Credibility in the Global War on Terrorism

by Steven R. Corman, Aaron Hess, & Z. S. Justus

The perceived credibility of the United States government
on the global stage has never been lower. This impedes its ability
to fight, much less to win, the “war of ideas” that is so much a part
of the global war on terrorism. Cultivating improved credibility is
a long-term effort, but it stands to benefit from a large body of
existing research. The concept of source credibility was developed
by Aristotle in his classic text on effective communication, The
Rhetoric. Formal efforts to manage U.S. credibility began in
World War I. Modern social scientific research on the subject
began during World War II and continues to the present day. More
recent work has extended the concept to mass media and internet
contexts.

This body of research indicates that there are three key
dimensions of credibility: trustworthiness, competence, and
goodwill. These three dimensions are not empirical realities but
perceptions that can be created, managed, and cultivated. This
requires a coordinated approach to message design, delivery,
and—most importantly—adaptation to the given audience and
current media situation.

Our analysis of the source credibility literature shows that
we know the basic dimensions of credibility, how source
characteristics impact persuasiveness, and how judgments of
credibility can be affected by different media channels. However
there is an urgent need to integrate findings of existing research
and link those to a contingency model of source credibility. It is
especially important that we validate and, if necessary, extend our
understanding of credibility in strategic non-Western cultures, and
better understand the functions of credibility in new media.

Notwithstanding the need for further research, known
principles of credibility point to four recommendations for
deployment of messages and communication policy while longer
term efforts to improve credibility proceed: (1) Recognize, accept,
and adjust for low credibility in the short term, (2) involve
sympathetic Muslims, especially those in the United States, in an
effort to find more persuasive sources and messages, (3)
concentrate on degrading the credibility of opponents, (4) when
directly claiming ownership of a message, use lower level officers
or trusted third-parties to convey it.

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