By Will Bisset
“No amount of propaganda can make right something that the world knows is wrong” – Barak Obama, POTUS, 2014
“In information warfare, the side that tells the truth loses.” – Nikolay Bordyuzha, Secretary General of Collective Security Treaty Organisation, 2014
The aftermath of the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury has demonstrated how vulnerable Western society is to Russia’s recent acts of ‘information war’ (IW). It divides, distracts and demoralises, eroding critical faculties and attacking the notion of objective truth. With instant, mass communication afforded by the Internet, this legacy of Soviet Cold War strategy acts as an asymmetric enabler and represents an existential threat to the West. Theresa May’s premature declaration of victory over Russian ‘fake news’ is symptomatic of our politicians’ failure to fully understand its aims. Events after Skripal’s poisoning illustrate how social media trolls and ‘useful idiots’, led by the Russian government, exert influence over public perception and domestic politics. This article will outline the perception gap between Western politicians’ understanding, and the reality of Russian IW’s aims and strategic objectives.
IW represents the attempt to intervene in an enemy’s ‘information space’, to influence their behaviour. The ultimate aim is to establish ‘reflexive control’. This essentially means that the target’s perception of the world is manipulated to the extent that it makes decisions advantageous to Russian objectives and against its own self-interest.[i] While Western doctrine views it as an accompaniment to military operations, Russian documents describe it as a continuous, omnipresent process.[ii]
The example of RT news (formerly Russia Today) is instructive. The editor, Margarita Simonyan, has outlined the channel is actively conducting, “an information war against the whole Western world”. She says the channel’s raison d’etre is to utilise information and communication for traditionally military purposes and political goals. Numerous studies have consistently shown that it fails to adhere to standards of impartial reporting. Social media activity from RT figures both before and after the Brexit referendum demonstrates this agenda. Max Keiser, host of a weekly show, tweeted in February 2016, “UK Should leave EU and learn to stand on its own two feet. Brits would be the stronger for it and UK economy would improve”. After Brexit however, he changed his tune, “Brits thought they could fool the world into thinking they could drop out of the EU and still be relavant (typo included). They failed”. Clearly, this is not a serious news channel.
The Salisbury attack is a useful case study to examine. Sergei Skripal, an ex-MI6 double agent, was poisoned with the ‘novichok’ nerve agent, historically produced by the USSR. This narrative was aggressively swamped by various conspiracies run by state media or Russian government officials. That they were often contradictory is reminiscent of similar propaganda drives after the downing of flight MH17, or chemical weapons attacks by Russian allies. This is by design, to exhaust ones critical faculties, and, according to chess champion turned Russian exile Gary Kasparov, “to annihilate truth”. There have been more than thirty conspiracy theories suggested by Russian state organs and media since the Skripal attack. The Russian EU ambassador suggested that the poison came from a UK military base Porton Down nearby, while their embassy to the UK consistently pointed to a lack of available evidence, even claiming that Yulia Skripal was abducted by the British government.
State-sponsored troll farms and twitter bots have served to amplify this effect. Analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab (DFL) illustrates a sharp increase of social media activity pushing conspiracy theories with ‘#falseflag’ attached. It documents that much of this is likely to stem from state-sponsored troll farms under US indictment for interference in its political process.
To be sure, it is important to recognise that this activity does not entirely stem from Russia, and IW seizes on ‘useful idiots’ from the West to undermine their own governments. George Galloway outlined that Russia was last on his list of suspects, unless he could personally review all classified evidence relating to the case. Moreover, ex-Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, insinuated on RT that Russia were being framed by another actor in regard to Skripal.
Farfetched and demonstrably false narratives serve a genuine purpose. A critical mistake by Western leaders is to assume that debunking disinformation makes it go away. Former US President Barack Obama betrayed naivety when he said, “No amount of propaganda can make right something that the world knows is wrong,” in response to Russian disinformation in Ukraine. This Western assumption that one empirical truth will prevail against numerous falsehoods is in fact false. It misunderstands IW’s aim; to create an atmosphere in which there are no reliable facts, and therefore no objective truth.[iii] Moscow does not aim to convince, but to confuse. This misinterpretation reduces the credibility of western media and officials, which in turn reinforces the impact of disinformation, as traditional fact-checking sources are doubted.[iv] If you cannot effectively work out the truth, you cannot prosecute wrongdoing. Russian General Nikolay Bordyuzha succinctly underlines this perspective, “in information warfare, the side that tells the truth loses”.
Further, perpetuating an atmosphere of distrust also serves to erode the ‘credibility advantage’ enjoyed by democracies over their autocratic contemporaries.[v] Russian government documents demonstrate the thinking behind this, that a government without the trust of its society cannot effectively govern.[vi] This is especially true in democracies, that are ultimately accountable to their populace.
Theresa May has used the comprehensive expulsion of Russian diplomats by over twenty countries to indicate the failure of Russia’s programme of propaganda after Salisbury. This is premature. Similar to George Bush pontificating ‘Mission Accomplished’ aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1st 2003, she needs to recognise the Skripal affair as just a prelude to a long-term war. Russian IW is a continuous process, and has long-term strategic goals that appear not to have been understood by Western leaders such as Mrs May. The aim of Russian fake news is the long-term erosion of objective truth, not just the short term diplomatic convincing of well-informed and briefed allied intelligence services.
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Will is a postgraduate student reading International Peace and Security at King’s College London, while working as a political consultant. He has a broad interest in international security issues, with a specific interest in trans-national organised crime, cyber security and information warfare. You can follow him on Twitter: @Bil93Bis
[i] Can Kasapoglu, Russia’s Renewed Military Thinking: Non-linear Warfare and Reflexive Control. (NATO Defense College, Research Division, 2015) p.2.
[ii] Ulricke Franke, War by non-military means. Understanding Russian Information Warfare (2015) p.4.
[iii] Keir Giles, Russia’s ‘new’ Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power (Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House, 2016), p.39.
[iv] Ibid., p.39.
[v] Ibid., p.40.
[vi] Ulricke Franke, War by non-military means. Understanding Russian Information Warfare (2015), p.30.