Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Information Warriors

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st April, 2020

Vyvyan KinrossPeople in power have long used self-promotion as a means of increasing their public prestige. Vainglorious Roman emperors had statues of themselves in triumphant pose erected in prominent places while for centuries in Africa praise singers lauded the wisdom of their chiefs and the exploits of their tribe. The modern equivalent is that brand of the communications industry known as PR, which embraces a wide range of techniques, virtues and sins. Vyvyan Kinross is a PR and communications specialist who has advised several governments about their information and communications strategy, notably in the Gulf and Palestine. So he is well-placed to analyse how the good, the bad and the ugly have used information in the battle for hearts and minds across the Middle East, in his book Information Warriors (Gilgamesh, £19.95). A substantial part of his highly readable text examines the successes and failures in the information war of both Western — especially American — powers in their fight against dictators like Saddam Hussein as well as the jihadi Islamists, the most significant being Islamic State (IS). What I found particularly striking about Kinross’s discussion of IS is how much the young fighters and their PR teams learnt from the very Western culture they affected to despise, from Hollywood through video games to the slickest of TV advertisements. Condemned (rightly) by the West as inhumanly brutal, IS operatives turned their very inhumanity into a form of domination porn, highlighting the torture and slaughter of their enemies or the infidels, pandering to the bloodlust of angry young Islamist fanatics, a significant number of whom live in the United Kingdom.

Information WarriorsOf course, atrocities are usually publicised to damn their alleged perpetrators, not to laud them. And over the past century or so there have been many instances of such propaganda, from stories of German soldiers raping and pillaging in occupied Belgium to the (completely fictitious) account of Iraqi forces ripping premature Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and throwing them on the floor to die. All is fair in love and war, it seems. But whether the powers that be spin stories to their best advantage or totally fabricate them, the common motivation is a belief that perception management can influence public opinion massively, in their interest. PR and strategy firms such as Hill+Knowlton and Bell Pottinger earned hundreds of millions of pounds in advising their governmental clients how best to massage the message. But as George Orwell astutely predicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Ministry of Truth can in reality be a factory of lies.

Latterly, the situation has become even more complicated by the growth in disinformation, generated not just from Russia, and the weaponisation by Donald Trump of Fake News and “alternative facts”, leading to the widespread acceptance of the idea in swaths of the population that something is true if they believe it. For someone such as myself, who has spent half a century working in the media, this is all very depressing. But Kinross does offer a glimmer of hope in the final section of his book, by focusing on the positive aspects of what Harvard Professor Joseph Nye dubbed “soft power” and the potential of bodies such as the British Council. Nonetheless, in the specific context of the Middle East and the information war with the West, the challenge is daunting, in both directions. Opinion polls in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia found as much of 90 per cent of the population had a negative opinion of the United States, mainly because of Uncle Sam’s interventions in the region. With regard to Britain there are similarly hostile reactions, especially among the young, over the legacy of the Balfour Declaration and the 2003 Iraq War in particular. But does the British public really care? A 2017 poll discovered few people in the UK know very much about the Arab world and few are interested in finding out more. Reading this book would be a salutary lesson.

 

 

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