Information Warfare: They Still Don't Like It

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February 8, 2009: Three years ago, in the battle between the military and the media, the troops were losing. The reason was simple economics. Military defeats are, for the media, more profitable than military victories. Good news doesn't sell. This causes problems when you are fighting a war.

Back in the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Defense came up with the concept of Information War. This new combat arena included both the traditional battle over communications networks (which were growing increasingly complex and important), information itself, and the impact of the mass media on military operations. This last aspect was a result of how the mass media turned on U.S. operations in Vietnam after 1968. This left a big impression on a generation of U.S. officers. Ironically, the trigger for that turnaround was the Tet Campaign. This desperate attempt by the communists to trigger a mass uprising in South Vietnam, was a major defeat for the communists, and destroyed the local guerilla movement, the Viet Cong. But the media spun it as an American defeat, and the Department of Defense was still trying to figure out, in the 1980s,  how they could avoid repeats of the Tet experience.

But while the military was pondering solutions, the media news business went through a transformation that rendered the Tet experience largely irrelevant. In the last three decades, TV news has become less a public service, and more a profit center. Ratings, and the resulting advertising revenue, became paramount. Public service went out the window, and competition for viewer eyeballs became everything.

The best example of this change could be seen in the reporting of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the month of fighting that led to the fall of Baghdad, 51 percent of the U.S. network news stories were negative. By late 2003, nearly 80 percent were negative. During the 2004 Presidential elections, 89 percent were negative, and by 2006, over 90 percent were negative. This despite a long string of additional victories. The media became increasingly reluctant to interview the troops, because they told a story that was quite different from what the TV news media was spinning.

Then something else happened. In the mid 1990s, the World Wide Web came along, and now, over a billion people are connected to it. The majority of young people, and an increasing number of older ones, were now getting most of their news from the web. That's where the troops, and other non-journalists who have been to Iraq, or are still there, could tell their story. Compared to the network news, it's amateur night on the web. But the shift in where the eyeballs are looking is striking. The audience for the network news gets older, and smaller, every year. The younger generation of viewers are getting their news from the web. While much of that news is still created by the traditional mass media, a lot of it comes from blogs and independent news analysts. The traditional news outlets no longer matter as much as they used to, and matter less each passing day.

This provided the Department of Defense with new Information War opportunities. One of the new ideas was to pump out more raw material to the general public, and thus the independent, web based, news outlets. These new web based news outlets don't have to invent bad news in order to survive. The web, in the end, solved the military's problem of getting an accurate report of their operations to the public.

In the last five years, Department of Defense spending on Information War operations increased 63 percent, to nearly $5 billion a year. About a third of this is for recruiting, and this includes "America's Army," which was originally developed, before September 11, 2001, as a recruiting and public relations tool. This MMOG (massively multiplayer online game) cost over eight million dollars to create. By late 2002, it had 929,000 registered players, 563,000 of whom stayed around long enough to finish the basic training exercise. The game costs nearly $3 million a year to maintain. So far, nearly ten million people have downloaded the front end (player) software. At peak times, over 5,000 players are online with the game simultaneously. The users have completed nearly 400 million missions, from basic training to War on Terrorism. Recruiters are satisfied with the number of prospects coming in because of the game. But an unexpected bonus has been the number of other uses the game has been put to. A modified version is employed for actually training troops and, from an Information War point of view, showing a lot of Americans exactly what the army does and how it is done.

The troops themselves quickly invented one of the most powerful tools; videos posted on YouTube and other online venues. Military personnel in the combat zone had small vidcams, and they often let them run during combat. They then posted the vids online, and now the military has its own official site for such material, and distributes many to the mainstream media.

Nearly half a billion dollars a year is spent on Information War operations in foreign countries. This attempts to deal with a reflexively anti-American media in many countries (hatred always sells best). These media outlets are often corrupt as well, and for sale. The Pentagon does not join in the ongoing bribeathon, but there are other ways to throw money around.

The traditional media is not happy with all these Information War victories by the military, and has accused the military of engaging in propaganda, or worse. This is nothing new, such accusations go back to the earliest days of the mass media, during the American Civil War (1861-5). The military has tried to work things out during all that time, with mixed success. After World War I, the army put one of its brightest and articulate officers, Douglas MacArthur, in charge of "media relations." MacArthur was so good at promoting the army, and himself (especially during his successful World War II career), that he earned the eternal enmity of the media. Mac played the media so well, that the backlash trashed his reputation to the extent that historians are reluctant to correct the many media inventions.

Now, a new generation of MacArthurs are pounding the media into the ground, and they still don't like it. But unlike MacArthur, the media is no longer controlled by a few large news organizations that can effectively go after too-clever exploiters of media foibles. One can only imagine what MacArthur would have done with the Internet. Probably what the troops are already doing with it

 


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