Book review: Propaganda and Counter-terrorism

First published in 2015, Propaganda and Counter-terrorism has gained increased relevance in recent months, as the world comes to terms with the power of propaganda to affect dramatic social and political change.

At the time of writing, there are just days to go before Donald Trump takes office as US president, among the furore of fake news and accusations that have surrounded his campaign from the beginning. Propaganda has never been more relevant, especially in our digital age, where technology has the power to obscure identity, location, and source – along with the concept of truth itself.

Set in the context of a post 9/11 media environment, the book explores how the British and US governments adapted their propaganda strategies to address the perceived threat of global terrorism, which became top of the agenda after 9/11. In the resulting Iraq War, both sides collaborated not only to fight Al Qaeda, but also to produce propaganda of all stripes. Their goal: to change hearts and minds, both at home and in the theatre of war itself.

But, as Propaganda and Counter-terrorism reveals, that was not the only goal. Through extensive interviews with high-profile sources, including journalists, military officials and defence analysts, author Emma L. Briant explores the unseen story of post-9/11 propaganda. She shows on how the UK and US aimed to change existing propaganda systems, seen as ‘outdated’ within a fast-evolving global media landscape where messages could travel at lightning speed across disappearing boundaries.

Early on in the book, Briant dives into a deep unpacking of the terminology used. She defines propaganda as the ‘deliberate manipulation of representations, with the intention of producing a desired effect among the audience.’

Briant points out that propaganda can involve facts as well as untruths, and does not always have to be perceived in a negative light. She lays out the different categories of propaganda, from white (truth), to grey (uncertainty), and black (lies). One could argue that the use of ‘fake news’ in the US election is a perfect example of grey propaganda.

In subsequent chapters the book deconstructs Anglo-American collaboration in propaganda efforts, power-sharing within the relationship, methods used and mistakes made. There is a key focus how the ‘war on terror’ narrative was constructed and delivered, not just by government, but also by many social institutions including the media.

The book includes a case study of the Iraq War, which some sources describe as ‘tragedy and farce’ and a ‘failure of journalism’. The problems arising from this failure have been far-reaching, fuelling anger and resentment within Iraq that has led to unending conflict. The resulting destabilisation has created an opportunity for the rise of ISIS; a brutal terrorist group with the most advanced propaganda ever seen.

In the final chapter, Briant examines how US/UK-led attempts to counter terrorism risk denial of dissent within society, both at home and abroad. She refers to ‘democracy building propaganda’, which shows ‘sustained lack of understanding’ of non-Western cultures, while building a disproportionate fear of terrorist attacks among foreign audiences. This is problematic as it encourages a view of ‘us and them’, which is harmful and hampers efforts to build international cooperation.

My concern is that the view of ‘us and them’ is only getting stronger. We now live in a Trump-led world, which is veering towards increased nationalism, where borders are reinforced and societies encouraged to look inwards, glancing outwards only with fear. As Briant highlights in her closing chapter, ‘dominative foreign propaganda cannot create lasting peace and stability, indeed it shuns true intercultural understanding’.

One of the book’s main strengths is its analysis of extensive source material, which draws on the expertise and insider knowledge of numerous defence, intelligence, security and PR professionals, both in the public and private sectors. These are the people at the coalface of propaganda planning and delivery.

Their input gives the book a distinct authority and instils the reader with confidence in the ideas expressed. Ideally, I’d have liked to see Propaganda and Counter-terrorism examine the role of social media, fake news, post-truth and so on, in shaping approaches to propaganda, but realise this was probably outside the scope of this book at the time of writing. Perhaps a follow-up is due soon.

Propaganda and Counter-terrorism is an important read, if not always an easy one due to the sheer depth of source material contained within. This makes the book a heavyweight in its field, and readers who persevere will gain a host of new insights and intersections relating to the role of propaganda now and in the future; an invaluable understanding in the current climate.

Istanbul: Next target in ISIS narrative?

