[Maarten Van Horenbeeck] [Information Security] [Information Warfare]

Political parties and their use of modern media in obtaining Information Superiority

Maarten S.L.J.Vanhorenbeeck


This paper examines the use of media by politicians, and more specifically their use of it in attaining Information Superiority. It provides a brief introduction to the techniques applied by political parties, both during election time and once in office, to spread their message. In addition, it aims to provide a view on the contemporary media environment and its ongoing changes. Techniques such as ‘spin doctoring’, ‘viral marketing’ and ‘astroturfing’ are introduced and reviewed from the context of achieving information superiority. It will show that to continue to perform in this new era, new techniques actively need to be researched and applied while still maintaining that basic human proposition successful politics relies upon, ‘trust’.

Keywords: Media; Politics; Persuasion; Perception Management; Information Operations

“All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.”
- Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)
Canadian communications theorist

Introduction: The Rise Of Mass Media And A Transfer Of Power

Ever since Gutenberg published his first copy of the bible in 1455, mass media has been synonymous for power: no longer were Christians required to subject themselves to religious interpretations by pastors and bishops, they could now have their questions answered by an easy to acquire version of the “Holy book” itself.

When politics took over from religion as the ruling force in many societies, most explicitly in Western Europe and Northern America, there was significant opportunity for it to spread its message through this new form of communication. Classic works such as Machiavelli’s “Il Principe” spread radically different political views throughout the world. The invention of radio and television several hundred years later only added to the excitement. Roosevelt’s “Fireside chats” in the 1930’s were a unique use of media in that they were one of the first broad attempts to persuade members of the public of a political decision by offering a directly broadcasted concise explanation; at least to those who could afford a radio.

While these broadcasts were sending a ‘government consensus’ through the executive powers of the president, Perloff (1998) shows that early media, in its own reporting, did not believe in media objectivity by providing the following example: “Two illustrious members of Washington's cabinet -- Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson -- established competing newspapers. Hamilton created the Gazette of the United States, the organ of the Federalist Party, and Jefferson helped establish the National Gazette, the mouthpiece of the newly formed Republican Party.“

Today, ‘objectivity' has often become a unique selling proposition for a news organization. An example of this is Fox News with its well-known slogans “Fair and Balanced” and “We report, You decide”. That these slogans do not necessarily provide an indication of the organizational culture was shown in 2001 when FAIR, an American Organization with as goal to promote fairness & accuracy in reporting released a document that classified FOX News as “The Most Biased Name in News”, providing examples in which the channel tilted heavily towards the republican side of the infosphere (Ackerman, 2001). In general, however, upon their entrance to the profession, or membership of a professional organization, journalists in most countries are required to sign a “code of ethics” that aims to prevent this. The Society of Professional Journalists, for example, explicitly states that “deliberate distortion is never permissible” and that its members should “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting” (Society of Professional Journalists, 1996).

Most political parties are aware of these differences and as such, do not expect, at least ideologically, a level playing field upon entry. Media still provides background information, often either coloured left or right, but, with some exceptions, provides a fairly good indication of when it does so.

The Political Theatre Of Operations

Simplified, there are three main groups of people political parties will want to address. Prior to being elected into office, they aim to win over potential voters. After attaining executive power on the other hand, their goal is to project power both to its domestic constituency or political rivals. The main goal of their communication is to outperform their competitors; whether these are other states, internal pressure groups or rival parties. There are a number of common techniques for those engaged in politics to get their message across to these audiences. These range from acquiring the relevant media to strategically using public relations & marketing efforts.

Acquiring all relevant media

One of the first methods of obtaining information superiority within a certain constituency was to acquire all media that was available to this group. On a domestic platform, this used to be an option. Examples of these can still be found throughout the Middle East and central Europe. Iran, for example, only has one licensed radio and television broadcaster, the “Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting”. When all media is controlled by central authorities, the message being sent to the public can easily be controlled.

