June 8, 2020

Does the West Dare to Open the Eastern Front of Information War?

AP/SCANPIX
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, right, and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, second right, listen to employees of a call center of the emergency response center on control and monitoring of the coronavirus disease, in Moscow, Russia. Russian authorities declared a war on "fake news" related to the new coronavirus. The crusade was triggered by what looked like a real disinformation campaign, but as the outbreak in Russia picked up speed and criticism of the Kremlin s "it is under control" stance mounted, the authorities cracked down on social media users doubting the official numbers and news outlets questioning the government s response to the epidemic.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, right, and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, second right, listen to employees of a call center of the emergency response center on control and monitoring of the coronavirus disease, in Moscow, Russia. Russian authorities declared a war on "fake news" related to the new coronavirus. The crusade was triggered by what looked like a real disinformation campaign, but as the outbreak in Russia picked up speed and criticism of the Kremlin s "it is under control" stance mounted, the authorities cracked down on social media users doubting the official numbers and news outlets questioning the government s response to the epidemic.

Why should the West also go on the offensive against the Kremlin to counter disinformation? Because The Kremlin, beyond any doubt, will continue to spread and accelerate its hostile influence activities against Western democracies. The Western societies have nothing to lose, but rather can benefit, by moving the front line from their information space into Russia’s.

Since 2014, when Kremlin-led and inspired disinformation campaigns began to demonstrate an extraordinary increase in the number, scope, spread and speed of anti-Western narratives, we have studied them thoroughly, learned some new lessons—or, rather, recalled some old ones—reinvented some good practices and collectively agreed on many essential features of our responsive communications.

Among the many obstacles in and challenges to the effectiveness of our strategic communications, there is one in particular that relates to tabooing some bold tactics and daring approaches to controversial issues. The standard rationale for this refers to oft-repeated statements about the crucial importance of the definitive difference between the methods used by hostile (often foreign-led) propaganda and our own countermeasures against disinformation. These noble principles are invoked to reflect our democratic norms and values as well as to underline peacefulness, transparency and accountability, and they are therefore enunciated and anchored in various official policies and guidelines on strategic communications. This is how we, as free citizens of the free world, have envisaged our own protection from abusing the power of persuasive communication by highlighting our principal distinction from autocratic practice of active measures and other intrusive methods.

Although not all structural aspects and parameters are debated to the end, the bottom line is a defensive nature, for which the logic goes as follows. Malicious narratives from another country penetrate our information space and we come together to protect it by any means, including supporting various debunking initiatives, monitoring the public information flow more carefully, safeguarding the freedom, transparency and variety of the domestic media environment, and creating alternative trustworthy sources of information for vulnerable communities. Being essentially reactive, even if systematically executed, all these protective measures are usually late or slow, and at best sufficient to maintain the status quo whilst the number of disinformation attacks grows.

Collectively, we try to overcome this challenge with better coordination and cooperation and enhanced networking between like-minded countries and various organisations, whose number is also increasing. As a result, the whole process is acquiring some unpleasant similarities to an exhausting race.

Endless Debunking and Oversupply of Media Literacy

On the background of essential fact-checking and investigative journalism, several scholars have rightfully argued over society’s deepening fatigue at the seemingly endless debunking and the obvious oversupply of media literacy trainings around the world. But what if this is just something that malicious foreign actors were patiently expecting as our predicted reaction? What if, by means of the reflexive control and weaponisation of information, they have been infecting our societies with massive indifference followed by anticipated underreaction to hostile narratives?

In addition to inducing information chaos and oversaturating our information space with toxic nonsense, the Kremlin and its accomplices are cultivating widespread understanding of a new normal that we are supposedly forced to humbly accept: confrontation in the information sphere is here to stay and the front line of the disinformation war lies peremptorily within our information space, in our mental territory. How do you challenge or dispute this state of affairs, given all the self-restricting taboos and responsive spirit of our defensive countermeasures and the learned helplessness of many paternalistically minded societal groups?

