The Ukraine war is rife with information warfare from both sides, rising to a ubiquity and sophistication perhaps never seen before, says Joe Lauria.
The following is an update of an address presented last Thursday to an academic conference organized by the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) and the Centre for Media, Democracy, Peace and Security (CMDPS) at the Rongo University in Kenya. The topic was “The Uses and Abuses of Information Warfare.”
By Joe Lauria
The first thing to keep in mind is that information warfare is war. War by other means, but war nonetheless. The object is to win. To defeat your opponent. Information Warfare, as it is now called but known as propaganda earlier, has been around in rudimentary form from the beginning of humanity, evolving over millennia largely by the advancement of technology, political systems and the education of populations.
In pre-history, we can see a kind of information warfare in the culture of war, sending a message both to the domestic group and to the enemy. This took the form of beating drums, for instance, which remains with us today in the expression of “beating the drums of war.” But also in dance, and chant, and decoration of the warrior. All this prepared the people for war and was intended to instill fear in the enemy.
With settlement in cities, and the development of writing – the start of so-called civilization – new technologies were used in what we call today information warfare. Architecture played an important role to inspire awe in both the ruler’s subjects and in his enemies. The lions on the gates of Babylon, the pyramids at Zoser and Giza and the triumphal arches of Rome sent messages of grandeur and power to friend and foe alike.
During the European medieval crusades against Islam, Christian ideology and iconography, as well as anti-Muslim propaganda preached from the pulpit, played a major role in mobilizing the masses to support the wars of conquest in what would later be called the Middle East.
The Printing Press & Information War
Modern information warfare in Europe began with the development of the printing press and increased literacy. Rulers no longer had to rely only on visual arts or public speeches to prepare populations for war and to send messages to the enemy. They would soon have pamphlets and then daily newspapers to shape information in a time of war.
This is still made possible by newspaper proprietors’ closeness to governing circles with whom they shared common interests, commercial or political. Central to the history of war and information from the 19th century until today is how governments have used the supposedly independent press to conduct information warfare against foreign enemies and reluctant populations at home.
The press played a critical role building support at home for European colonialism abroad, in both glorifying empire and dehumanizing its victims. It still performs this function as the voices of victims of U.S. targeting, such as Iraqis, Iranians and Palestinians, are rarely heard in U.S. media. It makes it easier to go to war against a people whom Americans know next to nothing about.
Deception is an essential part of information war, mostly of the enemy, but also of the domestic populations if the motives for war are hidden; for instance America’s claims that it goes to war to spread democracy rather than for economic and political dominance.
By the end of the 18th Century and in the 19th, intelligence gathering closer to the battlefield and its dissemination by governments through the media became an increasingly sophisticated part of information warfare. The Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz warned that “many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain […] the reports turn out to be lies, exaggerations, errors, and so on. In short, most intelligence is false, and the effect of fear is to multiply lies and inaccuracies.”
And yet these lies and exaggerations made their way into the newspapers and later radio, television and today on social media.
Radio and Cinema
A major breakthrough in information war technology was the wireless radio, which could broadcast the voice of human speakers over vast distances, way beyond outdoor gatherings in city squares to hear a ruler speak from a balcony. Nazi Germany made tremendous use of the radio in its information war to rally its own people and to demonize the Allies. It made English language propaganda broadcasts just as the Japanese did.
The Nazis and the Americans made the cinema a major part of their information war efforts as well, with the propaganda films of Leni Riefensthal in Germany, and with Hollywood, which produced particularly racist films that depicted the Japanese as subhuman, much as the Nazis in their films had portrayed Jews. Newsreels in cinemas spread each side’s narrative of the war to their domestic audiences.
Post-war conflicts, such as in Vietnam, made use of the more powerful tool of transmitting images through television in information war, though critical war reporting bringing the violence into American homes helped turn the U.S. population against the conflict. This was remedied, from American rulers’ perspectives, by the embedding of the media into the military in the 1991 invasion of Iraq.
Presentation of the bombing of Baghdad, particularly on CNN, and televised briefings by Pentagon officials about the course of the war (including some of the earliest cockpit videos of bombs striking buildings) became a vital weapon in the information war against Iraq.
