The most insidious element of Moscow’s information war could be the very idea of information war itself. In “Don’t Think of an Elephant” the cognitive linguist George Lakoff defines winning and losing in politics as being about framing issues in a way conducive to your aims. Defining the argument means winning it. If you tell someone not to think of an elephant they will end up thinking of an elephant. “When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame…when you are arguing against the other side, do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame—and it won’t be the frame you want.”
As the West considers how to respond to the Kremlin’s use of bots, trolls, bullshit news, dark ads and hacks as tools of foreign policy, the way we describe things will define whether we prevail. To anyone grappling with this, it means entering a labyrinth of language, where each turn opens up a new puzzle, where worlds are created with the words one utters. Describe “it” as an “information war” and one landscape arises. Is it the one we want?
The Kremlin certainly does frame what it is up to as “information warfare.” According to its own security doctrines, and amplified incessantly by its many TV toadies, the West wages information war against Russia with our conniving use of the BBC and human rights NGOs, minority rights campaigns and anti-corruption investigations. In this frame there is no space for any idea of “truth” or universal values. There is no difference, in this view, between RT and the BBC, between accurate and inaccurate news, between backing the far Right in the West or human rights NGOs in Chechnya. The implications of this frame is to reduce all discourse to a conflict between two sides, with no “good” or “bad,” and only an array of tactics to destroy your rival. All information is War. The long-term implications go deeper. If all information is reduced to “war,” out go any dreams of a global information space with ideas flowing freely hither and thither, all bolstering deliberative democracy. Instead the best future one can hope for is an “information peace” where each side respects the other’s “information sovereignty”: a favorite concept of both Beijing and Moscow, and essentially a cover for enforcing censorship.
This leaves us with a paradox. On the one hand, it is necessary to recognize and reveal the way the Kremlin uses information with a military mindset to confuse, dismay, divide and delay. On the other, one risks reinforcing the Kremlin’s world view in the very act of responding to it. We already see the preliminary consequences in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, where leaders are taking advantage of the information war frame to accuse critical journalists of being traitors, witting or unwitting tools of Moscow.
So if our ultimate aim is still a world of open information borders, one has to find a language which calls out the Kremlin’s method while not giving in to it. UK Prime Minister Theresa May tried to do so last week when she accused Moscow of “seeking to weaponize information, deploying its state-run media organizations to plant fake stories and Photoshopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.” “Weaponize” is a gratingly overused term, but it is helpful in implying that information does not have to be a weapon, that the underlying theme of what Moscow is doing is to try to reduce it to such.
But this is just the first puzzle. The next one is to frame our own actions. If our ultimate aim is still a world of free-flowing information contributing to stronger democracy, then the idea to stress is not that any information is foreign, but that it is inaccurate and deceptive. The problem with Russia’s use of information is not that it is Russian, but that it does not meet media or even PR industry standards. For this, however, one needs to have a domestic frame in place which can articulate these standards. In Germany, for instance, all political parties refused to use bots in the last general election; there is still a cultural taboo around politicians lying; media are expected to be accurate; expressing Nazi sympathies is illegal; there is disgust at the idea of citizens’ data being used covertly to manipulate them. This means that Russian media operations in the country, which have included spreading fake stories about immigrant crime and the use of bots to boost the far-Right AfD party, can be criticised for their inaccuracy, manipulative nature and darkly divisive messaging rather than for being foreign. In the UK, the broadcast media, if not print, is still held to standards of accuracy and balance. Thus the UK’s TV regulator can torture RT for its poor reporting rather than resorting to the language of warfare. You’re not a weapon; you’re just a crap journalist. Even Britain’s amoral PR industry has some standards. When one of the country’s most famous PR firms, Bell Pottinger, was caught this year conducting covert social media campaigns in South Africa aimed at exacerbating racial tension, an action not dissimilar to Russia’s in the United States, it was thrown out of industry associations, disgraced and bankrupted.
In this sense the United States, however, seems to be in some sort of bind. In a country where the President peddles conspiracy theories and blatant lies; where the quality media have allowed themselves to be defined by partisan affiliation rather than by the public interest; where deceptive advertising in elections is seen as standard and where its most exciting internet companies make money on non-transparent manipulation of people’s data, it must be hard to find a frame to criticize the Kremlin’s actions. Thus one is left with a focus on the foreignness of the phenomenon, and the proliferation of terms like “malign influence” or “meddling” which are so far subjective and unspecific. The ideal trick would be to take the negative methods the Kremlin uses to undermine democracy and transmute them into a frame which strengthens it. The United States lacks that.
Among those who appreciate this dilemma, there appears to be a search for a language which tries to solve it. I keep getting invitations to events, and I may have drafted a few myself, about strengthening “democratic resilience” or “democratic integrity” in the face of Russian actions. These are helpful in as much as they try to invoke a pleasant positive ideal rather than the negative paranoia implicit in “meddling,” but they are also, perhaps purposefully, vague. Another ersatz word used commonly is “hybrid threat,” where “hybrid” is a polite way of saying “Russian.” And then there’s “Strat Com,” which seems now to encompass everything from public affairs to media development to digital literacy to subversion.
But, the realistic part of one asks, will noble notions of high-quality media be enough to survive in a world of disinformation run rampant? Probably not. The Kremlin, and any centralized authoritarian regime, can unite all its national media, hackers and social media workers at will, while easily censoring at home. Democracies are by their open nature vulnerable domestically, and find it hard to focus particularly well abroad. The British government can’t tell the BBC what to do, nor should it. Foreign services, the military and security services will do the information operations which they do abroad, but whenever they have too much influence over domestic media the result has been disastrous. In some senses this is a game we should be losing.
This doesn’t mean being soft, however. Whatever language one uses, the Kremlin is clearly screwing with us. But the response to information campaigns does not necessarily have to be in the information space. Indeed there is nothing more the Kremlin would like than to go meme to meme, message to message. Information is one of the few areas where it can amplify its stature, and where it has no reputation or moral higher ground to lose.
But the Kremlin actually finds itself in a dilemma: it needs the media fireworks of a verbal conflict with the West to distract from its own failures domestically and to give it meaning, but it is also reliant on the very same West for advertising to fund its hate speech-filled television channels, for technology to extract its oil, and for banks and law courts to protect its elite’s investments. These are the spots to target. If this were a war, after all, you would never engage the enemy in the battle he desires. There are more painful measures to take against his active measures.