Propaganda is a tricky word

Episode 105 of the Cognitive Crucible – Tom Ken on Persuasion in the Developing World.

An interesting point on “propaganda” at about the 23:00 mark.

Western countries… dislike very much the idea of ‘propaganda,’ and God bless us. We shouldn’t do propaganda to the extent that propaganda means putting out false information. But, I don’t think that advocating for what the West offers, advocating for our liberties and so forth is propaganda. I think it’s just true, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say what we believe.

Propaganda is such a tricky word. And for a long time, it wasn’t even a bad word. Maybe a post for another time.


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Kingdom of the Flies

never be game over eli metal gear solid 5

Interesting article at SWJ on child soldiers, specifically in a salafi-jihadi context.

In the terrorist mind, a child is not simply an expendable tool of war but a critical asset exerting an impact on the entire spectrum of 4GW networks, whether political, economic, social, or military.

Cecilia Polizzi, Fourth Generation Warfare: An Analysis of Child Recruitment and use as a Salafi-Jihadi Doctrine of War

It includes a section that explores children as objects of propaganda:

Fundamental social constructions regarding children relate to attributes of innocence, vulnerability, apprenticeship or socialization. It derives not only the significance of the child within society but also the high-symbolic value of child´s imagery as an element of psychological operations in the form of media intervention.

Children depicted as victims of Western-aided violence:

The theme of childhood innocence – most particularly depictions of children as victims of Western-aided violence – was found the most prominent representation in ISIL´s magazine Dabiq.

Child victimization may lead to criticism of policies:

Hereof, the importance of media in shaping policy is highlighted. Since the media are the ´major primary sources of national political information´ and presented issues, events and topics shown in the media are deemed vital to society and public interest, the portrayal of child victimization may lead to criticism for policies or warfare conduct, whereas actual or perceived, create social fragmentation and undermine social or political consensus.

But it’s not just child-victimization, it’s normalizing the child-soldier:

Dissimilarly from Al-Qaeda, ISIL and ISIL-affiliated groups, shifted in recent years from representations of the child as victim to the one of child soldier. The majority of ISIL media broadcasts feature the participation of children being normalized to violence, witnessing violence, training for violence and perpetrating violence with the next most prominent theme being state-building.

Worth checking out.

Unfortunately, now I feel compelled to do a post that takes a look at “Fourth Generation Warfare.”


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Tape Measure Hero

viral video tape measure pick up keys from across room

Recently finished another Phoenix Cast episode. Around the ~17:30 mark, the hosts discuss the problem with believing what we see on the internet.

Specifically, they’re talking about videos.

There was this series of very viral videos back in the day of construction workers using tape measures to pick stuff up from ten feet away, and it’s all fake, it was all a marketing campaign for a midwestern hardware chain.

…and there’s a guy who breaks down those videos into exactly how they do the cuts, how they do the pull outs, and it’s important to be able to look for things like that.

Conti and Current Events, Phoenix Cast

Did you ever see this?

Impressive, right?

As they mentioned in the episode, the whole thing was fake. It was part of a marketing campaign.

Unfortunately, they didn’t link to the videos in the show notes so I had to spend some time digging around to find them. But I’m glad I did.

Here’s the first breakdown:

And then the coup de grâce.

Do you know what’s important here? It’s not that these videos were fake or deceptive, or that they could be picked apart with some careful analysis.

It’s that most people who saw these videos believed that they were real. They probably saw it at some point, laughed, shared it with their friends, and never gave it a second thought.

That’s how propaganda works. You never go back to watch the debunk videos. The first one was good enough.

And you want to believe.


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Polite propaganda

rush radio journal image

My podcast diet continues to grow.

I recently finished the first three episodes of the RUSI Journal Radio – each focusing on different aspects of information warfare.

The Royal United Services Institute is a UK-based think tank. It turns out they have a bunch of different podcasts.

Here are the first three:

Episode 1: The Realities of Information Warfare

Episode 2: Emotion as a Policy Tool

Episode 3: 21st Century Propaganda

I especially enjoyed the discussion in episode 2 regarding measures of effectiveness (and the fact that they are often meaningless).

While discussing atmospherics, the host asks “how do you measure it?”

