At a glance.
- Unmoderated platforms lend themselves to amplification of disruptive disinformation.
- The tension between information operations and operations security.
- Preemptive disinformation?
- Denial of visas as casus belli.
Unmoderated platforms lend themselves to amplification of disruptive disinformation.
An essay in Lawfare argues that, for all the attention paid to covert propaganda and coordinated inauthenticity, there's been a tendency to overlook the opportunity for overt disinformation and amplification that loosely moderated social media platforms present. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, these draw a great deal of attention and concern, but there's a lot of action elsewhere. "However, even as the Western conversation focuses on Facebook, Twitter, and Alphabet’s successes and failures, state war propaganda is increasingly prevalent on platforms that offer minimal-moderation virality as their value proposition." Telegram stands as exhibit A. The authors argue:
"Telegram’s Pavel Durov said in July 2021 'that conspiracy theories only strengthen each time their content is removed by moderators. Instead of putting an end to wrong ideas, censorship often makes it harder to fight them.' Counterspeech, contextualization, and correction are, indeed, long-standing alternatives to censorship. However, the architecture of Telegram is not providing an equitable forum for facts to win out. Its uncapped forwarding function and the presence of highly prolific, unattributed channels creates an environment in which state propaganda, overt and covert, can spread with little oversight or accountability. The platform could maintain its decision to minimize the removal of groups and accounts and yet still build out functions that create greater transparency around state-operated pages, or it could consider forwarding limits that might temper the spread."
So the medium may be the message, but social media still await their McLuhan. The focus on exposing coordinated inauthenticity one sees in the larger platforms (especially Facebook) is laudable as an approach that offers a kind of check on disinformation without resorting to censorship or heavy-handed content moderation, but state propaganda operations are finding a way around even this by simply establishing themselves as an overt presence on social platforms.
The tension between information operations and operations security.
Mr. Zelenskyy thinks some officials are talking too much. Ukrainian officials have been generally willing to give good soundbites to reporters, but President Zelenskyy would like them to tone it down and do a bit more thinking before they speak. Reuters reports that the president said, in an evening television address on August 11th, "War is definitely not the time for vanity and loud statements. The fewer details you divulge about our defence plans, the better it will be for the implementation of those defence plans. If you want to generate loud headlines, that's one thing – it's frankly irresponsible. If you want victory for Ukraine, that is another thing, and you should be aware of your responsibility for every word you say about our state's plans for defence or counter attacks."
As shelling continued around the nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia, Russia may be preparing preemptive disinformation in advance of a provocation. A correspondent for the Economist tweeted a clip of a Russian public affairs officer warning, with suspicious specificity, that "Ukraine is planning a 'false flag provocation' in Zaporizhzhia (Enerhodar) power station for Aug 19. 'Russia will be blamed for the man-made catastrophe,' he warns." The presumed aim would be to deflect blame for a nuclear disaster (widely feared since Russian forces occupied the area around Zaporizhzhia) away from Russia and onto Ukraine.
Denial of visas as casus belli.
Not really, but that's the way Vladimir Rudolfovich is talking.
A move to deny Russian citizens permission to travel to Europe seems to be gaining traction in the EU. It began in Estonia and has gained support in other Eastern European countries. The Telegraph quotes a tweet from Estonia's foreign minister: "Visiting #Europe is a privilege, not a human right.” Officials in Latvia, Finland and the Czech Republic have urged the EU to make a ban on tourist visas policy across Europe.
Vladimir Rudolfovich Solovyev, an anchor on Rossiya 1 who's gained considerable notoriety for his especially muscular expressions of support for Russia's "special military operation," didn't much care for this. He mused darkly in his Telegram feed, "The refusal to issue visas to Russian citizens and the declaration of the Russian Federation as an accomplice of terrorism, puts an end to relations with Europe. This means the actual entry into the war with Russia. Severing ties, supplying weapons is direct participation in the war. Moreover, in a war with really superior forces, given the number and armament of NATO countries. This is a real threat to the existence of Russia and can lead to the use of the doctrine of a preventive nuclear strike."
Military action, Mr. Soloyvev soliloquized recently on Rossiya 1, perhaps even nuclear attack, might well be in order. He sees an analogy between that response and the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, whose proximate cause was perceived danger to US citizens studying at a medical school in the Caribbean nation. If Russian's can't visit Paris, Berlin, London, etc., perhaps those places should be removed. Mr. Solovyev's reaction is interesting in its display of extreme sensitivity to disrespect foreigners might show Russia. The concern about being laughed at by foreigners can be difficult for Americans in particular to perceive and understand (America having been content to be the class clown of the Western world since the Redcoats sang Yankee Doodle during the Seven Years War) but one see signs of this desire to be taken seriously throughout Russian media. Thus an expressed desire to wipe Brussels from the face of the earth is more indicative of wounded amour propre than serious operational counsel.
Vladimir Rudolfovich's self-gratification with fantasies of nuclear erasure aside, there may be other reasons to reconsider widespread shunning of Russians as such. The Telegraph reports commentary from Oleksiy Arestovych, an advisor to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, who sees general "cancellation" of Russians as missing an opportunity to change Russian public opinion. “These are tens and hundreds of thousands of people sitting on the fence who could switch to our side,” he said. “And now they’re not going to do it." Insofar as can be determined in the notoriously closed Russian society, Mr. Putin's war remains broadly popular, but there have been clear signs of low morale at the front and more ambiguous signs of uneasiness on the home front. The Guardian is running articles on the extraordinary anti-war manifesto "ZOV" a Russian soldier has posted to VKontakte. "I don't see justice in this war," ex-paratrooper Pavel Filatyev told the Guardian. It's notoriously difficult to assess the effect of such expressions of dissent, how representative they are, how much reach they have, but the picture of Russian troops in action is disturbing and compelling.