Small Wars Journal

Transmedia, Emerging Threats, and a Blended Strategy for Training

Wed, 06/20/2012 - 6:33am


As the U.S government’s strategic focus begins to draw away from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the importance of identifying and disrupting emerging threats increases in magnitude. Current strategies built to attack networks in countries beyond Afghanistan and Iraq have not yielded durable or decisive outcomes.  This has left room for insurgent threats to expand, often taking sanctuary in new areas or adopting strategies that allow them to adapt.    Do-it-Yourself (DIY) networks of information have evolved beyond “Resident Networks” and “Communities of Interest” toward individuals and ideology. One only needs to go to Twitter to see the myriad individuals, each with their own views on the subject, and each with their own large following of interest. 

As threats have changed, so has the nature of the networks to which they are tied. As information technology has improved, the ability to organize has increased, carrying with it greater power for the individual. In this new era, we therefore must reconsider the meaning of a network and the ways in which our strategies need to evolve to counter it. Strategies built around attacking networks are too limited; strategic planning now needs to embrace the power of the individual and the root influences that motivate them. Strategic narratives and international relations operate beyond the imaginary boundaries that we define with our notions of networks.  Efforts therefore need to refocus to consider emerging threats in terms of individuals who are loosely tied to common ideologies, franchised ideologies, sympathetic support, or inspirational actions or deeds. In the past the efforts of several political, social, military, law enforcement, and economic events would have to coalesce over a period of time to generate a large popular response. . This is no longer the case. Outrage, fear and loathing can be crafted and created from outside the network, bypassing the network, and in a matter of hours a downtown street or park can be occupied with no real warning. Agencies and Departments are forced to reactive and reactionary responses with little time to plan messaging or operations.   From the standpoint of operations, this may seem daunting at best, and impossible at the extreme. However, appreciating the importance of the individual within the scope of emerging threats requires us to reposition operational and tactical focus within our strategic framework to influence to the individual in a manner that will limit his willingness to act in support of insurgent activities. To achieve this, we must affect the individual’s core values and constructs of trust.

The lessons learned from the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan have provided deep insights into operations against complex and evolving networks that employ a wide range of asymmetrical threats. Though surge strategies gleaned the lion’s share of the attention, the greatest successes were found in small-unit, locally focused, decentralized operations. As we move forward, strategies focused on emerging threats need to consider employment of the same type of approaches. Though the tendency is to rely on existing capabilities, the requirements needed for emerging threats exceed what these capabilities can offer; they are not something that can be achieved through the existing mechanisms of foreign aid or military action alone. 

To affect an individual’s core values and constructs of trust, greater emphasis needs to be placed on Phase Zero operations and the implementation of a Transmedia capability centered on influence and outreach programmatics. By employing visual communication programming at the village level that embraces local customs, oral traditions, and native narrative archetypes, a Phase Zero Transmedia capability provides the means to influence the individual towards actions more in line with our strategic needs. 

Purpose and Background

This article provides an outline for the development of a Transmedia capability that is applicable in all Phase Zero operations.  The term “transmedia” will be defined as an approach designed to generate a lasting end state of sustained and lasting predilection for our strategic interests from the indigenous populations. Additionally, Transmedia will bridge existing institutional disciplines and doctrines to disrupt insurgent incubation and growth, maximize the impact of influence and outreach operations, and provide a forward leaning lessons learned capability to better exploit emerging threats. Rethinking the dynamics of our approach to networks has become crucial as modern techniques are used to compress the information exchange cycle, allowing emotion and supporting narratives to become mobilization mechanisms. The accumulation of rage and sympathies are now broadcast on a global scale in a matter of hours- not days or weeks- into a digital forum that operates like an interactive conversation.  The sociology of group dynamics is now extended to the digital plane.

The challenges of communication are a constant part of operations involving interactions with indigenous populations. Lack of literacy and education frequently frustrate efforts to build cooperation and support, while local customs, taboos, and traditions present operators with a morass of cultural unknowns that can derail efforts without warning. Add to this the barriers of language and a labyrinth of socio-religious beliefs, and the task of building lasting and enduring relationships becomes extraordinarily challenging.

The use of film to invoke master narratives and effect social change can be found in government-produced films ranging from Soviet depictions of the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the US War Department’s films of World War II. Study of the work by Sergei Eisenstein during the early Soviet era, for example, offers lessons that can be employed to overcome these barriers. By using well-crafted visual programming, Eisenstein was able to enhance the support for the Bolshevik movement and simultaneously strengthen the support for the Soviet state. This example is important since the post-Tsar/early-Soviet era was defined by cultural fragmentation, extreme illiteracy, extensive poverty and tribal resurgence. The use of films to communicate visually to the local populations in a culturally relevant framework was successful in transcending barriers and effecting social change.

