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About communicating effectively…

When humour becomes a weapon

The Ukrainians have enlisted another weapon in Russia’s war on their nation: humour. Is weaponisation makes it a communications tactic in the ongoing conflict, one which the Russians are not adept at using.

THE POST starts like this…

New wonder drug to relieve panicky feeling among Russians
St Javelin Laboratories have invented a new pharmaceutical specifically for the Russian market.

The drug is designed to target the increasingly widespread feelings of panic and anxiety now evident among Russians.

The following ad announced its release.

Twitter URL: https://twitter.com/saintjavelin/status/1586169902196756480?s=46&t=Y8VTnYMMKUyLTyFht59f1w

It’s about effective communication

The video demonstrates the use of humour, mockery, ridicule and spoofing in information warfare. The approach is the opposite to official, ponderous and serious-sounding pronouncements such as we hear from the Soviet… whoa! time warp there although there is a resemblance… Russian, I mean, US and Chinese government spokespeople.

Why? Because it avoids threats and because it uses documented trends and events on Russia’s side of its invasion of Ukraine.

A stark contrast

The video stands in marked contrast to announcements by the Russian side as well as to some of those by the Ukraine government, however the Ukrainians sometimes use humour to make their point. Russia’s announcements are serious, frequently threatening, bombastic and turgid.

Ukraine’s supporters on Twitter have also resorted to humour, asking whether smoking is responsible for fires and damage to Russian bases and military assets. The smoking reference recalls Russian officials blaming explosions and fires at its air base in Crimea, the result of a Ukrainian attack, on careless smokers among its personnel. The reference highlights the risks that spokespeople take when they cite improbable reasons for an incident—they are easily turned against them and used as ridicule.

When we look back over the war we see that Ukraine’s messaging has been a lot more sophisticated than Russia’s. Some of that can be attributed to the public image the Ukraine government creates around its president, Volodymyr Zelinsky, and to his manner on camera. He comes across as far more personable than any of the Russian civilian or military leadership and to Russian media personalities supportive of their government. They generally present as aggressive and threatening. That might play to Russian sensibilities, however it doesn’t come across all that well outside of Russia. Perhaps Russian media personalities don’t care about that much, their aggressiveness and threats being the point they want to deliver to Western audiences. That, though, is more likely to scare people and reinforce their existing support for their governments’ own support for Ukraine and for measures against Russia.

What can we take from the Ukrainian video?

What does the video tell us about effective communication, whether in information warfare or for some more innocuous application? Let’s take a peek…

Use an effective format

The video uses a familiar format, a pharmaceutical advertisement, so it slips easily into the media experience of viewers. This reduces viewer friction. It is easy to get into. The format offers no viewer challenges in encapsulating its serious political message in a light format.

It is an example of the medium—the advertising format—supporting the message by not getting in its way.

Go where your audience is

To distribute a message effectively and to reach a preferred audience (ie. your target audience) we use the channels where that audience hangs out.

For the Ukrainian video producers, that channel is Twitter. Why? because Twitter is where most of the first-hand reporting and analysis of Russia’s invasion takes place.

Even when they dislike a platform, communicators use it if posting there reaches their target audience. That is a more-important factor for journalists and commentators than personal attitude to a channel. It is a necessity of effective communication.

An example is unfolding as I write. Users are talking about quitting Twitter now that Elon Musk has brought uncertainty over the future direction of the platform following his late-October purchase of it. Some of the open-source intelligence analysts who have channels reporting the Russian war in Ukraine and other themes on Twitter are considering moving to another platform, however others say they might stay with Twitter, at least until its likely future direction becomes clear.

Facebook offers another example that illustrates why commentators stick with a platform despite their dislike of it. Many of the platform’s users stayed because their friends and their audience remained with the platform after its misdoings, starting with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, were revealed. Quitting would have broken the connections between people.

Staying with a platform is an example of path dependency in which the investment of time and intellectual energy in developing a channel on a platform discourages moving to a new platform because of the potential loss of the existing audience and the effort required to reestablish anew.

Sticky messaging

The video makes use of effective communication tactics described by the Heath brothers in their book, Make it Stick, in which effective communication adopts these characteristics:

SIMPLE—present ideas in a simple and profound way.

The video: The idea is to create or reinforce opposition to Russia’s invasion through presenting a litany of Russian failure.

UNEXPECTED—the unexpected generates the surprise that grabs and keeps viewer attention.

