The methodology of analizing the information warfare is, for now, inchoate. What we are going to be doing in the following three materials is contouring three analytic dimensions forged in our Laboratory.
The first one is what we call thinking in two steps. The second one depends on the crucial importance of the reliability/ disbelief doublet in any investigation intercession of the information warfare, respectively the reaction and the resistance to it. The third dimension, which we shall talk about in detail at the right time, will be the one of the disbelief geopolitics. All three elements are interconnected and they offer a significant analytic perspective on researching the problems that lead to LARICS’ generation.
Let’s start with the beginning.
A not innocent at all error in thinking
One of the ideas that are found many times in the background of the analysis dedicated to the propaganda and/or to the information warfare is the presumption that they are omnipotent. This way of thinking is the most profound harm that could happen to the euroatlantic space, in general, and to Europe, particularly. The idea of the propaganda’s omnipotence actually hides the tension that characterizes our euroatlantic societies. The possible efficiency of the propaganda is proportional to these.
The sociologists are working with the so- called “Thomas’s theorem”. This theorem states that “a false fact, perceived as real, becomes real through its consequences”. The most known application of this theorem is the attack against a bank or against a banking and finance system. A series of rumors about a bank that could be bankrupted even though it is not (the false fact), once believed by the public (perceived as real) leads to the action that the depositors will gusty and concomitantly withdraw their money from the bank. As a result, the bank goes bankrupt (the false fact becomes real through its consequences). This example, and many others, badly digested and used in a rush, feed the idea that the propaganda and the false rumors can irrepressibly and decisively influence the social life on all its levels.
In reality, it is not quite like that. The error that lies at the base of this way of thinking can be seen in the previous example: so that the initial rumor (the bank is bankrupt or incapable of paying) can be perceived as real, it must have already existed, in the population, disbelief and the feeling that the banking and finance system is precarious, and so, the bank’s system is precarious as well. In a state where the disbelief in this system is profound and justified, such a rumor campaign has extremely small chances to lead to results such as the ones described above. It is necessary, otherwise said, that a previous crisis at the level of the social reliability, generated the consequences suggested above. Before the crisis itself- the crash of the bank- there must have been another crisis, less visible, but essential- the crisis of trust.
That’s why, instead of a simplistic causality that is sociologically illiterate, we need a two-step thinking. The first level is researching the degree of social trust in the institutions from a state or from more ample entities (EU, NATO etc.). When this level is solid, the chances of success of the destabilization actions from an extern enemy through manipulation or media attack are low. When the respective society is already in a crisis, when the wounds are open, when the level of trust in institutions and politicians (the level of trust in the “system”) crashes- that’s when the extern intervention has incontestable chances to modify the profile of a society. Besides this initial crisis, the extern intervention will only reach an irrelevant and non representative percentage of population (the modern states are big enough so you can find in them a hundred supporters for anything!), but it cannot modify the society’s profile.
The first level consists of the sociological analysis, the second of the manipulation actions analysis and disinformation.
Thinking in two steps
Now we have an adequate grid in order to better understand what is going on in our societies related to disinformation and manipulation. The best definition for an intelligent human is that he does not confuse the plans. In this case, even the analysis must not do it. Thinking only the second level (manipulation, disinformation etc) means not seeing the forest because of the trees or transforming the effects in causes and vice versa.
A relevant example: the discussions concerning the involvement of Russia in the business from the USA. According to what we discussed here, these denote, too many times, a profound sociological illiteracy. The idea that Russia named Trump president- besides the fact that it says exactly what Russia wants to be said about it!- is the perfect illustration of the mistaken thinking that has been analyzed above. In this scenario, neither the profound public dissatisfaction, nor the disappointment in the American system don’t matter anymore, nor the Hillary Clinton’s virulent anti-charisma (which, as Donald Trump said, couldn’t bundle crowds of people without being held by the hand by a consecrated star). Nothing. It is about “fake news”, manipulation, disinformation. And punctum.
The situation in SUA is twice as ludicrous, even comical, if there weren’t consequences this bad. Saying that Trump won because of some “fake news” insidiously delivered by the Russian hackers is somehow irrational, and, sociologically, it’s like it makes us go back 100 years, during the time when the studies for the communication sociology began, when the world was convinced that a media injection, well oriented, can change anything, anytime, anywhere. From here began the theories that were famous then, “the magic bullet” or “the hypodermic injection”, based on a simplistic causality: the issuer transmits, the receiver, who is passive, receives.
