Quotable: Joseph Chapa on drones and public affairs

Sunday, September 25th 2016

“The fact that information is biased does not make it false, and the fact that information intends to shape public opinion and action does not make it underhanded or deceitful. * * * America has met the enemy’s PR effectiveness with its own PR failures. Misconceptions about RPA operations have been widespread and continue to proliferate.”

 

Headline:     Remotely Piloted Aircraft and War in the Public Relations Domain

 

Author:         Captain Joseph O. Chapa, USAF

 

Source:         Air and Space Power Journal

 

Date:             September-October, 2014

 

Link:  http://www.au.af.mil/au/afri/aspj/apjinternational/apj-s/2015/2015-1/2015_1_05_chapa_s_eng.pdf

 

Key Quotes:

 

  • . . . the negative connotation often intended by the term propaganda. Although governments and terrorist organizations may engage in it, the term remains unhelpful. The fact that information is biased does not make it false, and the fact that information intends to shape public opinion and action does not make it underhanded or deceitful.

 

  • Prof. Audrey Kurth Cronin of Oxford University and George Mason University takes the strongest position: “Al Qaeda uses the strikes that result in civilian deaths, and even those that don’t, to frame Americans as immoral bullies who care less about ordinary people than al Qaeda does.” (She notes that this PR strategy is effective in spite of the fact that US RPA strikes avoid civilians about 86 percent of the time and that al Qaeda purposefully targets them.)  This is the “enemy PR campaign” view—the most plausible of the three—which asserts that intelligent people within the enemy’s organizational structure intentionally affect information streams so that passive recipients (global populations) will condemn the United States’ use of RPAs.

 

  • America has met the enemy’s PR effectiveness with its own PR failures. Misconceptions about RPA operations have been widespread and continue to proliferate. Take for example the “video game problem.” Bowden says that killing from 3,000 miles away is “like a video game; it’s like Call of Duty.”  Professor Brennan-Marquez claims that the “numbness that results from using machines rather than soldiers to carry out our dirty work” produces “the nightmarish image of an 18-year-old drone operator basically playing video games from the detached safety of a Nevada bunker.”

 

  • . . . the subtitle of an article by Michael Brooks, a science journalist and holder of a PhD in quantum physics, in the New Statesman reads, “Can You Play a Video Game? Then You Can Fly a Drone.”  This video game argument employs a logical fallacy called “a failure to recognize distinctions” by D. A. Carson and a “faulty analogy” by Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks.

 

  • The video game problem offers the best example of a PR failure that the US government could rectify with a better PR campaign. People think that flying an RPA is like playing a video game, in part, because of their limited exposure to the operations of that platform. After all, they see only the video-game-like apparatus of a dark room, video monitors, a headset, and a microphone—but no flight physiology (see the Air Force’s own television advertisements).

 

  • It should come as no surprise that they extend the analogy between RPA and video games beyond its legitimate reach. This problem, though, is not the only one faced by the US PR campaign

 

  • As long as the US government maintains radio silence on its RPA program, responsible readers must recognize that they are receiving only one side of a necessarily polarized story. Once readers realize that an enemy with a sophisticated and well-practiced PR machine at its disposal is engaged in information warfare, using the media as an instrument, they should view these reports cautiously rather than dogmatically.

 

  • On the contrary, to the extent that national security can be safeguarded, this article has argued that the federal government should not simply disclose but publicize much of its RPA program that remains in the dark. The battle for hearts and minds with respect to RPAs is being waged in the PR domain. Today, the enemy is winning.

Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. 

Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.  Specializing in Public Diplomacy, political-military affairs, and East Asia, he attained the rank of Minister-Counselor in the career service.  He was President of the Public Diplomacy Council from 2013 to 2015 and is now a member of the Board of Directors.

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Author: Donald M. Bishop

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