This technique however, has become more and more difficult to maintain. Satellite transmissions and their reception are notoriously difficult to block. Domestic transmission has become easier and cheaper for a growing middle class in many countries. In 2006 in Nepal, a country with an unemployment rate of 42% in which 31% of its population lives below the poverty line, a radio station was launched by two students to protest King Gyanendra’s recent “emergency decree” that disabled democracy. During 18 days of broadcasts, the government was unable to shut radio “Loktantra” (“Democracy”) down (Nepalnews, 2006).

Even if a party has complete control over transmissions within its own country, there is still the risk of interference from outside. North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers Party was confronted with this issue very recently, when a Japanese short wave radio station started broadcasting testimonies of those Japanese who had been abducted by the North Korean government in the late 70’s directly into the North Korean heartland (Mainichi Daily News, 2006).

The situation becomes even more difficult when one is trying to project influence abroad. Foreign media is usually beyond domestic political control. A classic way of distributing a governing organization’s message abroad was through the political use of short wave radio. Fidel Castro’s speech just prior to the startup of Radio Habana Cuba clarifies: "And do they think they can hide this from the world? No! Cuba has a radio station that is already transmitting throughout Latin America and is heard by countless brothers and sisters in Latin America and the rest of the world. We are in the age of radio and the truth can travel far and wide!" (Radio Habana Cuba, 2006). The United States used a very similar technique in 1942 when it set up the “Voice of America” to broadcast to the occupied territories in Europe. Short wave radio however is no longer an immensely popular medium and as such it can be used only to reach an audience that is sufficiently interested to tune in.

Controlling the message

When it is not possible to gain information superiority by acquiring all available media outlets, as is the case in most western countries, other approaches need to be pursued. When control is not possible over the medium, what remains is to control or “shape” the actual message. This way a politician creates a message that is intended to have a certain effect on a target population. When media organizations are given sufficient reason to air it, they will. This activity is in fact political “public relations”.

One way to create such an interesting message is dubbed ‘spin doctoring’. ‘Spin’ was probably best defined by R. P. Reid in 2002 as being “the aspects of truth that you most want to communicate”. In reality, it often consists of creating a message of such exceptional timeliness and clarity that it compels those who receive it. While a party may have a complex issue, by broadcasting only those aspects that correspond with it’s larger program ànd the target audience, a more powerful message can be created.

Spin has recently acquired a negative connotation, as the provisioning of incorrect or uncertain information presented as ‘facts’ - for example related to the war on terrorism. In essence the concept does not imply dishonesty.

A Changing Infosphere

Why the impact of mass media may change in the future

In the recent past, the amount of different media channels one could access was fairly limited. For terrestrial radio and television, this is still the case. There are usually only a limited number of channels available to a certain audience.

A report on AM/FM radio listenership in Sydney, Australia during February and April 2006, indicates that there was only a total of 13 stations that could be received throughout the city. Each targeted a fairly narrow audience: it is attached to a certain demographic; for example 18-34 year old males (Nielsen Media Research, 2006).

The total radio market for Sydney, or the amount of people that actually listened during the timeframe in which measurements took place, amounted to 3 781 000 (Nielsen Media Research, 2006). To address even only 50% of this market, a political party would only need to spread its message over a limited number of stations.

One thing that defines New Media on the other hand, is the tremendous increase in the number of media outlets available. Shoutcast, an organization producing “streaming software” that allows a radio station to broadcast on the internet, publishes statistics that show that at any given time there are about 13,000 stations using its software to broadcast live on the internet. These rank from miniscule to fairly small stations, the larger ones having about 20 000 simultaneous listeners each (Shoutcast, 2006).

Text does not lag behind: a recent article by the Economist states that “blogs”, which they translate as “personal online journals”, are growing at a tremendous rate (Economist, 2006). Technorati, an organization that indexes blogs and makes them searchable, claims an increase of about 80 000 new blogs daily (Technorati, 2006).