It’s hard. It’s not something easy, especially in a discipline or in an environment such as policy-making where we like things to be quantified. We want metrics to be able to show that something has impact.

But having worked in politics and policy for a few years, I’ve come across people, often politicians, strategic communicators, very good strategists, who have this innate and intuitive sense of ‘this is the mood right now, this is the moment, something has changed.’

Claire Yorke, Emotion as a Policy Tool, ~5:00

The conversation moves onto the qualitative aspects of analysis – which is something that doesn’t lend well to putting numbers on a chart. We trust this analysis because it comes from someone who has put in the work and has studied the subject matter over time.

We shouldn’t need to be wowed by the methedolgy.

We can measure things this way, and yes, it is subjective. But that’s ok.

So to measure it is subjective and we have to be comfortable with the ambiguity and the subjectivity of it.

This podcast also has the calmest, unimposing intro music of any I’ve heard. A welcome break from the hum of impending doom that begins most American security-themed podcasts.


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Ok, but what should the Army do to combat this?

quake 3 arena logo

Good episode of The Convergence Podcast last month. Guests were Joe Littell and Maggie Smith, who recently co-authored a good article on information warfare for the Modern War Institute.

In the podcast, they discuss the article and its implications for the military.

What I like about both the article and the podcast is that we are hearing directly from practitioners – in this case in the fields of psychological operations and cyber.

Often – and especially as of late – we are hearing everyone’s opinion on these fields, whether they hold expertise or not.

One thing that I think gets to the crux of many of the military’s issues in dealing with information warfare came in the form of a question. After a long back and forth on some of the background concerning information warfare on a grand scale – political polarization, distrust in media, misinformation/disinformation, etc – the host poses the following question?

“How does the Army combat this?”

It’s not a bad question – and it is literally referencing the problem addressed in the guests’ article. The issue here is the solution to the problem goes way beyond the scope of what the Army can do. Even those tiny parts of the Army that deal exclusively with these issues.

What is the role of the Army? To win our nation’s wars.

We do ourselves a disservice if we ask it to do more than that.

There are limits to what the military can achieve in a traditional sense. Look at Afghanistan.

But there are also limits to what the military can achieve in an irregular sense. It doesn’t matter what combination of tactics, techniques, or tools you can pull together. There are extreme limits to what can be accomplished when dealing with the complexities of the human condition.

Thinking that it’s possible to fix everything, that we just haven’t discovered the right tool or educated the right people in the right way is dangerous.

This isn’t a cause for cynicism. Rather, it’s a cause for critical thinking and clearly understanding the role of the military and executing accordingly.

And pushing back when asked to do the impossible.

Lastly, there was a good conversation towards the end on the need to move away from the terms misinformation and disinformation. I agree. They are used everywhere now, mostly interchangeably or without a clear meaning.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. For what it’s worth, this is how I think of them.

For those who hang in there until the end, you’ll learn a couple of interesting facts about Joe and Maggie.

“Hangin’ with railbait like you is gonna lower my rep.”


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Psychological Reactance

“Why is it that a child sometimes does the opposite of what he is told? Why would a person sometimes dislike receiving a favor? Why is propaganda frequently ineffective in persuading people? And why would the grass in the adjacent pasture ever appear greener?”

We all know a contrarian. The one who is against whatever everyone else is for.

This is psychological reactance.

Psychological reactance manifests itself when someone feels the urge to resist what they’re being asked, influenced, or persuaded to do (or believe). It manifests itself when people do the thing that they are being asked not to do.

And it manifests itself when they refuse to do the thing they are asked to do.

This phenomenon is especially potent when it comes to things where people feel they may be losing some measure of freedom.

Related is the “Streisand effect.” That is, attempts to conceal information tend to increase people’s desire to know more about it, which can ultimately bring about its revelation.

We always want what we can’t have.

This is what makes propaganda so ineffective.

And everyone has a different degree of built-in psychological reactance. What works for one, might not work for the other.


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We Want a Nation

iraqi women protesting

A great talk with former Ambassador to Iraq Doug Silliman.

