The media war

1 09 2022

WNYC’s On the Media stands out among media-analysis podcasts. Its latest program, “Russia’s War,” focuses entirely on Russia and the war in Ukraine, and it is excellent.

All three segments — on the crackdown on Russian independent media, “info ops” (information warfare), and one person’s (journalist Anastasiia Carrier’s) experience unlearning Kremlin narratives — are well worth listening to. The latter sounds a lot like the kinds of things people go through when they leave “cults” (religious or political), so there are even lessons here for how to deal with family members you may have lost to QAnon, MAGAworld, and their cousins in other countries.

The full 52-minute podcast can be heard here.

Meanwhile, they have just added an additional 15-minute segment on Ukrainian media called “Big Tech vs. Ukraine’s Local Media,” which examines how Facebook/Meta and Google/Alphabet (including YouTube) have, contrary to popular belief, been supporting Russian state media at the expense of independent Ukrainian media.

(You can support independent Ukrainian media by following, and donating to, Kyiv Independent, Ukrainska Pravda, and Hromadske, among other sources.)

Matviyenko: nuclear cyberwar

8 04 2022

E-Flux has published an excellent and informative new article by cyberwar theorist Svitlana Matviyenko on “Nuclear Cyberwar: From Energy Colonialism to Energy Terrorism” in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It can be read here.

Denazification, or “the solution to the Ukrainian question”

4 04 2022

The turns of phrase one finds in the echo chambers of the internet can be puzzling to newcomers. (Think of walking into a QAnon forum and hearing about the Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic, pedophilic babykillers of the U.S. Democratic Party.) That a state government might come to create its own alternate reality should, therefore, be not as shocking.

In the case of the current Russian invasion, the term “denazification” has played a puzzling role that some, like Timothy Snyder and Jason Stanley, have tried to demystify. But Russian neo-imperialist (and former Yanukovych advisor) Tymofei Sergeitsev, in his new RIA Novosti piece “Что Россия должна сделать с Украиной” (“What Russia Should Do to Ukraine”), has just provided a pretty clear demonstration that it is really just a Russian code word for “de-Ukrainization” — in other words, for what may simply be called genocide. The Ukraine Crisis Media Center has helpfully translated the piece here.

Sergei Sumlenny’s Twitter thread from a couple of days ago suggests that mass executions, of the kind found these last few days in places like Bucha and Trostyanets, seem to have been part of Russia’s “solution to the Ukrainian question” all along. (Russian responses to these revelations have of course involved further mystification.)

Adding together the mass production of “unreality” by Russian state media with Putin’s now explicit targeting of “the West” as its enemy means that war — informational, and therefore hybrid war, that is, the kind of war that is native to the twenty-first century — is already upon not only Ukraine, but all of us.

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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Galeev: why Russia will lose this war, & more

4 03 2022

The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kamil Galeev has been doing some wonderful Twitter threads, analyzing such topics as Russian information warfare, Putin’s rise to power and his claims about Ukraine’s “nazism,” a sociological portrait of his elite, why Russia will lose this war, and much more.

Here is the best entry point to them.

Matviyenko on cyberwar, nuclear risks, et al.

27 02 2022

Media scholar Svitlana Matviyenko is sharing on-the-ground reports from Ukraine. (Matviyenko is co-author of Cyberwar and Revolution: Digital Subterfuge in Global Capitalism.) Her second dispatch covers cyberwar efforts on both sides, nuclear risks, and living in the midst of military mobilization and bombardment. A couple of excerpts:

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Pomerantsev: beyond crying foul

21 02 2022

There are some deeply insightful nuggets in this interview with Peter Pomerantsev, who is among the best analysts of contemporary information warfare. Pomerantsev describes twenty-first century conflict as radically different from the form the U.S. and western countries are used to. Conflict now is multifaceted, mixing informational with political and economic strategies to create a murky terrain where the lines between war and peace are blurred.

“The Russian and the Chinese governments,” he says, “do it all the time. They’re doing army stuff, they’re doing their troll farms, they’re doing their TV channels, and they’re thinking about different audiences. So already,” with western governments calling him out for his planned invasion, “Putin is pivoting: ‘The West have cried foul. They said it’s war. We never said it was war.’”

“Putin likes to be in the murk. He likes to be in this ambiguous space where you can’t really tell what’s going on. And that makes it very hard for NATO and allies to get their act together.” That they are succeeding more than Putin might have predicted is a good thing, but insufficient. They may hope for an “off ramp” for Putin, but “It’s not about an off ramp. It’s an Escher staircase. It’s going to go round and round and escalating and de-escalating and on and on and on and on.”

Perhaps most importantly, Pomerantsev raises the real questions we ought to be answering collectively: “what is public diplomacy for the 21st century? What is our long term dialogue that we’re trying to have with the Russian people about Russia’s role in the world? What is our communication to specific audiences in Ukraine to explain what we’re doing? All that needs to be happening. It really means having a kind of communication statecraft policy and institutional capacity for the 21st century.”

Read “Ukraine, Russia, and the 21st Century Permanent Information War.

Russian “infowar” & the U. S. elections

13 12 2016

As the story of the Russian state’s influence on the recent U.S. elections continues to unfold, here are some web sites that document various dimensions of it, and of Russian media strategies more generally. These are mostly critical analyses, which may carry their own biases. Those seeking defenses of Russian state media, or critiques of U. S. media, of the CIA, and so on, should look elsewhere, as that’s not what this page is about. This list will grow, so check back periodically if you’d like to stay up to date.

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Smith: “Truths & counter-truths”

28 07 2014

In “Truths and Counter-Truths: The Front of Information and Misinformation,” Fourth International (Trotskyist) activist Murray Smith provides a detailed analysis of the Ukraine-Russia conflict from a left-wing perspective.

Smith is a Scottish socialist who has been active in leftist politics in various European countries since the 1960s. Since 2009 he has lived in Luxemburg, where is a leader of the party “The Left” (déi Lénk), its leadership representative in the Party of the European Left, and associated with the European United Left-Nordic Green Left.

The article is thoroughly referenced and includes a very good summary of the Russian misinformation campaign. I highly recommend it. It can be read here.

Western leftist conspiracy narratives: or, the devil in the details

23 06 2014

An article is circulating in the western left that alleges that Ukraine’s new president Poroshenko has been a “mole” for the U.S. State Department since 2006. The article is just one example of the kind of narrative I’ve seen circulating widely in the western anti-American left that overstates the U.S.’s role in Ukrainian affairs. Notably, the writers of these narratives tend to eagerly swallow up the “information” being spread by an authoritarian, right-wing state — Russia — in order to prop up their theories.

Here are some comments in response.

(For the record, plenty of articles circulate that have propaganda value but little factual value. I have previously shared, on this blog, some of those produced by Russian propaganda sources. One that seems to be produced by Ukrainian propaganda sources, or at least that seems to be spreading among anti-Russian bloggers, claims that the recent UN human rights report alleges that Russian security services, or Russian special forces, were behind the Odessa deaths of June 2. The UN report says no such thing.)

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