Framing and strategic narratives
Alongside propaganda, two other concepts — framing and strategic narrative — have recently gained traction in the study of political communication and may help us understand government disinformation during war. Both these analytical concepts provide a structured way of making sense of disinformation. Framing, for example, “entails selecting and highlighting some facets of events or issues, and making connections among them so as to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation and/or solution’ (Entman 2003, 417). In this way, framing is reliant ‘on selection, exclusion and emphasis as a communicator chooses which information to include, which to omit and which to highlight through placement, repetition or association with culturally significant symbols’ (Manor and Crilley 2018, 371). Studies suggest that frames consist of four key constituent parts. First, they involve a definition of a problem. Second, they identify the cause of that problem. Third, they provide a moral evaluation of those involved, and fourth, they offer a solution. To illustrate this with an example, consider how, throughout the war on terror, the Bush administration consistently framed the events of 9/11 as a problem of global terrorism caused by radical Islamists who were ‘evil’ and could only be stopped through a global ‘war on terror’. This frame cascaded down from the Bush administration, played out in news coverage, and shaped how people understood what was happening and what should be done in response to it — such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (Entman 2003; Tumber and Palmer 2004).
The concept of strategic narrative has recently become popular as a way of understanding how political actors communicate and what effects these communications have in contemporary global politics. Strategic narratives are seen as ‘a tool for political actors to extend their influence, manage expectations, and change the discursive environment in which they operate’ (Miskimmon et al. 2013, 2). They are defined as
representations of a sequence of events and identities, a communicative tool through which political actors — usually elites — attempt to give determined meaning to past, present, and future in order to achieve political objectives. . . . [T|hey articulate end states and suggest how to get there.
(Miskimmon et al. 2013, 5)
Subsequently, proponents of strategic narrative theory focus on studying the component parts of narratives: actors, actions, agency, purpose, and scene. Studies to date have demonstrated the utility of using strategic narrative to understand disinformation during war, including how state governments use social media to deploy strategic narratives that provide overly simplistic dichotomies of conflicts that dehumanise other people (Manor and Crilley 2018) and may persist despite attempts to refute disinformation in the digital sphere (Khaldarova and Pantti 2016; Szostek 2018).
Strategic narrative approaches are distinct from framing theory as strategic narratives involve a focus on temporality — where narratives often have a beginning, middle, and end — and a sense of causality that links together the elements of the narrative in a coherent plot. Even so, the difference between the two approaches can be exaggerated. While both approaches provide a structured way of analysing government disinformation in war, they share similar limitations. Specifically, both suffer some limitations in making sense of the digital disinformation nowadays deployed by governments that is visual; involves the use of humour, memes, and multiple layers of interpretation and meaning; is personalised; and is directed at specific individuals and audiences through participatory social media platforms (Merrill 2018). This is even more significant given indications that disinformation that incorporates visual as well as textual components is more likely to be believed (Hameleers et al. 2020).
A final concept that can help students of government disinformation during war is that of discourse. Discourse is a rather broad concept that it is no simple matter to concisely define. Some refer to discourse as ‘systems of signification’ (Milliken 1999, 229) that enable us to make sense of the world or as ‘a cohesive ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorizations about a specific object that frame that object in a certain way and, therefore, delimit the possibilities for action in relation to it’ (Epstein 2005, 2). Influenced by poststructural philosophers like Foucault, discourse theorists explore how meanings are constructed through written and spoken language and other forms of communication, such as visual media and popular culture. In doing so, discourse analysis pays attention to the interconnectedness of power and knowledge, explores how identities are constructed and positioned in relation to each other (often through dichotomies such as us/them, good/evil, natural/unnatural), how meanings are naturalised as facts, and how these things make certain political outcomes (such as war and conflict) possible.
Discourse theorists often come under scrutiny given the supposed ways in which they have been seen to undermine claims about objectivity and truth — especially in the age of‘post-truth’ politics, when post-modernism is seen as a harbinger of and foundation for fake news, lies, and disinformation. However, these claims are generally unwarranted and grounded in poor understandings of what post-modern philosophers were arguing. Post-modern approaches to discourse do not demand that we reject ‘facts’, and they do not advocate for politicians to lie. Rather, the aim of discourse analysis is ‘to recognise how particular ideas and practices gain the status of “facts” or “common sense” knowledge as a result of the way in which they are represented, abstracted or interpreted’ (Crilley and Chatterje-Doody 2018, 2). It is to understand the ways in which ‘“truths”are mobilized and meted out’ (Epstein 2005, 13).
An approach that places its attention not on the validity of truth claims but rather on the ways in which they are mobilised may seem like an odd approach for the study of disinformation — particularly in times of war when the stakes are high. But, on the contrary, attention to discourse can reveal important dynamics that may be overlooked by other approaches to propaganda, framing, or strategic narrative. This is best illustrated through an example. Jean Baudrillard’s collection of essays about the first Gulf War — The Culf War Did Not Take Place (1995) — are often ridiculed on the grounds that the Gulf War did, of course, take place. As war was waged, lives were lost, and so it may seem irresponsible — it may even seem like disinformation itself — to claim that it did not take place. However, this is not the point of Baudrillard’s work at all, which does, indeed, recognise, and is astutely aware of, the human cost of the war. Instead, what Baudrillard is claiming with his provocatively titled analysis is that the overly sanitised representation of the Gulf War — with a focus on precision missiles affixed with cameras, war reporting in which no casualties were shown, and computer simulations of what was happening in the desert — served to limit how audiences comprehended the war and the armed violence being used against other people in far-away places.
Subsequently, approaches interested in propaganda, framing, or strategic narrative may be interested in looking at how specific instances of disinformation are deployed by governments at war or in evaluating the truthfulness of certain claims made by governments in conflicts. But attention to discourse can reveal how ‘facts’, accurate information, the ways in which they are communicated, and the representation of an entire war — such as Baudrilliard’s analysis of Western coverage of the Gulf War or other studies of more recent conflicts (Butler 2010; Der Derian 2009; Stahl 2010) — can themselves approximate disinformation. Moreover, a broader approach to discourse can reveal aspects of disinformation that may be overlooked by studies of strategic narrative. For example, recent work on the Russian state-funded international broadcaster RT has found that its coverage of the Syrian conflict does not provide a clear strategic narrative that fits with the foreign policy goals of the Russian government — rather, it is much more reactionary and attempts to seize discourse and shape meanings as events unfold on the ground (Dajani et al. 2019). Ultimately, however, there are overlaps between the approaches identified here, and scholars often work with several of these concepts to understand government disinformation during war.