Navigating Gray Zone Warfare: Who defines our paradigms?
It gets messy when you’re trying to find truth within gray zone warfare…
Before getting into this Texas A&M whitepaper on Media Gray Zones — I’d like to point out that I’m in no way suggesting anything other than what’s pointed out in this particular whitepaper that was published in 2017. If you think that information warfare is some far-off concept with no real threats — I’d consider taking a second look at what it’s really like within the information warfare. After all, it seems like we’ve already reached the point of no return at times.
The idea of “alternative” media has been of interest to me as of late. As Sebs and I discussed in our last show (linked all the way at the bottom of the article) — and frankly, probably multiple times on multiple shows — it’s frustrating to watch people who operate under the label of “independent” or “alternative” completely take the mantle from the very same people they set out to disrupt, if you will. I’m not saying people can’t have their own opinions — that would make me a bit of a hypocrite, right? All I’m saying is that within the gray zone — warfare itself — isn’t cut and dry. Sometimes, things are pretty simple — the name itself — the “Gray Zone” — is pretty telling.
Information is information. I hope this doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but do you need someone to tell you how to think? How to see a situation? I’m of the belief that you can extract information from all sources — as Sebs and I frequently say, it’s the lens that you see these things through. When you learn more information (and of course, verify), you apply this to your analysis. It’s quite liberating — as cringe as that might sound. When you don’t have to fit into a narrative or influence model — you’re free to take in any and all information to better analyze situations. I’m not seeing a ton of that lately. Worse yet, the talking point that almost seems like a way to dismiss someone completely — “You’re repeating CIA talking points, you’re a neoliberal” — it’s getting a bit ridiculous.
I wanted to look a little bit further into the ideas within gray zone warfare in media because, contrary to Max Blumenthal’s recent assertion that all of these “CIA talking points” are just done by the Empire to take down The Grayzone, (which, sure, it might be true — welcome to journalism, I guess?) — there IS a real issue here — and that is information warfare within the gray zone. This isn’t me trying to sound like Rachel Maddow in 2020 — nor is it me trying to sound like Ana Kasparian, Krystal Ball, etc…so just spare me. Can you tell I’m a bit annoyed? We get nowhere if we get stuck in the paradigms that are set up for us to operate in a way that unifies us in agreement over a vague understanding of general statements, like “free speech is good,” — or we’re completely divided still arguing about whether Trump and Obama were all that different.
Reviewing “Media Visions of the Gray Zone: Contrasting Geopolitical Narratives in Russian and Chinese Media
As I mentioned above, I wanted to understand the complexities within gray zone conflict — specifically within the context of the media — both mainstream and alternative. Why? Well — for the last few years, we’ve been hearing that “Fox News isn’t that bad anymore…Tucker Carlson says good things every now and then…MSNBC and CNN are just parroting CIA talking points…Fox gets it.“ Okay — cool, but apply that logic to the “liberal” channels too — for the sake of extracting information. I wanted to know — was the whole “Russiagate was a hoax” narrative another red herring so that people would completely ignore the role of influencers that push a world view that’s kinder to China and Russia? I’m not here to argue whether the neoliberal world order versus the emerging BRICS “multi-polar” world order is better or worse, because I’m of the belief that it was always going to happen this way. My interest, then, is more on the analysis that the liberal think tanks, the academics, and the conservative think tanks, are approaching this. That’s why I turned to academia.
Before getting into the study, I think it’s important to point out the issue of narrative paradigms and framing. I’ve found that I have the hardest time discussing some of these issues with people when they’ve been forced out of their paradigm, even if only for a brief moment. I get it — it’s scary to think you’ve been duped. Even worse is finding out that you’ve likely been duped by by the people you felt were telling you the truth. That’s where many of the actors that I enjoy analyzing within the “alternative media” space come in. We’re in an information war — everyone is a target, everyone is a weapon. I’ve included some slides from our show on Doom&Gloom (link to the full video is at the bottom of the page.)