ISIS opened 2017 with yet another attack, this time targeting Istanbul. The Reina nightclub shooting, which killed 39 and injured over 40 during the early hours of New Year’s Day, is the first attack on civilians in Turkey that the terrorist group has officially claimed. The gunman remains on the run at the time of writing.

Mass attacks on civilians have become an ISIS hallmark. In Turkey, the goal to kill civilians differentiates ISIS from other groups who have launched similar attacks, such as TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) or the PKK. Both of the latter (which are linked to each other) tend to target military and/or police targets, instead of civilians (although they can often be killed in the process).

Turkey – and Istanbul in particular – has suffered many terrorist attacks during 2016. Three notable incidents were the Ataturk airport bombing (June), the Sultanahmet suicide bombing (Jan), and the Istiklal Street suicide bombing (March). Interspersed with these have been numerous TAK and PKK-claimed bombings aimed at taking down police and military targets.

There have been other ISIS-attributed attacks in Turkey, such as the November 2016 Diyarbakir car bomb, but none as deadly as the Reina shooting. This style follows a pattern already seen elsewhere, with the Orlando nightclub shooting and the Bataclan shooting in Paris. Although ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi officially claimed the Diyarbakir attack, that was aimed at police. The Reina shooting represents the first time ISIS has claimed an attack of this nature against civilians in Turkey, a Sunni-majority country. It’s important to note that most of the victims at Reina were Muslims.

So why has ISIS changed the modus operandi of its attacks on Turkey? One theory is that, in the past, the group considered Turkey an essential gateway for foreign fighters to reach its heartland in Syria. This theory could have been valid when the borders were still porous in 2014, but makes less sense now that they have been closed. It is also questionable in light of recent ISIS attacks on Turkey, which have killed many Turks and other Muslims. Why would ISIS attack Turkey if Turkey were still covertly helping it?

Another idea, explored in more detail here, suggests that ISIS tailors its attacks to resonate more effectively with specific audiences. Knowing the group’s tendency to follow best practice in content strategy, this would seem logical. Killing Sunni civilians (as in the Reina attack) would seemingly contradict the interests of the main ISIS support base. Killing your target audience is probably not the best way to engage with them…But somehow ISIS is able to justify its actions enough to retain influence and make them work within its propaganda narrative.

The new focus on Istanbul as an ISIS target could also fit within the original ISIS narrative as outlined in the group’s propaganda magazine Dabiq. The magazine talks at length about the many battles leading up to the conquest of ‘Constantinople’ (as Istanbul was known during Crusader times), which precedes the final showdown against the ‘Crusaders’ (i.e. Western coalition forces). If ISIS and its supporters are still following this narrative, it is possible that the latest attack on Istanbul is a natural progression along the apocalyptic storyline of ISIS propaganda.

Could this ISIS-claimed attack on ‘Constantinople’ really be a deliberate step towards fulfilling another part of the Dabiq propaganda narrative? From an ISIS perspective, Muslims who frequent nightclubs (and most likely drink alcohol) would be seen as apostates – and hence, in the mind of an ISIS adherent, their killing would be justified. That, combined with the Turkish army’s recently increased offensive against ISIS in Syria, could be reason enough to put Istanbul in the firing line. Unfortunately, it seems we can expect more attacks on Istanbul during 2017, as the conflict between the Turkish state and ISIS ratchets up even further.

 

Fake armies: A field guide to astroturfing

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”
― Edward L. Bernays

It sounds so Orwellian; the world’s opinions shaped by vast armies of bots, or by paid groups of teenagers in Macedonia. But far from being a 1984 nightmare come to life, this scenario has become reality; and not just in authoritarian states. Technology is now used to drown out the voices of real people, creating an alternate reality where fake opinions rule and the zeitgeist is based on myths.

What is astroturfing exactly?

