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Microphones-2-.jpg This article is part of the Propaganda Portal project of Spinwatch.

Psychological warfare or Psywar is "The planned use of propaganda and other psychological actions having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives"[1]. Simply put, psychological warfare involves the use of Propaganda and other measures in order to impact the behaviour of opposing factions.[2]

Whilst the two concepts are often used interchangeably, psychological warfare refers to an overarching campaign incorporating many different facets, including Psychological Operations, False Flag, Disinformation, and various types of propaganda; whereas psychological operations, or Psyops is used more to describe specific military operations and the tactical units which practice them.

Psychological warfare involves a deep cultural understanding of the opposing force it is targeting. To conduct an effective assault on the hearts and the minds of the target audience, you must first get to know them intimately. Psychops practitioners aim to engage their target audiences through a mixture of face-to-face and mass media communications, aiming to end/suppress conflicts with the minimum amount of bloodshed possible.[3]

Types of Psychological Warfare can play huge roles in the short-term, long-term, and recuperative phases of warfare. Acts of Psychological Warfare, however, are not limited to times of declared war; they can be employed in areas of peace or conflict. They represent force multipliers, using nonviolent methods in often violent situations, relying on persuasion rather than brute force to forward the interests of the sponsor[3].

Acts of Psychological Warfare have four clear objectives:

1. Reduce the morale and combat efficiency of opposition soldiers

2. Foster mass dissension within and defections from opposition combat units

3. Support other propaganda and psychological operations carried out by allies

4. Promote cooperation and unity within friendly ranks, as well as resistance forces behind enemy lines[3].

The History of Psychological Warfare


Psychological Warfare is by no means a modern concept. Since prehistoric times, commanders such as Alexander The Great and Genghis Khan have understood the importance of inducing psychological fear in your opponents and inspiring support in your allies[3].

One of the first authoritative pieces of literature outlining Psychological Warfare tactics was written over 2000 years ago. "The Art of War", a manual detailing the use of deception and psychological manipulation as effective tools in warfare was written by a famous Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in the 2nd Century BC[4].

First World War

The First World War is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern Psychological Warfare. This is due in large part to the availability of mass media communications like radio and the modern printing press, and the innovative means to distribute communications to target audiences. These new measures to conduct psychological warfare included leafleting aeroplanes, balloons, mortar rounds, hand grenades, and artillery shells

During the Great War, Governments quickly realised that modern warfare would require the effective use of Propaganda to sway public opinion, and engage civilians as well as soldiers in the new concept of total war. The emergence of modern Propaganda during the First World War set the precedent for all future conflicts, sanctioning the widespread deception of civilians and manipulation of opposition forces.[5].

Second World War

Psychological Warfare was used extensively by both sides of the conflict. Giant strides in the fields of behavioural sciences meant that Governments were better able than ever to understand why people behaved the way they did, and to apply this to their Psywar campaigns. It was increasingly understood that a large variety of different variable affected the success of Psywar initiatives in the field. Governments were quick to learn that communications must be in a format familiar to that particular target audience, meaning that a large number of Psywar initiatives were created specifically for individual villages, as opposed to the civilian population in general[6].

There was a much larger emphasis on pre-testing of Psywar initiatives, gauging the response of the target audience, turning Psychological Warfare into a much less artistic and more scientific pursuit. Directors of the Psywar campaigns would establish a theoretical model of their intended audience, and deploy tactical Psyops teams throughout the campaign theater to test the effectiveness of new material on small sample groups and report back their findings. Where possible, this was often carried out by conducting surveys and showing new Psywar products to sample audiences[6].

Further advances in mass communication technologies greatly enhanced the capability of Governments to achieve their Psywar objectives. Whilst Psychological Warfare was pioneered during the First World War, it has been suggested that it really came into its own as an effective and efficient weapon system during the Second World War, with many of the same tactics being used, but under increased intensities. [3].

Korean War

From the perspective of Psychological Warfare, the Korean War represents the most significant battleground for the war of ideas between Western Democracy and Eastern Communism. United States and United Nations efforts pioneered the use of tactical loudspeakers and radio broadcasts to disseminate information to the Korean masses. Leafleting became the most prominent aspect of the US Psywar campaign in Korea, having the advantage of air-superiority to airdrop huge quantities of printed Propaganda[7].

Communist Psychological Warfare, however, was more effectively able to target vast quantities of the Korean public. Allies of the Communist regime were able to effectively engage with the target audience through oratory Propaganda, appealing to the vast swathes of the Korean population that were illiterate or semi-illiterate. The Communist regime also showcased their abilities to utilise indoctrination as a tactic in Psychological Warfare, causing widespread collaboration and cooperation among American prisoners of war[6].

Being one of the first modern wars fought entirely on the Asian continent, huge differences in language, culture, customs, climate and terrain hampered American efforts at effective Psywar measures. With the United States suffering huge Propaganda defeats, the Korean War was one of the first to demonstrate the immense power of Communist regimes to conduct effective Psychological Warfare campaigns[7].

Vietnam War

Building on its efforts in the Korean War, the United States employed similar Psychological Warfare tactics in the Vietnam War. Learning from the mistakes of Korea, American Psywar strategies were put in place to better target the illiterate civilians and soldiers, making more prominent use of loudspeakers among ground troops. The United States also pioneered the use of aircraft as loudspeaker platforms; the US Air Force’s 14th Special Operations Wing was specifically commissioned for aerial Psychological Warfare purposes in Vietnam. Equipped with leaflet dispensers and loudspeakers, aircraft would skim the treetops, broadcasting messages to the enemy. Whereas leaflets can be discarded an ignored, an audio broadcast over loudspeaker cannot; the target becomes a captive audience[6].