Because media narrative play such a crucial aspect in shaping and preparing narratives and sentiments, gray zone warfare often can be found within paradigms that have been established by media. Often operating within the “independent” media space, gray zone warfare is just that — a GRAY space. It’s not up or down, it’s not left or right, but it’s doubtful, not fully telling of the entire story, and so on. I found this part interesting because it points out what’s been noticeable as far as China’s rise — they act as if they have been excluded within the narrative framework, but one look at China shows you they’ve grown beyond what many would’ve imagined thus far. Believe it or not, you can, in fact, question BOTH sides of the narrative.
“Overall, Russian media enacted a “gray zone” character much more frequently, in utilizing ambiguity, aggression, and perceived injustice to expand Russian interests against those of the Western world. Conversely, Chinese media sought much more frequently to argue for China’s full inclusion and participation in global affairs, and rarely portrayed the current global system as wholly corrupt and controlled by the US and Europe”
Narratives, Media, and the Creation of the Gray Zone
Political, military, and other leaders have taken a second look at gray zone warfare when it comes to narratives — particularly geopolitical narratives, in the arena of international relations. “The stories that nations tell, and citizens believe, are a tremendous force in shaping issues of national identity, strength, goals, and vales.” This isn’t necessarily new, but what is new, “is the increasingly complicated media-scape in which these narratives play out, the interaction between platforms or channels, and the ability of multiple players to shape those narratives from vast distances.”
In a globalized media context, each citizen “becomes a target and a weapon for information and disinformation” — and controlling narrative exposure within that space has become its own type of gray zone conflict. “Geopolitical narratives are important, because they help to define the political and geopolitical worldview of a population.” Thus — governments seek to develop worldviews that provide support for national and foreign policies, and to define a nation’s role in the global order.” Considering the fact that the world order is increasingly becoming a “multipolar and completely different way of operating, this is needed to pre-bunk (thanks Sebs) or prepare you for coming changes.
By keeping people in actual echo chambers, while under the guise of reaching out and uniting with others, people are likely to return to these platforms for narrative and agenda confirmation.
MGZ: Media Gray Zone (and MGZ Operations) — Occupying the space between the White space of peace & the Black space of war
Media impacts geopolitical relations in four ways, according to this report:
- Media is utilized to create narratives that provide a motive & rationale for global engagement, resistance, or other types of action — it’s how most citizens are able to get a grasp of geopolitical world — forms a sense of social, cultural, and political identity while identifying rivals, enemies, or friends. “The narratives that are presented in mass media, as well as social media, are a primary force in forming a world view.”
- Media is used to organize activity and control organizations and networks, even for non-military organizations like resistance networks or activists.
- Media is used to send a message to outsiders to inform on intentions, threats, or warnings.
- Media is used to generate compliance among local populations to the actions, policies, or plans of governments or insurgent organizations. This project looked at this through a Russian and Chinese lens. They wanted to focus on this strictly through the lens of a media gray zone, because we focus on how narratives are presented to people, they indicate ideologies and can see clearly how a nation perceives itself versus others. Because a government is unlikely to consistently enact policies that violate a population’s geopolitical worldview, understanding these narratives allows us perspective on how a government might act.
Media narratives are often less ambiguous than other types of gray zone indicators. Other ways might be subject to interpretation, but media narratives are quite obvious. The spectrum of operation for Media Gray Zone ranges from normal global conversations to more aggressive and confrontational narratives of resistance and conflict. The Media Gray Zone, “where global norms and narratives are contested through strategies of disinformation, fake news, manipulative narratives, and arguments, with the goal of the control of public opinion, both in domestic and foreign narratives.”
Mediated Gray Zone Conflict
I’m getting some “US bad, China good! Russia good! Vibes from all of this. Walter Fisher argued that political and geopolitical narratives are persuasive to audiences based upon two criteria: narrative coherence and narrative fidelity.
