The weaponisation of information
The modern-day information war tactics deployed by Russia do not seek to persuade people that the Kremlin’s view of events is correct. Instead the goal is to persuade people that there is no objective truth, that no media can be relied upon, that all news, including western news media, is simply propaganda. It is a post modernist hell that “vaporises” the very idea of truth.
“Information war is subtle. You can never predict the angle or instruments of attack”. The quote is from a Russian manual called “Information-Psychological War Operations: A short Encyclopedia and Reference Guide” published in 2011.
When demonstrations in Ukraine broke out in November 2013 almost two years ago in Maidan Square against the then President Yanukovich’s decision to foster closer ties with Russia instead of the European Union, few would have predicted what was to become a long-term conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
One dominating feature of the conflict has been Russia’s ability to take control of information and media to influence and shape public perceptions of the conflict in both Russia and Ukraine – and in the CIS region.
The information war tactics deployed by Russia in the Ukraine conflict and adopted by governments in many of the former Soviet republics has been called the “weaponisation of information”. It is a strategy designed to deploy disinformation, potentially alongside conventional military war to undermine its enemies.
Weaponising information is based on the understanding that states – and particularly semi-democratic states, which permit freedom of expression - can be destabilised in ways that direct military assault could not achieve. The core of the strategy is not to persuade people that the Kremlin’s view of events is correct.
Indeed, some of the propaganda issued by the Kremlin is so laughable this would be difficult (viz. the contrary claims regarding the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17). Instead the goal is to persuade people that there is no objective truth, that no media can be relied upon, that all news, including western news media, is simply propaganda.
And propaganda, which is intended to persuade and is susceptible to exposure, is not really an accurate description of the tactic. This approach is something else: by producing endless and contradictory versions of the truth, claiming that there is always another side to every story, that everything which is said is simply a function of a particular power interest, it creates the sense that no source of information can be trusted. All news becomes just another version of reality – truth is unknowable, maybe even fictitious itself. It is a post modernist hell that “vaporises” the very idea of truth.
Weaponising information is based on the understanding that states can be destabilised in ways that direct military assault could not achieve. Photo: Barry Mitchelson
The internet is peculiarly suited to this strategy. The Danish academic Thomas Pettitt has presented what he calls the theory of the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the idea that the post-Gutenberg era — the period from, roughly, the 15th century to the 20th – was an age defined by textuality and the authority of the written word. He claims that this text era — of which the edited newspaper and book are central features – was essentially an interruption in the broader arc of human communication that is oral. He claims the internet is slowly returning us, via the discursive architecture of the web, to a state in which orality — conversation, gossip, rumour, without authority, define our media culture. Such a culture presents a unique opportunity to vaporise the truth in a cloud of competing stories.
The international projection of Russia’s hybrid information war strategy is an extension of its domestic political information approach designed to underpin the notion of managed democracy. Domestically this is characterized by almost unimaginable cynicism, doublespeak and lies, all of which underpins fake parties and “virtual” elections. President Putin has long understood the power and the threat posed by the media. One of his first moves was to take on the oligarchs who owned the independent media (and who had been instrumental in securing Yeltsin’s election) to bring their companies under channels under state control and censorship. The heads of television stations had to meet every Friday with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief political strategist, to set the news agenda for the coming week.
And it was Surkov, a character worthy of study in his own right, who developed the notion of managed democracy and imported techniques of conceptual art into Russian politics. He became a presidential advisor on Abkhasia, South Ossetia and Ukraine and as the conflict in Ukraine began he published a story about non linear war where no-one knows who the enemy is and where the goal was not to win the war but to create a state of “destabilised perception” to manage and control the situation.
After establishing domestic control of the media the campaign expanded to the international sphere, principally through Russia Today now rebranded as RT. With an enhanced budget and a profusion of local language channels, it is one of the major tools for this approach. It employs young foreign journalists, uses the banner headline “question more”, and interviews not just every domestic political opponent of Western governments but every crank who has a conspiracy theory about 9/11, Ebola, Aids, the invasion of the Ukraine etc. Critics of western governments from both the left and the nationalist right find a welcome on RT. The growing numbers of people, particularly young people, who are disillusioned with contemporary politics, are a ripe audience for cynicism at this level. A disbelief in legitimacy, authority and traditional institutions, even democratic ones are the fertile stew in which this new form of conflict brews.
In 2013 the Head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Valery Gerasimov, spoke of defeating opponents through a “combination of political, economic, information, technological, and ecological campaigns”. This is a concept of war that is non-kinetic where the battlefield is the “psychosphere”. The deployment of information weapons “act like an invisible radiation” upon its targets. “The population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon. So the state doesn’t switch on its self-defence mechanisms”. Wars of the future will be fought in the mind not on a landscape.
Meeting this challenge means understanding that information operations are no longer a subordinate part of a physical battle: it may well be an end in itself. If, information war is replacing traditional war, how should democracies respond? Firstly they must realize that this conflict rages across all forms of media, off and online. RT sits alongside an army of trolls, social media commentators, and a flank of democracy based “useful idiots” (to use Lenin’s term), from anarchists to nationalists to “anti-imperialists” of all kinds.
Their first and most crucial objective is to erode the belief in the integrity of journalism, particularly investigative and political journalism. Editors, publishers, journalists, trade unions, all have a responsibility to defend and assert that integrity, to ensure that the rest of us have access to genuine information and a better understanding of the world. Never has that task of journalism been more important.
This comment piece is published as a follow-up to the seminar “Closing space for media and human rights” organised by International Media Support and the Danish Institute for Human Rights on 24 September 2015 in Copenhagen.