In an effort to induce widespread fear and dismay in the enemy, the United States carried out strategic 'Shock and Awe' bombing runs, targeted at military targets. As a show of force, the bombing campaigns were designed to persuade enemy leaders to negotiate an early end to the conflict on terms agreeable to the US[3].

Taking further advantage of its air superiority, The United States continued to use airdrops to distribute leaflets; one of the most successful of which was the "Safe Conduct Pass" it has utilised in the Second World War and the Korean War, guaranteeing defecting troops from opposing sides safe passage into territory controlled by allied forces. Wordless leaflets were also created to combat illiteracy, but were often subject to misinterpretation by opposing factions[8].

Gulf War

The war in the Persian Gulf to remove Saddam Hussein from power represented another development for the state of Psychological Warfare. Psywar operations in the Gulf War gave a whole new meaning to the use of Multimedia Propaganda in theaters of conflict. Radio transmissions, TV broadcasts, loudspeaker operations and leaflet distribution were all used to induce widespread desertion among Iraqi forces. Radio and TV broadcasts were produced by specialist teams, approved by Governing agencies, and broadcast over a multitude of platforms for Iraqi soldiers and citizens. Leaflets containing the times and stations of the broadcasts for the listener to tune in were widely dispersed before transmissions commenced to ensure a wide audience[3].

Following the lessons learned from previous engagements, United States troops engaged massively with the use of loudspeakers to disperse audio propaganda, with air, vehicle, and ground troops all utlising loudspeaker capabilities to turn Iraqi forces into captive audiences[6]. Loudspeaker teams broadcast surrender appeals using trained linguistic experts, executing live broadcasts as battlefield situations dictated. It was also during the Gulf War that the use of loudspeakers was introduced for the purposes of prisoner of war control, pacifying prisoners and underscoring military authority[3].

Leaflets were also heavily utilised like they had been in previous conflicts; consisting of surrender appeals, divide and conquer initiatives, and warnings of incoming bombing runs as a show of force. One innovative use of leaflet distribution in the Gulf War was by waterborne methods, dropping sealed bottles containing Propaganda just off the coast[6].

Corporate Psychological Warfare

In the United States particularly, corporations are increasingly being accused of using modern Psychological Warfare tactics to achieve their domestic and foreign policy goals[9].

Oil and Gas Industry

Media & Stakeholder Relations: Hydraulic Fracturing Initiative 2011

At a 2011 oil industry conference, Matt Pitzarella, Director of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at Range Resources revealed that Range was actively hiring ex-psychological warfare operatives from the Army and Marines to help them influence local communities around their drilling operations in Pennsylvania[9].

At the same event, Matt Carmichael, Manager of External Affairs for Anadarko Petroleum advised other oil industry media professionals at the event in regard to how to engage with the public about controversial issues. One of his suggestions was to “download the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual (pdf.), because we are dealing with an insurgency” [10].

Range Resources

Range Resources has been accused by This American Life in a documentary entitled “Game Changer” of sending Psyops-inspired letters to residents of Pennsylvania concerned about the impact of fracking in their community[11]. The documentary makes reference to an Initial Letter (pdf.) sent in April 2011 to all residents in the affected area, with a strategy reminiscent of ‘winning hearts and minds’, leveraging the company’s many local investments. This American Life’s documentary also makes reference to a Second Letter (pdf.) sent around the same time exclusively to property owners with gas leases, with a style using tactics similar to those of ‘divide and conquer’ approaches, threatening that the Company may withdraw from the area if it did not get its way[11].



  1. Online Psychology Degree, PSYOPS – Wars Are Fought On and Off the Battlefield, Online Psychology Degree website, accessed 18 march 2015
  2. RAND Corporation, Psychological Warfare RAND Corporation website, accessed 17 March 2015
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Ed Rouse, Psychological Operations/Warfare, Psywarrior website, accessed 17 March 2015
  4. James Corbett, Psyops 101: An introduction to psychological operations, Corbett Report website, 24 October 2014, accessed 18 March 2015
  5. Herbert Friedman, German WW1 Psyop, Psywarrior website, accessed 18 March 2015
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Joshua Beninga, A History of Modern-Day Psychological Warfare and Operations, Psywarrior website, accessed 19 March 2015
  7. 7.0 7.1 J. K. Kim (2003), Psychological Warfare During the Korean War: Its Persistent Effects on Mediated Political Discourse Between the U.S. and the Far East. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, 13 (1), pp.29-58
  8. J. O. Whittaker (1997), Psychological Warfare in Vietnam, Political Psychology, March 1997, 18 (1)
  9. 9.0 9.1 Brendan Demelle, Gas Fracking Industry Using Military Psychological Warfare Tactics and Personnel In U.S. Communities, Desmogblog website, 09 November 2011, accessed 19 March 2015
  10. Eamon Javers, Oil Executive: Military-Style 'Psy Ops' Experience Applied, CNBC website, 08 November 2011, accessed 19 March 2015
  11. 11.0 11.1 This American Life, Game Changer, This American Life website, 08 July 2011, accessed 19 March 2015