Walter Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm
- Narrative Coherence: The narrative makes “logical sense’ and maintains a sense of consistency over time — it “hangs together” — at least for the audience in question.
- Narrative Fidelity: Refers to the “extent to which the narrative seems “true” to the audience, or that audiences see their own experiences, values, and assumptions embedded in the narrative.”
It’s almost like they want as many silos as possible, to jumble up so much information, to the point where they can “unite” and capitalize on that.
Conceptualizing what “Winning” looks like in MGZ
- Presentation of self and others in the global order: identities, credibility, trustworthiness, commonalities, contrasts and cooperation.
- Penetrating the information environment of other and defense of one’s own information environment: controlling the flow of available information regarding self and other to one’s own citizens and the citizens of other nations.
- Revision of narratives in the media-scape: attempting to question the validity of information, offer alternative information, create uncertainty leading to openings or revisions of order while also serving to prevent dominant narratives and/or create convergence of common standards or goals of self and other.
- Insulation and inoculation: grand visions of self as related to legitimacy and place in the global order for one’s own citizens and the citizens of other nations.
“A geopolitical narrative, for example, will have persuasive power when it both seems internally consistent and in line with the expectations and experiences of the audience.” If a narrative is both coherent — consistent and “logical” to the audience, and one that shows “fidelity” — meaning it resonates with the audience’s perceived experiences and understanding, is one that is persuasive because it can match both requirements necessary for a “Narrative Paradigm.”
The Findings: significant differences between both the system (global order) narratives and issue-specific narratives
- Chinese media tended towards narratives of a functioning and intact global order that would be increasingly benefitted from China’s “good intentions” and “renewed economic and cultural power.”
- Russian media tended towards narratives of a “broken” world order — one that is manipulated solely by the US and other Western nations to their own benefit.
In this set of narratives, Russia was an honest broker, seeking to limit the corruption of the global order, and to put a check on Western interests.
Global Order Narratives
Summarization of Findings
Global Order and the Collapse of Western Democracy
The “Russian media narrative” portrays the existing NATO/Transatlantic order as one that is unfair, undemocratic, and “immoral — all led by the US and Western Europe, and dedicated to preserving the privileges of the West. Media narratives typically frame Russia’s role as a counter to the US and Western Europe hegemony compared to Russia’s role, which treats other nations with respect and dignity absent from their relationship to the west. Many times, Russia is seen as a “savior” to the rest of the world from the hypocrisy — the “sensible one” — remember when Putin made that speech about what happens when you let the woke language take over the world? According to this report, Russian media portrayed the US election process as a demonstration of the collapse of Western democracy. In fact, this powerful narrative was the culmination of various subsets of narratives to show that “the global order needs to change and is already in the process of the change towards new global leadership” — though I don’t agree as far as Russia being framed as the new sole leader. It seems that this narrative, as far as the legitimacy of the 2020 US Election, was so pushed because regardless of who thinks Trump or Biden actually won, both “sides,” in the United States, are faced with the notion that their “system” may not be so strong after all. Whether it’s attributed to inside forces or external cheating, the system that embodies the west is “broken” — serving the greater picture that’s not directly outlined in this paper.
Why would Russia do this? It’s not necessarily about Russia — rather, it’s more about “pre-bunking” or shaping the narrative or acceptance of various situations to come. After all, Julian Assange himself said at a WSF conference in 2013 that utilizing the internet, unlike the Luddites, to combat “the state” — wasn’t ideal, but it was the only way. Meaning? Accept what’s ahead, whether that be, as he stated, “more centralization,” or a multipolar world where you can choose your ideology from within the comfort of your own home, and hang out with your chosen group in the virtual realm, and you can feel like you’re within your righteous place in the world. It’s clear why there are specific news segments in the alternative media space that focus solely on things like the World Economic Forum or Bilderberg — these are largely NATO-esque groups (though the WEF would be a larger and more “inclusive” space, I’d imagine) — Bilderberg is like old school NATO with their Chatham House Rules. It makes sense to me, then, why the Max Blumenthal and Kim Iversen crowd were so fixated on this specific meeting, as if no others like it had ever occurred, nor why the mainstream media wouldn’t ever cover it.
