Academic journal article Military Review

To Respond or Not to Respond: Addressing Adversarial Propaganda

Academic journal article Military Review

To Respond or Not to Respond: Addressing Adversarial Propaganda

Article excerpt

German political and military leaders attribute Germany's defeat in World War I in part to Allied propaganda efforts and the failure of Germany to effectively counter them. (1) By the spring of 1917, Germany was reeling from propaganda activities. Indeed, in May 1917, senior German officials met to outline a plan to combat the demoralizing effects of the Allied propaganda effort. (2) The plan included the establishment of a central agency within the Foreign Office to collect Allied propaganda and press releases, to develop programs to raise the morale of German soldiers, and to develop policy to guide propaganda activities directed at the Allies. (3) The Germans' decision to direct an effort at such a high level indicates the importance they placed on countering propaganda. Unfortunately for them, the effort came too late and was ineffective in changing the course of the war. (4)

History is replete with examples of the consequences of using or failing to use counterpropaganda measures. One of the earliest recorded was during the Peloponnesian Wars. Propagandists on both sides of the Athenian and Spartan Archidamian War (431404 BC) responded to each other's propaganda with counterassertions without directly denying the claims or acknowledging the propaganda itself. (5)

Thucydides observed that the counterassertions were always more severe than the original, concluding it was a requirement for effective counterpropaganda. (6) During World War I, the Italians conducted counterpropaganda operations against Austro-Hungarian troops by altering Austro-Hungarian trench newsletters with propaganda messages. (7)

However, history also shows that counterpropaganda efforts must be executed skillfully in order to keep them from backfiring. For example, German propaganda practitioners created an interesting counterpropaganda leaflet during the Battle of Anzio in World War II. (8) When the Allies disseminated a leaflet that described Allied successes against German positions on the Cassino Front, German propagandists attempted to counter the claims with remarks that reflected a reverse in battlefield fortunes for the Allies. The German leaflets ultimately proved futile as an attempt to discredit the Allied leaflet with American soldiers, but they did have the unintended result of being so ridiculously unbelievable that they increased the morale of the GIs. (9)

Executed by experts, counterpropaganda can have a powerful and decisive influence over an ideological adversary. For example, President Ronald Reagan delivered perhaps one of the best examples of successful counterpropaganda that had worldwide repercussions in 1987. During the 1980s, Soviet propaganda had been successful in creating the perception in Europe that then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was a leader of peace efforts. (10) While giving a speech near the Berlin Wall, Reagan exploited this perception, undercutting it with an explicit and palpable challenge:

   There is one sign the Soviets can make that
   would be unmistakable, that would advance
   dramatically the cause of freedom and
   peace. ... Secretary General Gorbachev, if
   you seek peace--if you seek prosperity for
   the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe--if
   you seek prosperity: come here, to this gate.
   Mister Gorbachev, open this gate. Mister
   Gorbachev, tear down this wall. (11)

This challenge, which so simply but clearly highlighted the hypocrisy of the Soviet Union's public pronouncements, resulted in enormous international public and political pressure on the Soviet Union. Twenty months later, in response to increasing public unrest stemming in large measure from the open challenge, East Germany opened the Berlin Wall.

Challenging Negative Adversarial Information

The issue of addressing adversarial information attacks is a question faced daily by governments and the private sector. Like Germany's experience in World War I, failure to quickly and to properly respond can result in serious consequences for a nation or other actor in the public eye. …

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