Peter Pomerantsev writes: perhaps this year’s most spectacular propagandists are those of ISIS, with its aggressive use of social media to recruit new combatants and slick, gruesome execution videos to provoke and frighten opponents. Though ISIS has killed roughly seven times fewer people in Syria than the Assad regime, the group has used social media (some 46,000 accounts on Twitter alone) to make itself look even more menacing than it is. Every social-media user who retweets or posts ISIS material, whether in support or censure, ultimately helps strengthen ISIS’s narrative of history-making stature and millenarian significance. The Islamic State’s terrorist attacks in Paris left 130 people dead in a spate of horrific violence, but the operation was executed in a manner that made it seem as if the organization had killed orders of magnitude more.
There is, of course, nothing new about using information as a vital instrument of war. But in the past information tended to be a handmaiden to action. Now the informational element appears to be as important as, if not more important than, the physical dimension. Take Russia’s air strikes in Syria. The Kremlin’s official rationale for the military campaign was to combat the Islamic State. But very few of its operations have actually been aimed at ISIS, with many more directed at U.S.-supported rebels fighting Syrian President, and Russian client, Bashar al-Assad. The Kremlin clearly has more in mind than defeating ISIS militarily. Russia has entered the Syrian stage in such a way as to surprise the West and ensure it will play a starring role in any narrative going forward — whether that narrative involves keeping Assad in power or a “global fight against terror.” The Russian military might be small compared to America’s, and the Russian economy may be a mess, but Vladimir Putin has cleverly undermined America’s reputation as a “global policeman” and boosted his stature as the man who is restoring Russia as a Great Global Power.
This is not “soft power” in the classic sense of projecting a positive national image through culture and public relations, but rather a case of using strategic narrative to keep your opponent intimidated, confused, and dismayed — of exploiting ubiquitous information to appear bigger, scarier, and more indispensable than reality would suggest. Russia’s bombing raids in Syria also have the positive side effects (for Moscow) of distracting from the conflict in Ukraine and helping maintain a steady torrent of refugees to Europe, which in turn strengthens right-wing parties in countries such as France and Hungary that peddle anti-refugee fears, are supported by the Kremlin, and advocate dropping Western sanctions against Russia. What matters in the information age is not so much “military escalation dominance” — the Cold War doctrine emphasizing the ability to introduce more arms than the enemy into a conflict. Rather, it’s “narrative escalation dominance” — being able to introduce more startling storylines than your opponent. [Continue reading…]