The video: The unexpected use of humour and mockery is not the usual way that states engage in information warfare. It comes as a surprise for so serious a topic—war.

As for the use of humour and ridicule, Martin Rawson wrote in The Guardian following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in 2015:

Mockery is hated by the powerful and despotic — which is why it must continue.

CONCRETE—use human actions to generate emotional responses.

The video: Failed Russian actions are used to generate amusement and deliver a message of Russian ineptitude.

CREDIBLE—present verifiable, evidence-based information to make readers/viewers believe your story.

This separates it from propaganda—information that is misleading and usually untrue and that is designed to promote a political point of view.

The video: The video makes use of verifiable, documented incidents in the Russian invasion.

EMOTION—make people feel something-an emotion.

The video: The video uses comedy to create the amusement that encapsulates a serious political statement.

TELL STORIES—rather than present information as a conventional news item, write a story around it.

Mainstream media makes use of this approach by presenting an incident or trend as a human interest story around the experience of people affected. Their experiences reflect on the issue and personalises it. It is useful for showing how a policy, practice or incident impacts people. The approach comes from the belief that people like to read about other people.

Still, conventional news writing retains an important place in reporting. It delivers information in a terse, brief and straight-to-the-point way that is useful to people without the time or interest to read a human interest or other type of news story or who just want a summary of what happened. The long-established inverted pyramid news writing format does this well, with the paragraphs presenting information in descending order of importance, enabling skimming and not necessitating the reading of the entire article to find the most important facts. A modern approach in news writing is to precede a lengthier, detailed story with the most important facts preceding it as a series of dot-points.

Stories are how people have passed on information for ages. Storytelling remains an effective technique.

The video: It tells the story of Russian ineptitude, confusion and failure in a comedic structure to create and to shore-up opposition to Russia’s war.

The importance of creative messaging

Conflict messaging is competitive

Messaging during conflict is competitive. Opponents seek the upper hand. They exploit the misdoings or failures of their opponents. Like media production in general, that during conflict seeks to attract attention.

It is about influencing the perceptions of the public and of sectors within it, and through the selective presentation of information to garner support.

Avoid propaganda

Sticking with factual information avoids accusations of propaganda.

‘Propaganda’ is commonly used to describe any communications issued by a combatant, however an alternative definition sees it as information that is false, misleading, selective and heavily biased. All information presented by a combatant will be biased to their side even when factual. Here I am talking about information that is excessively so and that misrepresents actuality. Information perceived as propaganda is likely to be dismissed.

Be creative in messaging

The video demonstrates the importance of creativity in messaging around serious topics.

It uses humour to address the serious subject of warfare and to lampoon Russia. The use of the advertising format slots the serious information about the war into a familiar format, making it easily digestible.

Covering the points outlined in the book, Make it Stick, can help in creative messaging. Structuring information as a story can be relevant in getting information across and garnering support.

Know your audience

Know your audience. Know its sensibilities and how it is likely to respond to information and the way it is presented.

Do they place greater credibility on seriously-presented information? On information that is presented humorously?

What news channels and platforms do they use?

Knowing your audience helps to shape the information you present and how it is delivered.

As well as posting items on social media, don’t overlook the value of contributing to comments on someone elses’ post. Commenting can turn a post into a conversation. Understanding the tone and terminology used by other credible commentators provides clues as to how to word your own. Many comments will be frivolous, some nonsensical. Don’t bother responding to those. Respond with comments that advance the conversation.

Messaging as an active measure

‘Active measures’ is a jargon term coming from the world of national security and espoinage. It is a catch-all phrase for different types of initiatives designed to gather information, blunt an initiative of an opponent or to wield influence among a select target or the general public. An example outside of the communications sphere is the ‘elite capture’ of national leaders by the government of China, the Solomon Islands providing an example at the time of writing where the prime minister has introduced Chinese training for Solomon Islands police and has adopted a favourable attitude towards China.

Communications as active measures positions it within the ‘grey zone’ of conflict between the usual type of messaging that nation states and people engage in and kinetic warfare. It constitutes the weaponisation of information and media. As well as in mainstream media, the grey zone of information warfare encompasses the online infosphere of blogs and social media, a development all too familiar from Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 US election and from ongoing online conflict.

Information warfare is now an established domain of combat.

More about grey zone conflict on PacificEdge…

More on issues of national security, food and fuel security…

A novel for our times…

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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.