The complicated relationship between Iraq and the United States is once again approaching a crossroads. Parliamentary elections held in Iraq last month promise a new government featuring a new cast of political forces with their own difficult histories with the United States. The United States, meanwhile, is approaching the self-imposed deadline by which it has promised to withdraw U.S. combat troops from the country, even as its diplomatic and military presences in the country have continued to come under attack by Iran-backed militias. To discuss these developments, Scott R. Anderson sat down on Lawfare Live with Ambassador Doug Silliman, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019 and was previously the deputy chief of mission and political counselor there. They talked about the Sadrist block that appears to have won the recent elections, what other challenges are facing the Iraqi state and what they all mean for the future of our bilateral relationship.

The Lawfare Podcast: Ambassador Doug Silliman on What’s Next in U.S.-Iraq Relations

I enjoy listening to Doug Silliman. He understands the region and he certainly understands Iraq.

And he also understands US interests in the region and in Iraq.

Better yet, he can communicate it.

A few things that stood out to me in this episode:

  • Slogans – نريد الوطن – We want a nation! Simple, but so important.
  • ISIS Propaganda – Ambassador Silliman talks about how the desertions in the Iraqi Army were partly due to ISIS propaganda. Iraqi soldiers believed that if they were captured by ISIS they would be beheaded and displayed, potentially to an international audience. Propaganda works.
  • The Counter Terrorism Service – A good chunk of this interview is Ambassador Silliman extolling the benefit of having a robust mil-to-mil arrangement in Iraq. The State Department, and foreign service officers specifially often get a bad wrap as being ‘anti-military’ in some regard. That is (mostly) unfounded. And in this interview we hear it, where Ambassador Silliman is talking about how important the mil-to-mil partnerships were in Iraq. Fostering military cooperation is a diplomatic win.

Interviews like this give me hope.

Want to quickly build clout? Shout out into the void about how if we want to compete more effectively we need to invest further into our diplomatic corps.

But what is often missing is our diplomatic corps saying how much of a useful tool our military partnerships can be to further diplomatic aims.

That is interagency cooperation right there.


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It’s action, not information, that matters in IW

Train explosion from Lawrence of Arabia film
No, we're not "getting our asses kicked" in the information environment.

I’ve got so much more to say about this, but for now, this will have to do.

No, we don’t “suck” at information warfare.

Just because someone else out there – some adversary – can slap some memes together doesn’t mean that we’re “getting our asses kicked in the information environment.”

If you hang around the IW circus long enough, you come to realize that what actually matters are the actions and events that take place in the real world – not the flashy media that comes along with it – or behind it.

Oh, it can certainly move the needle – and it can serve as an accelerant.

Too much of a focus on pure information operations means you’re just spouting propaganda – in the worst sense of the term. That is, words and images without real meaning.

Like I said, I’ve got more to say about this and it’s on the list of things to do. I’ll get there.

In the interim, I’d urge you to push back when someone states categorically “we suck at IW.”

It’s very easy to say that we’re not good at something and be praised for it, and then go on about how we have to “do better.”

Do better how? Give me an example.

They usually don’t know what they’re talking about.


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Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s Pamphlet Propaganda

cairo conference picture at the pyramids

Back in December, Musings on Iraq published a review on Gertrude Bell’s The Arabs of Mesopotamia. Synopsis below.

Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers is a collection of two pamphlets Gertrude Bell wrote for British troops entering Iraq during World War I. The first was printed in 1916 called The Arab of Mesopotamia and the second came out the next year Asiatic Turkey. The writings were part information guides to the lands and people of the Ottoman Empire and part propaganda justifying why London invaded.

Musings on Iraq, Review Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers, Second Edition, Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia

I’ve always been fascinated by Bell – more so than the more popular and well-known T. E. Lawrence. I’ve given mention to her numerous times on the blog (here). While she didn’t advise the Arab Revolt, she deftly served as a political officer in colonial Iraq, and holds the ominous moniker “Mother of Iraq.” The movies made about her have – to date – been pretty poor. I only recently discovered Clash of Loyalties, which does her better service, I think, but you’ll have to swallow that with a large dose of Ba’athist propaganda that comes with it.

I was also fascinated by the fact that this book – or rather, pamphlet compilations – were written as both primers for British colonial troops serving in Iraq and subtle propaganda “justifying why London invaded.” Similarly, I remember receiving my Iraq “country guide” and Iraqi langauge flip-book prior to the 2003 American invasion.

The more things change…

There were a few things that stuck out in my reading of the book and I’ll share them over the next few days.


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