Information war does not exist

  • Themes: Russia

In the Cold War the Kremlin tried to convince foreign audiences its disinformation campaigns were real, today the aim seems to be different.

Soviet poster of a tank on Red Square.
Soviet poster of a tank on Red Square. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

This essay was originally published in War: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation in 2015.

‘Russia’s information war’ – we’ve been hearing those words a lot lately. ‘Russia has launched the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen,’ said Supreme Allied Commander General Philip M Breedlove, after the annexation of Crimea. ‘We are losing the information war,’ complained the chair of the British House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee – as the Kremlin’s international media operation was launched in London. ‘Information war is now the main type of war,’ argued Dmitry Kiselev, the infamous Russian TV presenter and Kremlin media boss who also likes to remind the world in his shows that Russia can turn the US into radioactive ash. When I first started to hear the term, I assumed it meant some sort of geopolitical screaming match, with one set of propagandists shouting one message and another shouting a counter-message. But as I started to explore the Kremlin’s theory of ‘information-psychological war’, I realised information war, as I thought of it in terms of ‘debate’ or ‘persuasion’ didn’t actually exist. Instead, it would be more correct to think of two phenomena: ‘weaponised information’, part of a very specific military doctrine, and a ‘war on information’, which is itself part of a much larger crisis in media, society and philosophy.

Let’s look at ‘weaponised information’ first. The Russian concept of information war is informed by a sense of post-Cold War inferiority. The West, led by the US, had not only shown that their idea of open markets, open media and open politics were more competitive than Moscow’s centralised system, they also had a vastly superior collection of tanks, jets and submarines. By 1999, the Russian Minister of Defence, Marshall Igor Sergeev, had admitted that ‘Russia will not be able to hold military-strategic and technical parity with the military powers of the West on a symmetrical basis’ and must look for ‘revolutionary paths and more effective asymmetrical directions’. In their search, Russian theoreticians began to focus on what they called ‘information-psychological war’ based, in the words of Rear Admiral Pirumov, on ‘securing national policy objectives’ through ‘disinformation, manipulation, propaganda, lobbying, crisis control and blackmail’.

There is, of course, nothing so new in governments manipulating media to produce disinformation. In 1914, the British invented a massacre of Belgian children by German troops to help make the case for entering the war. In 1990, the American PR firm, Hill and Knowlton, at the request of the Kuwaiti government, helped concoct a fake story about the murder of Kuwaiti children by Iraqi soldiers to make the case for war against Saddam Hussein. Perhaps the most successful CIA operation was in 1951, when Edward Bernays, the inventor of the term PR, managed to enlist America’s leading news editors to make a pro-democracy revolution in Guatemala look like a communist coup and thus excuse funding a counter-coup (if one considers the lead up to the war in Iraq a case of deception, rather than self-deception, then it might be considered the least effective of disinformation operations). For their part, the Soviet Union invented tales of Nazis taking power in Budapest to validate invading Hungary.

For both the USSR and Nato, these ‘psyops’, as they became known, were a subset of much larger military operations. But for Putin’s Russia, they are the main focus of activity. Broader than mere use of media, ‘information war’, as defined in the handbook given to students of Russian intelligence academies, encompasses a ‘combination of political, economic, information, technological and ecological campaigns’, ‘soft’ power reinterpreted not as the power of cultural attraction, but as ‘tools’, in the words of Vladimir Putin, ‘to advance foreign policy aims through non-military means’.