Modern Hollywood and You Tube have demonstrated how history, culture, and narrative messaging can be crafted to influence and even rewrite history.   This consortium of knowledge has influenced the manner in which information has been used in the current conflicts. The challenges in the Afghan theater, where nationalism is a new and emerging concept, underscore these complexities. With rural Afghan identity rooted more in the tribe and village than in the nation-state, communication products needed to reflect a framework of local village and tribal narratives in order to enhance success. The persistence of top-down programming and Western value-based analytics reduced the impact of the existing influence and outreach programs. The insurgent use of information to influence local populations, however, had proved very effective. This was evident in the portrayal of the national government and its nationalist ideology as causes of graft, corruption and development that benefited only the metropolitan elite, not the rural villages. An important part of the insurgents’ narrative development was the distribution of crudely made videos that highlighted local music, religious themes and elements of the traditional warrior ethos. To address the communication shortfalls, Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A) launched the Transmedia initiative in July of 2011. The program drew upon historical examples, such as Eisentein’s films, as well as alternative methodologies such as positive deviance, in which positive actions within a community are reinforced to effect positive social change. The visual communication products were then developed to leverage local narratives as conveyed through traditional Afghan oral communication, Afghan storytelling, Afghan cultural traditions, and the unique Afghan ontology.

The low rates of television penetration have offered a challenge in many areas of operation, as they can limit the use of visual content to anything other than mobile phones. This gap can now be filled with low cost, battery powered micro-SDHC projectors. This capability has allowed operators greater flexibility in delivering audio-visual content to the local population. More significantly, it has decentralized dissemination operations and simultaneously removed dependence on existing infrastructures. With even the most remote villages in Afghanistan having cell phones with 3G technologies, there is always a gas-powered generator to keep small electronics charged.

Making the local narrative a focal point of communication is essential in translating strategic objectives to the tactical level. It is also the backbone in any framework that seeks to enhance local stability while ensuring the development of positive indigenous relationships over the long-term. While this is not an original idea, current trends have marginalized the importance of this approach. The development of a Transmedia capability reaffirms the importance of communication at the village level. By emphasizing visual content within a local context, Transmedia provides an adaptive capability for the way ahead.


Transmedia is an educate-and-influence program which uses visual vignettes of varying lengths (20-60 minutes) as an entertainment and education vehicle to enhance training, strengthen non-lethal operations and provide life-improving education at the village level and up. Central to the program’s design is an integrated visual collection capability using deployed teams of videographers, visual editors and cultural Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Each team captures local narratives as conveyed through traditional oral communication, storytelling, cultural traditions, and the unique cultural ontology, and then translates that material into engaging and entertaining visual educational stories. Additionally, the audio-visual content is repurposed to provide training, cultural education and Lessons Learned content for both host nation units as well as DOD/ DOS personnel prior to deployment to the AOR.

Success of the approach of the Transmedia program relies on four critical paths:

  • Ontological Research of Audience and Program Effects: Developing an operational understanding of the audience demographics and cultural ontologies that can influence narratives and narrative outcomes.
  • Information Gathering and Production: Narrative development, field collection, editing and production, copying and distribution, and visual content management.
  • Distribution and Screening: Identifying entry points for initial distribution while building and leveraging expanded distribution networks.
  • Feedback and Assessment: Developing a system to assess and improve the products to continue to support the operational goals of the area. Additionally, this element provides the ability to inject these assessments into the design and decision making process to improve course of action development that is in synch with cultural context and messaging mediums. This eliminates the so called errors in body language or messaging that cause dissonance.

Transmedia personnel will apply an interdisciplinary approach to provide maximum effect. A team will have experience creating visual narratives using the latest methods from the commercial advertising world and entertainment industry. This approach will allow new thoughts and traditions to be formed and absorbed into the traditions of the local narratives and stories. A team will also be able to identify local narratives and develop storylines that will appropriately convey messages to the indigenous audiences. SMEs will provide knowledge on the best delivery methods, be they traditional local means of transmission, or modern means such as film or documentary. The objective is always to expose the greatest number of people to the narrative in formats they recognize. New storylines will be delivered by traditional and non-traditional means as well.  Understanding what “wrong”’ looks like is just as critical as what “right” looks like. This builds a repertoire of conflict resolution skills that can be tailored to support the vision, objectives, expected outcomes, and/or metrics of design planning and implementation at the tactical, operational and strategic levels.    

