This is a sample chapter from Qatar’s Shadow War: The Islamist Emirate and Its Information Operations in the United States.
Information operations use media and traditional tools of public relations to advance policy interests through narratives. They take place primarily within the confines of public discourse, using mass media to disseminate weaponized information. It is weaponized, meaning, it leads one to a conclusion about the topic at hand.
In an information operation, the consumer or the target is given information with which he will determine a course of action. In basic scope, information operations are campaigns of mass influence like any other, not unlike a shoe company would undertake to sell more sneakers. That shoe company is providing prospective customers, on a large scale, with public information about their product which will lead them to making the decision to purchase their product. In electoral politics, this kind of campaign is undertaken to convince a citizen to cast a vote for a particular party, and to shun another. In public affairs, a campaign would be undertaken to agitate for a policy change—either stoking public pressure on policymakers to make the change, or directly targeting the policymakers themselves.
In today’s media environment, that information might be in the form of news articles on websites, newspapers and magazines; commentary on blogs, in podcasts or on YouTube; or in television segments on cable news broadcasts. What distinguishes the information operation from other influence efforts, however, is the basis in reported news; these are wars waged primarily using the raw materials provided by the media. Reporters provide the ammunition, and then a chorus of voices move the weaponized information through the public. Sometimes this process is staged, pay-for-play, or the result of bribery; often they’re not. This effort forms part of a campaign and is in contrast to or complimentary with traditional advertising. It is used because it appears to be organic and genuine and, in many cases, it comes pretty close.
In his several books, Edward Bernays—known as the father of modern public relations—recounts the contours of several dozens of successful campaigns. In fact, his books are filled with examples of ingenious displays of intellectual problem-solving from the position of an expert practitioner. It’s striking that, even as Bernays’ Crystalizing Public Opinion was published in 1923 and draws from examples from the very first years of the 20th Century, the basic elements have not changed very much, if at all. [i]One particular anecdote stands out today. While this campaign was instigated by a media outlet in service of making more money by increasing its advertising rates, the tactic used—to increase the magazine’s influence and clout, including a change in public policy—makes it startlingly similar to a modern information operation.
A nationally known magazine was ambitious to increase its prestige among a more influential group of advertisers. It had never made any effort to reach this public except through its own circulation. The consultant who was retained by the magazine quickly discovered that much valuable editorial material appearing in the magazine was allowed to go to waste. Features of interest to thousands of potential readers were never called to their attention unless they happened accidentally to be readers of the magazine.
The public relations counsel showed how to extend the field of their appeal. He chose for his first work an extremely interesting article by a well-known physician, written about the interesting thesis that “the pace that kills” is the slow, deadly dull routine pace and not the pace of life under high pressure, based on work which interests and excites. The consultant arranged to have the thesis of the article made the basis of an inquiry among business and professional men throughout the country by another physician associated with a medical journal. Hundreds of members of “the quality public,” as they are known to advertisers, had their attention focused on the article, and the magazine which the consultant was engaged in counseling on its public relations.
The answers from these leading men of the country were collated, analyzed, and the resulting abstract furnished gratuitously to newspapers, magazines and class journals, which published them widely. Organizations of business and professional men reprinted the symposium by the thousands and distributed it free of charge, doing so because the material contained in the symposium was of great interest. A distinguished visitor from abroad, Lord Leverhulme, became interested in the question while in this country and made the magazine and the article the basis of an address before a large and influential conference in England. Nationally and internationally the magazine was called to the attention of a public which had, up to that time, considered it perhaps a publication of no serious social significance.
Still working with the same magazine, the publicity consultant advised it how to widen its influence with another public on quite a different issue. He took as his subject an article by Sir Philip Gibbs, “The Madonna of the Hungry Child,” dealing with the famine situation in Europe and the necessity for its prompt alleviation. The article was brought to the attention of Herbert Hoover. Mr. Hoover was so impressed by the article that he sent the magazine a letter of commendation for publishing it. He also sent a copy of the article to members of his relief committees throughout the country. The latter, in turn, used the article to obtain support and contributions for relief work. Thus, while an important humanitarian project was being materially assisted, the magazine in question was adding to its own influence and standing.
Now, the interesting thing about this work is that whereas the public relations counsel added nothing to the contents of the magazine, which had for years been publishing material of this nature, he did make its importance felt and appreciated. [Emphasis added.]
The emphasized sections above are the heart of the campaign. Even more than 100 years ago, most of the elements of today’s political warfare are apparent, including: the use of basic building blocks of information (the all-important magazine articles); the targeting of influencers as an important audience (described as “the quality public”); the organization of expert voices and talking heads (the symposium and Lord Leverhulme’s speech); and, finally, a political figure taking concrete action (Hoover).
Looking more closely at Hoover’s role makes the comparison to today even more apparent. At the time these events took place, he was not yet the President of the United States (he’d serve from 1929-1933, being elected some six years before the book was published), but he was certainly no stranger to public life and the political world. He served as the Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge and, before that, as Woodrow Wilson’s Director of the US Food Administration. There’s no indication in the text that Hoover was involved in the operation; he seemed to be so taken with the narrative promoted by the magazine’s campaign, he gave them a letter of commendation.
The magazine Bernays described used Hoover’s action as legitimating and clout-building; it would burnish the magazine’s reputation as essential reading. It would make it the kind of magazine people who change policy feel they should be attentive to, with the commensurately high advertising rates that match that kind of audience. In a modern information operation, however, that resulting action from Hoover would be the end in itself. Other than that intention, though, the outline is essentially the same.
