“More than half of this battle is taking place on the battlefield of the media, [for] we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of [Muslims].” The speaker was not some public relations executive, but Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Terrorists have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age, but, for the most part, America and the governments of the other democracies have not. Consider that the violent extremists have their own “media relations committees” aimed at manipulating elite opinion. They plan and design headline-grabbing attacks using every means of communications to intimidate and break the collective will of free people.
They know that communications transcend borders, and that a single news story, handled skillfully, can be as damaging to our cause – and as helpful to theirs – as any military attack. And they are able to act quickly with relatively few people, and with modest resources compared to the vast, expensive bureaucracies of democratic governments.
Today we are fighting the first war in the era of e-mail, blogs, blackberries, instant messaging, digital cameras, the Internet, mobile phones, talk radio, and 24-hour news. In Tunisia, the largest newspaper has a circulation of roughly 50,000 in a country of 10 million people. But even in the poorest neighborhoods, you see satellite dishes on nearly every balcony or rooftop.
A few years ago, under Saddam Hussein, an Iraqi could have his tongue cut out if he was found in possession of a satellite dish or used the Internet without government approval. Today, satellite dishes are ubiquitous in Iraq as well.
Regrettably, many of the news channels being watched through these dishes are hostile to the West. Media outlets in many parts of the world often serve only to inflame and distort – rather than to explain and inform. While al-Qaeda and extremist movements have used this forum for many years, further poisoning the Muslim public’s view of the West, we in the West have barely even begun to compete.
We saw this with the false allegations of the desecration of a Koran last year. First published in a weekly news magazine, the story was then posted on Web sites, sent in e-mails, and repeated on satellite television and radio stations for days before the facts could be discovered. That false story incited deadly anti-American riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The United States military, appropriately and of necessity, took the time needed to ensure that it had the facts before responding that the charges were untrue. In the meantime, innocent lives were lost.
But we have begun to adapt. In Iraq, for example, the US military, working closely with the Iraqi government, has sought non-traditional means to provide accurate information to the Iraqi people. Yet this has been portrayed as “buying news.” The resulting explosion of critical press stories then causes everything – all activity, all initiative – to stop. This leads to a “chilling effect” among those serving in the military public affairs field, who conclude that there is no tolerance for innovation.
Consider for a moment the vast quantity of column inches and hours of television devoted to the allegations of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. Compare that to the volume of coverage and condemnation associated with, say, the discovery of Saddam Hussein’s mass graves, which were filled with hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis.
Free governments must make communications planning a central component of every aspect of this struggle. Indeed, the longer it takes to put a strategic communications framework into place, the more the vacuum will be filled by the enemy.
There are nonetheless signs of modest progress. Soon after the devastating earthquake in Pakistan, a public affairs team was deployed with our sizable military forces in the disaster area. They worked to help focus media attention on America’s commitment to help the Pakistani people. Public opinion surveys conducted by private groups before and after the earthquake suggest that attitudes in Pakistan regarding the US changed dramatically because of this new awareness.
Government public affairs and public diplomacy efforts are slowly beginning to reorient staffing, schedules, and bureaucratic culture to engage the full range of today’s media.
Still, government must develop the institutional capability to anticipate and act within the same news cycle. That requires instituting 24-hour press operations centers and elevating Internet operations and other channels to the status of traditional twentieth-century press relations. It will require less reliance on the traditional print media, just as the publics of the US and the world are relying less on newspapers.
This also will mean embracing new ways of engaging people throughout the world. During the Cold War, institutions such as Radio Free Europe proved to be valuable instruments. We need to consider the possibility of new organizations and programs that can serve a similarly valuable role in the War on Terror.
We are fighting a war in which the survival of our way of life is at stake. And the center of gravity of that struggle is not just the battlefield. It is a test of wills and it will be won or lost in the court of global public opinion. While the enemy is skillful at manipulating the media and using the tools of communications to their advantage, we have an advantage as well: truth is on our side, and, ultimately, truth wins out.