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An Army for the Future

21/10/2015 12:13 BST | Updated 19/10/2016 10:12 BST

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." - George Orwell, Animal Farm

This article is co-authored by Stephen Bailey. Stephen has taught law at the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh. He has been involved in cases before the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Squealer epitomised a totalitarian government's propaganda machine. A glowing rebuttal to the duckspeak of many socialist intellectuals, even Orwell's unpublished preface to the first edition of his famous satire affirmed the role of propaganda in stratifying a population. "A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing", the novelist and critic declaimed. In his dystopian classic, Orwell spoke directly to the dangers of distortion and the role of biased information in sustaining terror. For in Animal Farm, the pigs' intelligence and education allowed them to bring the other animals into submission through the use of propaganda and revisionism.

Through his satire in 1945, Orwell vocalised his deep concerns with respect to the might of propaganda, having been profoundly troubled by its destructive use during World War Two. Today, a reality is being constructed during wartime which presents much like a product of fiction; as a missile of modern warfare, propaganda is being employed by terrorist groups and sovereign States alike, despite the existence of a clear prohibition on propaganda for war under international law.

In late June 2015, a UN panel of experts reported to the Security Council that: "a worrisome trend over the past year has been the growth of high-definition digital terror: the use of propaganda, primarily by [the Islamic State] and its sympathisers, to spread fear and promote their distorted ideology." The UN panel regulates sanctions against extremist groups and called for social media companies to address the misuse of their services by entities who use the web to welcome new fighters and promote "increasingly horrific propaganda".

It is common knowledge that ISIS has proved itself well-versed in YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, internet memes (#catsofjihad) and other social media. The Al Hayat Media Center even boasts its own sleek ident, not dissimilar to that of Al Jazeera. Its reach should not be underestimated. In August 2015, for instance, Mississippi faced disbelief at just how far ISIS' propaganda can travel, as Jaelyn Young, 19, and her fiancé, Muhammad Dakhlalla, 22, sat in federal custody, having been arrested on suspicion of trying to travel from Mississippi to Syria to join the ranks of the Islamic State.

In the summer of 2014, a video surfaced online with the repugnant imagery and disparaging tone of a propaganda release from the Islamic State. "Run, do not walk, to ISIS Land", read the opening line of a production that promised new arrivals would gain expertise in "crucifying and executing Muslims". The words were juxtaposed with images of the terrorist group's massacres, displaying kneeling prisoners shot point-blank, with limp bodies hanging from crosses in public squares, alongside other grotesque scenes of atrocity. Sarcastic slogans, including "travel is inexpensive...because you won't need a return ticket!" simultaneously flashed across the screen. The source of the video was revealed only in its final frame: the U.S. Department of State.

"Welcome to ISIS Land" was in many ways noteworthy for the U.S. Government, after years of futility in attempting to rival the propaganda of al-Qaeda and its derivatives. To be sure, the video soon became a viral phenomenon, today viewed more than 876,000 times on Youtube, despite being birthed from a miniscule budget, by Washington standards.

Declassified key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate, titled "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States", concluded in April 2006 that: "groups of all stripes will increasingly use the Internet to communicate, propagandise, recruit, train and obtain logistical and financial support." True to prediction, in 2011, the U.S. Government had created its Centre for Strategic Counter-Terrorism Communications. "The effort against these groups is not a traditional information battle or campaign", remarked Special Envoy and Coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, Rashad Hussain in June of this year.

The U.S. State Department's Twitter site "Think Again Turn Away" today connects to ISIS-related news stories, and occasionally releases its own videos, including the above-mentioned mockery of an ISIS recruitment video. With 140 characters of propaganda and clever hashtags, the government seeks to craft its own considered narrative.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the leafy village of Hermitage, Berkshire, the British Army's new Psychological Operations Group, the 77th Brigade, made up of reservists and regular troops, was formally created in April 2015. Having been established to bolster the capacity of the Security Assistance Group of the British Army, formed in September 2014, an army spokesperson confirmed to the BBC this January that the new unit will: "play a key part in enabling the UK to fight in the information age" and that it "consists of more than just traditional capabilities".