In this approach, the borders between peace and wartime become irrelevant: information war is perpetual war. The vision of a globalisation where all rise together is rejected as a sham, disguising a battle between great powers for spheres of influence, with Russia itself described as being under coordinated attack from Western media and NGOs ‘undermining historical, spiritual and patriotic traditions’ to disable ‘defence of the fatherland’. Is this vision of perpetual war itself a piece of disinformation to excuse domestic censorship and blame local protests on the CIA? Or does it reflect a deeper re-envisioning of the old communist idea of history being guided by permanent dialectical conflict between opposing forces? Either way, it sets up new rules of the game, where the openness of liberal societies – the media, markets and politics that helped make them more effective than the USSR – becomes an Achilles heel. In information war, an authoritarian state is at an advantage, able to focus its TV stations, banks, oil companies and NGOs into one co-ordinated weapon, directed from the office of the Presidential Administration. And the Kremlin believes this is the future. In its prognosis for development of war up until 2020, Moscow foresees a further move from ‘direct clashes to contactless war’, from ‘war in the physical environment to a war in the human consciousness and in cyber-space’.

But in a war of consciousness, of pure perception, where no tanks cross any borders, how is victory achieved? Take the case of Estonia in 2007. Around a third of Estonians are ethnic Russians, the vast majority descendants of people forcibly imported by Stalin and successive Soviet leaders to break Estonian nationhood. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonian citizenship laws required those who had arrived after 1946 to pass Estonian language tests to gain full citizenship. This was met with hostility. The ethnic Russians do not see themselves as colonisers: they watch Russian media which broadcasts the official Kremlin line according to which Estonia gave up its independence ‘voluntarily’ in 1944. Every year, Russian nationalists and war veterans used to meet at the statue of the Bronze Soldier, commemorating Soviet victory in the Second World War. They sang Soviet songs and draped the statue in Soviet flags. Some Estonians took offence: nationalists would organise counter-marches; one writer threatened to blow up the statue. In March 2007, the Estonian parliament voted to move the statue to a military cemetery.

Russian media and politicians went into overdrive. ‘Estonian leaders collaborate with fascism,’ declared the mayor of Moscow; ‘the removal of the statue is a fascist orgy,’ argued the Communist Party; ‘the situation is despicable’ reasoned the foreign minister. Russian media nick-named the country ‘eSStonia’. Vigilantes camped out to protect the Bronze Soldier.

On the night of April 26, Russian crowds started throwing Molotov cocktails at police. Riots broke out. There was mass looting. One man died. Russian media spread stories he was killed by the police (he wasn’t), that Russians had been beaten to death at the ferry port, that Russians were tortured and fed psychotropic substances during interrogation. On April 27, employees of the Estonian government, newspapers and banks arrived at work to find their computer systems down, under attack from the largest cyber-attack in history. E-estonia was disabled.

‘Patriotic’ hackers with links to Kremlin youth groups and Russian MPs took credit for the attacks, but claimed to be working independently. The protests were organised by Russian NGOs, funded by oligarchs who have emerged from the KGB, but who also claim to work independently today. Many in Estonia are convinced the media, rioting and cyber-attacks were coordinated by the secret services, but nothing can be proved.

‘Sometimes we wonder whether the point of the attacks is to make us sound paranoid and unreliable to our Nato allies and thus undermine trust in the alliance,’ mulled President Toomas Ilves when I asked him about the Kremlin’s strategy.

Ilves and his government are continuously kept guessing as to the Kremlin’s intentions: ‘When Russian politicians make threats about being able to conquer Estonia, does that mean they would invade?’ wonders Iivi Masso, Ilve’s former security adviser. ‘Are they trying to demoralise us? Or do they want Western journalists to quote them, which will send a signal to the markets that we’re unsafe and thus send our investment climate plummeting?’

The aims of an information operation are often non-linear, designed as pin-balls of reaction. A guiding tactical concept in Russian information war is ‘reflexive control’, defined by Tim Thomas of Fort Leavenworth Military Academy, Kansas, as ‘conveying to an opponent specially prepared information to incline him voluntarily to make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action’: in other words, to know your adversaries behaviour patterns so well you can provoke him into doing what you want. The history of reflexive control stretches back well into the Soviet period: there were academic departments in the USSR creating ‘scientific models’ for reflexive control, while the KGB had a department of ‘active measures’, with thousands of agents working diligently to fabricate conspiracies and sow discord in the West, trying to cause a rift between Paris and Washington, by spreading stories that the CIA was behind a coup against De Gaulle, stirring inter-racial tension with stories about how the CIA designed the Aids virus to destroy the world’s black population.