Manipulation of the US Election & US-led sanctions on Russia
Russian media also portrayed itself within the gray zone media realm — Russia is portrayed as a place needing to be able to determine its own destiny and borders, and as the “victim” of the globalist bullies wanting to keep Russia down. Statements from Donald Trump, like “the people of Crimea want to be Russian,” were used in support of Russia’s positions toward territorial expansion. Putin’s “praise” of Trump is shown repeatedly, in Russian media, to demonstrate the similarities of leadership styles — almost like another variation of Trump (the strong, assertive, “man’s man” vibe versus the weakened, “soy boy” image of Trudeau and Macron)
Russia’s emphasis on NATO as the external threat used by globalists to prevent Russia from being its’ own nation are common, and Trump’s victory was the only factor that lightened the tone of the discussions, without saying directly, but implying, that very little would be worse for Russia than a Clinton administration (regardless, the world order would still be changing, etc)
The Syrian Civil War
“Russian media presented the Syrian civil war as a micro-representative of the differing macro-foreign policy agendas between the West (particularly the United States) and itself. The media tended to portray Russia as a reasonable peace-broker concerned with stabilizing the Middle East and “defeating terrorism.”
Consider the alternative media ecosystem that got much of its’ “clout” within the Syrian context. While I’ll admit I was not particularly engaged in the conflict during its’ actual timeframe, I can point to a number of actors within the “alternative or independent media” space who rose to “fame” within the context of the Syrian civil war up until this day. How many times did Aaron Mate or Max Blumenthal visit the King, Jimmy Dore, to discuss this? Why did Jackson Hinkle win the Sabrina Shim Award, along with others like Vanessa Beeley, Julian Assange, Kim Iversen, Whitney Webb, Ryan Cristian, Moon of Alabama (not sure if they won or are just a feature), etc. I’m not saying I have an issue with anyone winning awards — I just notice a pattern in narratives, that’s all.
Furthermore, consider the framing on behalf of actors like Max Blumenthal when discussing issues like this. Everything is framed as a “western-backed” type of attack on their work. Bellingcat, which IS a CIA-funded venture, just like the folks operating at The Grayzone, have their own agendas and backing — but one never tells the side of the other, in order to obfuscate, confuse, siphon and segregate. It’s easy to fall into this trap — I know I did back in 2011 when I first discovered Abby Martin and RT. You learn about the things the “WEST” has done, you don’t get a greater understanding of the global dynamics within a practical perspective (usually these things are only presented in a very fantastical and asymmetrical manner with zero context about other factors shaping global politics) — and voila, you get “US bad, Russia good” as the prevailing narrative.
Chinese Media Portrayals of the Gray Zone
Just like China’s general influence within academia and global business, Chinese media has it’s own style of narrative and influence. Just look at Africa, which, once again, is NOT discussed in a real way by those operating within the gray zone, because things are ANYTHING BUT on the continent of Africa. In fact, reality is crystal clear — or black and white — but when you’re caught in the gray zone during the “changing world order” or the venture capitalist focus on the continent of Africa as the future of “sustainability” and “inclusion,” you’re missing out on what’s happening on the ground. While they have you arguing about whether the US left Afghanistan “in the right way” or whether you’re saying that Biden’s better than Trump because he got us out of Afghanistan, you’re caught up in the gray area — exactly where they want you. All of the countries mentioned, and those not mentioned, have serious interests in Africa.
