Media - Social Psychological Warfare: High-Precision Targeting

Jorge Marinho
Ph.D. in Communication Sciences, BA in International Journalism




This article highlights issues regarding media / virtual / psychological / social psychological / propaganda / political warfare. As part of this, traditional and new media are used as weapons by civilians, Armed / Security Forces of countries and by terrorist organizations, with a great deal of precision, targeting even individuals. The asymmetrical warfare and the relations between virtual warfare and real warfare warrant particular attention. Given that the Internet is an operational field, cyberdefense / cybersecurity is also addressed in this article.


Keywords: media warfare; psychological warfare; social psychological warfare; propaganda warfare; cyberdefense.



Currently, there are different types of warfare besides conventional that are being developed and combined: 

-economic warfare 

-financial warfare

-information warfare

-media warfare / cyber warfare

-political warfare

-propaganda warfare

-psychological warfare / social psychological warfare.

The terms psychological warfare and propaganda are often used synonymously (Culbertson / Mattelart 1993, pp. 108-109).

Any kind of act of war can have unforeseeable consequences and can set off reactions that are not entirely controllable. Our society must not be unaware of the risks inherent to any type of warfare. However, there are war-related operations that are not publicly declared, and so, given their specificities, they escape the attention of just about everyone in our society, with the exception of experts in the topic in question. With regard to the types of warfare previously mentioned, in this article I stress the importance of traditional and new / social media as instruments of warfare. This means that, currently, wars don’t merely include soldiers armed with machine guns, as they also comprise people who, for instance, use television, the Internet or music broadcast over speakers as weapons (British Army Creates Team of Facebook Warriors / Luhansk Leader Says Separatists Using Russian Pop Music as Psychological Warfare). The contents broadcast by the various communication channels are the ammunition. International broadcasting can occur at high speed, in the age of electronic communication and of the telecommunications satellite.


Various media uses 

Media can be used to:

-call for a boycott on the goods of a company or a country.

-seek to influence a company’s listing on the Stock Exchange

-psychologically provoke or attempt to affect someone (civilian or military)

-support or attack a political party.

Currently, war-related actions are not exclusively conducted by troops. In terms of security and defense, civilians and troops can cooperate. This also applies to media warfare, where we can have troops in uniform or civilians sending messages via the media. It should also be added that the various types of warfare operations, in the previously mentioned fields, can be covert or clandestine, making them hard to detect by most people in society. In cases involving media / political / propaganda / psychological / social psychological warfare, there are covert or clandestine operations which, due to their subtlety, not even their intended targets detected. Ignacio Ramonet even talks about silent propagandas (Ramonet 2001). The possibility of media manipulation and infiltration operations by undercover agents should also be considered (Big Brother’s Facebook: UK, US Intelligence ‘Infiltrating’ Social Media / Fielding, Cobain / Houghton / Special Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence. United States Senate). In this regard, financial aid to certain media warrants in-depth analysis (Jakobskind).

 As concerns any kind of warfare, intelligence services are pivotal, insofar as they, for instance, have information regarding:


-a given entrepreneur

-a given investor or a group of investors in the Stock Exchange

-a given individual who holds or who could hold an important political office.

As for media / propaganda / psychological warfare, especially through television, video and cinema, under the guise of entertainment or fiction, I point out the role of producers, directors and, last but not least, screenwriters. The content creators contribute decisively toward setting the whole thing in motion. Obviously, it is also vital to make sure the contents will be disseminated, internally and / or externally, via channels that enable us to attain a certain target. To such an end, we need to rely on various people holding key positions in the media. Such people can facilitate many things.

Age-old Chinese wisdom values the psychological aspect of warfare: «Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. (…). The skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting.» (Tzu). Richard Szafranski states that «The adversary is subdued when he behaves in ways that are coincident with the ways in which we – the aggressor or the defender – intend for him to behave.» (Szafranski).
Psychological warfare seeks to influence «(…) the minds of friends, neutrals, and foes.» (Libicki 1996, p. X), regardless whether they are civilians or troops (Gouveia 1960, pp. 5-6). Psychology applied to the battlefield can have decisive effects (Clausewitz 1982, pp. 166-167).


Traditional and new media can be regarded as weapons


Individual targets

Just as there is mass marketing, differentiated and individualized, so, too, can the types of warfare that this article addresses affect a large number of people, a certain group or hit a single individual target with precision. Thus, I consider that there is a different type of sniper: for instance, in the field of traditional and new media, it is possible to compose and send messages designed precisely for a given receiver. The messages are composed based on information gathered with regard to the target, and on which certain effects are to be produced. The work of intelligence services can increase the sender’s efficacy. 