The initial concept of Transmedia focuses on visual learning and communication on subjects as diverse as agriculture, literacy/numeracy, small-scale industry education, civic responsibility, counter-corruption, counter-narcotics, religious narratives and education, as well as geographically appropriate and culturally sensitive entertainment. Moreover, the medium has potential for a vast range of effects beyond the application for which it is initially being contemplated. As an example, Transmedia could potentially address the long standing issues and rifts that exist between urban and rural society by demonstrating and reinforcing the positive in governance, security and development for the village by association to relevant “cultural” contexts. This can go further, to extend linkage between heretofore unaligned villages, enabling local civil society groups to exchange ideas across greater regional audiences through visual narratives that could later be migrated to virtual social networking spaces. The potential is limited only by imagination.

Another potential beneficiary is Lessons Learned. Transmedia provides a forward leaning capability that can capture, and develop visually based lessons learned materials for emerging threats and unfamiliar regions. The visual content offers immersive training potential while supporting the needs of leader training, special teams training and general adaptive training. Extending this further, by integrating Transmedia into the RIP process, operators can enhance knowledge transfer while providing an accelerated means of capturing tribal and ethnic nuance specific to their area of operation

As a bottom up, village-centric program, the purpose of Transmedia is to enhance Phase Zero operations through the use of audio-visual tailored to support the local village’s needs and issues while simultaneously enhancing social linkage. Transmedia’s emphasis on positive reinforcement provides communities with an asset to enhance their local institutional knowledge and best practices as well as their long-term survivability. This last point is key, since affinity relationships and their ties to ancestral villages or lands heavily influence traditional populations. Providing a means for indigenous groups to achieve greater empowerment, become less dependent on outside resources and strengthen their ties to traditional value structures enables Transmedia to create and foster long-term and enduring relationships at the local level.


Transmedia provides an adaptive capability to disrupt insurgent potential at the root before it gains a foothold.  As insurgents have become more networked through technology, insurgent groups have demonstrated a resilience and ability to adapt and persist. This ease of access through electronic media has also empowered the individual to become a more significant agent of change. Consequently, greater emphasis must be placed on the entities that drove the individual towards insurgency in order to more effectively disrupt the insurgent network.

As focus shifts to emerging threats, the strategies built to defeat networks must themselves evolve. Necessary to this growth is the realization that greater emphasis needs to be placed on Phase Zero operations and the implementation of a Transmedia capability centered on influence and outreach programmatics. By employing visual communication programming at the village level that embraces local customs, oral traditions, and native narrative archetypes that can be delivered independent of the infrastructure build, a Phase Zero Transmedia capability provides the means to influence the individual towards actions more in line with our strategic interests. 

About the Author(s)

Scott Kesterson is CEO of Spatial Terra, LLC, a firm focused on strategies for pro-active risk mitigation, market entry and strategic positioning. Kesterson spent over 3.5 years in Afghanistan working at village level as a documentary filmmaker, and cultural advisor to various SOF elements.


Scott Kinner

Fri, 12/28/2012 - 11:22am

Mr. Kesterson is correct in pointing out that the US needs to do a better job at conducting operations in the Information Environment - to include decentralization of effors - and certainly the concept of Transmedia applies. What remains the sticking point in such decentralization is the requirement for the military forces of our liberal democracy to be, in general, truth tellers - at least as we see it. There is a reason why the DOD defines "propaganda" only in terms of what the enemy or threat puts out. We "inform and influence" through truth, the enemy manipulates through lies and misinformation.

I understand that such statements are relative and a matter of persepctive, but that is the view and policy as we see it and such a view means that we keep IO on a short leash. Other actors on the world stage have no such restrictions.

But we need not necessarily despair - because Mr. Kesterson errs on the side of being too optimistic - the idea that somehow the individual is more empowered than ever before. If this were the case, then certainly our slow and cumbersome IO efforts would be a critical failure.

However, this is not the case - IO is just one component of the combined-arms effort - the sum being greater than the individual parts of the whole. Despite being proved utterly, consistently wrong across history, there remains a stubborn urban myth that the actions of the individual can make a difference purely on their own merit. This is demonstrably not so - the actions of an individual can only make a difference when placed in the context of time and place.

Over the last years numerous monks have self-immolated themselves in protest of China's Tibetan policies with no appreciable effect. But the self-immolation of one individual in Tunisia set fire to the Arab world...the difference? A matter of conditions.

Despite Mr. Kesterson's thoughts to the contrary, just as physics demonstrates that we cannot create mass from nothing, individuals cannot just manufacture outrage. Just as energy is required to move a stationary object, individuals need fertile ground upon which they can generate momentum behind any particular issue.

In addition to looking at the success of American, Soviet - and for some reason absent from the discussion, German - information successes, one also needs examine their failures to realize that on their own efforts they miss the mark, but enjoy their greatest victories when they are placed within the context of a larger effort.

Why create a neologism when we have a perfectly good word already in existence - propaganda.