Book review: How to Lose the Information War

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Book title: How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict
Editors: Nina Jankowicz
Released: 2020
Review by: Daphne Lawless

The authoritarian Russian state under Vladimir Putin is unquestionably an enemy of freedom and the working peoples of the world. It is hard not to cringe, though, when some American liberals try to blame Putin’s Russia alone for the Trump cult and the rise of authoritarian racism in the USA. This whitewashes the United States’ domestic history of white supremacy and social exclusion, and decades of liberal unwillingness to confront it.

But to deny altogether the impact of Russian information warfare on US politics is not only to deny the evidence ably collected by Robert Mueller and others; it is to deny equally strong evidence from several Eastern and Central European countries. It’s a feature of the globalised system that whatever is happening on the periphery will eventually make its way back to the “metropolitan” states. In the same way that the occupied Palestinian territories have become laboratories for new ways of suppressing protests and inconvenient populations later taken up worldwide, the tactics of Russian disinformation and “troll farming” were perfected in countries like Ukraine, Estonia and Poland – and no-one in the West paid attention, until they helped tip the balance in the US Presidential election. As the deputy defence minister of Georgia complains:

I remember the arguments of the Russian threat that we were telling [Western officials] in 2006, 2007, 2008 … We were considered to be crazed in Brussels and NATO headquarters, and now everybody [says] the same thing after eight years or nine years as if it’s something new. (Kindle location 1086)

Nina Jankowicz, a scholar of “the intersection of democracy and technology” was in Ukraine advising that country’s government on defence against Russian information warfare, when it suddenly became a live issue for the US in November 2016. Jankowicz’s book has the great virtue of avoiding both the “denial” and “scapegoating” approaches to the topic. Yes, she emphasises, Russian information warfare is real, it poisons the discourse and promotes reactionary politics and social conflict the world over. But it would have no purchase without taking advantage of pre-existing, real, social resentments and exclusions in every country. “The most convincing Russian narratives, and indeed, the most successful, in both Central and Eastern Europe and the United States, are narratives grounded in truth that exploit the divisions in societies.” (166)

In the United States, the biggest social division is along the lines of race and migration status. In Estonia, it was the Russian-speaking minority who had become more or less second-class citizens since independence from the Soviet Union. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, the biggest open wound in our society is of course the dispossession of Māori. Anyone who has seen a rally by the conspiracy theorist Billy Te Kahika will have seen the number of flags of Māori self-determination flying. This is a dangerous warning of the failure of the socialist Left to make its message more attractive to the most oppressed than Te Kahika’s COVID denial and fascistic mutterings about “elite globalists”.

Jankowicz brings up another problem which Fightback has repeatedly warned about – that Russian tactics of disinformation and heightening social tensions are not confined to promoting xenophobic or fascist ideas, but also promote Left-wing complaints about social inequality. In fact, contemporary Russian information warfare does not aim to promote any political ideology in particular, but only to heighten social divisions and tensions:

Despite the preferred imagery of most major news outlets that cover Russia—hammer and sickles, red and black color palettes, and misappropriations of the colorful onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral as ‘the Kremlin’—Russia’s modern information war is distinct from the one its Soviet predecessor waged. Unlike Soviet propaganda, which sought to promote a specific, communist-centric worldview, the Kremlin divides and deceives populations around the world with one goal in mind: the destruction of Western democracy as we know it. (Kindle locations 118-121)

It is for this reason that Russian interference in the 2016 election not only boosted the Trump campaign, but also the campaign of social democrat Bernie Sanders, and even the “Black Lives Matter” movement:

They argued for Texas secession, spread anti-immigrant vitriol, pitted Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter activists against one another, and even distributed “buff Bernie Sanders” coloring books. They were “fake” not because their content was falsified—although they included plenty of false or misleading information—but because they misrepresented their provenance… [The Russian troll farm] IRA employees had been instructed to instigate “political intensity” by “supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situations and oppositional social movements. (159, 362)

In line with her title, Jankowicz travelled to several Eastern and Central European countries to discuss the various ways in which they failed to stop Russian campaigns exploiting divisions within their societies. In some cases, it was because the local governments were complicit in the same thing. Poland’s governing party, the reactionary and homophobic Law and Justice Party, cannot successfully combat Russian forces spreading conspiracy theories, as long as they use precisely the same tactics against LGBT communities. Unsurprisingly, “some of the staunchest purveyors of this new wave of homophobic disinformation had connections to Russia” (1791).

Russian tactics thus make it perfectly possible to play both sides at once, not only for divisions within countries but between them, as they exploit mistrust and mutual ignorance between Western and Eastern Europe. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, leading to a continuing partial occupation, received no serious blowback from NATO, partly because Russian media successfully flooded Western media with the narrative that they were protecting minorities from Georgian “genocide”. (1184) Similarly, Russia intervened in a referendum in the Netherlands on European Union relations with Ukraine, successfully smearing Ukraine as a hotbed of corruption and fascism. At the same time, Russian media and Russia-aligned local media in Eastern European countries continually sound the warning that Western influence leads to homosexuality, paedophilia, obscenity, and attacks on traditional faiths (1374).

