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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. I am a contributor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

THE PERCEPTION PILLAR


I believe that the integrity of the state – as well as its legitimacy – rests on 7 pillars. I refer to these pillars as the Pillars of State. By eroding or neutralising two or more of these pillars, the state becomes weak and unstable and its influence is reduced to the point where it faces a serious threat that may lead to collapse.

Perceptions determine the view people have of the world, their region and their surroundings. This view is, by and large, developed and injected into society by and through the media either through objective reporting or through propaganda. As such, the influence of the media on the perceptions of the populace and by implication the perceptions of the populace on the state must not be underestimated.  

In its role as a perception-creator, the media can play either a positive role in supporting the state’s messages and policies or eroding its credibility and thereby negatively influence both foreign policy and investment. The media does, however, need to remain objective, report facts and not abuse its potential power of propaganda.

The mainstream audio, visual and written media can play an enormous role in shaping both national and international public opinion and perceptions and can wittingly or unwittingly erode the Pillars of State.  

Social media platforms such as blogs, instant messaging, social networking services and so forth can be used to rapidly reach millions of followers and incite ethnic, racial or religious tensions as well as instigate actions against a government and its various agencies or departments. Furthermore, these platforms can be used to effectively plan, coordinate and execute actions aimed at eroding the Pillars of State.
 
Failures by the government agencies and services along with government mismanagement and corruption will provide healthy pickings to the media - as will political infighting and bickering. Whereas these failings need to be exposed and brought into the public domain, there will be media-related articles that will subtly encourage the populace to protest and rise up against these factors. However, there will inevitably also be those in both the media and the populace who tacitly approve of - and incite - civil disobedience and whose sympathies will lay with violent protesters and insurgents. Within this climate of rapidly transmitted perceived political and other uncertainties, government messages will become blurred, ignored and even rejected by the populace.

An uncontrolled and hostile media can report on matters that may seriously disadvantage the government and in particular military, law enforcement and intelligence operations. Compromise of planned operations, force levels and deployments, equipment shortages and even planned policy decisions may impact negatively on the government and the country as a whole. Additionally, such reporting can provide hostile intelligence services and insurgent groups with important information as well as battle indications.

Government must however prevent irresponsible and irrational censorship of the media as a free media is considered to be a cornerstone of a modern democratic state. It should however consider methods and techniques of using the media to propagate its messages and policies in clearly understandable language without creating negative perceptions amongst the populace.  

Information that will not disadvantage government or impact on the National and Vital Interests must be shared with the populace on a daily basis in order to strengthen public perceptions on these matters. Press releases, press briefings and other methods of communicating with the populace must be used and exploited. Creating a sense of openness, self-criticism and honesty will foster better public perceptions.

As witnessed during the so-called Arab Spring, the alternative media can play an important role in generating, mobilising and coordinating counter-government actions. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, internet forums and chat rooms as well as personal websites can play a significant part in either shaping public perceptions or attacking government policies and actions. They can, likewise, be used to transmit disinformation aimed at discrediting and gaining international sympathy for a particular cause and be used to mobilise disgruntled people or even criminals.

Appointed and trained government media spokesmen/women must be used to interface with the media and ensure that a good and trusted relationship exists between the media and the government. A trusted relationship with the media will usually lead to self-censorship by editors and publishers alike.

Similarly, the law enforcement and intelligence agencies should monitor and where necessary take action against blatantly subversive, propagandist and tension-inciting mainstream and social media sites.

Whereas governments must be prepared to accept criticism, they do not need to accept blatant hostile propaganda aimed at creating conflict, tension and violence.  This tension-inducing approach by the media must be identified, corrected and managed as rapidly as possible.   

18 comments:

Alan said...

Eeben:

Hat tip to you on this excellent piece. I might however differ on the government "taking action." Probably essential to nail down a clear definition of "subversive" before taking action. The meaning differ depending upon which side the paadjie you're on.

Unrelated but of possible interest nonetheless:
http://stratrisks.com/geostrat/7966

Regards, Alan

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks for the link, Alan.

A valid comment and you are absolutely correct that the definition of “subversive” needs to be defined. It will however be the government under attack that will need to define it because as you say, it will depend on which side of the path we are on.

Rgds,

Eeben

Herbert said...

Eeben,

You've put up a good, thoughtful piece. Your point about not underestimating the influence of the media on the perceptions of the populace is imminently fair and accurate, but at the risk of sounding like an old cynic (which I expect I am), I have come to believe that expecting the media to be objective is hopeless--you count on it at your peril.

Therefore, regardless of which side of the path you are on (per Alan's good point), I hold that we are at the point that we need to include in our plans to right up front attempt to seize and control the information environment (I harped on this some months back in a previous comment), and today that includes social media in spades. Acquire the people you need to do it--flood the ether, volume counts. Strike first.

Your point about having a candid, honest, admitting-your-mistakes relationship with the media is spot on. In parallel, I would suggest one needs an active social media campaign to establish the info environment before our foes do so. I don't see the two concomitant efforts as at all incompatible.

Again, excellent piece. We don't have enough of the right people thinking about these things.

Rgds,
Herbert

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I agree that the media is seldom if ever objective Herbert, and instead of informing readers they are in many instances misleading readers. So I would like to claim membership to your cynic club.

You are absolutely correct in seizing the information environment. Sadly, it is seldom if ever considered but I suppose the “embedding” of journalists was aimed at trying to prevent a distorted perception reaching the recipients.

