In an information war, Estonia should abandon its defensive position and assert itself.
Do you ever catch yourself thinking: the more strategically irrelevant a topic, the more intense the public dialogue, and the more important an issue is from the long-term perspective, the less discussion there is about it? Communicating with my colleagues in Europe and elsewhere has made it clear that this inclination is not specific to Estonia. The cause is the modern environment in which we operate and the realities of which we must consider. It is the online media’s 24-hour news cycle, where hundreds of news items are published day and night, grabbing people’s attention with form, image and video, conflicts and polarisation. There is no need to condemn this world. It is just the way it is. From a pragmatic perspective, it is reasonable to accept this, as well as adapt and reshape your strategies accordingly – just like in nature, where different life forms adapt to their environment to survive.
Every day, people’s attention is drawn to marginal issues and conflicts, where polarisation and scuffles generating information traffic quickly emerge. But this does not mean that, actually, people no longer care about security, work, family, children and the future more than everything else.
On the contrary, people place the dramas they have been served up—for instance, fear-mongering over mass immigration or the end of the world ushered in by the Civil Partnership Act—in the context of topics close to their hearts. One of the best aspects of shaping policy is using one’s messages and actions to focus people’s attention on what is important for the future of Estonia. A legitimate value-based narrative reinforcing the unity of the Estonian nation must spring from a well-considered policy.
The age of 24-hour media is, admittedly, uncomfortable. It requires us all to be constantly on top form. We have to adapt on every level, even as officials, for the sake of the country’s functioning. It would be understandable to want to seclude oneself from this kind of attention, become more isolated and assume the attitude that we are dealing with questions of national importance—like society’s resilience and preparedness for crises—quietly and away from the glare of media attention.
However, this attitude poses at least two problems. First, it is fundamentally undemocratic, and second, it diminishes the legitimacy of the very same policies and decisions, and creates big future risks. A democratic state stands on the trust between the country and its people, not guns. Lack of communication, and discord between the policy and what people think in their homes and among their families, leads to a decrease in legitimacy. This makes countries vulnerable because people who do not trust each other or their country are easily manipulated.
Manipulation is an ominous word. We encounter it in politics and transnational communication more often than we tend to admit. In game theory, information manipulation is simple. For instance, an excellent football match was held in Tallinn in September 2013. Estonia was 2–1 up against the Netherlands but, unfortunately, we had to settle for a draw. Estonia was subjected to an unfair penalty kick, which was taken by Robin van Persie. If van Persie had told Sergei Pareiko that he was going to aim the ball to the right, should Pareiko have believed him and jumped to the right?
Following game theory, one can (but does not have to) conclude that, when a person whose interests are contrary to yours lies to you, it makes sense to simply ignore them. You have no reason to act according to their suggestions, or go against them. This logic is also infallible in the question of the so-called Eastern propaganda and manipulation—it should be simply ignored. If someone wants to play a certain game and says something in their own interests, the best bet is to ignore it for your own interests and needs. First and foremost, we must act according to the other party’s actions, not follow what they say.
Unfortunately, a great number of Estonian residents cannot afford to ignore the manipulation. People trust the media—as they should—but the media peddle a myriad of different, barely filtered signals. Popular culture and entertainment aside, there is a fair amount of material out there intended to manipulate us. One of the aims of the Paris terror attacks organised by Daesh (ISIS) was to get worldwide media exposure lasting for days and weeks in order to instil fear and intimidation; to cause over- and under-reactions and confusion; to impede and interfere with the opponent’s clear thinking. As representatives of Western civilisation, it is understandably difficult for us to remain calm in this situation. We allow ourselves to become involved; it is partly inevitable and forces us into an almost constant defensive position.
However, it is dangerous to let yourself be dragged along like this. As we have seen, one of the strategic aims in transnational information warfare is to diminish the legitimacy of the opponent in their own country. This can also be achieved by provoking the opponent into misusing their authority and power. Abuse of authority in the age of a 24-hour news cycle results in the legitimacy and trustworthiness of the government melting away within the seconds it takes for one tweeted video to reach a thousand shares. Within minutes, one digs oneself into a hole so deep that getting out requires assistance. Such mistakes are common when one remains in a defensive position.
Consequently, the first big question of our strategic communication is how to abandon the defensive position and instead defend ourselves by playing offence. This means asserting ourselves in a brave and confident manner. Such communication can only be based on openness and truth—but an incursive, preventive, disarming truth, acting first. Let us take a moment to ask ourselves what we need for that. What kind of resources?
For instance, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency has restored its once lost psychological defence capability to fight the information war originating from the East. In Riga, the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, which is gaining new members at a good rate, was founded in the wake of the war in Ukraine. The European External Action Service has launched its East Stratcom Task Force unit, which has a narrow but specific mandate in the aforementioned information war. In Finland, psychological defence used to be concerned with maintaining military morale, but now it is once again focused on information warfare.
The internal resilience—or psychological defence—model of a liberal democracy (based on citizens’ freedom and responsibility) can only be built on values, shared identity and culture. This is also the case in Estonia. Only a society with this kind of preparation is united and functional in both the psychological and technological sense, even in a time of crisis.
However, Estonia has to take a few more steps towards transforming paper tigers into real ones. As a country, we have acknowledged the importance of strategic communication and psychological defence, but the allocation of people and resources to this field requires more attention. We need to make an effort to ensure that acknowledging significant matters and taking action does not remain a mere virtual reality. It would be foolish to demand action against the information war and ask for help from our partners and allies when we ourselves have not dealt with elementary matters first.