On 3 March 2015, the Rt Hon Mark Francois MP answered a Parliamentary Question as to exactly what the new role of the 77th Brigade would be. He confirmed that the 77th Brigade is the new name for the Security Assistance Group and that its "continuing" role includes, amongst other facets: "leading on Special Influence Methods, including providing information on activities, key leader engagement, operations security and media engagement".

The formation of this new unit corresponds with a major restructuring of the British military under the Army 2020 plan. According to Simon Bergman, a former army officer involved in psychological operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, the 77th Brigade will seek "new ways of allowing civilians with bespoke skills to serve alongside their military counterparts" and will help to build "the Army for the future".

Yet in 1927, the renowned international lawyer, Hersch Lauterpacht, concluded that an act of subversive propaganda "when emanating from the State as such, from its agents, or from bodies assisted by it, will constitute a clear violation of international law." Specifically, there are two distinct strands of the prohibition on propaganda for war under international law.

At its narrowest, it is prohibited to incite war. In treaty form, the genesis of this strand can be traced to the 1936 Convention on the Use of Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace. State responsibility to refrain from inciting war has been affirmed in numerous resolutions and declarations of the UN General Assembly. The 1970 Declaration on Friendly Relations, for instance, provides that "States have the duty to refrain from propaganda for wars of aggression."

In respect of the actions of the U.S. Department of State, and possibly the 77th Brigade, however, it is the second feature of the prohibition which is of utmost relevance. After introducing the term "war propaganda" into the final phase of debates in what would become Article 20(1) of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, Mr Albuquerque Mello, the Brazilian delegate, expressed the view that the prohibition encompassed: "the repeated and insistent expression of an opinion for the purpose of creating a climate of hatred and lack of understanding between the peoples of two or more countries, in order to bring them eventually to armed conflict."

Such an opinion need not contain an objective, concrete threat of war; rather, it is sufficient that the expression of an opinion merely creates or reinforces a willingness to go to war. The rationale underpinning this strand of the prohibition is abundantly clear: the force of the prohibition would be greatly reduced if it did not apply to propaganda which is antecedent to direct incitement to war. In this light, the case law flowing from the atrocities in Rwanda is instructive. In the 2003 case of Nahimana, for example, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found that "through fear-mongering and hate propaganda", the newspaper Kangura paved the way for genocide in Rwanda by whipping the Hutu population into a killing frenzy and, as a result, found Hassan Ngeze, as founder, owner and editor of Kangura, guilty of genocide.

In a modern information age, States are increasingly disregarding their obligation to refrain from propaganda for war. Post 9/11, it is now almost rhetorical to suggest that our civil liberties are the most at threat. Yet a dangerous, domino effect unfolds when State contravention of international law is condoned in desperate, unchartered times.

If one reflects on the impact of Al Jazeera's coverage of the Gulf War following CNN's near exclusive coverage of it, or recalls the cellphone footage relayed around the world in 2006 of Saddam Hussein's execution, depicting, as American documentary maker Eugene Jarecki comments, "something other than the peaceful transition of power the U.S. and its allies sought to communicate", it becomes apparent that we must retain freedom of information and thought during wartime. We must confront a new frontier of modern warfare in line with, rather than in contravention to, international law.

The use of propaganda during World War Two enabled genocide to be perpetrated with little public resistance. The role of apartheid propaganda in South Africa continually defended separation as a legitimate and necessary method, masking inequality with biases and distortions that aimed to satisfy all South Africans. Such examples, whilst extreme, demonstrate that it is often difficult for one to test the legitimacy of what one has learnt in the media with our own experiences. This is particularly so in the context of a politically outsized war, waged thousands of miles away. This is not least because part of the State's strategy during wartime is to play to the fears of citizens in gaining support for the war effort.

In the wake of a new climate of increasingly high-definition digital terror, we must question the use of propaganda and special influence methods in modern warfare. States are dangerously trespassing on the prohibition on propaganda for war. We must seek to avoid creating a mirror image of ISIS.