This type of warfare has the media as its theater of operations. This is virtual warfare which, while not easily noticed, in principle, causes no shock to people, unlike when casualties (dead and injured, civilian or military) are caused by conventional warfare in a direct, immediate and obvious manner. In a society that has a hard time dealing with the death of human beings and which relies on the support of most of the population in order to make political and military decisions, fatalities, especially when applying expressions such as collateral or innocent, can have a highly negative impact.

This virtual warfare is compatible with doctrines of no boots on the ground, zero casualties as well as the doctrine of zero collateral casualties / damage, when such warfare is conducted with high precision. This is valid for the various parties in conflict. However, in this context of media warfare / virtual warfare, the disseminated contents are not limited to words or computer-generated images. There are actual situations, involving actual people instead of actors or animated cartoons, that are disseminated by the media. This is precisely what is currently happening with the contents being disseminated by the Islamic State. This organization shows that it sees the death of human beings differently from that which occurs in other societies / cultures, while displaying the execution of hostages, causing psychological effects on its intended targets. Even Islamic terrorists killed in action, including via suicide bombings, are exalted as martyrs. The different cultural, mental and religious contexts must not be underestimated. Some media in the United States of America, such as the television station Alhurra, are assigned the medium- / long-term goal of influencing the mentality of Arabs, taking into account the importance of the Islamic religion (Piscatori / Pattiz). In this regard, we should highlight the relationship between the media and public diplomacy.

In September 2014 and once again in 2015, the Islamic State threatened to attack Twitter’s headquarters, as retaliation for the suspension of their accounts on the said social media (Carmo March 4, 2015, p. 7). The Islamic State’s threats also target precisely identified individuals, such as Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter (Carmo March 4, 2015, p. 7). However, the Islamic State is far from limiting itself to a struggle that merely includes putting content on the Internet, since it acts on several fronts. We are faced with hybrid terrorism. With its Twitter accounts suspended, the Islamic State says that virtual warfare is counteracted with actual warfare (Carmo March 4, 2015, p. 7). Relations between what is the real and the virtual are strategically and tactically exploited by the Islamic State. 

I point out that media facilities and professionals are not only affected by acts committed by organizations considered terrorists. In 2012, Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of «The Guardian», addressed this issue: «“Targeting journalism has become a trend, and now the people who are harassing and killing journalists include governments as well as the people you would expect”» (Carr). In relation to this topic, «The C.P.J. (Committee to Protect Journalists) reports that government officials and their allies are now suspected of being responsible for more than a third of the murders of journalists, a higher proportion than killings attributed to terrorist groups or criminal enterprises.» (Carr).


Asymmetric warfare

Instilling terror in the enemy is obviously a goal of a terrorist organization. This type of organization considers that it does not have sufficient means to engage in conventional warfare. Even as concerns media / social psychological / propaganda warfare, a terrorist organization does not have at its disposal such powerful means, in terms of mass dissemination, as those of certain countries. Political, economic and military powers such as the United States of America or the United Kingdom are also powers in the field of the media (internal and external production and broadcasting of contents), with a great deal of capability in the area of information and communication technologies. In terms of massive audiences, in principle, an Internet website, while able to precisely reach a certain target segment, does not simultaneously and constantly cover as large a number of people as with a television channel geared to large swaths of the population of a country or even on several continents. It is asymmetric warfare.  

For a terrorist organization, an Internet website can serve as an instrument of propaganda, even used for recruiting new members, or as a guerrilla weapon in the field of communication. Given that the field of the media is increasingly relevant, it is appropriate for terrorist groups to have experts in several areas of communication, to operate in the media of the groups themselves and, with their actions, to influence other media. In early April 2015, the Islamic State announced a set of tasks it intends to bring about, with the recruiting of volunteers: «Number one on the list is press officers for the so-called Islamic State’s “media centre”. Accusing the Western media of “negative propaganda” against Isis, Al-Britani writes that the group needs to garner support from the masses through “internal media”.» (Dearden). 


