As Russian troops advance into Ukraine, and as ISIS forces ravage parts of the Middle East, the world is being forced to confront an uncomfortable fact: these belligerents aren't just winning battles on the ground, they're also winning over minds. Here's what propaganda looks like in the 21st century — and how the West has failed to adapt.
Top image: A poster in Sevastopol reading "On March 16 we will choose either... or...", March 13, 2014. Photo by AFP
Propaganda may seem like an archaic concept, but it's very much alive and well. The world has changed significantly in the past few decades, as has our means of consuming information. Many state and non-state actors have taken notice, developing new strategies to sway public opinion both at home and abroad, and as a means to further their foreign policy agendas.
One area in which Western leaders have most certainly lagged behind is the effective use of media to promote its perspective. Much of this has to do with the independent nature of media in democratic countries; freedom of the press is a much-vaunted institution of free thinking and critical societies who look to the media for unbiased accounts of world events and as a way to hold their governments to account.
But these values aren't shared at the global scale, particularly in authoritarian states such as China and Russia. Inspired by the state-controlled media of the Soviet regime, President Vladimir Putin is making a concerted effort to "break the monopoly of the Anglo-Saxon mass media" and to "illuminate abroad the state policies" of the Kremlin. To that end, he's pouring incredible amounts of money into Russian media. The country now invests around $136 million each year just to influence public opinion abroad.
Russia is currently expanding its foreign broadcaster RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and the Ruptly News Agency. Launched back in 2005, RT is currently available in English, Spanish, and Arabic, and is being positioned as an alternative to Western international media, such as CNN and the BBC. Ruptly is currently working to establish itself as an alternative to Reuters and the Associated Press in providing video coverage.
As noted by Anton Troianovski, "While viewership is relatively small, observers say that by airing increasingly shrill criticism of the West and comments from anti-American conspiracy theorists as well as far-right and far-left Western politicians, RT has sought to undermine the authority of Western media."
According to Andrew Weiss, the Vice President of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "We're in the middle of a relentless propaganda war." He describes RT as a crucial tool used by Russia to conduct its foreign policy. By using the Internet, newspapers and television — along with the deployment of allegedly neutral journalists and pundits dispatched around the world — the Kremlin is effectively propagating its position.
Currently, RT reaches out to more than 644 million people worldwide, and as a state-influenced organization, it can slip messages about Russian policy into its programming (a good example can be found here). Looking ahead, Russia plans on expanding its Berlin office from two staff members to 30. It has also adopted a $39 million budget for expansion into French.
By using the media and other information channels, the Russian Federation has relentlessly and effectively conveyed it's own narrative on unfolding events. Its startling ability to control information has become a critical tactic in its current efforts to annex portions of Ukraine and to influence events in the Middle East.
For example, in its efforts to discredit the Ukrainian government, it has painted a picture of the country as a failed state, one regressing into fascism and anti-Semitism. Recently, Putin used a classic propaganda technique — false association — by comparing the efforts of the Ukrainian army to the Nazi siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. How these two events are even remotely comparable is beyond me, but it's one example of many by Putin to exploit Russia's traumatic past.
Just as notoriously, Russia has denied involvement in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014. All evidence points to pro-Russian separatists having shot down the plane using a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile, but the Russian media has painted a different story, claiming that the plane was shot down by Ukrainian forces in a deliberate effort to discredit the insurgency. So effective was this misinformation campaign that some 46% of all Russians currently believe it was shot down by a Ukrainian army antiaircraft missle. Disturbingly, this idea is spreading outside of Russia; during my visit to Slovakia this past August, I met several people who also believed it.
RT coverage of the incident.
As noted by Marieluise Beck, a member of the German Green Party, "The biggest success of the Russian propaganda is to create confusion about what is true or not."
Indeed, the deliberate sowing of confusion has been a hallmark of modern Russian propaganda techniques. Its slow motion invasion of Ukraine has left world leaders and the Western media in a state of paralysis. According to Peter Pomerantsev, Putin is reinventing 21st-century warfare — and propaganda is being used as a major weapon. Arguing in Foreign Policy, he says that Russia is waging "non-linear war" in an "avant-garde" strategy based on the premise that conflict in today's globalized world is multidimensional, where nation-states are no longer set against nation-states. (Image: AP)
The Washington Post's editorial board put it this way:
[It is] a conflict waged by commandos without insignia, armored columns slipping across the international border at night, volleys of misleading propaganda, floods of disinformation and sneaky invasions like the one into Crimea. In this hybrid war, a civilian airliner was shot down by surface-to-air missiles, but the triggerman or supplier of the missile was never identified; artillery shells are fired but no one can say from where; Russian military material and equipment appears suddenly in the villages and fields of eastern Ukraine. While people are being killed, as in any war, and while Ukraine has mustered its forces admirably to push back, this hybrid war features an aggressor whose moves are shrouded in deception.
According to Uri Friedman of The Atlantic, this strategy of deception is nothing new — a technique that borrows from the Soviet strategy of Maskirovka (masking), which was developed in the 1920s and defined by the Soviet Military Encyclopedia as "complex measures to mislead the enemy regarding the presence and disposition of forces, military objectives, combat readiness and plans."
