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COLUMN: NATO’s Narrative Needs


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The central thesis in a recent publication by the Head of Communications Analysis at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe is that NATO countries should adopt and project a unified definition of strategic communications that does not hinder itself with the type of prohibitions that the American military has regarding domestic influence. The author proposes a definition of strategic communications that distinguishes influence from propaganda and then considers whether or not NATO countries should engage or not engage in influence on our domestic audiences. She thinks we should.

My argument is that NATO’s Head of Communications Analysis has misidentified the primary type of conflict that NATO countries face. And in the fight we face now, strategic communications is not an auxiliary part of kinetic conflict. It is the other way around. Kinetic conflict serves the real center of gravity.

That is the heart of my analysis: the center of gravity in the fights we face now is the narrative space. The ancient truth that war is ultimately a psychological endeavor has been augmented by recent cognitive science. What we now know about cognitive processing demonstrates that the deeper foundation of the psychological is the narrative foundation of unconscious information processing. Weaponized narratives are attacking that deeper level of cognitive processing. That is what Narrative Warfare is. That is the fight we are in.

Let me begin with the faulty theoretical assumptions made in the aforementioned analysis because they are instructive as well:

  1. The author makes the distinction between informing and influencing but does not address educating nor make the distinction between informing and educating. That is problematic because education does not result from mere information sharing. I agree with the author that “informing” is inadequate, but for a different reason. My reason is that informing requires audience familiarity (conscious familiarity) with the concepts that they are being informed about.

Informing an audience, for example, that the appropriate action to take when sighting unattended baggage at an airport is to report it assumes that they know what they are looking at. In the case of “See something, say something,” that assumption is probably correct. But what if the audience does not know what they are looking at? Simply informing an audience that if X occurs, they should do Y, assumes that they know what X is and how to identify it when they see it. Most importantly, it assumes conscious knowledge. This assumption completely ignores identity triggers, unconscious processes, and motivations.

The public knows what an unattended bag at the airport looks like. From there we can inform them about what action to take when they identify one. In such a case, informing is adequate to influence behavior. But does the public recognize adversarial influence designed to undermine their trust in their government? Do they know what it looks like? Feels like? Sounds like? When faced with weaponized narratives, simply informing the public is inadequate. In this case, cognitive security requires education, not just information.

Educating domestic audiences, including militaries and law enforcement, about the way human brains process incoming information provides a prophylactic effect that makes domestic audiences less vulnerable to adversarial influence. Educating is doing something, but it is not doing influence. This leads to my second point of disagreement.

  1. I don’t think militaries should engage in domestic influence. They have enough to do in their own lane. Educators should educate our domestic populations and militaries should not lead that effort. It should be a civilian-led effort. To be clear, as a civilian educator, I do not teach people what to think. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t even teach them how to think. I teach them what thinking is, how it works, and the enormous role that unconscious assumptions play in cognitive processing.
  2. My third point of contention is that the author proposes a new definition of propaganda as a “co-produced strategic process of deception.” But meaning is always a process of co-production; propaganda is no exception. The new proposed definition does not distinguish propaganda from other forms of meaning-making.

The author says that “Inform, not Influence” is based on flawed logic and refers to Christopher Paul’s House Armed Services Committee testimony that there is no such thing as value-free information and that information passes on the values and attitudes of the speaker. That is trivially true. It’s true, but so what?

That is a true statement, but it does not go far enough. The deeper issue is that audiences are not blank slates. There is no such thing as an empty-headed audience. People are not empty heads into which information can be deposited and be categorized in the same presumed manner the speaker categorizes the information. To be clear, I don’t disagree with Mr. Paul; my point is that the problem is far deeper than speaker values.

Audiences are socialized within cultural narratives that they have internalized and those narratives will determine how incoming information is processed. That processing happens before conscious thought.

  1. The most foundational erroneous premise is that “a unified approach to communications is vital, if NATO is to properly compete and contest within information warfare.” This statement misidentifies the fight we are in. Information warfare is not the fight we are in. We are dealing with weaponized narratives. We are engaged in Narrative Warfare, not information warfare.

NATO’s Head of Communication Analysis proposes this new definition of propaganda:

“A deliberate, systemic, and co-produced strategic process of deception to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior, aimed at achieving a response that furthers the intent of the propagandist.”

So, propaganda = intent to deceive. But what if the communication is unintentionally deceptive?

If the principles of narrative identity are understood, the distinctions between propaganda/influence/strategic communications/information become less important because something much more fundamental is at work.

Shifting definitions is just shifting definitions. Let’s get to the foundational problem with the analysis provided by NATO’s Head of Information Analysis because we cannot solve the problem from within the same conceptual apparatus that created the problem in the first place.

We need to get clear about the kind of fight we are in. Information warfare is conflict over information and that assumption gets us thinking about censorship in all manner of lethal variety. But that is not the fight we are in, so that is the wrong tactic serving the wrong strategy in the wrong fight.

We are in Narrative Warfare whether we know it or not. And so far we have been participating by default. We are participating by being the object of narrative attacks. In many cases, our own information has been used against us.

While we busy ourselves redefining terms in an antiquated conceptual system, our adversaries with less than an eighth of the hard power capacity of the United States, have been dominating the center of gravity – the narrative space. Dominating the narrative space has nothing to do with having the most information, the most accurate information, or the most secure information. It involves determining the meaning of the information. Having lots of secure accurate information doesn’t do us any good if our adversaries get to decide what it means.

Source : Hstoday

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