The method of analyzing informational warfare is, for the time being, in its early stages. In this following article, we will sketch the three analytical dimensions forged in our Laboratory. We will call them the informational warfare triad.
The first one we call it the two step thought. The second one is linked to the crucial importance of the trust/distrust doublet in every investigative process of the informational warfare, respectively reaction and resistance to it. The third dimension is the geopolitics of distrust.
All these three elements are interrelated and offer us a new significant analytic perspective for researching the problem that generated LARICS.
A not so innocent mistake in thinking
One of the ideas that lays, most of the time, in the background of analyzing propaganda and/or in informational warfare is the presumption that they are omnipotent. This way of thinking is the most profound evil that can happen to the Euro-Atlantic space in general and to Europe in particular. The omnipotence of propaganda shadows in fact the societal tensions that characterize our Euro-Atlantic societies. The eventual possible effectiveness of propaganda is commensurable with them.
Sociologists work with what is called “Thomas’ theorem”. It implies that “a false fact, perceived as real, becomes real through consequences”. The most popular application of this theorem is the attack on a bank or a financial-system. A set of rumors about a bank that is on the verge of bankruptcy even though it is not (the false fact), once believed by the public (perceived as real) leads to the action where depositors withdraw their money, simultaneously and unexpectedly from the banks. As a result, the banks is bankrupt (the false fact, becomes real through consequences). This example, and many others, misunderstood and applied carelessly (hastily) feed the idea that propaganda and false rumors can irreversibly and decisively influence the social life in every aspect.
In reality, it is not like this. The error that underlies the ground for this way of thinking can be seen in the previous example: the initial rumor (the bank that is bankrupt or at risk of defaulting) to be perceived as real, there should have already existed a distrust and a precarious feeling in regard for the financial system and, thus, in the bank. In a state where trust in this system is profound and justified, this kind of rumor campaigns has extremely low chances that could lead to the types of results described above. It is, in other words, a need for a previous crisis, at the social trust level, to generate the suggested consequences mentioned above. Before the actual crisis – the fall of the bank – there must be another crisis, a less visible one, but essential – the trust crisis.
That is why we need, instead of a simplistic and sociologically, illiterate, causality, a two-step thinking. The first level is a more extensive research on the level of social confidence in the institutions of a state or in a bigger entity (EU, NATO etc.). When they are solid, chances of success of any destabilizing act from an exterior enemy, through manipulative actions or media attacks, are low. When that society is already in a crisis, the wounds are open, the level of confidence in institutions and its politicians (in the “System”) is crumbling – then the external intervention has indisputable chances to modify the profile of that society. Without this initial crisis, the external intervention will touch just an insignificant percentage of the population (modern states are big enough to find 100 followers for anything!), but it cannot dismantle or modify the societal profile.
The first level is linked to the sociological analysis, the second to the analysis of manipulation and disinformation operations.
We have an adequate weighting system for a better understanding of what is happening in our societies in relation to disinformation and manipulation. The best definition for an intelligent person is that he does not confuse the dimensions. In this case, nor should the analysis do it. To only conceive the second level (manipulation, disinformation etc.) means not see the forest because of the trees or to transform the effects in causes and vice versa.
A relevant example: discussions related to Russia’s involvement in the US elections. In accordance with what we have talked here, it denotes too often a profound sociological illiteracy. The idea that Russia made Trump president – beyond the fact that it says what Russia wants to be said about itself! – is a perfect sketch of the wrong thinking which we analyzed above. In this scenario, it no longer matters either the public’s profound discontent, nor the American System’s disappointment, nor Hillary Clinton’s virulent anti-charisma (which, like Donald Trump said, could not gather a bunch of people without a superstar holding her hand). Nothing. It is just “fake news”, manipulation, disinformation. And punctum.
The US situation is two times absurd, even hilarious, if there weren’t such grave consequences. To say that Trump wan because of some “fake news” delivered insidiously by Russian hackers almost reach the point of absurdity and, sociologic, throws us 100 years back in time when the study of sociology of communication was at its beginnings in a world that was convinced that an injection in the media, well targeted changes anything, anytime, anywhere. Hence the famous theories of the so-called “magic bullet” or “hypodermic injections”, based on a simplistic causality: the issuer transmits, the receiver, passively, receives.
When American researchers asked Japanese prisoners from the Second World War how did they react to the leaflets scattered by plane before the battle, which read that Japan is defeated, the emperor had betrayed them so it is useless to continue to resist, their stunning answer was … We fought more fiercely! What was thought to be demobilizing propaganda became its opposite.
Public debates about the all-powerful Russia are based, tacitly, on the naïve presumptions that certain media messages can do anything. The seductive Russia Today, Sputnik and other insidious channels, including social media could change realities. It is, obviously, a lie through exaggeration. And, in the American case, a profound contradiction.
If mass media and the Russian propaganda, somehow, could have radically changed the voting behavior in Donald Trump’s favor, how is it that ALL the US mainstream media (with rare exceptions), from CNN to the New York Times, plus Hollywood with its celebrities, each with Facebook accounts with tens of millions of followers did not succeed in changing the electoral appetite of the same public? How many hackers would have been needed to divert Robert de Niro’s anti-Trump message, broadcasted and commented during prime time by all the American televisions, published on all the newspaper websites and shared massively on all social networks? The question is rhetorical. In reality, Donald Trump’s victory is the purest expression not for the official mass media potency (of the system), but for its impotency in certain circumstances. America did not look good in Europe because of CNN. It is a reality. But in America it looked good. Americans voted for Trump despite the colossal media pressure that was favoring Hillary Clinton. From this point on a serious discussion should start.