This was repeated with more sophistication in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, in which the U.S. media was used to whip the American population into a frenzy of war enthusiasm, surpassed only by the current mania over the war in Ukraine, fueled in large part now by social media.
The Ukraine war is rife with information warfare from both sides, rising to a ubiquity and sophistication perhaps never seen before. Once again, technology plays a leading role. Beyond the powerful tool of television in information warfare, the internet, and particularly social media, has changed the game, though newspapers and TV still play their part.
In fact, the conflict in Ukraine may be said to be the first major war in the social media era. It has opened new opportunities to steer the public’s perception of a war. Social media has introduced new forms of information warfare: bots, trolls and troll farms. Social media has allowed citizens to enter the fray, many of whom have been turned into individual propagandists regurgitating official deceptions from either side of a war. Social media helps propaganda spread faster than radio, television or newspapers ever could.
The technology of facial recognition has teamed up with social media to form what The Washington Post reports as ““classic psychological warfare” in Ukraine. The newspaper said: “Ukrainian officials have run more than 8,600 facial recognition searches on dead or captured Russian soldiers in the 50 days since Moscow’s invasion began, using the scans to identify bodies and contact hundreds of their families in what may be one of the most gruesome applications of the technology to date.” The aim is to stir dissent against the war in Russia, the Post reported.
While the internet and social media began with great promise for the democratization of information, it has become an arena of government-by-proxy control, with the enforcement in the West of a single narrative of the Ukraine war. Twitter users who challenge the Western government and media telling of this war are being increasingly kicked off the service, while pro-Western messaging is amplified.
Total control of the narrative is being sought and the word “total” is in totalitarian.
Remember information warfare is war. It is about winning. It is not about being truthful or even factual. It is about convincing your domestic populations and damaging your enemy.
The Importance of Ignorance in Info Wars
There is fertile ground to wage information warfare in the U.S. on Ukraine. In all of America’s wars, ignorance of foreign affairs plays a big role. Americans’ lack of knowledge of other countries is compounded by the fact that the U.S. has never been invaded, except briefly by the British in 1812, and that the U.S. itself began as an invasion by Europeans in which they wiped out the indigenous population, and then later invaded Mexico and then Spanish possessions and frankly, have never stopped invading other nations.
The lack of knowledge of this history makes Americans vulnerable to propaganda cloaking American expansionism. In the context of the Ukraine war this ignorance plays an important part in the susceptibility of the American public to war propaganda.
Americans generally don’t understand the psyche of Russia, which was invaded numerous times, particularly by the biggest European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. They generally do not know, because they are never told, that the Soviet Union destroyed 80 percent of the Wehrmacht in WWII. They do not know what a revival of Nazism means to the Russian people or even that there is a revival of Nazism in Ukraine because it is whitewashed out of the corporate media story.
Under the guise of respectability and objectivity, the news media of the U.S. and Europe, which is closely aligned with their governments, has played an important role in the information war by deliberately omitting three crucial facts from their Ukraine war narrative, which completely changes the picture.
Media is leaving out the role of U.S. in the 2014 coup in Kiev; that an 8-year civil war has been fought in the eastern Donbass region against Russian-speaking Ukrainians who resisted the coup (Russia’s help at the time was falsely portrayed as an invasion); and that Neo-Nazi fighters, now incorporated into the Ukrainian state military, played a big role in the coup, in the civil war and in the current fighting in the Russian invasion.
There is abundant evidence that the U.S. was behind the violent overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically-elected president in 2014, especially a leaked phone conversation between a high-ranking State Dept. official and the American ambassador in Kiev discussing weeks before the coup who would make up the new government. There is more than abundant evidence about the influence of neo-Nazis in Ukraine.
There was also little emphasis in the media’s information war on diplomatic moves that could have prevented the Russian invasion: namely the seven-year-old Minsk accords that could have ended the civil war if the U.S., Germany and France pressured Kiev to implement it.
