Keith Slack is a serving officer in the Royal Air Force and is currently studying at the Defence Academy and with King’s College London. He is completing a Masters in Research on “Information Power” and has extensive experience in the projection of information power in current and past operations.
As exclaimed by infowars.com, “there’s a war on….for your mind”.[i] Who is winning this war and what does winning look like? If the UK is losing, which anecdotally and superficially some may believe, what would it need to do, change, or even sacrifice in order to win?
These are big questions with no clear answers. What we know for certain is that never before have we had to deal with such a barrage of information that influences what we think and how we understand the world around us. Information is traded at great speed and quantity within an ever more complex information environment. Most of us are connected to this environment and only a few remain disengaged, even fewer disconnected. Access to this environment is relatively cheap, opinions are free and traded without commitment; sharing is encouraged and emotionally driven, and regulation is low if existent at all; and accountability is only subject to fleeting opinion based on likes, shares and the language of emojis. Moreover, it is often undertaken through boredom or habit rather than necessity, as our devices burn holes in our pockets and our minds need the comfort of being involved as a form of virtual and cognitive drug of knowing, being and belonging.
However, the veracity of the information we view is increasingly difficult to establish. What is true and what is false? What is opinion and what is fact? What is news and what is fake news? In the post-truth foundation of today’s information environment and public debate, there is arguably a significant and fundamental challenge to the epistemological foundation of our public discourse. In War in 140 Characters, David Patrikarakos described the nature of this environment as “sick”[ii]: information is exchanged in an attempt to project power, gain influence and achieve behavioural change commensurate with one’s objectives. Arguably this has been true throughout history; the difference today is technology enables speed and global connectivity. This is complicated enough at the personal level; at the national strategic level it becomes significantly more complex.
Most democratic and liberal governments communicate overtly in what they deem to be a truthful, open and transparent way; other governments with less accountability may have more latitude with the truth. Most governments also maintain covert organisations and structures to use information in more duplicitous ways, and have done so throughout history. With regards the UK, the Ministry of Information and Political Warfare Executive during the Second World War, the Information Research Department during the Cold War and even the Ministry of Defence during the Falklands conflict, were all accused or actively involved in manipulating or controlling information. Under the Intelligence Services Act, UK intelligence agencies conduct legally and political endorsed activities to control information, conduct deception and penetrate sovereignty to collect secrets. From a Defence perspective, deception, the tactical act of “throwing smoke left and attacking right”, is extensively referenced in our doctrine to achieve advantage over an adversary.[iii]
Many writers on strategy, war and philosophy have explored the role of information to achieve influence. The ancient Greeks embodied it in Odysseus or the concept of metis, which consisted of the utility of information, indirect methods and deceptive techniques. Sun Tzu and Clausewitz both wrote extensively on the utility of embarking on indirect, deceptive and manipulative activity, although the former was a considerably stronger advocate than the latter. Sun Tzu wrote “warfare is the way (tao) of deception”[iv]and Clausewitz expressed this concept in terms of stratagem, or “tricks of agility”.[v] Classical works and historical perspectives have thus provided a firm discourse on the use of information power to achieve influence during times of war and peace.
But what is the ‘information lever of power’? Information is one of the oldest tradable commodities; yet attaining a clear, concise and agreed definition is problematic. Power is widely regarded as a “contested concept”.[vi] The ‘information lever of power’ remains a nebulous and incoherent concept, having only been defined once in 1999. Regardless, the UK’s Joint Concept Note 2/18, Information Advantage, emphatically stated that information was a “fully fledged lever of national power”.[vii] Moreover, the current draft of UK Defence Doctrine, edition 6, is considering elevating information from an enabler to a distinct lever of national power in its own right – DME will become DIME. Yet this has been the position of NATO and the US for decades.
The capabilities included within the ‘information lever of power’ are also incoherent. There are different views regarding the inclusion of strategic communications, intelligence, cyber and cultural instruments related to soft power. More confusingly, the UK’s Fusion Doctrine did not include information as a power capability; instead the power triumvirate included security, economic and influence. Military power was subsumed under security, economic power was broadened significantly and diplomacy relegated under influence. The use of the term influence is also problematic as security and economic capabilities – indeed all activity or inactivity – achieves influence in one way or another. A recent survey of government and defence officials also provides a confused perspective. In successive questions, 78% agreed that information should be a distinct lever but, in the next question, 57% stated that it should only be an enabler. Moreover, communicators in the FCO and Cabinet Office stated the term ‘information lever of power’ was not used at all.
