Combating Islamic State and other successful propagandists cannot be done by matching them tweet for tweet because that only validates their messages, a Defense Department official told U.S. lawmakers Thursday.
Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin told a panel of the House Armed Services Committee that U.S. efforts to counter adversarial propaganda must “expose contradictions and falsehoods for audiences who often have different perceptions and cultural norms than our own.”
U.S. efforts to counter propaganda reach across all government agencies, but they are led by the State Department. The Defense Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) play key supporting roles. The House panel heard testimony from them Thursday.
Lumpkin cited an estimate that only 1 percent of people targeted by IS messaging are likely to support IS actions, but because the potential audience is 1.6 billion people, that means 16 million people could buy into IS propaganda.
In addition, he said, technology now “allows interactive discussion anytime in almost any location with almost unlimited reach.” While a hyperconnected world can have many positive benefits, the rise of Islamic State and other groups like it “highlights the dark side.”
“It doesn’t seem that anything we can say to them is going to have a lot of impact,” said Arizona Republican Representative Trent Franks, citing the “sacred core values” of IS members.
But Lumpkin cited a study by Lebanese company Quantum that divided IS members into nine bins — people seeking status, identity, revenge, redemption, responsibility, thrill, ideology, justice and death. “Just as our audiences target specific audiences, we have to have messages directed at these nine different bins,” he said.
'Empower the audience'
The BBG’s Matthew Armstrong said the aim of agencies within BBG, which includes VOA, is to fill in the gap between what propagandists say and what they do. He said IS propaganda consists of both historical and present-day lies, so journalism, reporting the facts on the ground, can make a difference. With IS, he said, “we try to hit them — what are they saying and what is the reality. We empower the audience so that they start to recognize the propaganda for what it is.”
Armstrong singled out VOA: “It has always had a fundamental purpose of empowering people through the access to news and information,” and as such is a “fundamental counter to propaganda.”
Lumpkin cited two principal challenges. One is keeping up with the rapid pace of the development of technology. The other is assessment. How is it possible to know if anti-propaganda efforts have paid off? “When something bad doesn’t happen, that’s frequently when we know we were successful,” Lumpkin said, “so we’re trying to validate something that didn’t happen.”
All of the people who testified at the hearing agreed that their greatest problem is budget uncertainty. Countering propaganda around the world is a long-term proposition, and not knowing what the budget will be from year to year makes their tough jobs even more difficult, they said.
“Join the club,” Franks sighed. The U.S. budget is operating on a continuing resolution until December, and after that point, "we don’t, any of us, know what is happening.”