Astroturfing is where paid groups or automated technologies (‘bots’) fool the public into believing that certain opinions are more popular or widespread than in reality. It’s used in many arenas, from political campaigning to Amazon reviews. With the increasing influence of social media it’s difficult to tell fake from fact. Astroturfing is especially likely to happen whenever the interests of big business come into conflict with those of the public, for example climate change and big oil, or lung cancer and tobacco companies. To challenge scientifically proven fact should be an impossible endeavour, as surely nothing is more sacred than fact? But in a world led by fake news and paid opinion, the word of experts has been cheapened. In fact, many people no longer trust experts at all. This was demonstrated to devastating effect this year during the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential elections in the United States.

When did astroturfing begin?

Astroturfing is not a phenomenon of the digital age. It’s been going on since before social media began. Back in the days of print newspapers, so-called ‘concerned residents’ would send a barrage of letters to the editor, especially around election times, to protest against certain policies or candidates. Now that newspapers have gone online the armies of astroturfers have headed to the nearest obvious outlet: the comment sections. From there, it’s an easy step to create multiple identities and start posting comments. Forums are another prime target for astroturfers, along with blogs and of course, social media. Have you ever felt a sense of despair when reading the comments under a newspaper article posted on Facebook? They seem to bring out the worst of human nature, but some of them could be astroturfers. In our low moments, when we feel the world is doomed to a constant cycle of bigotry, xenophobia and fear, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that the rabid anti-Muslim or anti-foreigner comments online could simply be the work of some bot army.

What’s the role of technology in all this?

As technology advances further, astroturfing gets more sophisticated. Russia has a particular talent for harnessing the power of fake opinion on a massive scale, using something called ‘persona management software’. This software creates bot armies that use fake IP addresses to hide their location, along with generating authentic-looking ‘aged’ profiles. There’s almost no way to tell bot from human – and that’s where the real danger lies. Fake opinion en masse can have alarming results; shifting the social and political mood and whipping people up into hysteria over issues minor or even non-existent.

Thanks to the online echo chambers that we live in these days, fake opinion can spread with ease once sown. It becomes further reinforced and legitimised by ongoing social sharing and discussion. Most social media users get their news from within a bubble, as algorithms do their utmost to show only the updates that the user is most likely to engage with. This means there’s less chance of people being shown opinions that challenge their existing worldview. That’s a recipe for disaster – and it’s one that we’ve only just begun to understand the significance of.

What are the implications of astroturfing?

Politics in 2016 is fishy business. In particular, the Trump election campaign is extremely suspicious. There have been claims that Russia used its cyber warfare prowess to interfere in the US elections; in the end putting Trump in command of the country. Notably, Russia has been accused of using its hackers to access Wikileaks to produce a leak of thousands of incriminating emails supposedly sent by Hillary Clinton. This move eroded public trust in Clinton and narrowed the gap between candidates by double digits. Again, like astroturfing, this technique is not new. Orchestrating the right conditions to encourage people to act in a certain way has been used for decades. The father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, used it to great effect in the early 20th century, to sell pianos and bacon, and cause regime change in Guatemala.

Having Trump in power is very much in Russia’s interests. Trump is inexperienced in politics, especially foreign policy, making him very much open to manipulation from afar. He has a reputation for being greedy, meaning he can be easily bought. He has already said publicly that he favours anon-interventionist military policy abroad. For the Kremlin, a Trump presidency is Russia’s very own puppet in the White House. It’s the Cold War revisited, with Russia scoring a massive coup against the US. Only this time Russia has technology on its side, propelling its influence all the way into the corridors of American power. The Soviets couldn’t have hoped for anything like it.

Controlling the zeitgeist via propaganda and astroturfing has reached new heights in this fundamentally connected age where the concept of ‘post-truth’ is rapidly gaining currency. That’s a serious concern; it makes a mockery of democracy and free speech, destroying the validity of the internet as a forum for useful online debate. Soon we won’t know what’s bot and what’s not. In this post-truth, Trump-tainted era, one could well argue that is already the case.

