Weaponizing Narrative: An Interview with Sven Hughes
Leading Expert, Sven Hughes, Reveals How and Why Information Warfare has Changed
Fake news is all the news right now. From the US Presidential Election to the civil war in Ukraine to ISIS propaganda on social media, the war of words has never been more evident since Goebbels and Lord Haw Haw, but changes in technology and communications have rendered this a fundamentally different battlespace. Information warfare does not end with leaflet drops and radio broadcasts, but now extends into every aspect of modern warfighting and requires an appropriate response.
The founder of strategic communications companies Global Influence and Verbalisation Ltd, Sven Hughes, cut his teeth in Afghanistan with the British Army’s 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group and has had a successful civilian career as an advertising copywriter and political campaign manager. Given such credentials, Warfare.Today could not think of anyone better placed to give a detailed analysis of the emerging concept of ‘weaponized narrative’.
We asked Hughes, what is weaponized narrative? And why is it important?
Sven Hughes: A weaponized narrative is a non-kinetic form of warfare. It is information warfare that seeks to undermine an opponent’s supporters, identity, and will. It is messaging that generates confusion or political and social schisms that are in line with the creator’s tactical and strategic aims. It is language that is designed to create specific perception and behaviour change to help one side, against the other.
Warfare.Today: In what ways is weaponized narrative different from old-fashioned propaganda or PsyOps?
SV: The advent of the internet and mobile technology has fundamentally changed the game. One can now burn or build any brand – whether governmental or commercial – in a matter of seconds, right around the world.
W.T: In January of 2017, the Center on the Future of War announced a new project, the Weaponized Narrative Initiative. What do you make of it?
SV: Any advocacy of the issue has to be a good thing. I’m a firm believer in the power of words, and the ability for dialogue to solve division. This should be more of a focus for the international defence sector, as well as commercial suppliers. Finding and sharing new ways to solve tensions through conversation, rather than airstrikes.
W.T: How does this approach compare with the strategies outlined in your new book Verbalisation?
Verbalisation, the book, is a ‘how-to’ guide to fast track the reader within this space: weaponized words. The aim of the book is to teach the reader what I have learnt over the last decade working in this sector. My company Verbalisation Ltd has developed sophisticated IP – especially our methodology called RAID (Rapid Audience Insights Diagnostic). The book teaches the reader how to use RAID for themselves, for their own communications projects. To better-understand the particular psychology of the audience they are targeting – and how to then craft just the right messages to influence the audience. My hope is that the book will be used by governments, peacekeepers and NGOs, to make them even more effective in their use of language to resolve conflicts.
W.T: Weaponized narrative presumes not just a target but something worth defending. In an age of cultural relativism, is there a single “truth” left to defend?
SV: No, there is never just one truth – and to that extent the term isn’t helpful, and makes one think too readily of conflict. Dialogue over division should always be the primary aim. The weaponization of words should only be considered necessary when dialogue has failed. However, from my experience, dialogue can solve the problem in 99 per cent of situations. Even dealing with the most radlicalized or hardline terrorists, there is a place for dialogue to help reduce their sense of anger and to help dilute their sense that violence is their only choice. The power of words has been underestimated for too many years. Carefully engineered dialogue that delivers peace is not only more effective, it is more morally acceptable and should always be taken seriously and given a chance, ahead of further violence.
Weaponized Narrative In Practice
W.T: How do you envisage weaponized narrative working? Would we see weaponized narrative operatives embedded with military units, would we see troll factories of fake social media accounts pumping out the message, or would it be a combination of the two? Or something else entirely?
SV: The crudest application of weaponized narratives involves flooding social media channels with distorted or untrue ‘facts’. This is the rather blunt approach that Russia has been taking over recent years. However, there is a much more sensible way of approaching these things. By working out what the audience actually wants to ‘buy’, rather than what you want to ‘sell’ them, one is able to better pattern-match the reality of the situation and introduce sensible, credible and factual arguments that make the audience pause and think about any situation from a new perspective. This takes time and a thorough understanding of your audience within their particular context. I would always advocate trying to get the audience to talk for real among themselves, rather than trying to introduce duplicitous voices into the conversation. In the long term, it’s a much more effective way to win an argument: on the strength of one’s rationale.
W.T: Recent research estimates that China has a 200,000 strong army of censors monitoring the internet and produces 488 million social media comments a year to support its interests.1 Do Western states have the resources (money, manpower and expertise) to produce weaponized narrative on the scale of Russia and China?
SV: There is no need for the West to try and match Russia or China in terms of scale. Because, the loudest voices aren’t always the ones that people want to hear. The audience is very much more sensible than that. They will seek out and consider many points of view. The key is to ensure that any counter-messaging is factual. This is the only way to become a trusted source – and, in the end, the truth will win out.
