Seventy-seven participants from 27 countries converged
for the U.S. Special Operations Command Sovereign Challenge program's 2018 Fall
Seminar at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., Sept. 19, 2018.
The seminar, entitled “Message or Counter-Message:
Crafting Effective Information Campaigns in the Internet Age,” provided an
opportunity for subject matter experts, military personnel and world leaders to
discuss global information challenges.
"Truth is not always enough to counter an
adversary's narrative," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. James Slife, vice
commander, USSOCOM. “…[B]y being better storytellers, not simply couriers of
facts and raw data, we may be better equipped for future challenges.”
The event featured two keynote speakers, a panel
discussion, and networking opportunities.
Executive Editor of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting
Indira Lakshmanan and Director of the German Marshall Fund's Future of
Geopolitics and Asia program Jamie Fly served as the key note speakers. Each spoke
about foreign disinformation campaigns.
“Americans of all political stripes need to realize that
they are potential targets,” Lakshmanan said. “We can all be inadvertently
They spoke about the influence of social media networks and how
their use by foreign intelligence agencies can exacerbate existing divides in
“What they will aim to do with these social media networks
is they will just try to amplify the fringes so the most vocal voices on both
sides of an issue will be amplified through these networks,” Fly said. “They
just want to sow division.”
“It's fanning the flames and creating deeper divisions than
maybe actually exist in real life,” Lakshmanan said.
A six-member panel followed the speakers, including Ambassador
Deborah McCarthy of the American Academy of Diplomacy, Adjunct Senior Fellow at
the Council on Foreign Relations Farah Pandith, Professor Sara Cobb, Director
of The School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University,
as well as communications experts from the State Department and U.S. Central
The panelists spoke about increasing the effectiveness of
delivering messages through more effective means of communication.
“I think all afternoon we've had some very interesting
perspectives on what is happening to us as humans on this planet with the surge
of social media and the very manipulative processes that bad actors use to
influence us,” Pandith said. “...[W]e are losing because we are not culturally
listening…to the experience of Muslim Millennials and Generation Z. …[T]here is
a singular point that connects Muslim Millennials and Generation Z around the
world, and that is the issue of identity, who am I and what’s the difference
between culture and religion.”
The panelists also interacted with the seminar participants,
answering their questions and providing feedback on how they could better reach
“To be more effective from a policy point of view, my sense
coming out of this experience is that we need to work with positive messages
that resonate with the intended audiences,” McCarthy said.
"The bottom line is that the United States, our
partners and allies need to get better at telling our story. While we
understand that narratives have their foundation in policy goals and national
interests, what we too often forget is that successful narratives are
constructed more in the eye of the beholder than by the communicator,"
said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating
Terrorism Andrew Knaggs, who moderated the panelists.
Sovereign Challenge was established by USSOCOM
in 2004 and is focused on preserving the sovereignty of independent nations.
Several Sovereign Challenge events are held annually to bring together foreign
defense attaches and associated diplomats and experts to develop a trusted
network serving the interests of sovereign nations and their security.