In addition, user-editable media outlets, such as Wikipedia, are quickly becoming part of the most popular internet sites. Alexa, an organization that tracks the popularity of websites, claims that Wikipedia is now the 16th most visited site online (Alexa, 2006). The trust placed in such outlets by readers allow ample opportunity to embed or confirm political messages.

These examples show that monopolies on content generation and distribution are slowly withering. Entry-costs to the business are slowly becoming a thing of the past: broadcast infrastructure or printing presses are no longer required. It can be as easy as creating a “free” hosting account to open the road to publishing opinion online. Logically, there is now a much larger number of people spreading information and opinion.

What new media in essence is doing is to bring people together who have a common belief on certain issues. People of a certain political conviction flock to those forums, blogs and sites where their respective beliefs are being discussed.

While these communities sometimes have a more or less ‘permanent’ stature, meaning that people join and keep on returning – there are also those blogs which only now and then pick up an issue that may be of interest to certain population groups. Users from these groups then visit around the blog and enter comments while hoping to change opinion of other users that read them, after which they retreat to their respective communities.

This evolution in the media ‘infosphere’ shows a resemblance to a similar change taking place in the military context. Edwards (2003) describes a concept called “swarming” which occurs “when the scheme of maneuver is a convergent attack of several semi-autonomous (or autonomous) units on a target”. In addition, he mentions a prime characteristic of “sustained pulsing, not sustained close combat”. Arquilla & Ronfeldt (2000) identify this swarming as being the fourth paradigm of military organization, following into the footsteps of the “melee”, “massing” and “maneuver”. The melee, “Linear face-offs, easily dissolved formations” and massing, “stacked, geometric formations” could be considered similar to wide mass media, in which large organizations are competing with eachother on large battlefields. “Maneuver warfare”and especially “swarming” converge much more closely with “New Media”.

They are two concepts which are mainly applied by smaller forces when competing with larger ones – the ‘maneuver’ using shock, disruption and deception to incapacitate the decision making of the other party; while ‘swarming’ usually consists of small groups of attackers moving in on a target and afterwards disbanding; often repeatedly, as such in a ‘pulsing’ manner (Edwards, 2003).

This paradigm shift, mainly investigated within the military context seems to also have taken place in other aspects of society, such as media: the move from small-to-medium media organizations competing with similar products to large organizations competing for a much wider battlespace; afterwards diversifying into new markets and new products (such as the evolution from Network Television into Cable, with higher diversity), in the end leading to the “blog”-type media that we are seeing today.

Joe Kraus, the founder of JotSpot, a developer of software similar to Wikipedia, summarizes this same evolution in a more elegant and succinct way: “The old media model was: there is one source of truth. The new media model is: there are multiple sources of truth, and we will sort it out.” (Economist, 2006). This is in effect, for media, the main point of view that matters: the consumer’s.

New Media can as such be considered as a move from “demographics”, which are large groups of people that fit within a very quantifiable niche (e.g. 18-35 year olds) to “psychographics” – smaller groups that are identified by “referring to personality and other psychological characteristics” (Morton, 1998).

Though little formal research has been performed in this field, psychographic groups are considered a powerful target for information operations. As they are smaller, a message to such group can be much more specific. These messages are then hoped to provoke a more vehement response.

Conventional media changing focus

One interesting observation on the growth of New Media was made during a presentation on Politics and New Media at MIT by Mark Jurkowitz. He states that at this stage, all mass media is “open to a ‘vox populi’ facts check” (MITWorld, 2004). In the past, when someone disagreed with an article, he could respond with his opinion in a letter to the editor. Today, popular opinion is posted and distributed on blogs, where it finds a massive audience with which it potentially resonates. If it does, the discussion regarding the story could be so powerful that it reverbs back into mass media. While we have yet to see politicians themselves step down due to mass hysteria in the blogosphere, this has already happened in the case of media anchors: CNN’s Eason Jordan stepped down from his position as chief news executive after relentless online criticism on a story (Kurtz, 2005).This has a not to be neglected impact on the way media writes a story. It may discourage media from its traditional role of evaluating the impact of political decisions and resort to a mere presentation of basic “facts”.

