The digital battlefield

The principal lesson that Jamie Shea took from Operation Allied Force was that ‘Winning the media campaign is just as important as winning the military campaign’ (Shea 2002, 167). The experience in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated that militaries could not do one without the other. Yet the démocratisation of the means of media production and distribution in the mid-20005 advantaged non-state actors and made the media campaign that bit more challenging for conventional militaries. If, in the 1960s and 70s, those seeking the liberation of Palestine needed to hijack an airliner or attack an OPEC meeting to attract the attention of the world’s media, by the mid-2000s, the digital revolution in communications meant that Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban needed nothing more than a mobile phone and an internet connection to promote their causes: ‘Never before in history have terrorists had such easy access to the minds and eyeballs of millions’ (Koerner 2016).

When the US and its allies pursued the enemy leadership or their production and broadcasting facilities, they found that their targets had evaporated. Abandoning military hierarchy and disengaged from studios, transmission towers, and satellite dishes, their non-state adversaries communicated with, motivated, and directed their followers and the public via a decentralised network of semi-autonomous nodes: ‘a collection of remote hubs, which are themselves points of centralized “transmission” ’. (Jones and Holmes 2011, 161). The futility of bombing a virtual target that was concurrently everywhere and nowhere laid bare the extent to which the conduct of war had undergone a paradigm shift that brought (dis)information to its heart.

As they struggled to suppress the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US and its allies reappraised what force of arms could achieve, the weapons they needed to deploy, and the battlespaces they had to contest. Rid and Hecker describe this transformation in terms of a shift from War 1.0 to War 2.0: ‘a predominantly military exercise’, War 1.0

focuses on enemy formations, aims to interrupt decision cycles, has short duration, progresses quickly, ends in clear victory, uses destructive methods . . . and is run by top-down initiatives with a clear chain of command. The media and the public in War 1.0, are a side problem, to be ignored. Information is protected, secret, and used primarily for internal purposes.

By contrast, War 2.0, is as much a political, social, and cultural exercise as it is a military venture:

Its focus is on the population, its aims to establish alternative decision cycles, its duration long, its progress slow, its end a diffuse success at best, its methods productive (such as nation-building). ... Its initiatives often come from the bottom up, with decentralized structures of authority. The media and the public, in War 2.0, are the central battleground and they have the highest priority. Information is predominantly public, open-source, and intended for external consumption.

(Kid and Hecker 2009, 10)

As the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq settled into their insurgent phase and the struggle for the trust and loyalty of local and dispersed publics, it became clear to the US and its allies that the terrain they were contesting was human and cognitive, not topographical and inert. In their efforts to win the peoples’ trust, the militaries increasingly turned to the strategies and tactics of War 2.0, in which the core battlefield and the key weapons in the struggle were information, disinformation, and influence activities. As a consequence, Maltby (2012) notes, the media not only played a more prominent role in conflict, but, increasingly, militaries also designed their presentation of war through and for the media.

Military disinformation in Afghanistan and Iraq was driven by close cooperation between the US and British governments. Together they maintained top-down control over the war’s strategic narratives and the micro-messaging that supported them to ensure that information from the front lines both reflected and could be accommodated within the larger frames of disinformation through which the allies advanced their cause. The information arrangements for the second Gulf War offer a model disinformation campaign. Coordination began with the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, who ‘set the day’s message with an early-morning conference call to British counterpart Alastair Campbell, White House communications director Dan Bartlett, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, Pentagon spokesperson Torie Clarke, and White House Office of Global Communication [OGC] director Tucker Eskew’ (Quenqua 2003, I).16 Thus, the message ‘cascaded down to the rest of the propaganda apparatus’ from the White House (Miller 2004, 81).

The OGC’s role was to keep ‘all US spokespeople on message. Each night, US Embassies around the world, along with all federal departments in DC, will receive a “Global Messenger” email containing talking-points and ready-to-use quotes’. As a consequence, wherever they were in the world, US, British, and global publics received a consistent set of messages about the war, reinforced by saturation coverage throughout the news cycle:

When Americans wake up in the morning they will first hear from the (Persian Gulf) region, maybe from General Tommy Franks. . . . Then later in the day, they’ll hear from the Pentagon, then the State Department, then later on the White House will brief.

(Quenqua 2003, I)17

David Miller notes that this apparatus provided a constant flow of disinformation. The OGC, and through it, government departments across the US ‘fed out the lies about the threat posed by the Hussein regime including the faked and spun intelligence information supplied by the UK and by the secret Pentagon intelligence operation, the Office of Special Plans’. In the UK, the Coalition Information Centre (CIC), led by the prime minister’s press secretary, Alistair Campbell, directed

the campaign to mislead the media about the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). ... In particular it oversaw the September [2002] dossier on WMD and the second “dodgy” dossier of February 2003 which was quickly exposed as plagiarised and spun.

Beneath this upper-level coordination of messaging, Miller notes, the disinformation apparatus comprised four integrated elements that reached from the Cabinet and the foreign office right down to psychological operations (PsyOps) teams out in the field in Iraq:

First was the external system of propaganda run by the Foreign Office and coordinated by the Public Diplomacy Policy Department. Second was internal propaganda focused on the alleged ‘terrorist threat’ coordinated out of the Cabinet Office by the newly established Civil Contingencies Secretariat. Third and very much subordinate to the command and control propaganda systems in Washington and London was the operation ‘in theatre’ — the stage for the crushing of Iraq. This was Centcom in Doha, Qatar; the Forward Press Information Centre in Kuwait; and the embedded reporters with their military minders. Lastly, there were the US and UK military psychological operations teams undertaking overt and covert operations in Iraq, which were said only to target enemy opinion to break resistance.

(Miller 2004, 82)

Despite this top-down regulation, disinformation flows were increasingly deregulated as the capacity to isolate domestic consumers from foreign news sources, and vice versa, collapsed in the face of the digital communications revolution. By early 2003, just as defensive public information targeted at a domestic audience could be picked up by and influence foreign audiences, so information effects operations intended to manage the perceptions of adversary and foreign audiences could loop back to influence domestic audiences. Disinformation flowed in both directions.

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