Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. military interventions in the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq have left most observers without doubt that the U.S. and her allies would triumph against any plausible adversary in the event of a full-scale, conventional war. Whilst there are certainly no misgivings to the incredible military power of the United States, the contemporary characteristics of our mutual enemies and the types of warfare in which we are engaging are anything but conventional.

Objectively, the ousting of the Taliban government and the toppling of Saddam’s regime were never going to be a match for the superior military power of the U.S. One of the most challenging aspects of these conflicts in the years proceeding, however, has been the balancing of coercive diplomacy and this unquestionable firepower with the soft policies that are essential to the success of counterinsurgency warfare. Too much of either will negate the effectiveness of both, but both are essential to this contemporary conflict and must be implemented in order to achieve strategic success.

Strategic communication is an example of soft policy and has been defined as those “efforts to understand and engage key audiences to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for the advancement of [government] interests, policies, and objectives through the use of coordinated programs, plans, themes, messages, and products synchronized with the actions of all instruments of national power.” It is a “whole-of-government approach, driven by interagency processes and integration that are focused upon effectively communicating national strategy.” Strategic communication objectives must be transmitted to a key audience via a medium, and no other medium has ever existed with a greater targeting power than that of social media.

In today’s globalised and technologically advanced world, social media is a new battlespace that the military must confront and dominate for a number of critical reasons. When a developed and democratic nation commits its military resources to manage a problem there is undoubtedly a high level of accountability that must accompany any such force mobilisation. Whether it be war-like operational service or peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, the military needs to actively engage social media outlets to distribute its strategic messages and generate public support for its actions. An excellent example of this was the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF) utilisation of Facebook to deliver its soft political objectives during Operation Protective Edge. The IDF and Israel are truly well-accustomed to Hamas’s manipulation of mainstream media for its own political objectives; failing to provide a counter-attack would have been detrimental to its own strategic endstate.

The New Media and Countering Terrorism
IDF Uses Social Media During Operation Protective Edge (Courtesy Twitter)

In today’s day and age, no news is not necessarily good news, and any gaps left open in the infosphere battlespace can either leave the public to create and reinforce their own opinions, or leave voids which will be taken advantage of by an adversary. Special Operations Forces are a classic example of force elements carrying out their operations in the utmost of secrecy with minimal or no media coverage of their actions. Whilst our reasons for following this protocol clearly outweigh the reasons to abandon it, it can leave a gap in information flow which can be exploited by the enemy for their own propagandist agendas.

Modern day terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) have become experts at exploiting social media, which they use to achieve “maximum attainable publicity as an amplifying force multiplier in order to influence the target audience(s) in order to reach short term and midterm political and/or desired long-term end states.” Even the Taliban, who despise Western technology and part of whose objectives was to return Afghanistan to the Middle Ages, actively engage in social media outlets such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to further their own cause.

Past terrorist organisations understood the force-multiplication effect that the media had on their operations (i.e. the IRA, PLA, RAF, Black September etc.) and the new media sphere has taken this relationship to the next level. Put simply, we cannot afford to leave this information battleground to our collective enemies to disseminate their anti-Western rhetoric and advocation of violence against us.

The acknowledgement that the “information domain truly is a battlespace,” and that the “acquisition of favorable media coverage supporting regional and national political objectives should be equated with seizing a form of key terrain,” highlights the importance of new media strategic communication initiatives.

The early failures of a number of Western governments to provide effective counter-rhetoric concerning Afghanistan and Iraq generated relentless criticism, as well as provided our enemies with fuel to add to their extremist fires. Meticulously planned strategic communication policies have the ability to influence far-reaching audiences and positively affect a government’s OPRs (Organization-Public Relationships). Detailing achievements on social media such as successful population-centric operations (i.e. building of new roads, schools etc.) cannot only contribute positively to a government’s OPRs, but if done so consistently, can also begin to undo the work of online radicals.

Like the proverbial onion having its layers peeled away, terrorists can be isolated from their outermost support networks as a result of effective social media engagements. Each layer that is peeled away through soft policy results in networks that no longer identify with the enemy as they realise they have a vested interest in our success. The feedback mechanisms of social media also provides invaluable information as to how the work is being perceived and what guidance needs to take place with policy or planning.

The benefits of using social media in support of military operations simply outweigh any argument which claims otherwise. Social media has all but leveled the information battlespace by giving terrorist groups communication powers that were once the sole preserve of conglomerates and governments. Governments cannot afford to slack on their digital footprint; strategic communication campaigns delivered through social media ensure that the right messages are being conveyed in support of their overall objectives while countering those of their adversaries.

As with any counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategy, though, strategic communication does have its effective limits. Once no more layers can be peeled away through soft policy, the application of violence and the military targeting of the rotten core becomes necessary, accepted, and effective.

(Featured Image Courtesy: Twitter)