As they say in today’s start-up world: the whole world is full of good ideas but one needs to make them into reality, and this requires skilled people and teams. We have many informal expert forums, public assemblies and brainstorming sessions. We know that we have many brilliant people who think and also volunteer to take real action in times of crisis. However, the reasonable use of this power, dividing it between services and institutions of vital importance and protecting Estonia’s interests, requires a backbone consisting of both people and cabling. Our broad, decentralised model, where each institution and active party has been assigned tasks based on their principal activities, requires good training, equipment and technology, self-improvement and a clear understanding of one’s role, as well as a sense of responsibility.
Above all, I believe in people. People should be given encouragement and a chance to do what they are good at and deem right. This means personal responsibility and rights to support it. Incidents where ten people watch a man hitting a woman in the street and the victim is left to manage on her own are foreign to such a liberal society built on individual conscience. The first to react during the Paris terror attacks were bystanders and neighbours who administered first aid and offered shelter. No Daesh or Al-Qaeda can defeat a society where people are always ready to help and respect each other.
This article is based on a presentation made at the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences conference “No Time to be Silent: Strategic Communication in Crisis Situation” in November 2015.
Andres Herkel, Chairman of the Estonian Free Party
They say we live in a time of extremes; societies are riddled with polarising conflicts. Yes, sometimes even marginal issues become heated and make their way into the spotlight with the help of the media or politicians.
However, this does not mean that society has no room for common sense and the golden mean. Politically successful third-way options are guaranteed to emerge when extremists become too angry. In this sense, I would ask all sorts of “over-the-top” agents and fear-mongers to withdraw; this will not get us anywhere.
As a rule, extremists do draw attention to themselves in the media and this is also often used to seek political attention. The social media open up new opportunities. There used to be an illusion that unmoderated comment sections revealed a well-disposed collective brain, yet human nature is quite different and, moreover, extremes were once again used to shape some political attitudes.
We should be looking into the nature and extent of the activities of, for instance, Russia and its special services in supporting Western extremist parties and ideologies.
What is going on with European values and the so-called collective consciousness is even more interesting. After the harassment incidents in Cologne and elsewhere, the current concept of tolerance is bound to be reassessed. It is difficult to call upon people to tolerate those who are themselves intolerant and aggressive.
Instead of launching a left-wing “tolerance attack,” the everyday reality of tolerance must co-exist with extremists constantly breaking out everywhere.
Estonia is in a difficult situation in the sense that, instead of the fear of refugees, we now see how unattractive we actually are as a destination country. Nevertheless, we have our share of all Europe’s problems and, sooner or later, these issues will affect us very seriously.
Andrei Hvostov, writer and journalist (Social Democratic Party)
At the beginning of the 1990s, when I was a young journalist attending all sorts of propaganda sessions and ordinary meetings where people discussed attitudes towards Russia, I was constantly surprised by the participants’ Manichaean world view. Estonian positions were strong simply because Truth was on our side. Voicing this truth was enough and there was no reason to worry about the future. Truth, you see, spreads on its own. By God’s will, it spreads into the semiosphere and triumphs. Russia’s weakness was that it operated (operates) through lies. Lies do not have a leg to stand on, and fall over. Again, by God’s will.
I resorted to irony in the foregoing paragraph, but I had no other choice. Hanno Pevkur writes in a good old Manichaean spirit. He sets communication based on openness and truth as a goal but supports “an incursive, preventive, disarming truth, acting first”.
In short, a pre-emptive strike on enemy positions. Forget it, dear Knights of Truth. A saying ascribed to Napoleon holds good with the ongoing information war—whoever has the most battalions, wins—more information channels, television programmes, websites, IT specialists, the largest army of trolls; whose Truth—and whose Lie—comes in the most palatable form. In the end, it is also a question of money—who has what resources.
This is Materialschlacht (a war where the result is decided by resources—Ed.). It is not decided by small, well-trained special units.
Urve Eslas, journalist at the daily Postimees
There are three questions to ask in the context of information warfare: how to understand what exactly we are dealing with, how to protect oneself from attacks, and how to choose the means to respond to or prevent the attacks.
The first question seems the easiest to answer: in order to know what we are dealing with, we need to work systematically and daily to track information, and analyse and collect examples of false information and propaganda. There are many ways to fight an information war, from employing a simple lie to narrative laundering, in which politicians of marginal importance in their homeland are given broadcast time to spread ideas that are suitable for another country. A recent news report on Vremya about Alexander Litvinenko’s murder used about ten different forms of disinformation.
In order to determine what we are dealing with, such examples must be found and analysed. The Minister of the Interior is right that this requires people and resources.
How to defend oneself from the attacks? Information on how different techniques are used in information warfare should be made available to the public. Dozens of think tanks, state institutions and citizens’ groups are dealing with the information war. But few of them exchange information, and even fewer share it with the public. Knowledge that is not shared is useless. Fortunately, Estonian media publications have been quick to learn, and are already able to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources. However, the information space is not limited to Estonian media channels.
The most fundamental question is how to respond to information attacks without damaging ourselves, since the damage caused by our reaction could be greater than that from the propaganda or false information. Responding with lies does not contribute to achieving greater reliability in any way. Think tanks increasingly favour the idea of preventing the spread of false information instead of retaliating, but this brings us back to the previous point: prevention is only possible when people can easily access information on false data and, most importantly, access it via reliable channels.
How to restore the trust in media channels, however, is an entirely different question.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.