20 April 2016

IO theory: Creating resonance

by Lieutenant Colonel Nick Bosio
14 April 2016
Our current conflicts require action across all domains: the physical, information and cognitive. However, one must ask if the idea of ‘messaging and narrative’ has been over-emphasised to the detriment of real actions. Is Information Operations (IO) the new ‘black’?
Clausewitz called war a clash of wills. Mao saw it as a people's struggle. Jomini – whose theory drives much of our planning process – highlighted the importance of will to fighting. These, and many other, theorists understood that actions and messages are intrinsically linked (p. 11-12) – forming a narrative. The physical action, aligned with a resonating narrative overall, shapes the enemy's thoughts – or the cognitive domain. Yet even with these theoretical giants, we struggle to plan integrated IO, leaving it often compartmented and ‘bolted on’ to manoeuvre. Is it any wonder we struggle to win the ‘narrative’?
Recent articles ($) and discussions (see ABC 7:30 Report and Lateline) have stated that we, as a nation, must develop and disseminate a narrative to counter extremism. This is a laudable statement, yet doomed to failure if we do not understand how to make a narrative resonate – and acknowledge that ‘messaging’ is only part of ‘narratives’. So, how do we ‘get our message out’? Let’s consider an analogy.
Broadly speaking, when two sine curves are in-phase, they reinforce each other. As they move out of phase, the final curve will change. However, two sine curves that are 180 degrees out-of-phase will cancel out – leading to nothing. It is the same with narratives. Only a narrative that resonates with an individual’s, group’s or community’s societal construct or societal frame makes sense. But what makes up this ‘societal frame’? Cristina Archetti provides extensive discussion on this in her book: Understanding Terrorism in the Age of Global Media. To summarise, it is the group’s world-view consisting of: their perception of themselves; their understanding of the wider world; and their ideology – the normative vision of their culture, beliefs and social system.

Because narratives link to an individual’s or group’s ‘self’ and ideology, any narrative – the linking of non-lethal messages with lethal and non-lethal actions – that does not align with the societal frame of your target is like watching an out-of-phase sine curve. Nothing happens.

So, what’s the ‘So What’? Well, let’s consider a simplified situation: There is an enemy, there is a Coalition (us), and the conflict is in a country – call it ‘Country X’. If Country X's societal frame – their world-view and perception of community and culture – is closer to the enemy's societal frame, then our messages and actions will be misinterpreted or ignored. In effect our ‘narrative’, or the story our actions and messages create in the population’s minds, is probably at best ineffective, at worse, negative. This is because, as seen in Figure 1, the enemy's narrative has more in common with Country X's worldview than our own.

Over time, the enemy's narrative – driven by their societal frame – is more likely to resonate, reinforce and finally draw Country X towards their cause – or will. The enemy's actions will make sense as they fit within the overlapping (and later shared) societal frame of the people and enemy (or other fighting groups or partners).

However, let's imagine that there is a Coalition member who also has similarities in their own societal frame to Country X (and possibly the enemy). This coalition member – Country Y – will be able to develop messages that link the Coalition’s actions into a narrative that resonates with Country X (Figure 2). Country Y – with a societal frame that links Country X and the Coalition – can guide a narrative – or the ‘big idea’ or ‘story’ that the coalition presents – weaving coalition actions to relevant messages, and finally drawing Country X towards our view. Now we have messages that resonate – finally ‘winning the narrative’.

One can see how this theory relates to extremist organisations. They have narratives that resonate with groups and individuals who perceive themselves as disenfranchised – or the feeling of ‘not belonging’. Extremists’ narratives resonate greater than our own ideals, giving a sense of ‘belonging’. This is particularly true in deployed locations. We can not just ‘counter-message’ these groups, as this will not resonate. This is why societal frames should be a key part of human terrain analysis.

Of course societal frame theory extends to other areas: training of local forces – particularly logistics; projects to support populations; or governance and security sector reform can only be achieved through the prism of the society’s world view. It also requires a re-thinking of the lethal/non-lethal ‘specialisation’. We need – just like in deception planning – to recognise war is a human endeavour, and human will is shaped in the cognitive domain. It is not just about killing. It is about killing with purpose – to create a story through physical and information actions that shapes the cognitive domain – a story that matches our narrative and resonates with the societal frame of the people and enemy. This is a planning function for all General Service Officers, not a specialist few. Only through this approach can we truly understand and undertake Clausewitz's clash of wills.

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Bosio is the Staff Officer Grade 1 Strategy within the Directorate of Future Land Warfare. He has just returned from deployment after being the Chief of Campaign Plans, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (Operation OKRA) for approximately eight months. He is currently studying a PhD in Military Theory.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.

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