Fighting back against Russia — the return of propaganda

  • Themes: Russia

The Western alliance has got serious about coordinating its dissemination of intelligence, but it needs to avoid its pitfalls.

Collage of retro newspapers.
Collage of retro newspapers. Credit: Frank Kahts / Alamy Stock Photo.

Propaganda has been at the centre of the Ukraine crisis. Yet, for much of the twentieth century its use was controversial. After the First World War, it was blamed for fuelling a conflict that had cost millions of lives. When Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew and an early advocate, wrote his famous book on the subject in 1928, Propaganda, he tried to repair its reputation by portraying it as inevitable. For Bernays, there would always be an ‘invisible government’ influencing our tastes and ideas. Propaganda was everywhere in modern life, from soap manufacturers to banks, to politicians to charities. The fact that ‘Small groups of persons can, and do, make the rest of us think what they please about a given subject’ was not by itself wrong. Even if ‘the instruments by which public opinion is organised and focused may be misused’, Bernays asserted they were ‘necessary to orderly life.’ Propaganda was thereby morally neutral. In practical terms, Bernays saw it functioning best when grounded in particular communities and giving accurate, if partial, information. As he put it: ‘The only propaganda which will ever tend to weaken itself [… ] is propaganda that is untrue or unsocial.’

In the 1930s, propaganda came to be seen as an anti-democratic force. Its skilful use by totalitarian regimes, particularly Nazi Germany, fuelled race hatred and violence, ushering in another war which engulfed the world. The allies countered this by making a virtue of their openness, acknowledging losses and defeats where possible, in the belief that being frank would build trust at home and abroad. As Sir Robert Marett, later Head of Information Services in the British Foreign Office, argued: ‘Propaganda must always be truthful [… ] secondly, it must be consistent. It was no good saying one thing to the people of Germany and something quite different to the people of France, because the discrepancy would eventually be noticed.’

Propaganda efforts continued in the Cold War, via the Information Research Department (IRD) of the British Foreign Office. This department’s activities were represented as largely benign. Yet, three years ago, multiple volumes of files were released into the National Archives with ‘Black Productions’ pencilled on the front. In them were detailed hundreds of influence operations, the content of which is, to modern eyes, quite shocking – fake material from fake organisations with racist language, incitement to violence and outmoded cultural stereotypes. The IRD was shut down in 1977 and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office scaled back these activities.

The need for propaganda resurfaced periodically in Britain as the country fought wars in the coming decades, particularly during the Kosovo campaign in 1999. Leaders sensed that NATO’s lengthy bombing campaign was losing support and the Serbs were gaining an advantage in the propaganda effort. As a result, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press chief, was drafted in to organise a group to provide live rebuttals to allegations and pitch the NATO line about operations. This was considered a great success but proved a harbinger of the negative side of propaganda. In 2003, the same entity, reformed and under the direction of the Iraq Communications Group, produced the notorious ‘dodgy dossier’, plagiarising online material about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programmes and misrepresenting it to the public to support confrontation with Iraq.

For much of the subsequent decade, the War on Terror dominated policymakers’ thinking, but gradually Russia’s actions in Georgia, Crimea and Syria led to a rethink on the importance of ‘information warfare’ (propaganda by another name). Russia was perceived to have cleverly spread disinformation to undermine their opponents and obfuscate their illegal annexation of territory and the criminal use of chemical weapons by their allies. Russia was also widely considered to have sought to influence the Scottish independence and Brexit referenda in 2014 and 2016 respectively, as well as the US election in 2016.

The response of the UK government was, for the most part, patchy, but was galvanised by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. In March that year, a Counter-Disinformation Unit (CDU) was established by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to combat misleading or false information connected to the virus. This was separate but linked to the Rapid Response Unit set up two years earlier, which had countered misleading claims about a listeria outbreak and a government vote on animal welfare.

During the course of the pandemic, it was revealed in a briefing by Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, that the CDU was being assisted by the British Army’s 77thbrigade. This brigade, made up of full-time soldiers as well as reservists, was formed in 2015 to conduct the full spectrum of information warfare, from analysis of audiences and activity (akin to market and consumer research) to ‘Supporting counter-adversarial information activity’. The latter involves members producing their own video and audio content in order to discredit or supplant negative material, acting as ‘key influencers’, and seeking ‘reach’, and ‘traction’. Having a military unit conduct information war at home is controversial and the UK government asserted:

‘The 77th Brigade are not currently supporting in the Britain’s Cabinet Office with any projects that would involve interactions with British Citizens who might be posting disinformation nor misinformation and any capabilities are not being directed at the UK population. 77th Brigade do not, and have never, conducted any kind of action against British citizens.’

Rather, Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, saw it as geared towards countering Russian ‘smears, innuendos and disinformation against our Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine’.

The work of the Rapid Response Unit, Counter-Disinformation Unit and 77th brigade was successful at countering disinformation during the pandemic. Importantly, they provided a template for the UK’s later response to the Ukraine war.

In the initial phases, the US and UK went further than rapid response to pursue a policy of ‘prebuttal’, revealing details of the build-up of troops along the Ukrainian border, the intention of Russia to invade, and the likely plan of attack before it happened. This was incredibly effective. Having been lauded as the masters of information warfare, Russian policymakers floundered as their justifications for war were exposed and delegitimised well in advance.

In February, the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, set up a Government Information Cell, modelled on the IRD, arguing: ‘At the end of the Cold War we disbanded our information unit, but the Russians didn’t disband theirs, so we faced years and years of Russian disinformation. We are fighting back.’

Since the invasion on February 24, the MOD has put out daily updates, purportedly based on Defence Intelligence assessments. This information has proved highly accurate and given a useful primer on the progress of the war. The CDU has also reported misleading tweets from Russian embassies and missions to Twitter in order to get them removed.

Overall, these efforts have so far borne fruit but there are concerns. Ministry of Defence briefings offer a partial account of the events described—there is no detail on Ukrainian losses, military failures or potential war crimes. This may mean we are getting a misleading impression of the war itself. Having so many separate units conducting propaganda could lead to confusion and duplication of effort. Propaganda efforts also have to maintain contact with the truth. Trying to shape narratives and manipulate public opinion, even for good reasons, can lead down dark paths and undermine trust that is vital to successful influence. Nevertheless, as Bernays concluded: ‘Propaganda will never die out… propaganda is the modern instrument by which [one] can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.’ If the UK’s enemies are engaging in this activity, then the UK government must do so too.


Jamie Gaskarth