But if in the Cold War the Kremlin tried to convince foreign audiences its disinformation campaigns were real, today the aim seems to be different, which is where we get to the subject of the ‘war on information’.

Take the aforementioned disinformation about the US government being behind the Aids virus. It was carefully concocted and placed in selected Western newspapers to make it sound genuine. But when RT, the Kremlin’s international news broadcaster, ran a story last year about how the CIA had invented Ebola as a weapon, it made little effort to make it look credible. In a similar vein, on July 3, 2014, RT featured a supposed RAND Corporation document leaked online, which purported to show the think tank advising President Petro Poroshenko to ethnically cleanse eastern Ukraine, bomb it heavily and place locals in internment camps. The fact that the document was found on a fringe conspiracy website should have alerted any serious news editor to its lack of credibility. The RAND story was subsequently removed from the RT news site (though not before it had been widely viewed), but continued to be referenced by RT’s opinions contributors as typical of ‘US export guidelines for genocide’. Voice of Russia, part of the broader Russia Today conglomerate, continued to feature the story as news.

After the downing of Malaysian flight MH17, RT spread conspiracy theories about the cause, ranging from the flight being shot down by Ukrainian forces, aiming at Putin’s personal plane, through to Ukrainian deployment of Buk missiles in the area. Ultimately, the handling of the Malaysian story led Sara Firth, the RT London correspondent, to resign because of the network’s ‘disrespect for facts’. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s internet-troll army also stepped up activity, the Guardian being inundated with 40,000 comments a day in a coordinated Kremlin attack. As one letter to the editor put it: ‘The quantity of pro-Kremlin trolling on this topic… which has been documented extensively since 2012 as a real and insidious threat to online communities of idea and debate, has rendered commenting on these articles all but meaningless and a worthless exercise in futility and frustration for anyone not already being mind-controlled by the Kremlin.’

The aim of this deluge of disinformation is not to establish a counter-truth, but to confuse and clog up the information space. Conspiracy, the favoured rhetorical device of Kremlin propaganda, denies the very possibility of debate, a sort of linguistic terror attack on the infrastructure of reason. The ultimate aim is not so much to win audiences over with soft power and sway public opinion in favour of Russia, but to fuel cynicism and a sense of the truth being ultimately unknowable.

‘I kept throwing the word “truth” at him,’ complained an employee of RT’s video agency, Ruptly, when her boss promoted the idea that journalists should reinvent reality for stories, ‘while he kept hurling back the words “perception of the truth”.’ Postmodernism is recruited to serve the Russian secret services: ‘there is no such thing as objective reporting’, runs the mantra of RT producers and editors, stretched to the point where falsehoods become equivalent to facts.

If Russia were alone in doing this, it would, perhaps, not be so much of a problem: our media would be strong enough to withstand the pressure. But the problem is that the Kremlin’s disinfomation campaigns fall on fertile ground, as we see similar trends develop in the West, where fact-based journalism is retreating.

In a 2014 paper for the Reuters Institute, Financial Times associate editor John Lloyd looked at the impact of how PR has spread into the territory previously occupied by journalism. He quotes the historian Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress 1975-1987, who described in his book, The Image, how advertising, allied to the media, especially television, had flooded the public sphere with ‘pseudo events’, happenings which are created by advertising people or journalists for the purpose of being reported or reproduced. ‘The question “is it real?”’ wrote Boorstin, ‘is less important than “is it newsworthy?”’ Towards the end of his book, he concluded: ‘We are threatened by a new and peculiarly American menace… the menace of unreality.’ This thought, at first explored in the realms of commercial advertising, was famously echoed by an unnamed presidential aide in a 2004 New York Times essay by John Susskind:

The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’… ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now and, when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality  – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.’

