Strategic communication and the global ‘market for allegiances’

Sina Odugbemi reviews CGCS Director Monroe E. Price’s book Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication. This article was originally posted on the World Bank blog “People, Spaces, Deliberation” and can be found here.

As you observe the transformations in the global communication environment what do you see? Do you see chaos confounded?  Do you hear ear-splitting cacophony and the alarums of discord? Or do you see an ordered system with definable laws of motion? Do you see both order and disorder at the same time? Well, one of the acutest minds devoted to the study of global communication has contributed an elegant, deeply observed reading of the global public sphere … such as it is… today.

He is Professor Monroe E. Price, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication. The new book is titled: Free Expression, Globalism and the New Strategic Communication (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Price paints a picture in two parts: a striking set of practices in global communication(s) and an evolving set of institutions.

Strategic Games, Strategic Narratives

According to Price, the dominant practice in the global communication environment is the determined deployment of ‘strategic communication’ by a variety of powerful and asymmetrically effective players. But Price’s definition of strategic communication is normative.  He says:

The campaigns of communication that interest me most for this book usually constitute a substantial  and effective effort that is initiated from outside a target society and is designed to alter an existing consensus vital to the future shape of the target society. (p.19)

And he adds that whereas thinkers like Jurgen Habermas had “ sought a public sphere relatively free of the overwhelmingly corrupting element of power-related, statist, corporate and commercial and propagandistic speech”, the reality now is that “we live in a world where bombardment by those engaged in strategic communication is practically the norm”(p. 31).

With all this bombardment going on, how are states coping? He says:

Historically, the state has been the instrument for organizing a national definition of rights and responsibilities for speech practices. That idea, that working assumption, is in perpetual tension with ideas of globalization and technologies that make boarders porous. (p. 32).

Price has always looked at strategic communication through the lens of a ‘market for loyalties’. This dates back to his earlier master work: Media and Sovereignty: the Global Information Revolution and Its Challenge to State Power(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002).  Borrowing from the earlier work, he explains the “market” as follows:

The “sellers” in this market are all those for whom myths and dreams and history can somehow be converted into power and wealth – classically states, governments, interest groups, businesses, and others. The “buyers” are the citizens, subjects, nationals, consumers – recipients of the packages of information, propaganda, advertisements, drama, and news propounded by the media. The consumer “pays” for one set of identities or another in several ways that, together, we call “loyalty” or “citizenship”. (p. 12).

When you look at strategic communication, as Price defines it, as battles in the ‘market for allegiances’, then, it is clear why the strategic players in that market look for ‘opportunities for gain’ and are often overmastered by ‘anxieties for loss”. Think about that for a while.

Price is not interested in the propaganda of global businesses and corporations, the entire phenomenon of burgeoning corporate megaphones that I discussed in a recent post. Rather, with the analytical tools set out above, the bulk of the book is an exploration of several powerful case stories:

  1. Battles over ‘narratives of legitimacy’, those ‘basic justificatory mythologies’ at the basis of power everywhere. He discusses recent examples like the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and the current troubles in Ukraine to show how dueling strategic narratives can either delegitimize a regime (and it will fall) or help to buttress it, and how strategic narratives deployed from outside like a torpedo  can hive off a section of a country.
  2. The diagnostic techniques being used by strategic communicators. He discusses information ecology research and other ways of figuring out what modes of diffusion will most effectively shape public opinion in the target country in the direction desired, even if you have questionable aims.
  3. Communication asymmetries and subversion: how strategic communicators like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) are sometimes able to outmaneuver far vaster entities, including a superpower.
  4.  Strategic communication capabilities are now seen as an essential part of ‘soft power’. He discusses the efforts being made in this regard. The riveting case study here is Iran and its commitment to information battles as “soft war”.
  5. Religions, and sects within them, as strategic communicators. This is the case story that frightened me the most. Read the book and see why.
  6. The role of NGOs in the market for allegiances. Here, Price discusses ‘democracy promotion’ by Western NGOs, including civil society strengthening and media systems development.  He rightly discusses these programs as efforts to shape allegiances and preferences in target societies. He discusses the apogee of the work and the consequent counter attack by a growing number of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships.
  7. Finally, he discusses battles over ‘strategic platforms’ or ‘media events’. Here, he presents the endlessly fascinating case of the Beijing Olympics of 2008: what the Government of China tried to do with it (as a massive global media event), and how opponents tried to hijack the strategic platform…with some success. Remember the ‘Genocide Olympics’ attack?

Strategies of System architecture

As Price explains:

The history of system design in media has an expansive sweep. Hardly a modern phenomenon, the nourishing of an architecture of information management within a state or empire’s own domain could be seen as a root characteristic of governance. This remains true regardless of technology. (p. 110). (Emphasis mine).

There is, that is, an intimate interlacing of media systems and power everywhere. So, a good part of the book focuses on battles over the architecture of information systems within countries as well as in the emerging global public sphere.  As strategic players struggle in the market for allegiances, controlling the information your citizens can access is a major arena of battle. Naturally, new technologies complicate the picture but the struggle goes on. For instance, with regard to the Internet, there is a massive on-going struggle between the global forces pushing for “One Internet” and powerful countries seeking to create nearly hermetically sealed national Intranets. Then there is the longer running battle over the control of satellite channels or what Price calls ‘new apertures for entry into previously closed markets’. (p. 216). All these new technologies are difficult to govern, tame, or regulate, but several states are trying to do these things any way they can. Many regimes believe that their very survival hangs on the outcome.

In all, this a superb book.  It is impressive in scope, breadth and ambition. It is sharply, and brilliantly observed. I was overawed by the erudition on display as well as a muscular yet fetching eloquence.

I wholeheartedly recommend it.


Featured Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by krossbow

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