-governmental groups adding credence to the messaging. Though primarily focused on counter-messaging to increase extremists’ group defections and preempt recruitment, it is largely focused on ISIL and is reactive.
Returning to the Cold War model, the Global Engagement Center needs further authorities with independence of action, similar to the Cold War-era U.S. Information Agency. The USIA was an independent agency centralizing the strategic level information campaign against the Soviet Union, but was closed in 1999 for budgetary measures. Closer modeling the Global Engagement Center after this is a fuller step to empowering the current joint interagency attempt.
The messaging effort cannot be encapsulated purely in the Western government outlets of official statements, public speeches, and overall efforts of the respective Public Affairs Offices, or when overseas with foreign audiences, the Military Information Support Operations (formerly Psychological Operations). In conjunction with these key efforts and those of coordinated partner outreach efforts like those of the Global Engagement Center, encouraged and facilitated non-government methods need to be made. This will increase the amount of messaging, but diversify it, adding to credibility for outlets independent of, though facilitated by, the government. Much as the government funds and supports independent think-tanks, research, and historical preservation efforts, resulting in publications of studies, reports, and literature on these subjects, likewise grants, projects, and funding should be provided to encourage outside independent groups and authors to add to the public messaging under the auspices of these government managed programs. These should be inclusive of increasing fellowships and grants to civilian institutions and organizations in addition to similar government sponsored programs. The result of private, civilian institutions and individuals promoting the key messages desired along with official government sponsored products would exponentially add to the positive effect in credibility and in totality. Proliferation of thought and simple increasing of voice are impactful.
Three aspects are integral to successful information warfare: a clear message to persuade undecided, to inspire and reassure support of the adherent, and lastly to discourage and undermine the resolve of the opponent’s message. To return to Churchill’s Westminster “Sinews of Peace” speech, “When American military men approach some serious situation they are wont to write at the head of their directive the words “over-all strategic concept.” There is wisdom in this, as it leads to clarity of thought. What then is the over-all strategic concept which we should inscribe today? It is nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands.” During the Cold War, the West knew where they stood and how they were right and thus unaffected by what communist might say or claim, because the internal messaging was clear. The information war was waged aggressively at home and abroad. And the West won the Cold War. The West knows how to win this war. Until openly building popular support with a clear message, allowing effective counter-messaging, and dismantling the opposing ideology through identifying the targeted audience and persuading them against the extremists, tactical victory will only continue in the “whack-a-mole” shooting war conflicts ongoing for nearly two decades. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center is a small start, but only addresses part of the problem- nothing of internal consensus building-, and is far too minimized in comparison to other “tools” in the war on extremist ideology. The information war must be the main front to win, and therefore must be properly supported and executed; winning over the disaffected, convincing them this is best for them and their guaranteed future, and being unapologetic about why it is and why the enemy is not only wrong, but adverse for their personal good. At that point, the focus can shift, allowing concentration on the physical elimination of the remaining adherence of the opposing view. Until the scales are tipped back from the extremist’s dominance of the message to the disaffected, all that remains is simply killing new and old adherents to the extremist views.
 Sir Winston Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace” speech delivered at Westminster, 5 March 1946, text from The International Churchill Society, https://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1946-1963-elder-statesman/the-sinews-of-peace, accessed 3 May 2017.
 John Williams, “Counter-messaging Daesh”, in Special Warfare, July-December 2016, pp. 47.
 Williams, “Counter-messaging Daesh”, p. 47.
 Ibid, pp. 48-49.
 John A. Nagle, Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern war in Theory and Practice, (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), pp. 135-136.
 Churchill, “Sinews of Peace” speech administered at Westminster, 5 March 1946.