By George Scarlat*
For a while now, discussions about propaganda, disinformation, and information war have become fashionable. Even the European Parliament issued a resolution in this sense. The subject is broad, having thousands of nuances; hence, simplistic approaches can do more harm than good. On the other hand, there are objective reasons concerning internal institutional mechanisms for which Romanian institutions are, in general, overwhelmed in such situations.
There are also issues concerning freedom of expression. Does anyone who expresses his or her skepticism toward the promotion of the LGBTQ+ agenda or the benefices of mass migration in Europe is an anti-Westerner? Is he or she a Russian agent of influence? Isn’t the culture war a component of Western civilization and, thus, we should not confuse between such manifestations and those characteristics to an information war?
Communication services and press offices do not analyze
The number of open sources has practically skyrocketed with the expansion of the online press and with that of satellite television, many of which quoting and retrieving news from one another in real time. This aspect, among others, has made possible the appearance of an abundance of news, information, and opinions. For an analyst, it is difficult in such conditions to identify the red line of a propaganda campaign, its origins, and goals. The difficulty is also increased by the institutional framework in which such a person operates, e.g., the framework of press and communication services, or of the “open source” within an institution. That analyst knows that he or she has to issue the press report, an international or Romanian magazine within a strict time spam, e.g., 11 o’clock in the morning. For this reason, nobody has time to nuance, the purpose being to fulfill a duty from the job description. That’s why the press report constitutes a string of articles of interest released in that specific day. The personal touch consists mostly of the article’s summary. Therefore, it depends on the analyst which paragraphs will be ignored and which will be copy-pasted in work. The same is available when it comes to choosing the pieces of news which are worth being recorded and which are going to be ignored. That is all. “Yesterday” and “tomorrow” do not exist. All that matters is the submission time. Thus, “patterns” cannot be followed — appearances with a repetitive character — i.e., once one of the characteristics of a press campaign. As a consequence, successive articles, afferent to a press campaign, are inserted daily, without any reference to previous issues or if the respective succession might represent a pattern. If the beneficiary of the press report notices himself the repetitiveness — or any other element of a press campaign — the better. For the communication analyst to notice, by himself, he needs to make a separate press report, e.g., a memorandum on the subject. But who would work in his or her spare time, especially if this is not mentioned explicitly in the job description?
Open-source analysts censor themselves
In general, in Romania’s administrative and institutional culture, public servants don’t do unsolicited work. Moreover, this can also be risky. If we are dealing with internal press campaigns, these can receive political interpretations. And no subordinate would take the risk to present such a thing directly to his or her boss, even less toward the head of the institution, be he a minister or a director.
Sometimes, it can be risky even for the foreign press. They, too, have been the object of controversy here. For example, during the constitutional referendum for the dismissal of the Romanian president, on July 29, 2010, one side was claiming that the foreign press does not do anything than to denounce a state coup in Romania. On the other hand, the opposite side was claiming with the same eagerness that it is about articles inspired from within the country and promoted to the foreign press, including through institutions of the Romanian state. What state servants had the courage back then to give his or her own opinion, for one side or the other, and, moreover, in a written document, forwarded to the institution’s management?
There might be other situation of self-censorship for the foreign press. Let’s say that someone from the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs notices elements of an anti-Romanian campaign from another state’s media. But in that country, the Romanian ambassador could be an icon of Romanian diplomacy, a pillar of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or a friend of the current minister. Who from the center would have the courage to notify these aspects, from the specific area, that the Romanian ambassador did not inform the headquarters? Who would do the work by himself and suggest that the respective embassy ignores such aspects?
Let’s take the Russian danger as an example, a danger which, without any doubt, exists, right beside us. Only that in this electoral campaign, someone wishes – without much success in my opinion – to transform it into a campaign theme. That’s why an analyst would appreciate that, if he positions him or herself in this problem, the analyst risks being identified as one of the electoral competitors. Thus, it is better to abstain from giving an opinion on the Russian danger, at least until next elections.
Romania is vulnerable in the face of information wars
In the last decades, even before 1989, Romania has not managed to counter any of the information wars – with a few exceptions, of which I would like to mention the horse-meat scandal exported by Romania in 2013, when public communication of Romanian institutions was combined with the decisive action of the competent authorities, such as the ANSVSA. One of the reasons for Romania’s vulnerability in the face of the information war has to do with the incompetence and the lack of discernment of the Romanian press, which makes itself an echo and amplifier of campaigns targeting Romania. Nobody has time anymore or interest to verify a piece of news. It is easier to translate it from the foreign press without checking it, and after that to excuse yourself that you “did not read a reliable source.” There is also the provincialism, which manifests itself through the tendency to take any news about Romania — and the more negative a piece of news is, the better. Provincialism also means the blind faith of Romanian journalists, analysts, and politicians in the infallibility of the Western press. I remember perfectly the horrible way in which the Romanian press adhered to the campaign launched by the Italian state against Romania under the pretext of the murdering of the Italian woman, Giovanna Reggiani, by the Romanian man, Romulus Mailat, in October 2007. Then, with the editorial support from the newspaper Ziua, I started a real crusade to establish the truth. A couple of months later, the sociologist Marizo Barbagli, from the University of Bologna, agreed with me, in his volume, Immigrazione e criminalita in Italia. The Italian professor declared, at the launching of this book, that the Maile case was backed by extremist elements of the Italian secret services, the then-prime minister, Romani Prodi, asking him not to make such matters public.
Therefore, any preoccupation in the direction of analyzing open sources, with the goal of preventing and countering the manifestation of the information war, is more than welcome, be they from think tanks or state institutions.
*George Scarlat is a member of the LARICS Council of Experts.