The reason why it isn’t under the Perception Pillar is that I have it under a different Pillar – the Pillars being my simplistic way of understanding conflict and war in Africa.

Rgds,

Eeben

A. Stavrovskiy said...

Dear Sir,

I enjoy reading your blog. I also happen to agree 100% with all your points. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance to you.

Sincerely Yours,

MAJ A. Stavrovskiy, USAR (Ret.)
kdc.russia@gmail.com

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Many thanks, Maj Stavroskiy – I am pleased that you agree with my take on the matter.

I am unfortunately not recruiting people at this stage.

Rgds,

Eeben

A. Stavrovskiy said...

Col Barlow,

What is your opinion of the current situation in the DRC, if I may ask? What could be done to improve it?

Sincerely Yours,

MAJ A. Stavrovskiy, USAR (Ret.)
kdc.russia@gmail.com



Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Whereas the situation in the DRC is most certainly of concern to the entire region, it can be resolved, Major.

I believe that we are witnessing a conflict based entirely on control over minerals with numerous foreign players engaging with or supporting the rebels. To resolve it will require a major rethink of both political and military strategies, a strengthening of political will and a relentless offensive to destroy the rebels.

A political solution that supports dividing DRC would be similar to the government of DRC committing suicide. It will also give other rebel groups encouragement to follow a similar line.

Rgds,

Eeben

A. Stavrovskiy said...

Again, I fully agree with you, Colonel (been there myself 12 years ago as a security contractor, it is pretty much like Liberia or Sierra Leone, but much larger, of course.) I was going to ask your opinion on something. Are you in favor of a national conscript army, or a much smaller professional military force?

Sincerely Yours,

MAJ A. Stavrovskiy, USAR (Ret.)
kdc.russia@gmail.com

sugarmaple said...

Most states are far from perfect and provide rich pickings for popular movements as we all know. The governments affected by the ongoing Arab Spring (Winter?) are not wealthy western democracies. Although deeply flawed, they were far from hell holes. A couple words from the west stripped these governments of legitimacy leaving room for a replacement. Although western democracies are widely distrusted, they are respected -so this was enough to fuel violent conflict. With the transnational influence of media outlets such as CNN and BBC, however sophisticated or persuasive, any spokesmen from an imperfect state opposing powerful foreign interests appear bumbling and doomed to failure.

MC said...

Hi Mr Barlow

Another interesting insight that you give.

With regards to perception; what is the current state of our military? Have we kept the knowledge that you and other excellent soldiers learned and developed? I am under the impression that we are not where we used to be (post 1994) in terms of quality, however, is it optimistic or just stupid to think that within our divisions there shouldbe/must be/hopefully are some brilliant units that are able to effectively protect and serve the country?

What about the specialist skills, specifically tracking and follow-ups. Are these skills still up to par or have we lost our "edge" as an African force?

Maybe the important question is; do we still have disciplin?

I hope that my comments and questions are within context.

Best regards

MC

Alan said...

If I might cut in. With regard to the DRC, the golden rule appears to apply, ie, "He who has the gold rules".

"Africans inhabit hierachial societies in which stength prevails over law."

Mercer, "Into the Canibbal's Pot" p. 174

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

All of these problems that plague Africa can be resolved, Major. It is not the size of the country that counts but rather the political will to see it through to conclusion. Besides, half won wars – something the UN/international community seem to favour, are never won.

I believe a professional army, correctly trained and equipped supported by a well-trained and led militia will be of greater value than one or the other.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

You make a good point Sugar Maple but I believe that most states, regardless of the type of government, are reactive as opposed to proactive. Yes, western governments are becoming more distrusted than ever in Africa (I do not know about elsewhere) and this is largely due to the fact of African governments being unable to read the signs.

As for government spokesmen, yes – they are in general unable to articulate much and constantly contradict themselves, leading those who watch/listen with no choice but to disbelieve the message they are receiving.

On the other hand, I have witnessed foreign governments providing support to both sides to secure their interests. Whereas this is probably “politics” it does indicate a massive failure of intelligence on the part of the targeted government. That said, perception is one pillar of state, the other pillars can survive even if government fails to initially grasp its national/international importance.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Our military is, according to most observers, in a complete shambles MC. The knowledge it once had has been lost and those who remained in uniform are unable to exert much influence. Sadly this happens when an armed force is politicised to the extreme.

I think an armed force is also a reflection of the society it comes from and if you look at the gross ill discipline and misbehaviour of our forces that partake in so-called peacekeeping, then there is reason for concern.

I think we have certainly lost our edge and are in effect unable to execute most missions.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I believe that the cause of the DRC’s problem is its untapped wealth, Alan. True, in many African societies, order is established by the chief of the tribe. But, when he is faced with ill-disciplined people with machine guns, he will follow the line or else.

The Government of DRC is under enormous pressure to resolve issues but is unable to do so due to a host of problems, not least being an apparent poorly trained army. All seven of its pillars of state are under attack and it therefore amplifies the problem.

Of course, the conflict is predominately confined to the mineral rich areas – as this money is used to buy weapons, food, etc with as well as pay the rebels. However, the atrocities being committed makes one wonder why it is allowed to continue unabated.

Rgds,

Eeben

Johnson said...

Very informative blog. Thanks for sharing such a great information...RGDS. Keep sharing such a blog.

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Many thanks for your visit and comment Johnson.

Keep well and rgds,

Eeben