Counterpropaganda: An Important Capability for Joint Forces

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By Christian Cali and Marc Romanych, Major USA (Retired)

Editorial Abstract: The authors address a topic given little attention in current IO doctrine and planning, counterpropoganda. With the explosion of low cost, easily accessible media production and communication capabilities, any individual or group can access a wide target audience to spread a message. Countering propaganda must be given more attention by IO planners.


What role, if any, does IO actually have in countering propaganda?  Current IO doctrine pays little attention to this increasingly important supporting IO capability.  A review of doctrine reveals a lack of guidance and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) for counterpropaganda.  In fact, JP 3-13,  Joint Doctrine for Information Operations, mentions counterpropaganda only five times and fails to include a discussion on how IO staffs implement propaganda countermeasures that involve IO capabilities other than psychological operations (PSYOP).

Furthermore, Joint doctrine casts  counterpropaganda operations in a passive light, defining it as activities “that identify adversary propaganda, contribute to situational awareness, and serve to expose adversary attempts to influence friendly populations and military forces.”1 This perspective incorrectly implies that counterpropaganda commences upon discovery of opponent propaganda and therefore does not actively seek to mitigate propaganda’s effects before its onset.  In reality, in today’s operating environment, propaganda and counterpropaganda are ongoing phenomena, and the most effective counterpropaganda measures are pro-active in nature.

This article presents a different view, arguing that Joint forces must expand the scope of counterpropaganda beyond the realm of PSYOP, to the employment of other IO capabilities that can actively counter hostile propaganda, and for that matter, to counteract any opposing information, to include misinformation and disinformation.2

What is Propaganda?

The DoD definition for propaganda is “Any form of communications in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.”3 However, the use of “national” is a misnomer.  As the costs of spreading propaganda decline, many non-state actors are now capable of disseminating propaganda on a scale equal to the old state model.

Historically, the sources of mass propaganda were government-sponsored entities or well-funded groups.  But now, with the advent of the Information Age, propaganda is becoming less centralized as non-state actors – political movements, insurgencies, and even social causes — can afford mass communications means.  Furthermore, classical propaganda forms and media such as art, architecture, opinion-editorials, posters, and novelty items are being supplanted by new innovative electronic forms such as interactive web sites, quality videos, and podcasts.  As these and other information technologies become cheaper, the use and localization of propaganda will increase among our adversaries and their target audiences.  For these reasons, it may be more useful to think of propaganda as the manipulation of information to promote attitudes and behaviors that advance the ideology and objectives of its sponsor.

Analyzing Propaganda

Army FM 3-05.301, Psychological Operations Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, is the doctrinal reference for counterpropaganda.  It details how to embed counterpropaganda into the PSYOP planning and development processes.  This article does not argue for the removal of primary responsibilities for propaganda analysis and counterpropaganda activities from PSYOP personnel, who are typically the most qualified and experienced personnel for those activities, but rather, is concerned with employing all Joint force IO capabilities by building upon established PSYOP processes.  This position is in line with PSYOP doctrine which states, “All elements of IO can and will support the counterpropaganda plan, but the focal point for such operations should remain with the PSYOP forces.”4

To effectively counter opponent propaganda, the Joint force must first understand the environment in which the propaganda exists.  Under the best of circumstances this is a difficult task, as effective “propaganda includes the reinforcement of societal myths that are so deeply imbedded in a culture that it is often difficult to recognize a message as propaganda.”5 Generally, propaganda will be effective when its lines of persuasion match the existing attitudes of the receivers.6

For the purposes of IO, propaganda is the opponent’s argument that justifies its actions and bolsters its legitimacy.  By communicating with the populace, and at times our forces, the opponent offers a window into its philosophy, goals, objectives, and operations.  Therefore, propaganda may provide a useful insight into how to defeat the adversary in the information environment.  One way to establish the context of propaganda is to determine the interrelationship between information indigenous to the operational area and the culture and history of the target audience.  Much of this information is often available in the PSYOP appendix to the command’s operations plan.  The IO staff can enhance this effort by expanding its intelligence preparation of the information environment to include PSYOP target audience analysis.

Center for Security Policy

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