Looking at the campaign, something else is important—but it’s written between the lines. Not one of these things happened organically; even as the anecdote obscured the operators’ machinations behind the scenes in passive voice, you can be sure that they kept pressing the momentum of the campaign forward. For example, it was not by happenstance that articles, “were collated, analyzed, and the resulting abstract furnished gratuitously to newspapers, magazines and class journals.” Lord Leverhulme, the “distinguished visitor from abroad,” was enticed to take the campaign’s narrative before a large, influential audience in a speech. Presumably, someone did the enticing, and using methods that are left to the reader’s imagination—from simple curiosity and naïve interest to any manner of corruption.
While Bernays and his work have come to play a dark role in conspiracy theories over the last several decades, there’s nothing especially cynical or malevolent about his techniques. At a very basic level, someone persuading you in any way holds some kind of power over you, even if you arrive at the conclusion independently. The task of the persuader is to change your mind about something or, if he doesn’t have to go through the trouble of persuading you—if you’re already in agreement—he must cement or strengthen this belief or opinion.
The point at which persuasion becomes manipulation is an interesting question. Bernays himself painted it in perhaps the worst possible light in his 1928 follow-up book, Propaganda:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.[ii]
When a friend tries to convince us to buy the new kitchen appliance they’ve fallen in love with, we’re listening friendly advice. When a company or spokesperson makes the same pitch through omnipresent, nagging, and targeted web advertising, though, we are more circumspect, because they stand to gain financially from the effort. But an exchange of money on its own doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being swindled; sometimes that kitchen appliance does indeed make our lives better and is worth the money.
At first glance, then, it appears that the use of dishonest information or techniques which include dishonest testimony, like paying off talking heads, would be the difference between an honest campaign and a dishonest one.
In politics, however, the question gets more complicated—especially when it comes to campaigns that promote a party or ideology. Strongly held political ideas are among the most powerful motivators; being a part of an information operation that advances one’s ideology can be its own reward, just as appealing as financial or reputational renumeration. In contrast to traditional public relations campaigns or advertising, ideological commitment plays an instrumental role in all political information operations, including both the anti-Trump Russia Hoax as well as Qatar’s efforts in this battlespace. This fervor inspires freelance activists, social media provocateurs and journalists to dive into the effort, on both offense and defense.
For example, in 2016, chatter about “information warfare” and “influence operations” was everywhere. In no time, Democrats and the media began to scream about treason and subversion. Their vocabularies suddenly swelled with terms of art from the world of intelligence, and they gravely affected a deep knowledge of foreign nations’ clandestine activities in the United States. The jargon and vocabulary associated with these things—including, of course, obvious Russian transliterations of English words like, “kompromat” and “dizinformatzia”—appeared knowingly on the lips of TV talking heads and in feverish Twitter threads.[iii]
It was a media frenzy at full tilt; over the next several years, the intensity would ebb and flow, but the media would make sure it would never recede from public view. The ubiquity of the narrative, though, could sometimes disguise the amazing feat of rhetorical acrobatics involved. When the mainstream media jumped, head-first and with great enthusiasm, into a conspiracy theory alleging all manner of Russian influence on America’s political system, it was reversing itself after a full century of dismissing the threat of subversion.
Of course, this entire narrative was a cynically concocted hoax. For years, everything that a regular consumer of mainstream, left-leaning news and cultural products would think he knows about Donald Trump and Russia would be a lie. While it warned darkly of manipulations of the press, in halls of power and on social media, this Russia Hoax was, itself, a textbook example of an information operation.
A negative message is always more potent than a positive one, so operators of all kinds quickly find that the easiest way to advance one’s interests is to coordinate and weaponize media attacks on one’s enemies or rivals. In politics, the narratives are often crafted to be as wide as possible, which leads practitioners of political warfare to be tempted to be as comprehensive or as scorched earth as possible toward their enemies. Sure, they’re focused on a single election—but the effort put into a robust information operation would, hopefully, reap rewards for longer than just one season. For example, the Russia Hoax was hatched to prevent Donald Trump’s election in 2016; Democrats used the same narrative to score congressional victories in 2018. They tried to launch a variation of the Russia Hoax—the Ukraine Hoax—in early 2020, which culminated in an unsuccessful impeachment trial in the House of Representatives.
Now, the existence of this campaign itself—or, to be sure, the use of aggressive information operations—indicates little about the relative merit of the product, candidate or cause. The tools and basic techniques themselves are relatively value-neutral; this is simply how large numbers of people are communicated with and swayed in modern societies.
And the presence of foreign actors alone doesn’t necessarily indicate skullduggery or deception, either. In open societies like ours, there’s nothing wrong with a foreign ally presenting its point of view to the American public or to policymakers; indeed, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the use of traditional tools of public affairs or information operations by anyone. It’s a free country, and our Constitution’s (maybe, by this point, theoretical) guarantee of free speech enables the expression of a variety of points of view.
In other words, when everything is on the level—meaning, of course, that it isn’t built on and advanced through the use of faked documents or questionable evidence or pushed by an ideologically committed or financially compromised media—the information operation could be considered a part of the give-and-take of the political conversation. It is, for better or for worse, how the deliberative process works in America.
[i] Bernays, Edward. Crystalizing Public Opinion. IG Publishing. (1995)
[ii] Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. IG Publishing. (1995)
[iii] Jones, Bryony and Eliza Mackintosh. “What is Kompromat?” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/11/politics/what-is-kompromat/index.html(2018)