How the UK thinks about information power has important connotations for how it is projected. Do we project it in a Foucault, enlightened way based on our values and principles, or conduct metis-like activity to manipulate, control and deceive? If we only focus on the former, what circumstances might need to present themselves for the latter to be deemed ‘acceptable’, as history shows has repeatedly been the case? If it is linked to the existential nature of the threat, as the Second World War demonstrates, what does ‘existential threat’ look like in the information age when the delineation between peace and war is more blurred? Are we currently in an ‘existential crisis’ in a “sick” information environment? Moreover, if information power is so crucially important in the information age, then who delivers it? From a UK perspective, what ‘information’ department or ministry complements the Treasury, Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as many other Whitehall departments? There is quite rightly no Orwellian Ministry of Truth or Ministry of Information but the projection of this power must be conducted, regulated and authorised by someone from somewhere to do something. Fusion Doctrine is a step forward to cohere and align this activity but challenges remain.
The interviews provided an array of themes and factors regarding the UK’s utility of information power. Employing Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle as a framework around which to structure this thematic analysis provided illuminating insights. The elements of logos (facts, truth), ethos (credibility) and pathos (emotion) are combined and matched to a specific audience to achieve a persuasive argument. Government officials focussed on logos and ethos with very little attention to pathos. Facts and credibility were viewed with a degree of trepidation; the fear of being accused of lying was palpable. To reduce the risk, control was imposed which limited delegation and, in turn, reduced the speed of response. Potentially this could mean losing the opportunity to rebut, repudiate and respond. This was in stark contrast to academic and commercial interviewees who advocated taking more risk, increasing speed and focussing on pathos as the most important element. In short, government officials were Aristotlean in their focus on facts and academics and commercial commentators more aligned to Socrates through their focus on emotion. When one considers the nature of a post-truth information environment this is concerning. If facts and objectivity are out and emotion and opinions are in, as the Oxford definition of post-truth claims[viii], this could have disastrous consequences for an information lever of power projected more closely aligned to logos and ethos without due consideration of the power of pathos.
Information has to be seen as an opportunity not a threat. With regards Defence, the personal risk taken in the physical sense is not matched by an acceptance of risk in the information environment. There is much talk about the weaponisation of information but the general sense was that this was not matched by sufficient action. Interviewees stated that more focus is required in career development, effective training, established posts, capturing and harnessing experience, delegation, technology, familiar processes, and the ability to measure primary and secondary effects. There was also broad agreement that improvements are being made and information is firmly part of the debate, but we need to be more proactive and less reactive. We need a positive message that is creative, imaginative and appealing. Anodyne messaging must become more inspiring, dare I say it, more emotional; not full of emotion, but emotionally connected to a specific audience. It also needs greater alignment to a more technologically advanced information environment within which it is projected. Despite these advances, Aristotle’s ‘Art of Rhetoric’, the ancient Greek concept of metis and the writings of Sun Tzu remain highly relevant and much can still be learnt today. Indeed, Sun Tzu and Odysseus would revel in the opportunities presented by the characteristics of today’s information revolution to communicate information and conduct indirect action, deception and manipulation. They regarded it as a “fully fledged lever of power” long before the current information age.
[i] Singer, P.W., and Emerson T. Brooking, Likewar: The Weaponisation of Social Media (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), 208.
[ii] David Patrikarakos, War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-first Century, (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 264.
[iii] Interview with Military Officer, Ministry of Defence, 8 Jan 19.
[iv] Sun-Tzu, Ralph D. Sawyer, and Mei-Chun Sawyer, The Art of War(Colorado: Westview Press, 1994), 168.
[v] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War(London: Penguin Books, 1982), 275.
[vi] Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, Power in Global Governance(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 2.
[vii] United Kingdom, Developments, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Information Advantage, Joint Concept Note 2-18, Shrivenham: DCDC, 2018, iii.
[viii] Oxford English Dictionary, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016 (accessed 1 Feb 19).
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