Shifting realities: The art of propaganda

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
– Noam Chomsky

Reconfiguring reality

Edward Bernays, who some call the ‘father of propaganda’, had an approach to PR that was ground-breaking in his time. He didn’t just try to push the features of a product or an idea, as so many ad-men were doing in those days. Instead, Bernays created campaigns that attempted to shift society’s configuration of reality, to create fertile conditions and a perceived ‘need’ for the product or idea he’d been tasked to peddle.

For example, when Bernays was marketing bacon to the American public, via the ad vehicle of a ‘hearty breakfast’, he assembled a panel of doctors and persuaded them to give bacon their seal of approval. With expert approval of the product, a shift could now begin in the population’s perceptions of reality, eventually reaching the point where it would see bacon as the perfect breakfast item.

The foundations had been laid; now the selling could happen with ease. Bacon started to fly off the shelves, and soon became embedded in the American social psyche as the perfect, filling breakfast, where it remains to this day, despite much evidence to the contrary. Bernays’ aim was long-term; not to persuade the buyer that they needed the product right now, but to ‘transform the buyer’s very world’ so that the product appeared to be utterly desirable.

From products to politics

Bernays also applied this technique, far more dangerously, to political campaigning. In 1953 he used it on behalf of the United Fruit Company, to orchestrate a campaign that brought down the government of Guatemala and turned it into a fascist dictatorship – all to create more suitable conditions for United Fruit to make more profits. The campaign began by creating and spreading the myth that Guatemala was at risk of communist subversion.

Once this myth became widely believed, the United Fruit Company was able to persuade the Eisenhower administration, via the CIA, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala. What was in it for United Fruit? An uninterrupted source of bananas and pineapples, picked cheaply by local labour and sold for big profits in the United States.

The newest propaganda 

If propagation of such a myth could cause regime change in the 50s, a pre-digital age, what could similar campaigns achieve today, with so many more tools at propagandists’ disposal? Bernay’s calculating antics with United Fruit offer parallels with today’s alarming rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement. This movement seemingly emerged from nowhere, but from there, became influential enough to propel Donald Trump into the White House, borne on a swelling tide of populist fear, hatred, and bigotry.

Among other things, Trump voters responded to a constant tide of media messages detailing horror stories of terrorist attacks and ISIS atrocities. The link between those stories and Muslims, refugees (mainly Muslims) and foreigners in general was cleverly and cynically drawn.

Once the seeds of this hysteria took root, it became easy to stoke it high enough to shift the public’s perceptions of reality. In short, to create fertile conditions for the ‘alt-right’ to go mainstream and elect their presidential candidate. Or, over the Atlantic, for the public to vote against their interests and decide on Brexit. Both outcomes were so extreme that many didn’t expect them. But, just as Bernays did all those years ago, with products as mundane as bacon and pianos, so these campaigns were once more executed to a tee. The conditions were created, and the ‘product’ quickly sold itself.

Emotion over reason

Critics of Bernays contend that the public is not one big mass that can be easily manipulated, with opinions drip-fed into their passively waiting brains. This critique is especially relevant in these days of independent media, where alternative opinions can be sought at the expense of a simple Google search. It’s valid, to an extent, but on the other hand the power of emotion, especially fear, is such that it can override the logical parts of the human brain. When this happens, the resulting fight or flight response can make even the most logical human being abandon reason for emotion.

The pervasive power of media messages is hastened along even further by the enormous reach of social media, distilled into a concentrated force by people’s own digital echo chambers, until it finally seeps out to unveil a grand result – a fearful population that no longer knows what’s true and what’s not. In this milieu, fear of the ‘other’ seems to make perfect sense. And who better to save us than a self-styled strong leader, a straight-talker who refuses to be bound by political correctness, who makes lofty promises for change that would seem to quell our nastiest fears?

Perhaps it really is all a big propaganda campaign and populations on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen for it. The question remains now – who stands to benefit? And who is running the show?