Getting Past the Propaganda Barrier

Propaganda: Can a Word Decide a War? by Dennis M. Murphy and James F. White

From Parameters,  Autumn 2007, pp. 15-27.

So the question remains how the United States can succeed in wielding information as power and overcome American societal attitudes colored by our own history and that of some of our most hated enemies. How do you work within a bureaucracy that is cumbersome and slow, when nimbleness of responsiveness is essential to counter propaganda? The answer lies in both procedural and cultural change and the leadership necessary to force that change.

Procedurally, the United States must approach strategic communication as an integral part of policy development.30 To do otherwise will doom the United States to remain on the defensive in the war of ideas, something that has not worked well to date. The resulting communication plans will still be viewed as propaganda by the definition provided at the beginning of this article, but having such a plan in the development process permits strategists to anticipate potentially negative foreign reaction and possesses the proactive ability to explain the policy to all audiences. On the other hand, poor policy will not be salvaged by any message or theme that attempts to explain it. As former Pentagon spokesperson Torie Clarke said, “You can put a lot of lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”31

Failure to quickly and accurately react to propaganda cedes the international information environment to the enemy. “Quickly” is often measured in minutes, not hours, days, or weeks. The reality of instant communications means that individuals on the ground at the lowest tactical level should be empowered to respond to propaganda to the best of their ability. This requires a cultural change on the part of both individual “messengers” and their leaders. Training and education can provide the baseline competencies to equip Americans (soldiers, diplomats, or others) to appropriately respond to propaganda. But the driving force in affording the freedom to do so will come from senior leaders willing to delegate the authority necessary. This comes with an understanding that “information fratricide” may occur and with an expectation that to react otherwise takes the United States out of the information fight. A culture of information empowerment down to the lowest levels needs to be inculcated among senior government officials, permitting for clear guidance provided to subordinates, risk mitigation procedures established, and, perhaps most importantly, acceptance that this will not be a zero-defect undertaking.

Winning hearts, minds, trust, and credibility, in the end, requires a local approach. Consider a major US metropolitan area. Neighborhoods take on their own personalities, driven by socio-economic factors and ethnic and racial identity, among other considerations. Value sets are different among the diversity of communities that make up the melting pot that is a large American city. It should not be difficult then to understand how it is nearly impossible to influence perceptions among audiences in a foreign country with a “one size fits all” set of messages and actions. Long-term US presence and engagement in foreign nations allows for a deeper understanding of cultural differences. These cultural underpinnings combined with the hard work of relationship building allow for effective tailoring of messages and the successful identification of key influencers. Engagement is the key whether it is by US soldiers in their area of operations, diplomats on Provincial Reconstruction Teams, US Agency for International Development workers, or nongovernmental organizations.32 Where no US presence exists, efforts must include recruiting key individuals for US exchange programs, people who will tell this nation’s story upon their return home.

The National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication discusses the “diplomacy of deeds.” The US hospital ship Mercy completed a five-month humanitarian mission to South and Southeast Asia late last year resulting in improved public opinion of the United States in those predominately Muslim nations. Similar increases in favorability ratings occurred following the US response to the Indonesian tsunami and Pakistani earthquake.33 These low-cost, high-visibility efforts pay significant dividends in improving the image of the United States abroad. Leaders need to understand that strategic communication is more than programs, themes, and messages; it is actions as well.

But this analysis doesn’t answer the dilemma of the need for the United States to fight and win in the information environment and its inherent aversion to the “propaganda” such a fight entails. The answer lies in both the process and culture supported by a nation’s leadership. A US governmental organization selling articles (under Iraqi pseudonyms) directly to Iraqi newspapers, regardless of the legality, is asking for trouble in today’s information environment. Supporting the government of Iraq in an effort to tell its own story is a much better strategy. Leading from the rear in the information war still gets the message told while avoiding any direct confrontation with democratic ideals. On the other hand, the Office of Strategic Influence had the potential to provide focus, resources, and potentially significant results in the information war, but a few misguided articles in the mainstream press was all it took to bring about its quick demise. And so, ultimately, countering American angst over the effective use of propaganda will require strong stewardship. National leaders need to admit that the United States actually does want to (truthfully) influence foreign audiences. To do anything less abrogates the information battlespace to America’s adversaries. Attempts to influence foreign audiences, however, will almost certainly produce some bleedover to American audiences. That needs to be accepted and, with knowledge of forethought, preparations can be made to proactively educate the media with regard to these information efforts and any potential backlash. The recent initiatives to incorporate strategic communication into the policy development process are encouraging in this regard.


The National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication is a positive step in permitting the United States to compete against propaganda and proactively tell its story. Defeating an enemy whose center of gravity is extremist ideology requires nothing less than an all-out effort in this regard. But changing perceptions, attitudes, and ultimately beliefs is a generational endeavor. It remains to be seen whether processes can be instituted that endure beyond political cycles or if the nation’s leadership is capable of changing the current culture of reticence related to the application of information as power. Only then can the information battlefield be leveled and the battle of ideas won.

The usual suspects won’t let us use it and they don’t want us to counter it.  But they don’t mind disseminating the enemy’s.



Filed under PSYOP

3 responses to “Getting Past the Propaganda Barrier

  1. sue: don’t know if you saw this post, but it explains the need for a new non-perjorative word.

    the United States must fight using propaganda but faces internal criticism and backlash whenever it does

  2. suek

    It faces internal criticism and backlash because there are those who just simply don’t want us to win this war. They will hamper any effort that might support success. They are traitors, and we need to call them such.

  3. I don’t think it does us any good to call them traitors, sue. We question their patriotism and they get to play aggrieved victims and the Uncommitted think less of us.

    This Republic was founded by traitors to the Crown. They fixed it so that effectively dealing with treason is almost impossible.