Europe is on the brink of information war

On 11th of January 2016 in Berlin parents of a Russian-German girl reported her missing after she didn’t appear at school. Thirty hours later she came back home and told that she has been kidnapped and raped by men of Middle Eastern appearance. The allegations triggered protest of the Russian-German community against the police inaction that was supported by the far-right movement of the Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West)-related Bärgida, which stole the show clamouring against the current immigration policy in Germany. So far the story was not clear and at that moment no evidence indicated migrants’ involvement, however, this state of the case didn’t stop the Russian journalists to hype it in the Russian mass media and unequivocally label migrants as “rapists”[1]. Later with help of mobile phone records it was found out that the girl was in friend’s house – no migrants were involved in this case[2].  With this exact case slanted against migrants one might observe a situation, when fast spread of misleading information, which has a power to sow the seeds of xenophobia, caused a new phase of the European information war: from initiative to actions.

Why is it important?

Within  the volatile information climate it is crucial to understand that in the current information age, as John Arquilla notes[3], victory might be achieved not when an army wins, instead when a story wins. Competition for minds gains its momentum rapidly. Broadly speaking, information warfare attacks are aimed at refuting, degrading and denying enemy’s information sources. Doing this effectively lets the attributer to achieve the information superiority and control over the particular group of people. Since recently, information itself takes position of being a manipulation instrument, concept of which is barely resistant to soft power’s manifestations (Nye 2005). With the split-second spread of information mass media became an efficient tool for competitive advantage and some sort of manipulations. There is no doubt that mass media, which includes newspapers, television, internet etc., has a narrative creating power, when propaganda, manipulations, deliberately framed opinions are rife (Lakoff 2009; Minsky 1974).

Furthermore, take notice of the differences of notion of information security use by Western scholars, who mostly focus on cyber attacks, whereas in Central Asia and in the post-Soviet space in general, an outsider’s influence on public sentiments is placed under scrutiny – there is certainly understanding discrepancy.  Therefore, it is more reasonable to use the notion of information warfare. Cannot be overstated that in order to counter external manipulation of public opinion the new comprehensive approach is needed to greatly improve the efficiency of state information policy for Central Asia, in particular to Kazakhstan. Widening the definition of non-traditional threats for the region used by Swanström (2010) I include the information dependence concern. In the context of Central Asia, the way of attracting and persuading people becomes easier with non-conventional weapons like mass media, when it comes to political adventures, for instance.

How to counter disinformation attacks?

The war in Ukraine sparked the concern of alternative sources of information in the EU Eastern neighborhood countries. In January, 2015 the European Parliament encharged the EU with a task “to pay particular attention to the “information war” pursued by Russia and ask the Commission to propose, within two months, a communication strategy to counter the Russian propaganda campaign directed at the EU, its eastern neighbours and Russia itself.”[4] Sometime after that the start-up East StratCom Team was launched in April in order to ensure the “effective communication and promotion of EU policies and values towards the Eastern neighbourhood.”[5] For the record, the Disinformation Review and Disinformation Digest are projects that collect, analyze and publish on a weekly base examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation attacks they receive from more than 30 countries, which do not constitute an official EU position[6]. Some EU member states such as Denmark and Latvia are planning to launch a Russian-language broadcast and discussed the initiative to create a Russian-language TV channel[7]. The EU Action Plan on Strategic Communication states that “the EU will ensure that communication materials and products are available in local languages, notably in Russian”[8], there is a possibility now for the Russian-speaking populations, the geographic reach of which covers mostly the post-soviet space, to perceive alternative information sources in Europe in Russian language. Altogether, the European mobilization to fight against the informational propaganda machine is operating at two fronts: diminishing the Russian propaganda “appetite” and signaling other states that possible practices will be suppressed.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 9.21.24 PM

Screenshot of the @EUvsDisinfo Twitter-account[9]

Does Kazakhstan need to tackle this problem too?

Critically speaking the presence of foreign media is not so benign, as might appear to everyman. In the region’s context, one prominent case is worthy of scrutiny: the Crimea crisis. In the case of Russian and Western mass media influence, Kazakhtani media might find it difficult to compete with foreign information and entertainment products. I assume that multicausality is the norm, as not only the dominance of the Russian media in Kazakhstan[10], but the weak support of the government to ensure the opinions’ plurality, journalism’s bias, lack of resources, absence of legal basis and other factors contribute to the information dependence. Therefore, there is a strong need of re-evaluation the Kazakhstani information policy and further investment in the national media companies (not the state-owned only) so to develop more professional and competitive media within the national borders. What is more to the point and worth mentioning here is that this media specific concern should be perceived as a zero-sum game that might lead to losses of one party, on the one hand, and gains of another. Even though it is hard to eradicate the battle of hearts and minds, it is relevant to step up our efforts to diminish the losses and get off on the right foot answering with effective policy.

References:

Lakoff, George. 2009. The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books.

Minsky, Marvin. 1974. “A Framework for Representing Knowledge.” http://18.7.29.232/handle/1721.1/6089 (March 26, 2016).

Nye, Joseph S. 2005. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New Ed edition. New York: PublicAffairs,U.S.

Swanström, Niklas. 2010. “Traditional and Non-Traditional Security Threats in Central Asia: Connecting the New and the Old.” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 8 (2): 35-51

[1]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7siTgS79X8

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/31/teenage-girl-made-up-migrant-claim-that-caused-uproar-in-germany

[3]https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1033/MR1033.chap3.pdf

[4] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20150109IPR06321/Ukraine-MEPs-condemn-terrorist-acts-and-say-sanctions-against-Russia-must-stay

[5] http://eap-csf.eu/assets/files/Action%20PLan.pdf

[6] http://eeas.europa.eu/euvsdisinfo/

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/25/eu-russia-propaganda-ukraine

[8] http://eap-csf.eu/assets/files/Action%20PLan.pdf

[9] https://twitter.com/euvsdisinfo?lang=en

[10] https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2015/kazakhstan

Written by Madina Bizhanova

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