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.