Research is in fact suggesting that conventional media is becoming less open to the actual political decisions made by election candidates. In that same MIT presentation, a representative of the “Project for Excellence in Journalism”, a Washington, DC based organization presented research that states that during the 2004 presidential elections there was a noticeable decrease in the number of stories that explained the impact of decisions on voters. Instead, most media tended to focus on what the impact of a decision would be on the campaign and the success of the candidate (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2004).

Some early examples of political parties trying to apply a new media strategy were their websites. Both the United States Democrats and the Republican Party have for some time now maintained a blog on the progress within their party. This was especially the case after the major debates between presidential candidates Kerry and Bush, in which ample time was spent explaining which of the candidates “lost the debate”.

A major step in the use of new media in politics was taken in 2003 when Joseph Trippi, a Silicon Valley consultant was appointed campaign manager for presidential candidate nominee Howard Dean. He actively used internet services, such as meetup.com – a site which aims to bring together people with the same ideology – to obtain support for Howard Dean (Wolf, 2004). While in the end, Dean was defeated by John Kerry, his competitor for the candidacy, these same techniques are now being put to work even in even in local elections.

New Media: techniques and assets

One of the techniques that are often used in new media to galvanize support for a certain issue is “viral marketing”. In his work “Strategic Public Relations”, Kim Harrison (2006) describes it as “being used to encourage individuals to pass on an emailed marketing message to others, creating exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence”. In previous US election campaigns, these techniques however were put to use not so much by the political parties, but by grassroots activist groups supporting either candidate. These consisted of the “farce” e-mails that quite a few internet users received which mocked either one of the candidates. In general, those people that agreed with the statement forwarded them on to others. This was cleverly used by action group True Majority, that distributed a popular video in 2004 based on the contemporary hit show ‘the apprentice’, indicating that ‘you could fire Bush!’ (MITWorld, 2004).

This indicates an interesting evolution: in the US, more and more grassroots support groups are standing up and supporting their candidate during the elections. While some of these claim to be non-partisan and stand for a fair election system, such as MassVoters, others are specifically aimed at supporting the goal of either party, such as TrueMajority or MoveOn.org.

These action groups, often mentioned under the term “network-centric advocacy” (Kearns, n.d.) use network centric operations to propagate a message in the new media sphere and are often quite aggressive and successful in doing so. They tend to cooperate in a form which is simultaneously acephalous and polycephalous - without a head organization or with multiple heads - typical for network centric operations (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 2001): one organization may be responsible for the completion of one action, while the other performs another task. They do however, share a common or similar ideology. In 2005, for example, TrueMajority, which focuses on security issues and human rights, and MoveOn, focusing on a progressive government, worked together in organizing a vigil protesting the war in Iraq (Brown, 2005).

While some of these organizations are in fact grassroots based, there is an increasing amount of ‘astroturfing’ in the political infosphere. This technique, “in which a firm covertly subsidizes a group with similar views to lobby when it normally would not” (Lyon & Maxwell, 2002) is proving popular, be it sometimes in subtle form, amongst many parties. While a limited and qualitative study, Michael Horkings, in his research project on the “Social Context of Professional Practice” was able to identify one such example in Sydney – where a Mayor funded and created local issue groups (Horkings, n.d.). In Europe, a UK Channel 4 investigative television programme broadcast in 2005 showed that this type of technique was also used during the re-election campaign of the Labour party (Hinsliff, 2005), amongst others by abusing the trust people place in the ‘letters’ page of common newspapers.