Jankowicz brings up the problem that I referred to in a previous article that disinformation and propaganda are “laundered” through Left-wing or Left-sounding voices. She quotes Georgian analysts who refer to this as the “deflective source model”: “disinformation is presented in a seemingly legitimate local source, and the original source of the information is obscured to make it seem more trustworthy.” (1365) She gives an extended account of a US anti-Trump protest in 2017 which was massively boosted – unbeknownst to its organisers – by the very same Russian networks who provide content for far-right outlets like Breitbart (1358). Similarly, one of the biggest supporters of Russian propaganda against Ukraine in the Netherlands was Dutch Socialist Party leader and Eurosceptic Harry van Bommel – not because he cared a great deal about Ukraine, but because any narrative which bashed the EU was useful for his party. Van Bommel’s statement that “People blamed me personally for being in the same boat as fascists … but, you know, sometimes people for the wrong reasons come to the right conclusions” (2129) is chilling for anyone who understands the threat posed by Red-Brown politics which blur the distinction between socialism and fascism.

Meanwhile, Ukraine attempted to salvage its image in the Dutch referendum with a campaign promoting a “positive narrative” about their country, which failed to have any impact. Jankowicz takes to task those strategists and politicians who believe that

if the West could only tell a more compelling, more strategic, more coordinated story, we could grapple with state-sponsored disinformation like the content that Russia produces. But this ignores realities of human nature and psychology. A press release, no matter how well written, cannot fully correct a salacious story. A fact-check, even if verified beyond a shadow of a doubt, will not convince a conspiracy theorist to give up his fervent speculations. (2439)

Only the Czech Republic, says Jankowicz, has put up any defence to Russian information warfare tactics – and even this has been derailed, partly because the unit responsible has its own problems with demonisation of Muslims and migrants, but also because many prominent politicians, including the country’s President, see it as a threat to free speech (2939).

Some socialist readers of this review might say: so what? Isn’t this just “blowback” from influence campaigns run by the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies? Harry van Bommel, for example, dismisses the question of Russian involvement in the Dutch referendum with reference to the fabricated intelligence about “Weapons of Mass Destruction” the United States used to justify the Iraq War. Jankowicz comments:

I can’t disagree, and really, it’s the perfect encapsulation of how Russian disinformation works: take something that people are already mad about, pollute the information ecosystem, and get them so frustrated they start to distrust institutions and disengage. (2390)

I’ve personally seen socialists suggest that this exacerbation of social divisions and distrust in the media (“the enemy of the people”, as Trump used to put it) is a good thing for our side. This seems to assume that when people lose faith in mainstream politics and information, they may as well turn to a socialist view of the world as to conspiracy theory and fascism. This is simply not true – in none of the examples in the book, nor those I am familiar with, does the turn away from mainstream “consensus reality” lead in the direction of equality and democracy. The only “Left-wing” ideas which benefit from online disinformation are actually reactionary ones – “tankie” politics cheerleading authoritarian states, science denial which threatens lives in the era of COVID-19, or sheer bigotry couched in “Left” language against migrants or trans people.

In contrast, Fightback stands in the Marxian tradition of bringing “workers and science” together. Where we reject mainstream narratives and ideology, it is at the point where they contradict facts and logic, where they justify exploitation and oppression with irrational beliefs. This is directly contrary to the world which Russian information warfare seeks to create – a nihilist world of “alternative facts” bubbles, where democracy becomes impossible for lack of a shared reality, and only an authoritarianism that tells enough people what they want to hear can restore order. “When we can’t agree on the truth within our own borders, we will not be able to dispute the lies coming from outside of them” (3268) – or anywhere else, for that matter.

Jankowicz is an American liberal and her solutions to the problem of information warfare – investment in journalism, improved education in civics and media literacy, and better funding for public libraries – rely on her belief that “what the West has, however imperfect, is worth fighting for” (250) She states in particular that “in this book, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have escaped serious inspection because the case studies outlined in these pages focus on government responses to disinformation”. (3047) This leaves something of a gap in the book, since evidence shows that the best response to information warfare (and to fascism) is deplatforming – as shown by the effectiveness of banning ex-President Trump from Twitter – and that, conversely, these Big Tech giants actually profit from the social division and “outrage clicks” generated by disinformation.

Certainly, we must defend the very limited rights of freedom of speech, organization, and political participation which are allowed under neoliberal capitalism. But the social divisions created by that very society make it possible for not only the Russian state, but corporate, state and reactionary propagandists of all sorts, to effectively shit in the meme pool, and repress consciousness to the point that the masses reject even these meagre democratic rights in favour of the pleasures of chauvinism and bigotry. “Fake news” and disinformation are part of life under capitalism, and only an end to social inequality can put a final end to them.

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