This post is part of a series related to the upcoming 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar on Media and Diplomacy: Triumphs and Tragedies: Media and Global Events in 2014, which will take place in Vienna, Austria from April 19-21, 2015. The 2015 seminar is jointly organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies (CGCS) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation (AAF), and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna (DA). For more information, visit the seminar webpage and Facebook page.
Over the last year there has been startling advances in how actors—constructive and destructive—are using information to not only to influence foreign policy debates, but change facts on the ground. From Crimea, to Syria, to Northern Nigeria, to Hong Kong, media is no longer a platform for competing ideas. Today, media has the power to reach through the screen to activate some for action or suppress others interest in action. Foreign policy leaders cannot be effective if they don’t appreciate how media shapes actions. Too often in policy deliberations information is just considered an output (“we need to counter disinformation”) and not an input that limits or expands their ability to act.
Information war is now the main type of war, preparing the way for military action.
– Dmitry Kieselyev, President, Rossiya Segodnya
There always has been a latent power in media to move masses; in a networked world it has reached a new level of power. While emotion and reinforcement of beliefs help trigger mass response, the skilled media expert has a fine grain control in engaging audiences across a range of channels; moving people from television to social media account to mobile to the streets (or not, if that is the desired outcome) and back again. What started as sophisticated spin in the modern political campaign is now “weaponized” for states and non-state actors to influence and direct audience members and policy makers alike.
Peter Pomerantzev has accurately described the current situation within Russian media as not an “Information War,” but a “war on information,” where a grain of truth legitimizes a lie, or a blizzard of lies becomes truth.
We all know there will be no real politics. But we still have to give our viewers the sense that something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. So, what should we play with? Shall we attack oligarchs? [He continued,] Who’s the enemy of this week? Politics has got to feel like…like a movie!
– Peter Pomerantsev quoting “one of [Russia’s] most famous political TV presenter” in The Surreal Heart of the New Russia: Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (2014)
The sophistication of media manipulation would not have been possible without the explosive growth of media channels; the exponential rise of cable and satellite channels, the hundreds of millions of new mobile phones and social media accounts and the billions of videos and web pages. Successful media influencers today are winning because they are good, not lucky. Media influencers that have risen to the top have flourished in the evolutionary churn of complex and tightly competitive media markets.
Most commentators focus on the wrong end of the process. While they have added a layer of sophistication with trend, sentiment and network analysis, for the most part all come to just describe the end product, whether that is #bringbackourgirls, the 45,000+ ISIL tweets daily or the billion views of RT. Like most people we become enamored of the content, the shiny object.
The smart actors, the sharks swimming under the surface, focus the key building blocks of message discipline: know your audience, content strategy leads platform decisions and conventional wisdom is more powerful than reality.
The first principle is that nothing is spontaneous. Whether the “color revolutions,” the “Arab Spring,” or the invasion of Crimea, they are built upon dedicated groups of individuals who nurture precipitating events and then wrap those events in a popular uprising constructed through the skillful use of media. In order to do that, they need to understand and know the audience. The mass audience is secondary: the real goal is triangulating around a core group of influencers by preparing them for an action when events make it propitious.
The second principle is that platform follows content. For those who seek to influence, there is a laser focus on how to encode goals and objectives into content that survives the crosscurrents of social networks. Violent extremist messaging is instructive: there is a well-developed “Six Core Assertion” model for their information.
(1) Decline – the world has gone wrong.
(2.) Divide – the enemy hates us and all that we believe.
(3.) Crisis – we have to act now.
(4.) Method – violence is necessary.
(5.) Remain True – we must not be contaminated.
(6.) Reward – if we succeed as a group, we will succeed as individuals.
The goal of the influencer is to play out those assertions one-at-a-time, with discipline, across multiple platforms. Because each leads to the next, and they need to remain potent through endless sharing from influencers to masses, the messages themselves must be short, direct and emotionally powerful.
The final principle is that, like concrete, conventional wisdom is harder to chip away if left to sit. To be influential you do not have to be right. It is just as good to tell a thousand lies, as it is to wrap a small truth with a powerful lie. This is just basic economics; when it is easy to distribute content over a hundred separate channels as it is one, the opportunity to change the media environment and bury the audience is simple. The form of conventional wisdom largely depends on your audience, but also your resources. If you are Vladislav Surkov fighting a “non-linear war,” you have multiple television, radio stations, and even a whole social network available to you staffed by paid trolls. If you are ISIL, you leverage the platforms that the West has so conveniently provided you.
Today, actors both within and without the government are effectively using media to stage manage foreign policy and how that policy plays out in shaping options, obscuring actions and establishing conventional wisdom on what is right, what is wrong and what is to be acted upon. Media influencers are adopting sophisticated models from the commercial world and political campaigns, but not using them to “win the news cycle,” rather to shape the choices of statecraft. What is lagging behind is our appreciation of these strategies and how they are incorporated or combated in our foreign policy discussions. Too often leaders and decision makers see information as an output to foreign policy, and not an input. I believe 2014 and 2015 are proving them shortsighted.
Director of Global Strategy
Robert Bole leads strategy for US international media, comprising of five separate media organizations that reach 218 million weekly audience in 60+ languages in over 100 markets. As the chief corporate strategy officer, he oversees the formation and execution of BBG’s global growth and development strategy encompassing its television, radio, digital and mobile platforms. Bole leads a range of business operations for BBG’s media development by growing its 2,500 affiliate partnership, producing editorial and digital product innovation, providing research and data insights and performance review of both media and management activities. In his role, Bole is also the lead in formulating and coordinating BBG’s media and platform response to crisis, such as expanding Russian language television and digital programming.