Info war & peace, theories turning to ashes

10 03 2022

The invasion continues to horrify, with casualties mounting and humanitarian corridors failing to materialize. But one of its more interesting dimensions, from the perspective of media and cultural theory, is the role of information and cyber warfare. The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel provides a good synopsis of the ways in which Ukraine has so far been “winning” the information war, but argues that it’s far from over. Others are less circumspect, and some, like Meduza’s Maxim Trudolyubov, argue that Russia lost it at the very outset, just by starting the war. The depravity of Russian disinformation, as Joanna Szostek argues, seems to know no bounds.

Peter Pomerantsev has cautioned, however, that we need to be careful with our terms here. The very notion of “information war,” he argues, may serve disinformational goals, in that it “reinforc[es] a world view the Kremlin wants—that all information is just manipulation.” To put this into a broader scholarly context, all reality may be “socially constructed,” all efforts to shape and know it simply forms of a Nietzschean “will to power,” but not all are equally durable, desirable, or ethically and morally satisfying. Some constructs are more worth pursuing than others.

Pomerantsev notes, “Sure the Ukrainian army do all sort of psy-ops to survive. But Ze[lensky] is treating people as equals, trying to engage and inspire them—that’s not ‘information war’. It’s the opposite.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s videos are certainly one of the data points that will be studied for years after this invasion is over. Where my initial sense about his election had been somewhat skeptical, seeing it as an instance of politics as reality-TV (and reality-FB), it’s clear to everyone that Zelensky has risen to the role of a genuine “reality president,” where reality is not in quotation marks but actually breaks into and challenges viewers’ mediated images of a war taking place far away.

Ze’s videos reflecting a kind of incontrovertibility: this olive-green fatigued everyman-turned-war-hero is speaking defiantly from a bunker, a presidential office, and outdoors in front of recognized buildings in a city being slowly surrounded and intermittently bombarded. He is addressing us directly — Europeans, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, and others — to unite for a cause we understand: the defense against a hyper-militarized, fascistic aggressor, of people trying to live normal lives in the place they know as their homeland.

Pomerantsev’s argument raises the question of what to call the opposite of “information war.” Is speaking the truth a form of waging “information peace“? By “speaking the truth” I don’t mean speaking literal facts. I mean something more like speaking ethical truths, engaging respectfully but directly with others, raising the quality and level of discourse, being open — and “open-source” — about one’s premises and goals, and so on.

As Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, the Columbia Journalism Review, and others have shown, pro-Ukrainian cyber activists — including the ranks of #Anonymous who’ve joined the anti-Putin campaign, but also more known quantities like the Center for Information Resilience, individual bloggers like Oryx, and many others — have been much more open-source in their methods than the pro-Russian cyberwarriors (see here, here, and here for more on this). Russia’s advantages in cyberwar have arguably come from the element of surprise, which in the present case is no longer there. Bellingcat’s Higgins argues:

In terms of the information war that happens around conflict, this is the first time I’ve really seen our side winning, I guess you could say. The attempts by Russia to frame the conflict and spread disinformation have just collapsed completely. The information coming out from the conflict—verified quickly, and used by the media, used by policymakers and accountability organizations—it’s completely undermined Russia’s efforts to build any kind of narrative around it, and really framed them as the aggressor committing war crimes.

Then there are the forms of nonviolent civil resistance by everyday Ukrainians that have been going viral in social media: people stopping tanks with their bodies, road signs changed to read “Fuck you” (“Ha хуй,” which literally means something like “go fuck yourself” or “on your own dick”) and pointing back to Russia, and women like this one approaching and challenging Russian soldiers telling them to “Leave, occupiers, fascists!” and to “Put these sunflower seeds in the ground so that something grows from your bodies when you’re dead.”

For on-the-ground media theory, one could do worse than to follow Svitlana Matviyenko’s continuing “Dispatches from the Place of Imminence.” In her fourth installment, Matviyenko describes the emotional contours of life in a city just beyond the bombing (the medieval, west Ukrainian city of Kamianets-Podilskyi), interlacing this with analyses of the raging “multichannel information flow” that is her usual object of research. Matviyenko writes:

I do not want a full-scale WW3 erupting suddenly with all arsenals engaged; if indeed a No Fly Zone would cause that (I am not an expert), it would certainly bring an end to the not-yet-multiplanetary species. But, if you have already chosen us as a sacrifice in your rationalisations of our distant chaos, I wish I heard more horror in the words with which the matter of our life and death is waged so easily and with all that smartness, when one has no slightest idea how far ideological mapping could be from the dirty and blurry realities of war on the ground. When one builds these arguments hiding behind their bulletproof volumes of Nietzsche-Marx-Bataille, or using the outdated – but so comfortable – cold-war conceptual apparatuses, I swear, I see – so vividly – how theories that I teach and by which I live – turn to ashes.

Elsewhere in the same Institute of Network Cultures blog space, Kateryna Polevianenko describes the stink of her digital armpits and Lev Manovich, following a beautiful description of pre-invasion Kyïv, makes a case for continuing support of Russian cultural institutions. Meanwhile, the Union of Russian University Rectors has penned a statement in full support of the invasion. (Western institutions are beginning to respond in kind by severing connections with invasion-supporting academics.)

If that position of Russian university administrators is surprising, it’s only because we haven’t quite internalized the fact that, as the most recent data show, most Russians still support Putin.

Information warfare has been waged successfully on Russians for many years. The damage is already long done.



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