SSU Forum/GraSPP Research Seminar
with Dr. Neville Bolt

Date: Friday, June 1, 2018, 10:30-12:00
Venue: Lecture Hall B, 4th Floor, International Academic Research Bldg.
Subject: "Images and Geopolitics: Impact of Iconic Photographs on the Liberal Conscience"
Lecture: Dr. Neville Bolt, Director, King’s Centre for Strategic Communications (KCSC), King’s College London
Language: English
Hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute / GraSPP Research Seminar, GraSPP, the University of Tokyo
Abstract: Millions of images circulate each day in the global mediaspace that connects social media to more traditional outlets like television and the press. Occasionally some acquire iconic status linking the local event to higher moral, perhaps universal sensitivities. Particular images have come to represent the way terror events are understood in the popular imagination. But are they not misleading? Do other, less performative images not point to a more subtle subversion? These reach into the very heart of geopolitics and threaten the liberal conscience.

The Security Studies Unit of PARI and the Graduate School of Public Policy (GraSPP) were delighted to host Dr. Neville Bolt, Director of the King’s Centre for Strategic Communication (KCSC) at King's College London.

The event was chaired by Chiyuki Aoi, Professor of International Relations at the Graduate School of Public Policy (GraSPP) of the University of Tokyo, and member of the SSU. Professor Aoi introduced the guest as a very distinguished scholar in the field of strategic communication, with a background as a war correspondent and journalist for the BBC. He is also the author of numerous publications, including the volume Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries (2012), which has become standard reference on the subject of images in the context of insurgency and counterinsurgency propaganda.

Dr. Bolt thanked the host, all the professors and attendees, and proceeded to illustrate the purpose of his talk. We now live in a world where the way we communicate, the intensity and speed of communication has been completely revolutionised in less than one generation. The expansion of the Internet and then the ubiquitous use of mobile communication devices such as smartphones and tablets has generated an environment where communication is instantaneous, global, and flows without interruption, being continuously transformed, elaborated, re-interpreted. Every millisecond an app is downloaded. Every second 10 new mobile devices are sold by Apple. In this world, the strategic use of communication requires all of us to be very subtle in the way we read ideas and messages, as well as the effects these produce on the society. The world consumes an unprecedented amount of images, much more than words. Communication and strategic communication as well is increasingly about images. Images however are very complex objects allowing for different levels of reading, interpretation, manipulation. Images can have a subversive potential, they can destabilize democracies, exacerbate geopolitical and ideological conflicts.

Professor Bolt then introduced two pictures.

One is the execution by a member of the Islamic State of a Westerner, about to be beheaded. The other one is the famous picture of a Syrian toddler washed ashore on a beach in Turkey, at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis. The two images generate a different emotional response. The first one generates outrage, the second, shame. The first one is far less subversive than the second one. It reinforces already existing, familiar images of terrorism with which the public, unfortunately, has learned to coexist. The second one instead seems to suggest that violence is the life blood of the international system, requiring a more radical re-thinking of the world.

Dr. Bolt showed then how images, albeit they remain fixed, can be transformed by events occurring around them. The relations we have with images is problematic and complex. We also have the tendency to think that images can report truthful, unfiltered information. This is however not the case. Furthermore, images have, besides the two physical dimensions and the illusion of depth, also a fourth dimension, generated by their interaction with our memory. We can only make sense of images within this fourth dimension. Indeed only few people witness political events such as war and terrorism in person, most experience it only through the lenses of a camera. Politics has been transformed by this situation. Political organisations, including and perhaps especially terrorists, do Propaganda of the Deed or propaganda with deeds (and record them on camera) far more than with words. Terrorists intend to use the media against the media.

States and governments in the Western world are hardly catching up with this situation. They see strategic communication in simplistic ways. Governments look for a “silver bullet” which can solve the question of strategic communication at once, to shut down their adversaries by means of counter-narratives, but no such solution exists.

A clear example of this was illustrated by Dr. Bolt with reference to the massive disinformation campaign operated by the Russian government. Russia’s aim of disrupting and subverting democratic political processes is pursued with the implementation of a hybrid, non-linear warfare whose information and communication component is crucially important. Information, as theorised by General Valery Gerasimov, one of the leading figures of this Russian strategy, is a battlefield and as such it is fought upon and contested by the various opponents.

Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of the TV channel Russia Today (RT), has argued that there is no single truth in a complex media environment. There is no objectivity. Russia is therefore flooding the world with contradictory, conflicting information about very much any item worth politicising. Responding to this kind of threat requires a radically different approach to strategic communication from the side of Western governments.