Likewise, the Islamic State insurgency is employing sophisticated new propaganda techniques. In its adept use of varied media, the group has used state-of-the-art videos, ground images shot from drones, and multilingual social media messages. When their accounts are blocked, new ones appear almost immediately. It uses services like JustPaste to publish battle summaries, SoundCloud to release audio reports, Instagram to share images, and WhatsApp to disseminate graphics and videos. It's also intimidating its enemies in a macabre fashion. Unlike Al Qaeda, it has made few calls for attacks on the United States, but the recent beheadings of two journalists can most certainly be construed as threats.
Indeed, the Islamic State's information campaign is considerably more sophisticated than anything Al Qaeda has ever done; its sleek videos are a far cry from those grainy, static images of Osama Bin Laden droning on in formal Arabic. The upstart insurgency has carefully crafted a narrative describing what it sees as the struggle against the national divisions and boundaries of the Middle East drawn by the Western powers after the First World War — what it calls "Crusader partitions" (a narrative that's disturbingly similar to the one promoted by the Nazis in the wake of Versailles). ISIS has gone on to claim that the establishment of modern Arab leadership is a divide and conquer strategy that separates the Muslim people, preventing them from uniting "under one imam carrying the banner of truth."
As for ISIS's current recruiting techniques, its effectiveness has left world leaders rattled. It is using a sleek success-breeds-success strategy that's drawn in as many as 2,000 Westerners, including some 100 Americans, and as many as 250 Canadians (possibly more). Officials in the U.K. believe about 500 Brits have gone to Syria to fight alongside terrorist groups and that about half have come back. Some 25 to 30 are believed to have died in Syria.
Felicia Schwarz of the Wall Street Journal describes a typical interaction between a "lone wolf" and a recruiter:
A young man sees professional-looking propaganda videos produced by the Islamic State. He watches a few of the videos and feels that he has something in common with the men in the video. He then might reach out to the person who posted the video, either on Twitter or Facebook, and engage with him. Eventually, a series of conversations online might encourage the "lone wolf" to travel to Europe, with instructions to find a particular person who might help him make his way into Syria.
One such video features Canadian Andre Poulin, a now dead ISIS soldier.
The effectiveness of this video is obvious. Poulin is relatable, non-dogmatic, and confident in his assertions. He makes it all sound so...normal.
As political scientist Peter Warren Singer told io9, "The irony of all this is that while the U.S. government paid for the creation of the Internet, it is a marketspace where bureaucracies are often at a disadvantage. They can't be as nimble, they can't be as shocking, which is what often draws eyes online, and they risk devaluing themselves if they stoop to the level of many of their non-state adversaries."
Indeed, as Russia and the Islamic State fine-tune their propaganda techniques, the West is desperately trying to play catch-up. Experts are trying to get a grip on the new nature of these information wars, and they're not having much luck. The State Department's Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications is striving to counter Islamic State propaganda by publishing a steady stream of ISIS horror stories on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #ThinkAgainTurnAway. But as noted by the New York Times, it's an uphill battle:
Last week, an ISIS fighter calling himself Abu Turaab wrote on Twitter, "For those who want to come but are facing obstacles, be patient and keep the desire for Jihad alive within you always."
The State Department account replied, "ISIS recruits' 2 choices: commit atrocities & die as criminals, get nabbed and waste lives in prison." As of Friday, Abu Turaab's comment had been named as a "favorite" 32 times. The count for the State Department's response: Zero.
The CSCC clearly needs to rethink its strategy. As noted by former CIA counterterrorism analyst Aki Peritz, these potential recruits are "fence-sitters," mostly disaffected teens and people in their 20s and 30s — "people who don't tend to listen to the U.S. government."
That said, the high-tech strategies employed by ISIS could backfire.
"There is the question of intelligence value," Singer told io9. "Groups like ISIS have actually unintentionally given away very valuable information about themselves in some of their posts, allowing geolocation and network analysis."
So what's the West to do?
For starters it could engage in more forceful and persuasive narrative control. At every turn, state officials must preserve and reinforce the integrity of their 'informational sovereignty' (a term used in counter-propaganda circles) by openly denying the claims made by rivals. It must also present its own coherent version of events. At the same time, and to steal from the Russian propaganda pagebook, media efforts (both private and state-initiated) need to be directed at foreign audiences; it's the ongoing battle for hearts and minds — both at home and abroad.
Admitting, for example, that the U.S. has "no policy" on Syria is clearly unacceptable (even if it's true). Instead, the U.S. and other Western nations should take a cue from what Ukraine has done to counter Russian misinformation campaigns. After the initial wave of protests, the country set up Euromaidan PR (where PR stands for Public Responsibility). The group consists of some 200 English-speaking volunteers in Ukraine and abroad. These volunteers debunk Russian disinformation on social media, like Facebook and Twitter, and via its own blog. Last March, for example, the group circulated photos that, according to Russian media, showed columns of refugees fleeing Ukraine to Russia. In reality, the pictures actually depicted everyday traffic between Ukraine and Poland.
This is obviously a drop in the bucket, but it shows that modern propaganda and counter-propaganda techniques are still very much evolving. There's still plenty of time for the West to catch up.