A 21st Century Model for Communication in the Global War of Ideas

by Steven R. Corman, Angela Trethewey, & Bud Goodall

In the global war of ideas, the United States finds itself facing a systems problem that cannot be solved by simply delivering the right message. The question is not “how can we construct a more persuasive message?” Rather it is “what kind of reality has this particular system [that we are trying to influence] constructed for itself?”

The present strategic communication efforts by the U.S. and its allies rest on an outdated, 20th century message influence model that is no longer effective in the complex global war of ideas. Relying on this model, our well-intentioned communication has become dysfunctional. Rather than drawing the world into a consensus on issues of terrorism, diplomacy, and international security, it instead unwittingly contributes to our diminished status among world opinion leaders and furthers the recruitment goals of violent extremists.

In this paper we explain why message influence strategies fail and what must be done to break the cycle of communication dysfunction. Changing communication systems requires, first, understanding the dynamics at work; and, second, using communication as a strategy to disrupt and perturb existing systems such that they can begin to organize around new meaning-making frameworks. After describing a new pragmatic complexity model, we offer four principles of effective communication in the global war of ideas based on this model: (1) Deemphasize control and embrace complexity, (2) replace repetition with variation, (3) consider disruptive moves, and (4) expect and plan for failure.
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