The continuing controversy over the bombing in northern Afghanistan ordered by German forces has got me thinking of a pamphlet I read recently: “ ‘Skyful of Lies’ and Black Swans: The new tyranny of shifting information power in crises.” The author is Nik Gowing, a BBC anchor, and his subject is the impact of pervasive 24/7 media coverage on stodgy institutions, whether corporations or governments. The bombing in Afghanistan is an illustration of the problem, with the Taliban making undoubtedly exaggerated claims about the number of civilian casualties and coalition forces having no effective rebuttal.
For the U.S. military this is by now an old story—our armed forces (and those of our allies) have been hammered by the media ever since the Vietnam War. The growth of the Internet and satellite television has only exacerbated the problem.
I don’t agree with everything Gowing has to say. As might be expected, given his employer, he displays a pervasive anti-American and anti-Israeli bias. And his writing is sometimes just plain awful (“throw open the institutional windows, pull down those mind-walls and shed those feet of clay”)—as you might expect from someone more comfortable with the spoken rather than the written word. But he does come up with some useful recommendations. He writes:
Don’t view the new real-time information realities as a threat but an opportunity. Identify those elements of the fast-growing, almost infinite multi-media language where you can compete effectively for the information high ground, then do so with self-confidence. … Not to enter the immediate post-crisis media space will often carry a higher price than entering it imperfectly. The aim must remain to act assertively and swiftly in the hope of commanding that space, however briefly or imperfectly. … Remove any entrenched institutional resistance to being force to feed the news beast. … Shed the instinct of hierarchy and the need for executive control from the highest level. … Empower the junior officers, NCOs, officials, executives, and public servants to respond. … Devolve responsibility for handling real-time information to lower levels of ‘mission command.’
That’s advice that the U.S. armed forces, which remain generally leery (for understandable reasons) of the news media, should take to heart as they try to win the “battle of the narrative” against the ruthless liars on the other side. Instead, elements of the military are going the other way by trying to ban Facebook, Twitter, and other “social media” from military computer systems. That amounts to unilateral disarmament in the battle of ideas.