Hasbara and the Control of Narrative as an Element of Strategy
Remarks to the Jubilee Conference of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Moscow, Russia, 1 December 2012
Hasbara links information warfare to the strategic efforts of the state to bolster the unity of the home front; ensure the support of allies; disrupt efforts to organize hostile coalitions; determine the way issues are defined by the media, the intelligentsia, and social networks; establish the parameters of politically correct discourse; delegitimize both critics and their arguments; and shape the common understanding and interpretation of the results of international negotiations. Hasbara is multifaceted and well-adapted to the digital age. It embodies a public-private partnership in which the state leads and committed volunteers follow in implementing an information strategy. In its comprehensiveness and complexity, it bears the same relationship to unidimensional public diplomacy as grand strategy does to campaign plans.
Hasbara has its roots in earlier concepts of propaganda, agitprop, and censorship. Like them, it is communication calculated to influence cognition and behavior by manipulating perceptions of a cause or position with one-sided arguments, prejudicial substance, and emotional appeals. Unlike its progenitors, however, hasbara does not seek merely to burnish or tarnish national images of concern to it or to supply information favorable to its theses. It also seeks actively to inculcate canons of political correctness in domestic and foreign media and audiences that will promote self-censorship by them. It strives thereby to decrease the willingness of audiences to consider information linked to politically unacceptable viewpoints, individuals, and groups and to inhibit the circulation of adverse information in social networks.
Past efforts by states to shape domestic and foreign opinion depended on the production of persuasive information and efforts to deprive audiences of access to contradictory information by interrupting its supply through censorship, jamming, and other techniques directed at reducing its flow. By contrast, hasbara assumes the free flow of information within an open marketplace of opinion. In that context, it seeks to promote selective listening. The purpose is to constrict the demand for information, not its flow. Although hasbara includes efforts to impede access to information through a wide variety of techniques adapted to new information technologies, it focuses on limiting the receptivity of audiences to information.
In this context, hasbara recognizes the control of narrative as a potent weapon. Narrative is an element of rhetoric. It defines context. When successfully imposed, it provides a cognitive filter. Narratives offer a comprehensive framework for connecting and interpreting events. They substantiate “group think,” establishing baselines for conformity and hence for ostracism.
In politics, perception is reality. Narratives legitimize some perceptions and delegitimize others.
To learn more, please visit the website of the former US Ambassador Chas W Freeman.
Image: Chas W Freeman – former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and President Nixon’s interpreter during Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. Source: Wikipedia, This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.