The new verbal battlespace where 'weaponised words' and information operations meet

"At the end of the day everyone needs to come and sit round the table to resolve a conflict. It doesn’t matter how many bombs you drop, at some point it’s going to have to go to dialogue. If you plug that function in earlier perhaps you can mitigate some of the lasting damage of the conflict."

I’m interviewing Sven Hughes and David Stanhope in their Whitehall office, with Nelson’s Column just in view through the window behind them. Hughes founded Verbalisation, a consultancy designed to help people amplify their messaging and create communications strategies using behavioural science, around four years ago with Stanhope recently joining as head of the company’s Conflict, Security and Justice arm following eight years in 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group.

We’re discussing the use of information or psychological operations (PSYOPS) in the rapidly changing security environment and how it can be used to help affect behavioural change without having to resort to kinetic military operations. Hughes, a former Reservist with time spent in 15 (UK) PSYOPS, has a useful analogy:

"If you want to bring up a balanced child you talk and you reason with them, you don’t beat or threaten them. You’re creating problems for yourself 10 years down the line if you do. It’s no more complicated than that. If you’re talking to your child, your wife, or your employer, you will use different language and tonality; different rationale in your arguments. If you can understand them and their psychology then you’re going to be successful."

With the rise of social media and other global communication technologies we’ve seen the emergence of a new battlespace. It’s a verbal battlespace and ISIL in particular have been highly effective in this new combat environment.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it’s harder than ever before for a Western democracy to wage war in a kinetic sense, Hughes explained. It’s more difficult to gain public and political support for an expeditionary campaign. That’s for all the good, legal, and moral reasons. However, influence still needs to be affected around the world for lots of good reasons too. If there’s little chance – or, in fact, no need – to use weapons then other resources and ways of engaging and influencing audiences need to be employed. That other way is through conversation and dialogue.

Verbalisation was established to help identify these key conversations and engage target audiences with the right dialogue. The company works across three sectors: commercial, defence and political. Stanhope explained that this cross sector, corporate output placed Verbalisation in a unique position to help its defence clients because it can draw on a full spectrum approach.

"We work in 120 countries every day. We bring that experience from the commercial sector and cross-pollinate it back into info ops for the defence environment."

A full spectrum approach

In an interview with Defence IQ last year, the newly-appointed Director of Defence Communications (DDC) at the MoD, Stephen Jolly, said that the department must "significantly transform the way we communicate." He explained that one of his key tasks would be to better coordinate a full spectrum approach.

The regeneration of the 77th Brigade offers the clearest example of how things have improved under Jolly in the information influence field. The new British Army unit will be 1,500 strong and help the military shape and control the narrative in conflicts and areas of interest.

Hughes explained that the investment in the 77th Brigade, and in so doing establishing that this area of operations is becoming a more overt priority for the UK military, is "clearly a very good thing."

"If you look at what ISIL and Boko Haram are achieving through social media and word of mouth, or if you look at the Ukraine situation where the media is used to propagate twisted versions of the narrative, clearly you can see the need for a thorough and robust international capability in this area," said Hughes.

Stanhope agreed, saying that Commanders have "frequently noted in post-operational reports that there’s an absolute need for information operations activities but it only seems to be recently, particularly with the formation of 77thBrigade, that there’s been a step-change approach towards influence activities and information operations."

So where does Verbalisation fit in?

"We can help defence understand this new verbal battlespace and understand their target audiences, adversaries, and actors," Stanhope explained. "We can help them plan a communications strategy within the verbal battlespace and help with the implementation of that strategy. We can create campaigns to help shape behavioural change.

"The other part of this is the big E word: Evaluation. We can help our customers with campaigns using the RAID model to help construct a campaign."

The RAID (Rapid Audience Insight Diagnostics) model is a proprietary diagnostic tool that Verbalisation can apply to any audience and "decode" it based on 24 set parameters, including language, transmission types and culture.

"It allows you to very quickly assess the right techniques, the right content, the right language, the right channels and the right touch points to talk to the target audience so as to affect behaviour in line with our strategic intent," Hughes said. "It’s taken many years, a lot of money and some expert psychologists to perfect it. It’s the best of political campaigning, the best of marketing and the best of information operations crystallised into one model that rapidly gets the insight our customers need."

Verbalisation has a catchy saying: "Assess, don’t guess." The company’s model is underpinned by evidence-based, robust behavioural science. It employs psychologists and behavioural scientists to help shape a communications strategy, not PR gurus.

Because it’s a science, they call it verbal engineering.

Weaponised words and the importance of language

"Everyday when you wake up you’re assaulted by weaponised words," Stanhope said. "They’re all trying to get you to do something, to think something."

Most of these ‘weaponised words’ we encounter are passive and innocuous – adverts for fizzy drinks in newspapers, holiday offers on the back of buses – but in warzones or areas of conflict the use of language and messaging is far more pronounced and acute. Although the content, meaning and consequences of these words are all different, it doesn’t change the fact that we are all exposed to these behavioural and information influence techniques every day. To some extent, we are all part of the verbal battlespace. For this reason, Verbalisation, along with other information operations organisations and PSYOPS military groups, is becoming a more central pillar in national security and political spheres.

The use of language can entirely change and influence our perceptions. At the recent Cyber Defence and Network Security conference in London, Dr Ian Levy, Technical Director at GCHQ’s Communications Electronic Security Group, wrote down five phrases. The first of these was mortgage-backed securities, which was then proceeded by three others of increasingly alarming language until he wrote the final phrase: toxic debt. He said, quite correctly, that it would be almost impossible to convince someone to invest in toxic debt, whereas you’d probably fancy your chances of getting people to take a punt on mortgage-backed securities.

All five phrases meant exactly the same thing.

Levy’s point was to highlight the use of unnecessarily alarmist phrases in cyber security reporting. Mine is to underscore the power of language to influence.

Hate preachers use words to spread their message, meaning language has the power to radicalise.

The good thing about that, Hughes tells me, is that anyone who has been radicalised is clearly susceptible to information influence. If you can understand their psychological state and identify how their cognitive rationale was radicalised, you can then work towards bringing them back to the right way of thinking through dialogue and conversation.

Plug and play

I ask Hughes what the most significant security challenge is today within the communications field. Is it the rise of ISIL and its use of social media to recruit and spread its message?

"It’s complacency," he says, deadpan.

"It’s not the threat from outside, it’s the threat of apathy and complacency from within. The ‘it’ll do’ attitude won’t do anymore. Because the battle rhythm in information operations is so fast now due to technological advances and the application of these technologies and techniques by the enemy, there needs to be a more nimble response. It’s the lack of speed that’s the problem.

"That’s where Verbalisation comes in as an injection of steroids to this environment. We can ‘plug in’ our hard learnings from the commercial world, which happen at a ferociously fast pace every day, into the defence environment."

The military is increasingly looking to acquire interoperable equipment with "plug and play" capabilities. The need to plug into and work seamlessly with existing systems is more important than ever in a connected, globalised and rapidly changing world. The verbal engineers working in information operations are no different; they need to plug in new capabilities too in order to win the war of words.