W.T: What should we learn from the challenge of asymmetric information warfare from the likes of Islamic State?
SV: Firstly, we mustn’t talk them up too much. IS really aren’t very sophisticated within the virtual space – they are just ahead of the curve. When carefully considered counter messaging is introduced online – to challenge the IS narratives – it has been proven to be incredibly successful. IS’s fanatical nonsense wilts when challenged by the truth. When the audience is shown or told what life is really like under IS; and when the human stories are told relating to the IS’s barbaric beliefs and behaviour, most people see IS for what they are. No matter how slick they make their messaging, it cannot hide the reality of their inhumanity. A sensible dialogue with online communities who are watching and listening to IS propaganda invariably manages to reduce its effect. And once the audience has understood the reality of the situation, they are often the most vociferous counter voices: ensuring that IS is challenged every day online by the very people they are trying to recruit.
W.T: You were involved with the #notanotherbrother campaign, how do we measure the success of campaigns, such as those aimed at countering ISIS recruitment?
SV: We were able to track and trace the campaign from start to finish: the baseline online conversations before the viral video was released, during the campaign, and afterwards. There was a very significant amount of interaction and sharing of the viral, as well as conversations within key online audiences as a result of the watching the video. This included very hostile messaging from IS supporters as they recognized that the viral was indeed changing people’s perceptions and behaviours. We were able to assess these dialogues, as well as the consequent behaviour of the audience – both positive and negative. There were also several emails that were sent to the campaign HQ from people who had previously been considering IS propaganda, and who were now very strongly more negative to their recruitment attempts. Finally, there was the global PR conversation that surrounded the campaign that drew attention to the messaging and inspired people to watch the viral for themselves and join the online debate.
W.T: With greater demands of legal diligence and accountability, how can Western states deploy weaponized narrative with the same spontaneity, flexibility and authenticity?
SV: Western governments shouldn’t be considering anything that breaks the letter or spirit of the law. And there really is no need. As long as they take the time to really understand their audiences, using methodologies such as RAID, and then introduce factual counter messaging, they will ensure that they are talking with, not just talking at, their key audiences. The difference is everything. To truly defend democracy, you need to believe in it. This is why I am so convinced that the arguments, beliefs and misunderstandings that are driving so much of current international extremism are most effectively challenged and reduced by dialogue. We mustn’t resort to the techniques that our enemies are using. Instead, we must ensure that we win these wars of ideas, with better ideas. Democracy and free speech aren’t always pretty – but they are the only long term solution. This is the accountable and transparent arena in which we must all argue our case against those who choose to resort to violence and fear. In time, the medium becomes the message.
W.T: News stories put out by Western militaries tend to be community relations pieces and present a soft image of the legal instruments of state violence, while news media tends to focus on shortcomings and failings (budget cuts, recruitment problems, etc.) – both undermine the image of an effective military deterrent. How can weaponized narrative respond to these ‘internal’ challenges?
SV: I am a firm believer in the need for the public and private sectors to work more closely together. If we start by examining what unites us, rather than what divides us, then we can at least work more responsibly together. This requires will and patience on both sides. The military need to open up a little to the media and not treat journalists as inherently irresponsible, and the media and private sectors need to take their sense of commercial and social responsibility more seriously, for the sake of the greater good. I have advocated for a long while that commercial brands should remove their marketing spend from news networks that constantly replay IS propaganda. The recent pressure on Facebook and other such companies in this regard is a good thing. However, it would be wonderful if the media giants took matters into their own hands more overtly. This process of building trust will take time – however, as long as we remember who the real enemy is, then I’m confident that new working relationships can be forged that keep all stakeholders happy without compromising their individual integrity.
W.T: How can militaries in the West develop effective weaponized narrative across such an extended front when so many units and individual soldiers are running their own Facebook and Twitter accounts (loss of central command), and open to influence through their own social media interactions (over-extended lines)?
SV: This is why it is imperative to define a ‘one voice’ strategy for the client, taking into account the various audiences. For example, there could have been a more effective verbal strategy to communicate the role of ISAF in Afghanistan, to both the local population, as well as the ISAF soldiers themselves. As it was, you could have asked 100 people why ISAF was in Afghanistan and you would have had 100 different answers. By defining a clear ‘one voice’ narrative, then the local population, the media, the politicians and the soldiers can at least refer back to that when discussing their day-to-day experiences. If the narrative is clear, simple, and informed by proper target-audience analysis, then there is every chance that the campaign’s core strategic aims will be reflected – at least in part – by all the various ‘amplifiers’.
