US National Security Strategy: Is the influence game about ideology or perceptions?

by Chris Zappone

The US plans to prioritize competition in the information realm, where the private sector “has a direct interest in supporting and amplifying voices that stand for tolerance, openness,  and freedom,” according to the recently released National Security Strategy.

sealThe document gives the US government a failing grade for efforts to date:

“US efforts to counter the exploitation of information by rivals have been tepid and
fragmented. US efforts have lacked a sustained focus and have been hampered by the lack of properly trained professionals.”

To remedy this situation, the US government should “priortize competition” and “drive effective communications”.

In an extension of Cold War strategy, the NSS calls for activating local networks in targeted countries.

“Local voices are most compelling and effective in ideological competitions,” the document states.

My question is: Is this an ideological competition? Without communism as a framework to contrast against western capitalism, it’s not clear we have an ideological competition underway between authoritarians and democracies.

Certainly there are shades of ideology. But day-to-day, it seems to be a massive, ongoing perception conflict.

Authoritarians kleptocracies today don’t necessarily want to upend Western capitalism or Western power, as much as discredit liberal democracy, its values and virtues. Authoritarians regimes actually need lawful Western society in some cases, as a place to sink their wealth safely.

That’s not the same as the Cold War competition, when the economies were largely cut off from each other.

The NSS document describes China’s use of AI and data to rate citizen loyalty, which at least acknowledges that the mix between technology and the public has shifted in recent decades.

It’s important to understand in which way things have shifted, however;  how whole segments of society can live 24-7 in an information that only reinforces their often factually challenged views.

“We must amplify credible voices and partner with them to advance alternatives to violent and hateful messages,” the NSS document says.

OK. That’s good.

But what if these relevant voices don’t have access to contested minds in the first place?

This is the problem with our new media environment. Nearly every audience is discrete, with their own news cycles. Fewer news events reliably cut across all these different siloed areas. Fewer topics reach across diverse audiences.

All of which means, when considering strategy to counter influence campaigns run online, the US needs to start from scratch. Don’t think that because Russia, China and terror groups have a legacy of strategic messaging from the 1970s, you can rely on  solutions with roots from that time as well.

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