The prime example of this, again, would be in regards to Chinese actions within Africa. We know that private companies like Frontier, thanks to Erik Prince, have been consistently working to provide security for Chinese companies operating in Africa. The Chinese admit that they don’t’ want to be seen like the “west’ with occupying military forces as they mine the country — they want to be seen as “strategic partners” — or something like that. Sorry, that doesn’t work for me. What’s worse? We have people over here screeching about people mining in Africa when they come from the west, but apparently, it’s “better” when it’s coming from China. The logic escapes me. If you’re confused on the angle I’m coming from — before you call me “Anti-China,” check out an article Sebs’ wrote on Mr. Prince and FSG in China here.
Regardless of which approach is taken, both signal that a shifting world order is ahead — but we know that the United States is fully aware of this because of the structural and technical shifts within the financial system on a global level, all the way down to the financialization of the digital space as a replication of the physical realm. There are no borders, international disagreements or conflicts when it comes to the digital world that resemble what we see on the physical realm, if that makes sense.
Issue Level Narratives
While both narrative sets, on a broad level, have differences in their analyses, both lead to a shift in paradigm in terms of the global order. People within the resistance space cling to narratives like these, partially because they’ve been nudged or influenced there, but also because the highlights of these narratives tend to reinforce negative beliefs (which are obviously important to understand) about the United States and Western Europe. But, again, I cannot stress the importance of understanding where Africa comes into the picture here. These ideological disagreements are priming us for the coming shifts in all forms, but notice what they don’t include as far as shared interests on a global scale. China leaves room for interpretation aside from the fact that they want to be included — Russia is more of the direct, head-on type of conflict — both of which match the “identities” of the countries in question.
China’s style is more subtle — there’s no direct or outlandish threats — largely because of the economic relationship between the United States and China, among other Western powers. “The claims of nations such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, or others that assert control over some part of the region [the South China Sea] are seen as manipulations by the US Government [not totally untrue], which has the primary goal of keeping China from achieving regional dominance, or indeed, even parity with the US in the region. Likewise, US claims that its concern is to “protect global trade” [RE: the current trade issues and how that fits in along with Covid and “The Great Reset” which emphasizes a different style of business and trade — more service-based economies versus goods-based economies] — are seen as disingenous, given China’s role in global trade, manufacturing, and transportation. These are seen as “made up” reasons to undermine Chinese influence in the region, rather than legitimate claims of global trade. Regardless — China is careful to not speak too directly on this. It’s more in their actions that aren’t discussed.
The US Presidential Election and Chinese and Russian Media
The Chinese sensibilities laced within the narratives that come from within and outside of China depict a more “sensible” side of China — the helpful, peaceful, and mutual cooperation-type of politicking — which is precisely because of the unique characteristics that define US/China relations. While Chinese media focused on the “messiness” of the election itself, it did not take such a hard stance on the actual candidates, like Russia did. When you understand what goes on in the gray zone, however, it makes perfect sense. China really capitalized on the use of independent and alternative media outlets, whether directly or indirectly, along with social media, like TikTok, to showcase the general stupidity of the Americans and The West. Watching American politics could be likened to watching a dramatic soap opera, something it seems the Chinese have little to no interest in engaging with. Can’t say that I blame them.
Russia & Trump
While I’m well aware that Texas A&M University’s study on Russian and Chinese media within the gray zone media space was likely conducted to further boost the “Empire’s” attempts at countering these narratives, there are plenty of useful pieces of information embedded within the academic jargon. While there are certainly some clear differences between Russian coverage and Chinese coverage, both lead to a similar area within the gray zone — the “old order” of the American/West has come to an end — NATO is not what it used to be. People within these countries — meaning the NATO countries, especially in the United States, have been programmed to gravitate towards these belief systems. The problem? Are the people within the alternative media space, for example, aware of the bigger picture? Do they not see that in their quest to prove that the Empire is evil, they may very well in fact be pushing narratives that lead us into an area where we are ripe for picking, in a sense? What would possibly compel someone to tell you with a straight fact that Russian or Chinese governments would somehow be better than the United States or anyone in the NATO countries? Both styles capitalize on the failure that has been the “neoliberal world order” — but they define the paradigm in which that conversation exists. Worse yet — these two narratives, among a few others, seemingly dominate the conversations within the alternative media space on YouTube, Twitch, Rokfin, etc.. — and it’s common to be called a “shit-lib” if you go anywhere near this topic.