When the American researchers asked the Japanese captives from the Second World War how they used to react to the manifestos thrown from the plane before the battle, throughout which they were told that Japan has been defeated, and the emperor betrayed them, so it was useless for them to keep up the resistance, and their stupefying response for the researchers was that… they were going to fight harder! What, from one side, was thought to be negative propaganda, actually became the opposite.
The public debates on Russia’s omnipotence are tacitly based on these naive presumptions, that some media messages can control everything. It is said that (otherwise) the seductive Russia Today, Sputnik and other insidious channels, including the socialization networks, can change realities. Obviously, it is a lie by exaggeration. And, in the American case, a profound contradiction of terms. If mass media and the Russian propaganda could, somehow, radically change the voting behavior in favor of Donald Trump, how is it possible that, practically, the ENTIRE mainstream mass-media from the USA (with few exceptions), from CNN to the New York Times, plus the Hollywood with all its celebrities, each with FB accounts with tens of millions of followers, couldn’t change the elective appetite of the same public? How many hackers would have been necessary so that Robert de Niro’s anti-Trump message could be hijacked, broadcasted and commented at top hours on all American television channels, published on the sites of all newspapers and exuberantly circulated on the socialization networks? The question is rhetorical. In reality, Donald Trump’s victory is the purest expression not of the “official” mass-media’s omnipotence, but of its incapability in certain circumstances. America didn’t see itself well in Europe because of the CNN. It is a reality. But in America it has been seen. And the Americans voted for Trump despite a huge media pressure and without precedent in favor of Hillary Clinton. This is where an intelligent discussion should commence.
In Europe, things are different. To accredit the idea that Russia changes everything throughout manipulation and the EU shall fall apart because of this means to fully mistake. Of course that Russia tries such a thing- it is in its nature- but, if it shall succeed, it will not only be because it tries, but (also) because it knocks on open doors. In this case, the Russian propaganda has, as sociologists say, curing effects.
One example only: everyone in Europe knows the National Front has been financed by Moscow. Meanwhile, the French found out for sure. Despite this fact, the name of the leader of this party has been found for a long while at the head of the surveys for presidency, just so in the end they lost the election with a score that was significant. One thing should be kept in mind: the French electorate did not vote for Le Pen not because she had been financed by the Russian, but because the Russian financed her and invited her to Kremlin because she was voted by the French… and this is something completely different.
In Germany, Angela Merkel the chancellor, in order to win once again, must reinvent herself, including the aspects concerning the famous and also sad political memory of “Willkommenskultur”. If she is to win tomorrow, Angela Merkel will certainly not have the political agenda she had yesterday. And this is not because of the Russian hackers, but because of some deeper European evolutions, because of a dangerous decrease in the trust in the European leaders and in the European project that cannot leave Germany electorally unaffected. And these things do exist. They are the real challenges of the euro-atlantic world, regardless of the subversion effect that Russia has at a certain moment.
The main task of the European leaders is, besides the fight with the Russian propaganda, mostly raising the trust of the citizens from the European states in the European institutions and the European project. This is where everything must begin from. You cannot turn one’s tail (the fight against the propaganda) to the manger (the fight with the lack of trust).
The obsession for propaganda can become…propaganda
Is there such thing as propaganda? The answer is obviously, yes. And it will continue to exist. Does it have to be combated? Of course. Only the attitude towards it must be very well calibrated. The efficiency of propaganda/ disinformation is proportional to the crises of trust from our societies. Not focusing on them and considering to be essential only the second level is not only a sociological mistake or an excuse for the European politicians, but also a major strategical trap.
If they are to persist in the strategical trap, the euroatlantic space will simply repeat URSS’s mistakes in its confrontation with the Occident. URSS crashed without a sign. Ignoring the profound internal contradictions, the economic crisis, the chronical lack of trust of the citizens in their “homeland”, Moscow fell in the traps and launched itself in external adventures or confrontations with America (“the star wars”) that they never had a chance of winning. It was a deeply mistaken evaluation that couldn’t surmount the contradictions in the system and the crisis in the internal trust.
The discussion about propaganda, manipulation and the information warfare is compulsory to be made, but it must be kept in mind that they are in no case the only instruments that show the evolution of the realities that surround us.
The paradox of paradoxes: the exclusive and obsessive focusing on propaganda and disinformation can itself become a propaganda exercise.
*Dan Dungaciu is a member of the LARICS experts Council.