It is not being alarmist to see a significant degree of causality between the continuous surfeit of disinformation, disordered media consumption and confusing responses to cognitive terrorism on the one hand and the fading will to resist in the information and communication sphere on the other. Although the Kremlin can inspire its agents and followers to hostile and harmful action to weaken, downgrade, humiliate, deplete and enervate citizens of Western society, it is surprisingly powerless in its mediocre attempts to create new positive meanings, encouragingly appealing narratives and optimistic prospects. It is as if the Kremlin’s manipulators were mental hostages of a Soviet-era cartoon in which a malevolent crone is singing “Fame cannot be achieved through good deeds”.

A New Front Line

All this creates plentiful opportunities for us, and even in that pessimistically hostile context, going on the offensive would be beneficial for the effectiveness of our strategic communication because it would not just empower those fighting disinformation in democratic countries but could also potentially support and strengthen those opposing the Kremlin within Russia.

A key question seems to be where to draw a new front line. After resisting the Kremlin’s terrorist invasions into our information and cognitive space for more than six years, we should finally put an end to its apparently bottomless supply of disinformation campaigns. Its opportunistic approach to feeding information disorder was fully proven again recently amid the Covid-19 pandemic. As there are no sanctions-like mechanisms available to penalise the Kremlin for even deeply researched and precisely attributed disinformation campaigns, it will continue to spread and accelerate its hostile influence activities against Western democracies—and we know that we have nothing to lose, but rather can benefit, by moving the front line from our information space into Russia’s.

Ruthless Projection of Truth

There is no general consensus on the many practical issues and consequences of potential offensive communications against the Kremlin. But one is crystal clear: they must be based solely upon the truth and they must project it ruthlessly to the Russian people, with no convenient compromises or comfortable adjustments. There should be no great concern about our reputation in the eyes of Russians—even less so those of the Kremlin—as, first, it is already at rock-bottom, and second, we defend our own values and freedoms by taking a firm stand against the attacker but in changed circumstances.

To succeed, we should, among other things, make two important assumptions to remove some unreasonable taboos and obstacles. First, we should recognise that not all Russian-speakers are brainwashed admirers of the Kremlin or its policies and thinking. As Moscow does not have a monopoly over the Russian language, its ability to shape the world-view and set the moral compass of Russian-speakers globally is quite limited. Thus, the battle for their hearts and minds cannot be lost. Second, we should definitely stop over-stigmatising the Russian language in strategic communications. There is an understandable temptation to produce resonating content and various material in English and other languages, but one should not exclude the other as the origin of the problem is in Moscow, not in Riga, Kyiv or Berlin.

In that respect, understanding the national code, geopolitical ambitions, cultural habits, mental rituals, ethno-psychological characteristics and sociological nuances of Russia, the Baltic states, Ukraine and, perhaps, even Belarus, are well positioned to make a real contribution to countering the Kremlin’s disinformation on the new front line.

Language Is a Tool, not an Indicator of (dis)Loyalty

Opposing or refusing to use the Russian language in combative communication against the Kremlin looks ridiculous, if not stupid. Several celebrated pro-Ukraine bloggers have recently announced their pride that only a miserably small percentage of their audience is in Russia. It looked like a strange competition, as if having a smaller Russian-speaking audience would be a success in itself or could prove their strong patriotism.

Modern virtual influencers have, of course, their own logic as they used to turn popularity into a sort of legitimacy and pseudo-authority without any actual responsibility towards their followers. Attention is their currency and they are keen to monetise reach and viewer engagement. Given the pro-Ukrainian context and content, however, it goes far beyond reasonable explanation why to feel deeply ashamed for having some Russian followers. Thinking about this misjudgement about the true value of audience in Russia, can you imagine the happiness and sincere pride at the BBC, Radio Free Europe or Voice of America if they had 17% or 24% of the Russian-speaking audience of the USSR during the Cold War?

Let us hope that a different perspective can help our strategic communicators and digital influencers to rethink their attitudes and, perhaps, change their perceptions about the need for professionally tailored Russian-language communication. As all changes have to start from ourselves, I will ensure that this blog is translated into Russian and distributed accordingly.

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