A powerful bottom-up movement also advocates an abandonment of objectivity that precludes an abandonment of accuracy. In a Prospect magazine review of Glenn Greenwald’s book on the Snowden affair, No Place to Hide, George Packer wrote: ‘Greenwald has no use for the norms of journalism. He rejects objectivity, as a reality and an ideal. This is hardly a new notion, but it’s also a destructive one.’ Examining the many sins of omission, biased value judgements and half-truths in Greenwald’s book, Packer concludes, ‘They reveal a mind that has liberated itself from the basic claims of fairness. Once the norms of journalism are dismissed, a number of constraints and assumptions fall away.’

‘In America we’re seeing more and more people go off the news grid from news as conventionally described,’ says Tunku Varadarajan, Virginia Hobbs Carpenter research fellow in journalism at the Hoover Institution, Stanford and former editor of Newsweek International. ‘There’s an abandonment of the need for persuasion, as everyone is in their own archipelago. The decline of the need for public debate can transmogrify into the need not to tell the truth, while the internet necessitates making flashy points more attractive.’

The breakdown in the consensus on reality and the trend towards a relativisation of truth are compounded by a breakdown in trust in Western media; 43 per cent of Germans don’t trust their media over Ukraine. While trust in media held above 60 per cent of the population in the US in the last century, it languishes near the 40 per cent mark now. In a recent paper entitled ‘The Conspiratorial Mindset in an Age of Transition’, which looked at conspiracy theories in France, Hungary and Slovakia, a team of researchers from leading European think tanks showed how supporters of far-right parties (the same parties the Kremlin supports in Europe) are also the ones most prone to believing in conspiracies. Support for these parties and belief in conspiracy theories is on the rise, as trust in the power of national governments is eroded and there is a turn to outlandish theories to explain crises.

And it’s not just in the West.

‘It didn’t matter who won the last war in Gaza on the ground,’ argues Middle East expert, David Patrikarakos. ‘The violence, while horrific, had an almost perfunctory quality to it. All wars are, to a degree, a clash of narratives: but this was the Gaza war’s sole purpose, a truly postmodern conflict.’

In Latin America, Putin and President Kirchner of Argentina have sealed a deal to show RT news in Spanish. ‘We are achieving a communication without intermediaries,’ said Kirchner, claiming that national and international media don’t show the true Argentina and Russia. At the meeting, Putin spoke of how the information age was a ‘formidable weapon than enables public opinion manipulations’. RT has already been pooling stories with Assad’s Syrian TV, authoritarian leaders creating international networks of alternative truths.

In Asia, China has elaborated the ‘Three Warfares’, a mix of psychological, media and legal war (using false claims and bogus maps to make claims on other territories). As detailed in a study by Cambridge professor, Stefan Halper, China uses the Three Warfares to strengthen its power in the South China Sea and undermine US presence in Asia. In 2010, for example, when the Philippines refused to retreat from the disputed Scarborough Shoal, China used a mix of economic sanctions and psychological intimidation, in the form of a flotilla of military ships and media messaging, describing Manila’s behaviour as ‘radical’. Much like Russia, China spins the openness of the West’s media against it, referring, for example, to US ships that enter waters that only China recognises as its own as undermining ‘international law’. ‘The media’s repetition of China’s statements allowed China to underscore its claims that its domestic laws had primacy in international waters,’ writes Halper. ‘In the twenty-first century, warfare is guided by the belief that whose story wins is more important than whose army wins.’

The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once said the political conflicts of the twentieth century were just the result of the ideas of the nineteenth century: it took a hundred years for supermen and Marxism to seep into society. So maybe now we’re seeing the ideas of the twentieth century – the postmodern fascination with simulacra, the turning away from the possibility of proving truth – made politics.

But if this is the case, what sort of politics and society will we have? If reality is constantly shifting, then a rules-based order will become increasingly difficult to maintain. In 1940, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story about a world called Tlön – where all things exist purely as concepts in people’s minds, appear and disappear as if by magic – and how this world conquers our own, so that a ‘fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing certain – not even that it is false.’ Could the future belong to Tlön?


Peter Pomerantsev