Defense / security as part of the Internet

In fact, in military terms, cyberspace is regarded as an operational field. Cybersecurity issues are on the agenda. In this sphere, the threats can come from individuals, groups and countries. On April 8th, 2015, the Islamic State attacked a French media outlet: «TV5Monde still unable to broadcast anything but pre-recorded programmes on its 11 channels after "unprecedented" cyber attack as French government denounces "act of terrorism"». (Samuel). This operation covered several spheres: «"We are no longer able to broadcast any of our channels. Our websites and social media sites are no longer under our control and are all displaying claims of responsibility by Islamic State," the broadcaster's director general Yves Bigot told AFP.» (French TV5Monde Hit by Pro-Islamic State Hackers). During the said operation, through TV5Monde, the Islamic State disseminated messages, as part of social psychological warfare: «"Soldiers of France, stay away from the Islamic State! You have the chance to save your families, take advantage of it," read one message.» (Samuel).

In view of this conflict involving Islamic terrorist organizations, «Newsweek» magazine published the following message: «The West needs to win the social media war. The simplistic answer—force Twitter and Facebook to identify Islamists on their networks and shut them down—is counterproductive.» (Eichenwald). The Internet can be a two-edged knife: «Social media is not only the most important tool for inciting terrorists, it can also be an effective weapon against them.» (Eichenwald). Goals include creating divisions and fostering rivalries: «Intelligence officials already know Internet communications can tear apart Islamist groups. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have been fighting each other on the same social media platforms they use to win converts.» (Eichenwald). With regard to all this, there is a social psychological perspective: «Islamic terror groups are not some giant, unified entity—they are split by egos, arrogance, self-righteousness and a lust for power just like any other collection of ideological organizations. The West can play on that. Sowing discontent, conflict and paranoia is straight out of the textbook on psychological operations.» (Eichenwald). Counterpropaganda can also be useful: «If Western and Middle Eastern governments engage the online extremist world and bring in respected Muslims, social networks can play a vital role in defusing the anger and ignorance that has led to killings in the West.» (Eichenwald). A discourse that is based on generalizations has consequences: «Or politicians, media figures and citizens can continue to proclaim that all Muslims are terrorists, and fuel the extremist lie that this is a war of religions. Then, once the name-calling is done, we can all sit back in smug satisfaction and await the gunfire.» (Eichenwald).

According to a study regarding the United States of America, we must understand that that «Cyberdefense includes everything required to keep attackers from succeeding and benefiting from their efforts. (…) most of the tools and techniques DoD (Department of Defense) needs for defending its networks are the same as those for their civilian counterparts.» (Libicki).

Cybersecurity does not merely include strictly computer-related and electronic measures. The struggle against terrorist organizations regarding the use of Internet also goes by way of suitable legislative production, as is being debated in Portugal’s Parliament. In this context, there are draft laws being tabled to consider new types of crime, such as public incitement to terrorism in cyberspace and even access to sites inciting / promoting terrorism [Incitar ao Terrorismo na Internet Vai Dar Prisão (Incitement to Terrorism over the Internet Will Carry a Prison Term) March 4, 2015, p. 3]. Cybersecurity issues should be weighted in the spheres of Domestic Law and International Law. Cyber / media warfare also raises issues pertaining to freedom of expression / information and national sovereignty. Even if only one citizen is the target of any kind of warfare, it is the State’s duty to protect him.



The psychological / social psychological aspect of warfare has been showcased from ancient times down to the present. Psychological / social psychological warfare is deeply linked to traditional and new media. This occurs with the State’s Armed Forces / Security Forces as well as with terrorist organizations. The latter, as part of asymmetric warfare, especially use the Internet as a means of carrying on their propaganda, recruitment and cyberterrorism activities. This is why counterpropaganda and counterterrorism activities also include the Internet. 

While taking place in the virtual sphere, media / social psychological warfare has the ability to achieve a high degree of precision in hitting certain targets, such as groups or even individuals, in keeping with doctrines such as no boots on the ground, zero casualties and zero collateral casualties / damage. To achieve the aforementioned precision, intelligence services are vitally important, as they gather information regarding the targets to be hit. The media are used as weapons and the various types of contents disseminated are ammunition.

An act of war can set off unforeseen and uncontrollable reactions. Social psychological / propaganda / media / virtual warfare can, for instance, actually set off terrorist attacks. Given their high relevance, media facilities and professionals become targets to be taken out physically.

Currently, just about everyone in our society might be unaware of a certain type of operations and their consequences, as part of social psychological / propaganda / media / virtual warfare. However, States must protect citizens against any type of act of war. Such protection, among several aspects, raises issues regarding Domestic Law, International Law and national sovereignty.



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Photo by: Jorge Marinho



Published by Marinho Media Analysis / May 5, 2015