Let’s close out with the conclusions provided by the author:
- Russian Media: Takes a more assertive and aggressive stance towards the US and Western Europe — the dominant geopolitical narratives portray the corrupt West as an attempt to keep other nations from achieving any significant economic or political boost, so that Western interests and power blocs remain in charge. Russian media crafts narratives that move towards a more “defined black space” of the MGZ — demonstrating that a re-ordering of the global order is both underway and that it will benefit the Russian state. Russian media presents itself as a bystander who will reap the benefits of the controlled demolition of the current world order, but will also be there to save the redeemable souls who see the “truth,” according to them. Furthermore, they’ll be happy to help define the reshuffling of the world order on their terms as a better alternative to the NATO style of ruling the world. Generally, the Russian narrative leaves zero room for inserting itself within the existing order (that would create doubt within the absolutes that have already been defined in this ecosystem regarding Russia’s role in the world, as well as its’ savior complex for those countries affected by Empire). “Whether these narratives exist to inoculate the bloc from the coming social unrest is of lesser concern than the larger effects of having an entire population see the West as both morally bankrupt and a barrier to their own well-being and success.” Future research, according to the author, should examine how to find narrative bridges (like channels who bridge the gap, or unify — seems to be a theme post 2020 election), and for people to better understand the sentiments of the Russian population when confronted with anti-western and anti-global order narratives, to learn about areas of cooperative success that allows Russians to see success in moving toward the white space of the MGZ.
- Chinese Media: This narrative paradigm tends to focus more on specific policies when being critical, versus casting judgment on the entire global system. The Chinese media, business world, and people, as presented to the west, tends to portray a geopolitical and economic world that “benefits all” — it just needs to be tweaked to include the emerging and already existent reality that highlights Chinese power and dominance. With specific issues, like the South China Sea, Chinese media is typically more forceful, but that is typically in a small number of specific issues.”
The Implications of this Research, according to the authors: “When concerning soft power, these geopolitical narratives shape the expectations, beliefs, and subsequent policies for the majority of the populations of these two nations, and create legitimizing rationales for their own policies that seek to undercut the US.” This — this is exactly where the “media gray zone” becomes an active problem for governments of the United States and the NATO West for people within their own countries. The media gray zone is the “arena for competing narratives to a global audience.”
Fisher’s criterion in the narrative paradigm highlights whether or not a narrative has cohesiveness and fidelity. Understanding the impact of a narrative requires one to understand what actually defines a narrative paradigm, on a general sense, at least. “Whereas China’s geopolitical narratives of an intact and basically functioning global order seem to have fidelity to much of the world where economic progress is still happening, including within the US, Russia’s claims of a rigged social order only benefitting the West still have more fidelity's in the areas of the globe where economic decline is a factor, and it is difficult to find jobs (this is how they’re so CLOSE with those in the activist, WSF realms). Russia’s claims of its interest in a stable global order are incoherent with its recent actions in the Ukraine, Syria, and other regions. China’s policy of building out military outposts in the South China Sea, however, are coherent within its claim of historical and legal sovereignty over the region.”
The utility of a narrative approach to the gray zone — one in which narratives legitimize and justify specific policies and actions regarding geopolitical action — are key. Realize that we are, in fact, in an information war here. There’s no ONE person that will have all of the answers. Discernment — is key.
Sebs and I did a show on Doom&Gloom covering this topic, as well as the “opposition” to the World Economic Forum (the World Social Forum) — and how it all ties together.
Til next time,