In Europe, it’s the same. To credit the idea that Russia modifies everything through manipulation and that the EU will crumble because of this is an obvious mistake. Of course, Russia tries something like this – it’s in its nature -, but if it will succeed it won’t be just because it tries, but because its knocking on open doors. In this case Russian propaganda has curing effects, like some sociologists call it.
One example: the entire Europe knows that the National Front was founded by Moscow. Meanwhile, the French found out with certainty. Despite this fact, the name of the leader’s party was for a long time at the forefront in the presidential polls, to finally lose the elections with a significant score. One thing should be remembered: The French electorate did not vote for Le Pen because she was financed by the Russians, but the Russians financed her and invited her to Kremlin because she was voted by the French… Which is something totally different.
And in Germany, for another electoral win, chancellor Angela Merkel must reinvent herself, including the famous and sad political memory of the “Willkommenskultur”. If she would win tomorrow, Angela Merkel would not have in any case the same political agenda, like yesterday. This is not caused by the Russian hackers, but to a more profound European outcome, a dangerous decline in confidence in the European leaders and in the European project which cannot leave Germany electorally unaffected. And these things exist. They are the real Euro-Atlantic challenges, regardless of the undermining effort which Russia is doing at a certain point.
The European leader’s primary task is not only the fight against the Russian propaganda, but – especially – to increase the confidence of the European states’ citizens in the European institutions and in the European project. This is the starting point. One cannot put the cart (the fight against propaganda) before the horses (the fight with distrust).
Why can’t the West start an informational war in Russia
The best example for understanding the importance of the trust/distrust binomial is the West’s helplessness to dismantle, eventually through an international war, the Russian Federation. The West is wealthier, more powerful and more technologized than the Russian Federation. And yet an informational war against Russia would be doomed to failure.
Here it is why.
The two primary elements in an informational war, beyond the technological aspects, are: the trust in the transmitter’s source and the targeted community’s distrust in their own leaders. Why did the Romanians listen before 1989, almost with religiosity, to radio stations like Europa Liberă or Voice of America? Because these two fundamental conditions were met: Romanians trusted the West and did not love its leaders. This means that they trusted the source and did not trust the official messages.
Today’s Russian Federation is completely the opposite. On the one hand, it does not trust the West and, on the other hand, it (still) loves its leaders.
Hence the conclusion that regardless of the ability and subtlety of some messages designed for a Western-style information warfare campaign would miss their target.
To some extent the Russians are relatively immune to Western propaganda, even though they recognize the West’s force and superiority, even though they spend their holidays in the West and send their children to schools there. For now, the image of the 10 years of Yeltsin’s rule, the so-called “bad years”, in which the western dominance was, in the public perception at least, critically, too powerful.
Since they always suspect the West of falsity, it is difficult to manipulate there.
That is why the approach can only be indirect. From this perspective, the most efficient operation against Russia, was president Trump’s decision to bomb a set of strategic objectives in Syria (7th April 2017). This, undermined, for the moment, the trust in Russia’s leaders who were left speechless. When the trust in Putin will be undermined, in that moment, the population will be open to receive certain messages from the West. When the question will rise: “What if Putin is wrong, what if the West is right?”, then Russia becomes pervious to this kind of messages – now it isn’t. That is why, Russia must be addressed differently, because it cannot be done with the informational war’s classic instruments.
The Geopolitics of Distrust
The analysis’ last element is what we call the geopolitics of distrust. It is about those spaces in which the population presents a low level of confidence in its own elites, institutions, their own founding projects. These spaces can be nations, but also larger entities – European Union.
When we identify these broader spaces marked by this kind of states of mind among the population, then those spaces can become strategic targets and are, from an informational warfare point of view, vulnerable. In this situation we talk about a genuine geopolitics of distrust which identifies the spaces and territories based on the criteria mentioned above.
A geopolitics of distrust is the prior element of any kind of informational warfare research.
Conclusions: Propaganda’s obsession can become… propaganda
Does propaganda exist? Obviously it does. And it will continue to exist. Should it be tackled? Of course. Only the attitude towards it should be well calibrated. Propaganda/Disinformation’s efficiency is proportional with the trust crises in our societies. Not to concentrate on them and to consider essential only the second aspect is not only a sociologic mistake or an excuse for the European politicians, but a major strategic trap.
If it continues to be stuck in this strategic trap, the Euro-Atlantic space will only just repeat the mistakes the USSR made in its confrontation with the West. The USSR fell without any gun fire. Ignoring its profound internal contradictions, economic crisis, chronic distrust of its citizens in their own “motherland”. Moscow fell in traps and started chasing extreme adventures or confrontations with America (“Star Wars”) which it could not win. It was a completely wrong evaluation which could not overcome the system’s contradictions and the internal trust crisis.
The discussion about propaganda, manipulation and informational war must necessarily exist, but with the consciousness that they are not, in any case, the only instruments that take into account the evolutions of the realities around us.
The paradox of paradoxes: the exclusive and obsessive concentration on propaganda and disinformation can become, in turn, a propagandistic exercise.
*Dan Dungaciu is a member of the LARICS Council of Experts.