CONTROL over narratives is paramount in perception management as it has a powerful effect on the imagination. However, this can sometimes backfire.
In the early 2000s, the Bush administration launched its ‘war on terror’ programme aimed at winning public approval for their policies while attempting to mitigate negative perceptions nationally and internationally. In Afghanistan, some information operations themes used by the US military included ‘the war on terror justifies US intervention’, ‘Taliban are enemies of the Afghan people, and ‘monetary rewards are offered for turning in weapons and/or capturing Taliban leaders’. US researchers found some of the material to be effective in shaping public opinion in the country but much of it was found to be inefficacious due to the development of communication materials without considering the local sociocultural landscape.
For example, many Afghans did not know what US dollars looked like, so material that offered monetary rewards in dollars was woefully ineffective. Using footage of the actual attack on the World Trade Centre elicited the same response, as much of the Afghan rural population had not even seen a television even, much less New York itself. Similarly, images of the Taliban used in the material were images of everyday Afghans. Many Afghans did not know what the Taliban leaders looked like, and were likely to associate material showing targeting of Taliban with targeting of all Afghans.
Today, the ‘war on terror’ faces a huge credibility deficit given that the US is engaging with the same Taliban, who had been demonised for decades. While the political engagement is a positive step, it nonetheless leaves a sour taste in the mouths of millions who have been exposed to two decades of information operations.
Waging war with disinformation is not the most efficient way.
A similar pattern was observed in the Saudi media coverage of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. News narratives highlighting conspiracy and politicisation along the lines of attempts by the Qatari state and media as well as the Muslim Brotherhood to destroy efforts at Saudi reforms or even religion itself were aggressively promoted, until, after weeks of denying involvement, the Saudi government admitted that he died inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. While Saudi officials originally blamed the death on an altercation inside the consulate in their coverage, this explanation was contradicted by evidence from Turkish investigators suggesting that it was a premeditated murder that had the support of the Saudi royal family. It did not help that the CIA and later the UN also found strong connections between the murder and the Saudi royal family, especially Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
While information operations backfired dramatically in the two situations, these failures shed light on the pitfalls and limitations of such campaigns.
Strategically, the US military information operations research was not thorough when it came to the target audience. The US military operation in Afghanistan was not meant to be a short one. Investing in researching the sociocultural norms of the local population may have helped develop material that could potentially have won hearts and minds. Unfortunately, though, US information operations did not seem to be aware of what would resonate with the average Afghan. Secondly, the strategy was short-sighted, perhaps even arrogant, as it appeared to never calculate the Taliban as part of a potential political solution, let alone even the need for a future political solution.
This may have led to arguably the worst impact: unrelenting cognitive dissonance that may now be a regular feature of the Afghan collective conscience as the Afghans, who after decades of being exposed to anti-Taliban propaganda, may find it hard to reconcile US promises with realities on the ground. Any goodwill that the US earned via political messaging may have been lost. Media strategy must be the result of significant research into the target audience as well as be considerate of all future scenarios to counter such effects.
One of the Saudi media’s strategies, tightly controlled by the state, was to sweep the entire debacle neatly under the carpet. Several tactics that served such a strategy, including obfuscation, denial, and dimming coverage, were applied. Tactically speaking, the Saudi media was not prepared for the proof that continued to emerge, which was subsequently leaked to the Turkish and international media, albeit in a piecemeal manner.
Waging war with disinformation is not always the most efficient way as a strong boomerang effect has resulted from the aforementioned perception management operations. Moreover, by undermining their own credibility, these governments will find a hard time moving forward to convey their narratives, since audiences will have strong prejudices and will not be easy to sway.
The writer works at TRT World Research Centre in Istanbul.
Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2019