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HSEC 690
Ideology, Discourse and Conflict

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“Influence is … a critical component of national security.” (Ian McCulloh. “The Neuroscience of Influence.” In USASOC/DoD “White Paper on Bio-Psycho-Social Applications to Cognitive Engagement.” A Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) Periodic Publication, Oct. 2016. 41)

“Information war is now the main type of war.” (Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, 162)


HSec 690 Ideology, Discourse, and Conflict offers an introduction to and an overview of the influence/informational environment in the context of security (domestic and international), conflict, and war. We examine the ways, means, strategies, and techniques that have been and are being used to influence and manipulate people’s attitudes, emotions, cognition, and behavior in both peace and war.

The course begins (after a brief introduction to the basic mechanisms of persuasion, propaganda, and psychological manipulation) with a review of the major ideologies that continue to impact the contemporary information environment and influence landscape: Nazism, Communism, Islamic extremism, and others. Along the way, we examine the evolution of strategies and techniques of propaganda and influence, from the American Revolution to the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and contemporary conflicts. We also examine the influence strategies of selected social movements, terrorist groups, revolutions, and insurgencies, including Gandhi’s campaign against Britain, the Solidarity revolution against the communist government in Poland, the use of social media in the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and propaganda strategies used by ISIS and other terrorist, extremist, and criminal groups, including Mexican drug cartels. As part of the exploration of the contemporary information environment, we will also explore the notion of the grey zone: the space between peace and war, where influence, deception, disinformation, and manipulation are key operating. We look at influence strategies used by Russia and China in the context of what the 2017 US National Defense Strategy called “great power competition.” Finally, we look at the latest technological developments in mass influence: bots, memes, fakes, and AI.

The aim of the course is to make us aware of how ideas—through words, images, performances, actions, and other forms of symbolization and influence—work as “weapons.”  The course is more than an introduction to propaganda; our goal is to understand how human perceptions, ideas, and actions are influenced and how such influences work in relation to national and global security and in the various contexts in which homeland security professionals operate.

            The overarching idea behind the course is that we are entering a new era of security, conflict, and warfare, in which “hearts and minds” matter most of all (in the words a Special Operations Command expert) and where information and influence are key assets and dominant weapons -- – the era in which, as Simon Anholt put it, “there is only one superpower left on the planet” and “that superpower is public opinion” (quoted in Cull, Nicholas. Public Diplomacy, 18). Some refer to this phenomenon as influence warfare, in which the soft weapons that work on the mind and emotions become as important, and sometimes even more important, than kinetic ones, as the world becomes, thanks to global penetration of social media and other means of rapid and personalized communication, a cognitive battlespace. The war in Ukraine is a much-discussed example of the first conflict fought as much in the arena of global public opinion as on the actual physical battlefield. Awareness of and familiarity with the various forms, channels, means, mechanisms, and technologies of influence is thus an essential component of homeland (as well as global) security.

          Throughout our exploration, rhetoric – the ancient discipline devoted to the study and practice of persuasion and to “moving the will” – will provide us with some core analytic concepts.

The major topics discussed in the course include

  • Understanding the Power of Rhetoric: Recruiting, Mobilizing, Persuading, Framing
  • Propaganda and Political Ideology: The examples of Nazism, Communism, and Islamic Extremism
  • Conflict Propaganda and Psychological Warfare from the American Revolution to ISIS, Russia, and China
  • The Importance of Narrative
  • The Power of Images
  • Propaganda of the Deed: Action and Performance as Propaganda
  • Political Warfare
  • Cognitive Battlespace: Bots, Memes, Fakes, and Artificial Intelligence

This is an interdisciplinary course for graduate students. The purpose of this class is to produce leaders from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds who can effectively and efficiently identify, design, and mobilize the appropriate community resources to prevent, deter, preempt, defend against, and respond to criminal acts, terrorist attacks, other acts of war or natural disasters as they impact homeland security on the local, regional, national and international levels.

Homeland security encompasses a grouping of diverse missions and functions that are performed by a wide variety of organizations on the local, state, federal and international levels. Consequently, there are many definitions of homeland security. For the purposes of this course, homeland security is defined as:

"The prevention, deterrence and preemption of, and defense against, external and internal threats and aggression targeted at U.S. (or another sovereign state's) territory, sovereignty, population, and infrastructure, as well as the management of the consequences of such threats and aggression and other domestic emergencies."

Familiarity with the way symbols, words, and all kinds of communications (including visual and digital) work to generate or ameliorate conflict, construct collective identities for political actors, promulgate ideologies and recruit supporters for ideas and actions, shape attitudes and behaviors, and potentially help predict and prevent actions across a spectrum of environments, from local to global, is an important aspect of the preparation of security professionals.

Course Materials

All the course readings and materials are available on the course webpage, except those that will be posted by students in the course of the semester.

Learning Outcomes

  • Analyze all sorts of rhetorical artifacts (texts, images, actions, performances, displays, even architecture and urban design) in terms of the fundamental elements of persuasion and perception management: ethos (persuasive self-presentation), pathos (emotional appeal), logos (argumentative strategies), framing, target audience, purpose, theme, commonplaces, codes, and others;
  • Identify the different genres of security-related communications (propaganda, public diplomacy, public affairs, psychological warfare, strategic communication);
  • Recognize and describe the frames, themes, commonplaces, key terms, and codes characteristic of major contemporary political ideologies and movements (Fascism, Communism, Islamist extremism, other contemporary movements significant to national security);
  • Recognize and describe the means and media of propaganda, influence, and perception management over the 20th and 21st centuries;
  • Understand the role of narratives in shaping collective perceptions, beliefs, and values, and in motivating action, and recognize key contemporary narratives of America’s various adversaries;
  • Understand the role of visual images in security as well as analyze visual images (including still and video images) in terms of how they work to achieve their psychological effects;
  • Understand and analyze action and performance as means of propaganda and influence;
  • Understand the information challenges of the contemporary security environment and the technological advances that drive change in that environment.


  • Weekly written responses to readings and assignments, posted for discussion on the course web page (sometimes these will be simply your reflections and thoughts about the readings; at other times, I will give you specific instructions of what I’d like you to do). The materials brought in by students are perhaps the most interesting part of the course.
  • Power Point Brief: a presentation of a selected problem, phenomenon, or finding (of students’ own choosing) relevant to the class
  • A paper, brief, or some other form presenting the results of a project (of students’ own choosing) relevant to the class.


Your grade in the course will be based on the quality of your written work (written responses and final paper, preparation (class discussion and any presentations or analyses), and on your general class participation. Specifically:

  • Weekly written responses to readings and assignments (30 percent of the grade)
  • Student presentation (20 percent of the grade)
  • Final paper (30 percent of the grade)
  • Class participation (20 percent of the grade)