The seminal work by Marshall McLuhan titled “Media as the Message” [sic] was prescient. But now that the majority of the world has access to media, whether social, state, or corporate driven, the global commons is driven by its perceptions. In this new world, the dominant and most desirable message—despite the noise, dissonance, and distraction—is America.
It is both a nation and an idea. Independent of racial, religious, and ethnically relational bounds, America remains the most potent and powerful idea in the 21st century. The question, however, is how does this idea get disseminated, absorbed, understood, and promulgated? It is by no means an assured route to primacy, but there are inherent advantages as well as current challenges on the road to maintaining moral currency and political authority. An elevated beacon is less visible in the fog than it is on clear and open seas.
“Freedom Media” is a research project to establish both an understanding of media power and the leveraging of evolving and dynamic media tools to promote and maintain the primacy of Western-based economic, political, and social systems. At a moment when competing narratives are promulgated by strategic competitors in Russia and China and global corporate interests in Cyberspace, “Freedom Media” is a project that promises a comprehensive approach to both understanding the multiplicity of strategic challenges to the West and a solutions set to managing what may seem like chaotic challenges.
“Freedom Media” will be a project led by myself, in collaboration with Ambassador Andras Simonyi, a project director at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a wider working group made up of media professionals and scholars, technology executives and researchers, political science theorists and practitioners, economists and business community leaders, and, finally, social ethicists and philosophers. Together, this working group will pursue an agenda to identify and define the current problems faced in the open media ecosystem, the challenges facing it from various sectors and nations, and, finally, address a set of approaches towards creating a dominant interconnected and open society-oriented media structure for a post-newspaper world.
About Freedom Media
President Bill Clinton promised to build that bridge to the 21st century in a spirit of international liberalism, with free and open global trade, minimal military conflict, and political, social, economic, and cultural collaboration amongst erstwhile adversaries. President George W. Bush found that the bridge was crossed by non-state actors who intended and successfully did America harm and goaded her into reacting hastily, draining her resources, unity, and political will in the process. President Barack Obama represented the scarred nature of a nation both reeling from economic trauma and military adventurism, fearing to assert America’s primacy and being unnecessarily cautious for America pursuing her interests while praising her many culturally diverse virtues. All three presidents failed in their own ways to get America’s role right. All three failed to figure out a comprehensive vision of a world—either because they lacked the capacity or experience or knowledge—that would allow for them to manage a critical balance of America’s power resources and how to project them on the world.
All three presidents failed to get the balance of defense, development, and diplomacy right. They also failed to recognize a fourth critical component: deconstruction. The ability to breakdown pre-existing cultural, religious, social, political, economic, and environmental assumptions and relationships to allow for advantageous reshaping and wholesale replacement with new belief systems and relations is a long-standing and effective method and tool to get both adversarial and aligned communities to fall in line and, sometimes, fall in love. Previous leaders have failed to recognize the power of the deconstructive approach to international relations, mostly because the level of analysis has ridden at the state level, rather than with the individual or subnational communities of affinity. Digital technologies have allowed for a new, direct, friction-free, transnationally immediate, and domestically disruptive deconstructive approach targeting societies writ large, but with the ability to target them at the root level by leveraging available, market-developed microtargeting data of individual perceptions, desires, patterns, proclivities, and purchases. Utilizing this purchasable, but freely available, market data at the nodal level gives states unprecedented opportunity to deconstruct and reconstruct preferences and leverage vulnerabilities, while taking advantage of truth-biases, peer-relations, and network effects at a scalable niveau.
Previous leaders utilized aspects of offensive deconstruction as subsets of their main three statecraft tools—within defense, development, or diplomacy—in part because these approaches only existed or were available to deploy on a mass level, over mass media, with great difficulty, little control, and without a tailoring capacity towards individuals. A-B testing of messages at scale, with immediate responsiveness and reactivity, mean that these tools are now also deployable in real-time, making them less predictable and giving them an impulse for organic development and unpredictable direction. What is predictable is the deconstructive impulse plays upon extant biases—often anti-authoritative, anti-institutionalist, and anti-hierarchical—to provide fuel for societal deconstruction, sometimes in the name of revolutionary systemic restructuring.
While early offensive deconstructive messaging has helped both anti-authoritarian movements to coalesce and capture mass movements (Arab Spring, Orange Revolution, Velvet Revolution, Yellow Umbrella Movement), it was understood early on that this approach to offensive interference and hybrid warfare could also be used against democratic systems and the vulnerability of open systems. The documented Russian interference and attack on America’s 2016 elections and consequent assault on the sovereignty of America’s European allies, Middle Eastern clients, Latin American proxies, and African friends is just a preview of the abilities of a determined foe to wreak havoc and sow the seeds of political uncertainty, division, and hyper-partisanship across the globe, providing coordinated and choreographed opportunity within the spectrum of resultant chaos.
There is, however, distinct and determined advantage within a decentralized global system where ideas are the weapons of division. Positive and proven ideas that privilege the individual over the collective, profit over penury, and dignity over defeatism have lasting power and perform well over time. This was the case at the end of the 18th century when the American Revolution inspired nations far and wide to model their popular movements on America’s experiment. 1820 to 1830, too, turned into watershed years throughout the old world, a time when the lessons of the new world were the most important lessons to be learned. The unleashed political innovations grounded in classical texts and ancient systems created modern structures and progressive patterns of governance with high ideals and the promise of equality, freedom, and brotherhood. It brought about the unpredictable assertion that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were inalienable rights bestowed upon all men—and eventually, all women, races, religions, creeds and colors.
In the 21st century, the deconstructive narrative must default to the reconstructive primacy of democratic systems, individual rights, coordinated collective action, and freely competitive systems, and with a modicum of safety net as a guarantee against base predation and inhuman condition. The latter will always be a work in progress, but the former must be a north star for a system managed by just rules and laws and defended by collective wisdom and democratic ideals.
Getting there will require a dynamic research process to understand the old approaches and new tools for managing public perception. “Freedom Media” requires leveraging the tools in “Liberation Technologies,” dominated by either a small collection of large private industries and state actors, extending the mass and peer communication tools and techniques of a free and fair, fast and accurate “Independent Journalism,” and promoting the proven political philosophies, civic structures, and economic systems of open societies characterized as “Capitalist Democracies.” The goal of this project will be to provide a responsive and ongoing approach and practice for both promotion and maintenance of Western-based open society primacy in economics, politics, and society.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is an author, publisher, journalist, and scholar. During the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Kounalakis worked as a foreign correspondent, covering wars and revolutions for Newsweek and as the NBC-Mutual News Moscow correspondent. Kounalakis later became president and publisher of the Washington Monthly magazine and is currently a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.