Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Black Propaganda: It Worked in WWII – Would It Work Today?

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of visiting Bletchley Park, the home of the UK WWII Codebreakers. I purchased a monograph “Black Propaganda” by John Pether which discusses the British Black Propaganda (BP) efforts against the Germans in WWII. For those unfamiliar with the term, there are three classes of propaganda:

1. White – true source readily identifiable

2. Black – designed to represent other than the true source

3. Gray – no indications of source.

Photo Source:

During WWII Britain conducted a three pronged BP effort. They employed radio stations, printed matter and agents to foster a number of their influence goals such as creating resistance to the occupying forces and undermining the ‘quisling’ Nazi-supporting governments established in occupied countries.

Let me pose the question: if we arbitrarily divided target sets into urban and rural, is it possible that BP campaigns using the same media as well as more high tech media in appropriate markets (mobile phones, Internet, fax, e-mail, etc.) would be effective today?

My gut reaction is that they might be effective for very short period of times, but not in the long run. Furthermore, the negative impact of exposure would undermine whatever credibility the BP campaign promulgator might have had in the first place.

BP might be appropriate to achieve a very limited tactical objective such as trying to get an enemy force to behave or not behave in a certain manner for a short period of time.

Overall however, I believe as Gartner Analyst Richard Hunter put it, we live in “A World Without Secrets” (Available from Amazon at:

The close knit nature of tribes in rural target areas and the ultimate exposure of almost anything by Internet savvy Bloggers and others seem to guarantee that keeping sources secret over long period of times is not nearly as easy today as it was 50 or more years ago.

Reader comments earnestly solicited.


Christopher Paul said...

I totally agree, and make much the same argument in a discussion of MILDEC and PSYOP in my 2008 (yes, before the MISO change) book, Information Operations -- Doctrine and Practice (Amazon:

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, you are assuming black influence efforts can only be a physical, product-based program. Our adversaries run no-tech and low-tech black influence efforts all the time; many rather successfully (e.g. bin Laden hiding in plain sight for years).
The 37 community seriously needs to re-look how we do influence from the bottom up. We still are locked in Cold War paradigms that no longer apply whether we want to admit it or not. We have become so tied to products, platforms, and technology we have forgotten who the real influence target is - ultimately a human. Every one of us in our personal lives (whether we are willing to admit it or not) run black propaganda against people we know every day (which is okay, but yet not okay in combat). Somehow it is okay to launch a JDAM and kill civilians, yet not okay to run a black influence operation that may cause less damage and save lives in the end; there are some ethical issues with that in my opinion. It is sad that while countries like China, Russia, etc. are willing to do black operations and even openly admit they have the means, capability, and intent to execute them, we have decided to essentially run away from it thus taking the teeth out of one of the most powerful weapons as old as war itself.
Heck, even using simple game theory as a lens for the discussion of black ops, our adversaries may have already outplayed us, yet our own cognitive dissonance, arrogance, and desire for political correctness may actually be jeopardizing our long term national security.
My two cents, but after a decade of persistent conflict, and having the ability to look our adversaries in the eye and actually talk to them, we need to completely re-look how we do influence otherwise we are doomed.
You ask whether efforts from WWII would work now? They may not, but the one thing the greatest generation did was they were not afraid to admit they were in an actual fight, and come up with TRULY innovative solutions to fight regardless if they were "politically correct" or not.
Just my two cents.

Lawrence Dietz said...


You make some very good points. Bear in mind that the legal climate has changed in 50 years as well. Furthermore, we (the US) like to think our system of justice is better than others out there. Disregarding the principles of the Constitution is a dangerous path we probably don't want to go down.

Jimbo said...

A simple look at the political process is a graduate study in influence, and a convenient way to keep this at an unclassified level.

While falsely attributed products in the political realm are uncommon, they are effective--even when revealed as fake--,as they anchor the target's initial impression.

Stepping away from the attribution piece, the same can be said for deceptive information as a whole. It is effective, and it keeps working to a degree even after exposure. Look at the doctored photos of Kerry with Fonda in the 2004 Presidential race. These were proven fact, but they reinforced the negative perceptions of Kerry and thus were effective.

Jimbo said...

Argh, that was supposed to say "they were proven fake" Freudian slip perhaps.

Anonymous said...

Per the statement: "Disregarding the principles of the Constitution is a dangerous path we probably don't want to go down." The same constitution existed in WWII when the OSS Morale Branch and OWI was operating at full tilt, and there did not seem to be any legal issues? Will it take a nation-state adversary to get big enough and bloody our nose before we lose this intransigent cognitive dissonance we seem to be locked in as a country?

Voodoo said...

Anonymous is exactly right - once again you're focusing on PSYOP as a product maker, a radio script provider, instead of a true influencer. the discovery of a false attribution is largely an irrelevant problem in the MENA/SWA. In fact, several psychological studies have shown that humans are very reticent to reverse a previously held understanding, even if it is later determined to be erroneous. The story that gets out first is usually the one that has the most significant impact.

That being said, back to shifting the paradigm, PSYOP has to be able to adopt unconventional approaches. Let's look at the example of a radio station, or even better, AQ's "Inspire" magazine. Borrowing directly from Saul Alinsky, PSYOP personnel should be working to discredit enemy propaganda by appearing to be a part of it. When AQ advocates killing Americans, US PSYOP needs to drive that message towards the absurd, to alienate, divide, and discredit.

Its embarrassing that in the 1970's Left Wing radicals were more clever than we are today: when a group of anti-war activists wanted to disrupt GHWB's speech at Tulane University, Alinsky advised them to dress in Klan garb, and to over-sell their support of the war in Vietnam and support for GHWB.

Kill All the Americans! Even American Muslims are evil. Until the entire world is under an Arab Islamic caliphate, we will not rest!

That's a blunt example, obviously efforts should be more sophisticated. Completely accurate LOP's aren't being applied through credible sources (again, black). For instance - Mullah Omar is a blasphemer. He claims to be advised, directly by Allah, through dreams. This would, by definition make him a prophet. Muhammad was the last prophet, and even he did not receive revelation directly from Allah, but through the Archangel Jibril. Exploiting this claim of his, pushing his followers to expand upon this notion in interviews with al Jazeera or the AFPAK press, would also serve a divisive role.

We've been driven into mundane far-inside-the-box thinking, with regional commanders who don't know anything about psychology, culture, or influence, dictating what we can and cannot do. Its absurd.

Anonymous said...

Voodoo, well said. Here is a current example where black ops would be perfect given the full-on confusion-fest that is already occuring: the Iranian Quds plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. I fear will continue to keep the kid gloves on, and not use some powerful clandestine and covert tools. In the end, Iran will get stronger and America will continue its decline as a world leader.

Voodoo said...

Anon - what sort of false attribution PSYOP would you suggest for the case you're referencing? "Black Ops" are one thing, Black PSYOP an entirely different. Black PSYOP can be entirely true, and White PSYOP can be entirely fallacious (often used in misdirection/MILDEC)

Anonymous said...

Voodoo, I would say the use of both black ops and non-attribution influence operations in regards to the scenario. My point is we have truly lost the acme and will for developing real strategy , the real understanding of operational art, and the creative use of the various national capabilities. I cannot help but think of the points made in s a recent SWJ Journal blog article entitled "A Few Questions for Colonel Paul Yingling on Failures in Generalship."