Also deemphasized were the draft treaty proposals Russia presented to the U.S. and NATO last December that would have rolled back NATO troops from Eastern Europe (where NATO broke its promise not to expand) and removed missiles from there to create a new arrangement in Europe taking Russia’s security interests into account. Russia threatened a “technical/military” response if the treaties were rejected. They were and Russia invaded.
By ignoring diplomacy, the U.S. appears to have wanted the invasion in order to unleash their information and economic war against Russia, with the aim of overthrowing Vladimir Putin, which Joe Biden admitted to. By leaving all this out of the Ukraine story, the West has portrayed Putin as simply a cartoon character madman.
Another term in vogue for information war is psychological operations, or psy-ops, such as the Ukrainian facial recognition offensive. The U.S. government through its compliant private media can be said to have performed a psy-op on the American people. The same can be said for Europe. Virtually none of the context for this war has been explained to them. How can it be with former intelligence and defense officials now working as TV analysts?
It has been the role of independent media, such as Consortium News, which I edit, that have tried to fill the gaps.
On the Battlefield
Where the information war is most intense is about events on the Ukrainian battlefield. It has become impossible to tell what is going on there. Two totally different stories emerge. In the Western view, Ukraine is winning the war. Russia says their operation is succeeding as planned.
Western governments and media, relying almost entirely on what Kiev and Washington are telling them, said for weeks that Russia was “stalled” on its way to conquer Kiev and then was defeated there and had to withdraw. Russia said it never had any intention of attacking Kiev and had parked its forces near the city as a diversionary tactic to keep Ukraine forces defending Kiev while Russia attacked Mariupol, seat of the Neo-Nazi Azov Regiment. Russia says it has now moved those forces to the Donbass.
Ukraine and the Western media blame high profile attacks in Mariupol on a theater and a maternity ward, a massacre outside Kiev and the bombing of a crowded railway station on Russia, while Russia says Ukraine was responsible for all those attacks. A U.N.-led investigation is needed. But we may never know the truth about these incidents.
Ukraine and the West say Russia is deliberately killing civilians, while Russia says it is deliberately avoiding targeting civilians and only returns fire to attacks coming from civilian areas. So far the U.N. reports as of Monday only 2,072 civilian deaths since the Feb. 24 invasion, seven weeks ago, ignoring a Ukrainian official who said last week that 10,000 people were killed in Mariupol alone. Of course both sides fire in a war but in the West it’s only the Russians who are killing people.
Very rarely a dissenting voice comes through. A Pentagon official told Newsweek magazine that Russia had frankly not killed many civilians and could have killed many more if it wanted too.
The Neo-Nazi Azov Regiment has claimed that Russia had used chemical weapons in the war. Western media dutifully reported it, without mentioning Azov’s Nazi affiliation. Now the story has gone away.
The Pentagon by the way has been acting as something of a brake against the U.S. info war.
The Pentagon said it couldn’t determine who was responsible for the Bucha massacre, even though Biden said Russia was; it said it could not confirm the Azov’s tale of chemical weapons use; and it firmly opposed a no-fly zone and sending Polish jets to Ukraine, even after Secretary of State Antony Blinken supported it — all to prevent a NATO-Russia war and the unimaginable consequences that could bring. The Pentagon is saving us. So far.
Russian Information War
It has become very difficult to understand how Russia is conducting its information warfare because the English language RT television network and Sputnik radio have been banned in the West. The Kremlin and other government websites have been hacked. These are key tactic’s in the West’s info war.
One can only get Russia’s side of the story largely on Telegram, where one can read mundane statements from the Ministry of Defense on the exact number of Ukrainian military equipment destroyed, figures that must be taken with a grain of salt. At home Russia has also crushed dissent, shutting down media outlets, banning protests and even outlawing the word “war” to describe what Russia is doing.
This is where we are in the information landscape of the Ukrainian conflict.
Since the beginning of time victims of war are not only those who are killed but those who are lied to.
It’s an old saying but it’s still true: the first casualty of information warfare is the truth.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former U.N. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers, including The Montreal Gazette and The Star of Johannesburg. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London, a financial reporter for Bloomberg News and began his professional work as a 19-year old stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe