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U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis waits for Chinese Minister of Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe before an arrival ceremony at the Pentagon, Nov. 9, 2018 (AP photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais).

Social Media Has Democratized Psychological Warfare. Can the U.S. Military Adapt?

Friday, Nov. 16, 2018

Warfare has always been both physical and psychological. As combatants attempt to injure, incapacitate or kill enemy fighters, they also try to weaken the will of their adversaries and anyone who might support them. Throughout history, warriors relied on ferociousness for that, intimidating their enemies by the way they looked or the horrible actions they took. In the modern era, militaries turned to communication technology and psychology. Soldiers were trained to craft and transmit messages and propaganda, while psychological operations became a particular military specialization.

Over time, the U.S. military got quite good at this. Psychological operators dealt with adversaries and their supporters—spreading information and misinformation—and public affairs officers used “strategic communications” to shape broader perceptions of what the U.S. military was doing and how a conflict was unfolding. Like combat tactics and strategy, psychological operations and psychological warfare were centrally controlled and carefully coordinated.

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But now, much has changed. Technology gives individuals the ability to share images of or information about a conflict with global audiences, potentially shaping perceptions more than any traditional psychological operations specialist ever could. Anyone with a cell phone and the right skill set can reach more people than even the best-equipped, old-fashioned psychological operations team. Because of technology, military operations and combat have become transparent—people in every part of the world can directly see what is taking place in real time. They no longer depend solely on official information or on what they are told or shown by journalists.

Psychological warfare has become dispersed and democratized. And the target audience for psychological warfare has expanded globally. People everywhere might be motivated or affected by what they see, read or hear—to support one side or the other in a given conflict, pressure their government to do so, or even join in directly, as was seen in the flood of foreign fighters into Syria’s civil war.

Social media is the linchpin of this seismic change in the character of conflict. As journalist David Patrikarakos notes, platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook allow individuals to “resonate globally, with a power and reach once reserved for large media institutions or governments.” Social media, according to security experts P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, has “become a battlefield where information itself is weaponized.”

This makes the psychological dimension of conflict exceptionally complex and fast-changing. Crafting and transmitting carefully coordinated messages no longer works. To remain effective in this new environment, the U.S. military needs a new capability for what can be called dynamic narrative-shaping. To fight and win on the battlefield of social media, the military must have the ability to affect perceptions both in a military area of operations and to a global audience, rapidly shifting themes and messages for maximum effectiveness.

The most effective social media and new information warriors will not think like traditional troops and may not even look or act like them.

A few nations, like Israel, have begun to grapple with the weaponization of social media and institutionalize this kind of dynamic narrative-shaping. As Hamas and its supporters became more adept at using social media to get their own messages out and shape global perceptions of the situation in Gaza, for example, as well as Hamas’ own propaganda, the Israeli Defense Forces realized that it needed to respond. So it created a special social media division within the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, full of young, social-media savvy staffers. It doesn’t look or act like a traditional military unit but has had truly strategic effects. In addition to sharing the details of its operations and posting footage quickly on Twitter, the IDF monitors the social media posts of both Hamas and Hezbollah, to asses the effect they are having on online attitudes and perceptions, and then counters them with posts and narratives of its own. All this happens at warp speed.

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Israel has long been able to take extraordinary measures in its military and intelligence services. The intense security threats it has faced since its founding made Israeli leaders tolerant of unorthodox methods. So far, the United States has remained doggedly cautious, clinging to bureaucratic structures and methods. But as Singer and Emerson point out, when social media is such a strategically significant battlefield, the big losers “are those people or institutions that are too big, too slow, or too hesitant to weave such stories. These are not the kind of battles that a plodding, uninventive bureaucracy can win.”

With bold leadership, though, the U.S. military could embrace the challenges of social media and this new terrain of information warfare. It already tolerates a degree of unconventionality in its Special Operations Forces. To be effective at dynamic narrative-shaping, that must expand even more. The most effective social media and new information warriors will not think like traditional troops and may not even look or act like them. They will be a breed apart. Many may not even officially be part of the military.

But while the need for dynamic narrative-shaping is clear, the United States remains unwilling to face the risks it will involve. That must end. The U.S. military must begin developing these capabilities if it is to compete and win on the social media battlefield. Military leaders must recognize that the necessary and equipped organizations and individuals will be very different from the rest of the armed forces—and from the type of security partners that mattered the most in the past. This will be a complex and uncomfortable endeavor, but the bigger danger lies in failing to adapt.

Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His WPR column appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.

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