Something extraordinary happened last weekend. The “realistic” analysis of the prospective war in Ukraine was based on three assumptions: that Russia’s invasion was aimed at consolidating its grip on Crimea and Donbass; that the Russians would quickly succeed; and that the most viable Western response was to impose sanctions that would be punitive but not deterrent and would not stand in the way of long-term Western interests in Russian oil and gas. This analysis broke down over the weekend.
t did so for three reasons. First, Putin’s rhetoric hinted at a more menacing, expansionist agenda. Second, Russian forces did not advance as quickly as expected. Third, and most importantly, this has given Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy an opportunity to rally his people and shame the world. Meanwhile, social and mainstream media continued to provide eyewitness accounts of Ukrainian heroism and Russian belligerence to similar effect.
Zelenskyi may not have changed the course of the war, but he did change the course of the Western response to the war. The previous Friday, Western leaders had decided on a gradual and cautious sanctions regime; Three days later, they effectively declared economic warfare on Russia — albeit with the proviso that gas is still flowing from Russia to Europe. (This analysis draws on the work of economic historian Adam Tooze, specifically a podcast interview he conducted with Ezra Klein from The New York Times.) The EU promised military aid; European capitals to consider Ukraine’s EU membership bid; Public pressure for no-fly zones is growing. Although Ukraine defied expectations in the ground war, it won in the information war. It is perhaps no coincidence that the man spearheading this information war is an actor.
The information war is the war over the narrative, and the Ukrainian narrative has a mythic quality: David and Goliath; the Battle of Thermopylae; Henry V at Agincourt; the Easter Rising. The heroic defense against impossible odds. That narrative may be true, but it’s also something we want be true. It’s hardwired for us. Selenskyj, TV maker and producer as well as actor, knows that in his bones.
In 1942, while working in British propaganda at the BBC, George Orwell fabricated a fake news story that Japan was planning to attack Russia. This was a win-win story, he noted in his journal. If Japan attacked, the British could claim credit for their intelligence; If Japan did not attack, the British could claim the Japanese had been deterred. “All propaganda is a lie, even if you tell the truth,” he observed. “I don’t think that matters as long as you know what you’re doing and why.”
I think that’s what he meant, even if it sometimes is happen To be honest, propaganda should be treated as a lie because the intention propaganda is not about being truthful, it is about pushing an agenda – shaping a narrative. But if that agenda is honorable – as Orwell believed his work was in the service of the British war effort – that propaganda was justified.
Beginning in January, US President Joe Biden warned that Russia was planning an attack on Ukraine. We had good reason to be skeptical: a long history of US “intelligence” that later turned out to be inaccurate or untrue propaganda. Then the Americans announced that they had released intelligence that Russia was planning a “false flag” operation to provide a pretext for an invasion.
In a press conference at the State Department on Feb. 3, Matt Lee, a veteran reporter for the AP, asked the announcer where the declassified intelligence information was. “I just delivered it,” the spokesman said. The only evidence of the existence of this information offered to the media was the speaker’s word. As Lee noted (in a clip that can be seen on Twitter), this was “Alex Jones territory.” It had Orwellian circular logic: “You should trust us because it’s declassified intelligence; You know it’s declassified intelligence because you trust us.”
Biden’s remarks turned out to be true this time; this is not a reliable indicator for the future. Zelensky’s defiance is incredibly heroic and resonates with authenticity; this does not mean that Ukrainian statements on the war are correct. And even if they’re truthful – which I think they are for the most part – they still serve as propaganda: they form a narrative.
This is the fog of war. Trying to see through fog is a somewhat familiar experience because, thanks to social media, we now live in a kind of permanent fog. But that fog is particularly thick over Ukraine because Russia specializes in spreading it.
As Peter Pomerantsev tells in his memoirs about his time as a television producer in Russia, Nothing is true and everything is possibleVladimir Putin identified television early on as a key means of consolidating power. State television gave him narrative control within Russia, while the success of his international offshoot Russia Today (RT) gave him international narrative influence.
RT was very successful online – it became the most successful TV news channel on YouTube. “There is no such thing as objective reporting,” RT’s editor-in-chief told him. The broadcaster specialized in stirring up dissent. “European right-wing nationalists are seduced with an anti-EU message; the extreme left is co-opted with stories about fighting US hegemony; Religious conservatives in the US are convinced of the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality,” Pomerantsev wrote in 2014. Russia then went a step further and developed expertise in online misinformation and disinformation.
Much of this energy has been directed against Ukraine, fueling separatism in Crimea and Donbass and claiming that the Ukrainian government (headed by a Russian-speaking Jew since 2019) are neo-Nazis complicit in genocide against ethnic Russians. Putin’s claims sound outlandish – they might not even be believed by their Russian audience – but fake news doesn’t need to be persuasive to be effective. Its mere existence raises doubts about reality. As Pomerantsev explained on the Vox Conversations podcast last week, “You can’t believe what’s going on, there’s so much chaos, so you’re looking for conspiracies to explain the world.” Propaganda are exhausted, but the insight applies equally to people in the West, exhausted by the culture wars on everything from trans rights to the pandemic, and now struggling to see through the fog of war on our screens.
Some would say the last place to turn for navigation help is The New York Times, flagship of the liberal mainstream media. Like all institutions that TimesThe prejudices of infect his output. But it brings two key advantages to its coverage of Ukraine: an almost unrivaled breadth and depth of staff; and a team of specialists in visual investigations that has established itself over the past five years at the forefront of a new type of journalism that seeks to be more transparent and less refutable than traditional reporting. Malachy Browne, an executive producer on the team (and a former colleague of village magazine) told me how it works.
Usually, the team specializes in in-depth investigations, like the story that earned them a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 and proved that the Russian military was deliberately bombing hospitals in Syria, and last year’s story that proved that a US drone strike during Kabul evacuation killed an Afghan aid worker and his family, not – as the Pentagon had claimed – an Isis bomber. Currently, members of the team – scattered in Kyiv, Madrid, London, the Netherlands and New York – work in round-the-clock shifts on the history of Ukraine. You will receive information from Twitter, Telegram and Times Reporters and sources on the ground, then use metadata, satellite imagery, and multiple sources to verify or debunk them.
Metadata proved that a story spread about a Ukrainian atrocity in Donbass was fabrication, a “false flag.” Last week, a story circulated by the Ukrainian military about Russian paratroopers staging a nighttime attack on Kharkiv broke apart when the Times tried to verify it. Sometimes stories are intentionally false (there is a well-documented history of such stories being circulated by Russia or pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine); sometimes they are simply deprived of the necessary context.
“In a high-octane conflict, ratings are issued that are meant to serve as a sensation,” notes Browne. “Social media is designed to amplify emotions: anyone who is emotionally triggered by it should activate this warning filter. Resist the urge to automatically share what you see.”
When possible, his team shares his process and sources. Browne sees this as part of a “new wave of accountable journalism”. But the fog of war remains omnipresent. “Disinformation has always been part of human existence,” he says. “What has changed now is the technology and the speed at which that information can be shared and people can trigger.”
This poses a particular challenge to our culture. With the best will in the world, other people will peek through this fog and see things differently. We should be thankful that the challenge we face is a culture war, not a real war, but the erosion of trust and the growth of partisanship are fundamental problems for Western democratic culture. Even as we come to individual, passionate, moral positions on the war in Ukraine, respecting the fact that other people can come to other positions in good faith can be a necessary part of maintaining our own democracy.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/propaganda-and-fake-news-thriving-in-the-fog-of-war-41416113.html Propaganda and fake news thrive in the fog of war