It seems the concept of the “class break” (Schneier, 2003) applies to New Media as well. In the past, a party was required to write “produced” letters to a number of media outlets to create an impression of grassroots support – cost increased linearly per letter sent out. Using the internet, this no longer holds true, and such campaigns can now be organized much more cost-effectively.

Besides these techniques, there is also ample opportunity for plain deception using new media. Staffers of several US congress senators have been identified as having made changes to pages reflecting their respective Senators on Wikipedia. In at least one case, these changes were made to remove links to a corruption scandal or a campaign time statement (Davis, 2006).

Strategies For A New Era

Taking this new reality into account, political parties will need to adjust their approach in approaching media. New Media offers new possibilities, but also creates new threats that need to be taken into account.

By moving from demographic to psychographic campaigns, additional effort will be required to define interest spheres among the voting public, and correctly address them. Instead of relying on one single program to appease all, as was the case in the past – a politician can now have a major program for mass media, but clarify certain issues in more depth directly to these more specific constituencies. More focused messages can be prepared for these different ‘psychographic’ groups New Media also poses a number of opportunities for assessing the result of political communication. In the past, once a message was out there, it was hard for the parties to assess how it was being put to use and which effect it had in the “cognitive” of its recipients. Measuring whether a decision was received by a target population as it had been intended required monitoring of ‘letters to the editor’ or waiting for response from active receivers. In this new era, as more and more of this criticism is released into the ‘blogosphere’, or the global collection of blogs, this can be tracked in real time.

Grassroots campaigns also offer a unique opportunity to rally further support for the political goals of a party. However, the issue at play here is how far a politician can go without compromising his or her integrity and trust balance. ‘Trust’ is an important matter as representatives of a constituency – it is not easily gained but easily lost. Being too affiliated with certain campaigns or even merely creating the impression that he or she is involved in setting them up could cost dearly in terms of trust capital previously gathered.

As a drawback, these parties will have to work with significantly more media than has been the case in the past. It will become more difficult to control all media activities from one public relations department and deeper insight in the beliefs of the different constituencies will be required. Political parties have always had local “working groups” that remained in touch with the local communities to gather information that could help the decision making process and rally local support. These groups will need to be extended into the internet and “blogosphere” communities as to attract a wider range of potential supporters; or at least to obtain better feedback that will help create improved policy.

As a direct result of this added complexity, it is likely that future activities in the political field will be dominated much more by a sense of “purpose” than they have been in the past. A principle from Information Operations that is likely to be adopted cross-spectrum from the military sphere to campaigning is so-called “Effects Based Operations”. This principle, defined by Davis (2006) as “operations conceived and planned in a systems framework that considers the full range of direct, indirect, and cascading effects, which may – with different degrees of probability – be achieved by the application of military, diplomatic, psychological, and economic instruments” will gradually become the norm in campaigning.

Compared to the current more traditional campaigns, which start with a single political program and then monitor its success or failure, EBO applied to campaigning would focus more on the actual end result, working down to the actions required to achieve it. By providing more focused messages to different “psychographic” communities, qualitative support from individual groups can be rallied. Careful systemic research and intelligence will however be required in order to assess what exactly each of these messages will do; and perhaps the more important challenge – how these can still be merged into one coherent message for simultaneous mass campaigning.


Politics has always been closely intertwined with contemporary media. It is the easiest way to reach a large audience, and project influence and power. There is little doubt that the current, ongoing changes in media will affect the way political campaigns are conducted. A large number of new opportunities are arising, such as the ability to craft unique messages for much more specific audiences; or better ways to assess the impact of political decision-making. On the other hand, the feeling of “trust” posed in politicians will be threatened even more than is the case today. It will be easier to be attacked on a personal statement than it has ever been, which should prove a scary proposition.

Overall, political campaigning will become a much more complex area than it has ever been in the past. Many questions remain unanswered on the state of the media in itself, let alone its impact on politics. There is a need for further research on to what degree Mass and New Media will be competitive or complementary tools for campaigning – be it in the next five years or the next fifty.


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