Time to Restore the U.S. Information Agency

Time to Restore the U.S. Information Agency

"As other actors are cultivating information-manipulation outfits, the United States cannot afford to be left behind; it has a duty to safeguard itself and confront threats."

Voters trusted what they thought were spontaneous expressions of real people on social media more than they did experts on television and in newspapers. [Sepúlveda] knew that accounts could be faked and social media trends fabricated, all relatively cheaply. …  Eventually, he discovered, he could manipulate the public debate as easily as moving pieces on a chessboard—or, as he puts it, “When I realized that people believe what the Internet says more than reality, I discovered that I had the power to make people believe almost anything.”

A recreated USIA faces an arduous task: to figure out how to engage a modern global audience, protect the nation from—and counter—influence campaigns, and dissuade foreign actors from interfering in the business of U.S. institutions.

Likewise, how should it be structured, given the complexity of its task and its need for a diverse set of experts? The new age of informational warfare is not just the domain of reporters and propagandists, but also of a variety of other specialists, including intelligence analysts, social media gurus, psychologists, linguists and more.

One possible and particularly interesting model originates from a 2005 paper by Maj. (now Lt. Col.) Michael B. Prosser, where he argues for the weaponization and deployment of memes. Memes, as defined by Prosser, are “bits of cultural information transmitted and replicated throughout populations and/or societies.” In Prosser’s words:

Memes are metaphysical, express ideas and replicate for any number of reasons. A suggested logic progression is as follows: Memes influence ideas, ideas influence and form beliefs. Beliefs generate and influence political positions combined with feelings and emotions, eventually producing actions, which inform and influence behavior. Using this logic procession, any attack upon an ideology must consider an assault on a central or transcendent ‘idea’ or group of ideas as means of achieving success. Memes as ideas are then ‘in play’ as tools (or means) to attack ideologies.

To maximize the usage of memes, Prosser proposes the creation of a specialized organization—the Meme Warfare Center, or MWC—designed to advise and provide memetic warfare options to engage enemies in the informational battlefield. He describes this hypothetical organization as “at first an amalgamation of all elements of U.S. national power, essentially a joint interagency formation with either a senior military or civilian leader.” This MWC would possess subdivisions charged with meme (information) generation, targeting, inoculation, analysis and assessment, and more. What sets this proposed organization apart from existing Information Operations, writes Prosser, is that the latter focuses on enemy “forces and formations,” while the MWC would “intentionally [target] noncombatants and seeks to provide a nonlinear method of cultivating or supplanting ideas favoring the Joint Force.” In other words, the MWC focuses on winning over a broader audience by directly challenging information and ideological bases. Overall, this sounds like a solid starting point for the realization of a recreated USIA.

Finally, the new USIA must resolve the most difficult problem of the Information Age: in an environment filled with propaganda, gossip, conspiracies and falsehoods, how can the United States maintain a consistent narrative regarding itself? To this, perhaps the answer lies less in attempting to force a narrative and more in creating context, one in which the American message can exist.

Like it or not, the uncomfortable truth is that partaking in information warfare is an absolute necessity in the present world. Inevitably, this means engaging in not only defensive actions, such as countering disinformation, but also in responding in kind. An adherence to the truth is indeed of the highest of aspirational ideals, but in the modern context such a moral stance is not necessarily the wisest means of protecting lives and national interests. As other actors are cultivating information-manipulation outfits, the United States cannot afford to be left behind; it has a duty to safeguard itself and confront threats. Ultimately, the new USIA should not compete with other levers of American power and policy—it should complement them.

Carlos Roa is an Analyst at the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development and associate editor of Horizons: Journal of International Relations and Sustainable Development.

Image: Rendering of TV studio camera. Flickr/Creative Commons/Rem Vandermeer