IO Theory: Creating Resonance
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 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 reports and discussions have suggested that Australia 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 or acknowledge that messaging is only part of it. How do we get our message out? Let’s consider an analogy.
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 frame makes sense. But what makes up this societal frame? Cristina Archetti who provides extensive discussion on this in her book, suggests it is the group’s world-view consisting of their perception of themselves, their understanding of the wider world, and their ideology. Because narratives link to concepts of self and ideology, any narrative – made up of the linking of non-lethal messages with lethal and non-lethal actions – that does not align with the societal frame of the target is like watching an out-of-phase sine curve. Nothing happens.
So what? Let’s consider a simplified situation: an enemy, a coalition (us) and a conflict in Country X. If Country X's societal frame 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, and at worse, negative. It does not matter how many information actions we do, or what lethal and non-lethal controls we put in place, the ‘story’ or narrative our lethal and non-lethal actions make does not resonate. 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. Their actions will be seen to ‘it’ 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 physical actions – and may even suggest appropriate physical constraints and freedoms – 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 that the coalition presents – weaving coalition physical actions to relevant messages, and finally drawing Country X towards our view. Now we have messages that resonate – finally winning the narrative.
We can see how this theory relates to extremist organisations. They have narratives that resonate with groups and individuals who perceive themselves as not belonging. Extremists’ narratives resonate greater than our own ideals, giving a sense of belonging. This is particularly true in deployed locations. We cannot respond to these groups merely by counter-measure, 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 in logistics; projects to support populations; governance; and security sector reform. This can all be achieved through the prism of a group’s world view. It also requires re-thinking the lethal/non-lethal ‘specialisation’. We need, just as we do in deception planning, to recognise war as a human endeavour, and that 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 few specialists. Only through this approach can we truly understand and undertake Clausewitz's clash of wills.
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.