By Deiniol Jones
In a recent article in the New Statesman, Brendan Simms argued that we have entered a new era in relations between the Russia and the West.
The annexation of Crimea and the instability in the south-east of Ukraine are overturning the post-Cold War international order. Propaganda and the innovative use of social media is an integral feature of Russia’s ‘unconventional, political warfare’, which seeks the creation of a ‘New-Russia’, a gathering together of the Russian ethnic population in a new Russian empire.
In Russia itself, society is being militarised, and what remains of independent MSM journalism faces serious restrictions. Moves are afoot to tighten censorship laws, and internet sites are blocked. Instructions have been issued by the authorities on how to report the crisis in Ukraine. International media, also, is increasingly restricted. The Kremlin wishes to create what is known as Russian ‘digital sovereignty’ by requiring internet providers to locate their servers on Russian territory, so that users can be monitored, perhaps via the powerful internal state surveillance system known as SORM. Social media is being used to intimidate journalists, bloggers and the Twittersphere. A menacing list appeared recently, of allegedly suspect media outlets, on the Facebook page of Alexander Dugin, a theorist of ‘new Russia’ – a man sometimes described as ‘Putin’s brain’. There is also a website where you can nominate ‘traitors’ and ‘fifth columnists’. Prominent opposition bloggers such as Alexei Navalny appear on it, as do other well-known liberal faces from the Russian Twittersphere.
In the recent crisis, a number of social media entrepreneurs have emerged. Prominent among them are Rykov or новорыссия (‘NewRussia’). Some of these accounts simply ‘report’ the New Russian perspective. Others, however, (e.g. СиГГисмунд) are part of a more extreme trend. One can see racist pictures of President Obama or images of Washington reduced to dust with a Russian flag above the White House. Arguably, such images taunt the West and attempt to unify Russian domestic opinion.
As a tool of warfare, New Russian propaganda via social media serves two basic purposes: deception and mobilisation.
Citizen internet broadcasts in Russian can look more authentic to western eyes. In an age of the camera phone, a shaky, hand-held aesthetic adds realism to grainy images of protestors ‘spontaneously’ storming government buildings, or people being run over by Ukrainian tanks. I was completely deceived on one occasion by a video made by a well-known ‘anti-Maidan activist’: a political prankster who calls himself Topaz. The video was made during the Maidan protests in Kiev. It purported to show Topaz, a citizen journalist, being abducted and beaten by ‘Right Sector’ thugs in a park. Topaz recently turned up in eastern Ukraine alive and well, organising for the ‘separatists’. Russia wants to convince the world that the new government in Kiev is a ‘Nazi Junta’, a term used frequently on social media. Topaz’s antics were part of that effort. According to one of my Russian sources, such videos are designed to confuse western observers.
Incidentally, Russia Today (RT), in the guise of RuptlyTV, has adapted to this new street medium, and now also provides the (in)authentic citizen-news experience.
Deception is important, but perhaps even more important is the mobilisation of public opinion in Russia and Ukraine. Banning Twitter as Turkey tried to do might not make sense for the Kremlin, as social media platforms are used extensively to whip up support. Recently, the hashtag #RussianSpring was invented. Its purpose was to spread a message of disruption in eastern Ukraine. Social media entrepreneurs boosted the campaign, appealing for placards, blood, support, and even more tweets. Fake crowds outside government buildings and images of spontaneous uprisings become pretexts for war. This is not too dissimilar to political warfare techniques used by the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago. The new concept of political warfare is the ‘штурм’ (storm) of the citizen militias. Social media supports this trend. Via Facebook and Skype, Alexander Dugin actively called for provocations and provocateurs in the Ukrainian Donbass.
Should we take this new, more unpredictable phase of propaganda seriously? Undoubtedly we should. As Putin’s system faces pressure, his reliance on dangerous propaganda and threats will grow. Propaganda is an attempt to use fantasy to alter reality, as this pro-Kremlin viral video of a Ukrainian invasion demonstrates. Such threats are very destabilising. Videos of endless tank trains on YouTube constitute a passive-aggressive threat of war, and to threaten war is contrary to the UN Charter. These images are meant to be seen, though they are designed to look like secrets. Also, in the present crisis, social propaganda seems to announce the future – or, rather, it announces the intentions of the Kremlin in advance.
Can anything be done to combat these trends? The United Nations has called for efforts to end the radicalising effects of propaganda, and it emphasizes the importance of reporting facts about what is happening on the ground. Mobilising an army of NATO internet trolls might work, but seems too infantile to merit serious consideration; banning #RussianSpring or Topaz on YouTube would be illiberal.
I wonder if GCHQ will perhaps place double agents in Facebook (or its Russian counterpart Vkontakt) who would spread their own disinformation? (According to Glenn Greenwald such programs exist). It would be useful if journalists knew how to spot fake news and reports, given that misinformation is so widespread. So-called Digital response teams could assist with this. The use of Photoshop, for example, is common, as is the use of potential fake media platforms, and in different languages. Governments can make sure to refute false claims, as the Foreign Office did recently following the Crimea intervention. And efforts can be made to challenge the MSM’s use of Kremlin political speech, such as the stock phrases ‘pro-Russian protestors’ or ‘wave of unrest’ used to describe Russian special forces provocateurs.
Russians are still turning to the internet for their news. It is therefore important to avoid crude Russophobia, which, like economic sanctions, ‘produces the kind of atmosphere that dictators love.’ Another good, recent suggestion was that those who can should tweet in Russian, so that Russian speakers can continue to gain access to international media and opinion.
It is a cliche that the first casualty of war is the truth. However, as someone said, Germany did invade Poland in 1939. Accurate reporting and awareness of propaganda techniques is vital. As the United Nations report stated, ‘Misinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred need to be urgently countered in Ukraine to avoid the further escalation of tension.’