Kyiv, October 13, 2015. The Russian propaganda machine, as a tool of Russian “hybrid war” against Ukraine, has become a subject of worldwide professional research. During the discussions at Ukraine Crisis Media Center experts talked about the role of information war in Russian aggression, propaganda machine methods, factors that contribute to its success and possible propaganda countermeasures.
“We understand electronic or hybrid war in the following way: propaganda war through the media, including websites, cyber-attacks, collection of information, viruses spread, war in comments on Internet sites, including the use of “trolls”. The Russian e-war tactics is best-developed in the world. It has evolved since World War II. Now they use the most modern communication means to manipulate public opinion and collect data,” said Ivan Kostov, ex-Prime Minister of Bulgaria, and Head of the Center for Analysis and Risk Management in Bulgaria. The Center has already issued 12 documents dedicated to crisis and war in Ukraine.
Kostov said that the information war against Ukraine began long before the annexation of the Crimea – in the winter of 2013. “The start was marked by using the term ‘fascists’. It was the first Russian propaganda myth that started preparing public opinion for a future Russian aggression against Ukraine,” said Kostov. He stressed that due to the information blockade and propaganda myths, Russia was able to annex the Crimea and Donbas long before direct aggressive actions. Kostov mentioned that the current Russian propaganda machine is very weak now because of fewer grounds for spreading new myths.
Elements of information warfare were used against Estonia (cyber-attacks, political rallies) as well as other Russian neighbors in Central Asia. Bulgarian ex-Prime Minister said that Russian influence is strong enough in the information space of his native country, particularly in how Minsk agreements were covered. “The document is difficult to find in Bulgarian. It [the Minsk agreements] was presented as Poroshenko and Putin’s handshake, and that Donbas will get a special status. Bulgarian society does not understand that, according to Minsk agreements, Donbas will stay within Ukraine. A real war with “trolls” is waged on sites. We do not doubt that they are organized,” said Kostov, adding, however, that in Bulgaria people feel mostly pro-European, and the attitude to Ukraine is mostly friendly, especially after signing the Association Agreement with EU.
Anatoliy Baronin, Managing Partner of the Da Vinci Group Analytical Agency, said that the role information warfare plays, as part of “hybrid war” against Ukraine, is more important than in any similar case in the past. This is due to the development of information technology. “Several decades ago information came “top down”. That is, the key media provided information about an event and spread it to less reputable media. When electronic media appeared, like Internet and social networks, the information flow direction has changed. Now a Facebook post can be relayed to mainstream media,” said Baronin. The expert noted that due to the increased flow of information, people do not have time to check it. This simplifies distributing fakes and increases the risk of relaying false news to quite reputable media. In addition, said Baronin, the credibility of a source is often measured not by way of presentation, but the number of visitors to the resource. Increasing the volume and speed of emergence, dissemination of information changed its psychological perception by society. “Compared with the past, the emotional component in the content has significantly increased, while the information component has decreased. This allows the enemy to substitute information, fill it with necessary emotional meaning,” explained Baronin.
Ruslan Kavatsyuk, Advisor to the Chief of the Ukraine’s Armed Forces General Staff, said that now Russian “hybrid warfare” against Ukraine is the subject of detailed study for experts from many countries. This is because neighbors of Russia, especially the Baltic countries, fear that in the future the propaganda war may be launched against them. “We are developing ways to effectively confront innovative war methods. Ukraine is fighting for the values of the entire EU, to ensure every nation’s right to self-determination, so that no country could impose its will on others,” emphasized Kavatsyuk.
According to experts, methods of combating propaganda can include, firstly, “information hygiene” courses in schools and universities, where young generation will learn to filter information. Also, credible public leaders and civil society leaders should thoroughly refute misinformation, just as it appears in the information space. At the same time, it is almost impossible to counter the Russian information war, said Baronin. “When there is freedom of expression and free media work, effective fight against a hybrid war informational component is impossible, because any steps aimed at combating propaganda can only consist in limiting activities of these sources.” Without limiting propaganda media activities, he explained, counter-propaganda would be inefficient because there was already a clear segmentation of society into those who take information from pro-Ukrainian and Western sources, and those who are used to the pro-Russian sources and the reality they create. “Further development of information society and information technologies will only contribute to the development of “hybrid warfare”. It will spread to new territories with local conflicts,” summed Baronin.
In his turn, Kostov said that the best way to counter Russian propaganda is the success of the countries against which propaganda war is waged. “The purpose of Russian propaganda is to show how badly the countries that made European choice live. This is their propaganda message today and in the future. The only way to address it is to improve the well-being of the country and destroy those myths,” said Kostov.