Is Weaponized Narrative a Two-Edged Sword?
W.T: In trying to counter soft authoritarianism are we in danger of creating it for ourselves? (Have we already created it?)
SV: This is why it is so important that military and commercial capabilities in this space are governed and guided by a clear set of ethical and moral parameters. As long as the people who are messaging ensure that their content is factual and informed by robust target audience analysis, then there is little need to worry about authoritarianism. What worries me more is the lack of an ethical and moral code within some of the commercial sector strategic communications firms. The media is just beginning to ask questions of the conduct of some of the larger stratcoms firms, as well as their client lists – and this may well lead to some uncomfortable truths emerging from the household name agencies. As long as we have a strong and free press, as well as sensible industry regulation and oversight, then I think there is a tremendous future for the new breed of stratcoms firms who want this industry to have more of a moral compass.
W.T: With the US political scene polarized into pro and anti-Trump supporters, how can the military tackle the question of fake news? Who sets the political agenda?
SV: This all comes down to education. As long as the audience understands the tools and techniques that are being used by the ‘fake news’ teams, then there is little to worry about. Fake news will be a passing trend. This is part of the reason I wrote the Verbalisation book: to help ensure that we are all aware.
W.T: And what are the dangers of politicizing the military?
SV: Of course, militaries should never be politicized. This is a road to ruin. Thankfully, the British military is a wonderful example of a military that refuses to become political. We should be just as proud of our senior military commanders for this fact, as any of their military successes. The British military remains the international gold standard in this regard. Long may that continue.
W.T: When German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that fake news was a threat to democracy, was this really a tacit acknowledgement that news reporting had now escaped state control and that the threat was to the existing status quo? Could this actually improve the democratic process by making people more aware of attempts to control their opinions, including attempts by the state?
SV: Yes, if people are educated in relation to the fake news techniques, then this can only be good for the democratic process. The people behind the fake news stories will gradually be revealed and discredited, as will any UK stratcoms firms who have been selling these fake news techniques to countries that are not aligned with our national interests.
W.T: What are the consequences of blaming Russia for fake news in the absence of evidence or a judicial process? Is Russia becoming the scapegoat for all unacceptable opinions? Are we demonizing Russia? Where will this lead?
SV: It is quite clear that Russia has a sophisticated information operations capability. However, the solution is not to just whine about it. The onus is on us to counter any mistruths with factual counter arguments that are framed and phrased in such a way as to appeal to the particular target audiences, and be retold peer-to-peer. Russia has already learned that democracy and free speech will win out in the end. I’d suggest they look back to their recent history when using such techniques.
W.T: The British Army’s media operations and PsyOps unit now reformed as the 77th Brigade has recently been blamed for tweeting against Scottish independence, for example, showing that people already believe that the state is conspiring against them. Whether this is true or not, the potential to seriously damage the trust between the electorate and the state is clear. How can this trust be re-established and protected? Should information warfare become more transparent to allay such fears? (Could it become transparent without destroying its advantage?)
SV: Information warfare is simply a battle of ideas. Therefore, I believe it could and should always be transparent. The best way to win any argument is to be credible, truthful and timely. Deceit isn’t something that should be considered for long-term victory.
I would be very surprised if the allegations against 77th Brigade are true. They work to a very clear legal, ethical and moral code. As I understand it, they are not allowed to use any psyops techniques against their own population, for example. I believe I am right in saying that this is enshrined within the Geneva Convention. Therefore, I would suggest that the allegations against 77th are totally false.
W.T: There have been stories that China’s internal propaganda machine has escaped its master’s control, becoming more nationalistic and more aggressive than intended and actually criticizing the regime. Is there a danger that the same could happen in the West with weaponized narrative? Checks and balances? How do we target and control the weapon without incurring civilian or moral casualties?
SV: The audience is always more sensible than that. In the end, the lies will be revealed and undermine the credibility of the source. Once that happens, it’s game over for the broadcaster.
W.T: Finally, how do you see this battlespace evolving? Fifteen years ago we didn’t have LinkedIn (founded 2002), Facebook (founded 2004) or Twitter (founded 2006), where will we be in another fifteen years?
SV: I honestly believe that we are entering a golden age for British ‘soft power’ techniques. I assess that these hearts and minds capabilities will help to defuse many of the tensions that we currently see raging around the globe. It is time for dialogue over division – and the UK boasts many experts in this field. Rather than selling bombs and planes, I anticipate that we will be selling our time as consultants. Victories will be measured in wars averted, rather than wars won by kinetic means.
Image: US Army monitor Taliban communications during Operation Eagle Talon, Afghanistan, 2011.