Power of Persuasion

Maj. Gen. Paul Capasso USAF (Ret.)
October 8, 2020 • 3 min read

“A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”

Joseph Goebbels

Conflicts are as old as man, and throughout history, they have ranged in severity from individual fistfights to small raids to nuclear war. “While the basic nature of war is constant, the means and methods we use evolve continuously (Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1).”

Today, we live in a world where adversaries prefer to operate under the radar in the gray zone between war and peace. Technology and the internet have sidelined bullets and bombs with digital brawls and skirmishes. Acts of digital sabotage, data theft, and espionage fall at the top end of the peace-conflict gray continuum. At the same time, influence operations and spreading false information often goes unnoticed at the lower echelons. The information battlespace continually evolves, allowing influence operations to become the new arena where hearts and souls are either won or lost with minimal resources.

Social media platforms emerged as this decade’s low yield weapons of mass destruction.  Our adversaries learned that social media platforms are persuasion tools to manipulate public sentiment, alter opinion and shape national decisions and outcomes. “If you want to control the population of the country, there is no better tool as effective as Facebook,” says Roger McNamee, an early investor in and critic of Facebook. By manipulating certain behaviors, motivations, and emotions through disinformation, propaganda, and deception, the true-false continuum blurs, leaving individuals questioning what is true or false.

In his paper entitled Algorithmic Warfare: Applying Artificial Intelligence to Warfighting, military expert Peter Layton writes:

Russia has been able to turn the algorithms used by Facebook, Twitter, Google and others against them. These commercial organisations have segmented population groups into various categories to feed information to individuals in certain ways as their corporate algorithms decide. Russia has fed online misleading information to these global, social-media giants tailored to then be disseminated by the company’s own algorithms in a way that advances Russian interests.

This narrative has become the catalyst for social discord and destabilization. Daily, inaccurate information on COVID-19, racial injustice, and the presidential election take on a life of their own. Real democracy cannot stand on half-truths, deformation of facts, or suppression of information.

In this age of information (and disinformation) overload, remember:

  • The battle for your mind is real
  • Persuasion tactics use written and spoken words, images, and audio to convey information
  • Don’t believe everything you read or hear
  • Trust, but verify your sources of information
  • Messaging, social media, and broadcasting (radio and television) are tools of persuasion
  • No one is immune from persuasion campaigns

As Mark Anthony remarked at Caesar’s funeral: “O masters, if I were disposed to stir your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage…”

Maj. Gen. Paul Capasso USAF (Ret.)
Vice President of Strategic Programs
Maj. Gen. Paul Capasso (Ret.) is the vice president of strategic programs at Telos Corporation.
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