by Alexander Svitych
The following is a guest post as a part of a new series from the author. Views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISIS Europe.
“What difference does it make if it’s true? If it’s a story and it breaks, they’re gonna run with it.” From a political comedy movie ‘Wag the Dog’ (1997)
A distinctive characteristic of contemporary geopolitics is waging information wars in support of traditional warfare. A paradigmatic case was made by the 2012 war in Libya, where real combat was accompanied by a powerful wave of disinformation generated by mass media.[i] The most recent Crimean crisis is another excellent case study for an unprecedented information war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine. The objectives here have been three-fold and aiming: to demoralize the Ukrainian army and population, to justify Kremlin’s actions for the Russian people, and to disorient the international community.
Information war can be defined broadly as an impact on the civil or military population of an opponent-state via dissemination of particular information in order to achieve certain political or military objectives. In this regard, the term information warfare is different in a way that it refers specifically to actions taken to affect an opponent’s information systems and computer-based networks.[ii] Information warfare, or cyber warfare, thus needs to be understood as part of a broader concept of an information war.
What follows below is an analysis of Russia’s information war mechanics against Ukraine over Crimea, with a particular focus being given to aspects such as propaganda and disinformation. The analysis will specifically cover the mechanics, or a set of available means, in order to understand how the war is being waged, and not dig into the motives behind it. After all, understanding the structure of an information impact – that is an information attack as part of an information war – can enhance objective reporting for media and critical thinking for individuals. Moreover, analysis of the Crimean case will highlight general principles of information wars. For the purposes of analysis,the following sources of information impacts can be distinguished: mass media, political elites, Internet trolls and bloggers. Each of these aspects will be discussed in detail below.
Russia has won a war over Crimea “in a strange way”. The incursion was made successful not with tanks and missiles, but with a powerful propaganda campaign in the Russian mass media, both in Russia itself and the Russian channels in Crimea. The contemporary world is created by TV news and press, even though Internet and social networks are becoming more and more important. In this regard, how is something said is more important than what is being said, with made-up stories creating real motivations that may lead to a radical change of reality. The virtual reality thus affects and even replaces actual reality. Based on the Crimean events, how can mass media “crack defenses” in public consciousness?
Political elites are often involved too in order to increase an informational impact. After all, their opinions are considered as powerful, authoritative and qualitative due to their ranks. Here are just a few examples from the Crimean conflict to illustrate the point.
On Sunday, March 2, the Head of the Russian Federal Council Valentyna Matviyenko declared that among victims killed during the assault of the Crimean Ministry of the Interior were the citizens of Russia. As a result, the parliament of the Russian Federation, in a unanimous vote, authorized Putin to use military force in Ukraine.[xiv] However, no official confirmation of the presence of Russian citizens among the victims was found.[xv]
In another example, on March 18, just before signing the annexation agreement to incorporate Crimea into the Russian Federation, Putin stated that Crimea “has always been an integral part of Russia”[xvi], which is absolutely not the case from the historical perspective at least.
Trolls and independent bloggers
Finally, the so-called trolls and bloggers can have their share in the disinformation campaign. Far from being supernatural mythological beings, trolls are Internet hooligans who post inflammatory or derogatory messages online in order to disrupt normal discussions and provoke emotional responses. Internet trolling has become a powerful tool recently. Itis actively used when intensification of an informational impact is required, as this happened during the Russian incursion into Crimea. The popular places where Internet discourse is exposed to trolling include online forums, chats and blogs.
As a conclusion
To sum up, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea has highlighted an important trend of the 21st century. In the traditional (agrarian) society wars were waged by trained warriors. The modern society saw development of all sorts of weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, brought by the industrial revolution. Today, however, the information age transforms the whole notion of classical wars into information wars. What lessons does the Crimean incident teach us?
Firstly, information attacks can be much more harmful than mass destruction. Mass media can be rather powerful weapons, alongside the nuclear, chemical, or biological ones. Authoritarian regimes similar to Putin’s in Russia tend to use media as another political tool to achieve certain information (and disinformation) objectives. The Crimean case is another proof that a team of clever journalists and cameramen can make a bigger influence than military weaponry and personnel.
Secondly, a side that is preparing for an “old-type-war” will likely loose as it needs to operate within the discourse imposed by an opponent. In this regard, the development of specialized bodies, agencies and infrastructures is crucial to deal with informational attacks – both in the broader sense of propaganda, and the narrow sense of damaging communication networks. Such infrastructures must be able to provide an immediate response 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (consider the incursion into Crimea that started on the weekend of March 1st and 2nd). Two cases in point are made by the two superpowers – US[xvii] and China[xviii], where the concept of information warfare, including offensive information warfare, has been both well-developed theoretically and implemented in daily operations. As for the European Union, another biggest geopolitical actor, it is still an open question whether the same attitude can be adopted with initiatives like the EU Cyber Security Strategy, and under the guidance of common bodies like the European Defense Agency.
Finally, on an individual level, each of us needs to absorb information with a critical mind. Human losses at battlefields are always disastrous and irreplaceable. Losing rational thinking and resigning to one’s emotions can be as dangerous or even more damaging in the long run.