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Putin’s ‘storm troopers’ or notes on Ukraine’s information war

Putin’s ‘storm troopers’ or notes on Ukraine’s information war
Article by: Roman Holovenko
Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
Caption on photo: “There is a profession to lie each evening.” It is naïve to think that the flow of misinformation against Ukraine is only a consequence of real war on part of the Russian Federation, which is allegedly cooling down in Donbas. It is also difficult to determine the time when the ‘information war’ began, as the term ‘war’ is too metaphorical for this occurrence. Without claiming his scope includes the entire Russian information space throughout many years, taking into account the lack of physical and nervous resources, the author will try to identify the covert characteristics of the current situation in this information conflict and express his subjective recommendations regarding the behavior on Ukraine’s part. 

The current situation

Resources. Russia definitely has more than Ukraine, because:

  • The Russian Federation, as a state with a raw-material and oil-gas-based economy, has bigger financial opportunities which is probably the most obvious factor;
  • The Kremlin controls Russian media outlets – not all of them, of course, but the vast majority of the influential ones;
  • Russia’s participation in the conflict is not limited to the Kremlin and its governmental and military structures or even the Russian Orthodox Church. The construction the Russian state is not a solely government affair, it is national. This is the position of one of the leaders of the NSDC, which we have to agree with.

You can take a look at the sociology of how Russians regard Ukraine. Not only the Kremlin is leading the information war, but frequently the average regular Russian does as well, if they are able to generate content: an Internet user or a journalist.

This also leads us to answer the question: how did the Kremlin manage to conquer the majority of Russian media: were they very much against such conquest and are they not honestly loyal to the Kremlin’s policies in most of their aspects?

  • meanwhile Ukraine does not have comparable financial resources, Ukrainian media are controlled by oligarchs, and almost half of Ukrainians have a positive attitude towards Russia.

The specifics of this information conflict. Open calls to ‘kill the ukrs’ are most frequently heard from regular Internet users from Russia, who are most likely to be anonymous.

Meanwhile Russian media spread not only direct xenophobic messages, what is more, they are conducting the dehumanization of pro-European Ukrainians: they emphasize the ‘monstrous crimes’ of the Ukrainian army, Right Sector, the National Guard – the best example of which is, maybe, the story about the crucified boy from Sloviansk and the Ukrainian destroyer near the Boeing 777.

As well as Kyiv and Halychyna’s ‘hostility’ towards Donbas and Russian language speakers. In the past the most characteristic was the emphasis on the illegitimacy of the new Ukrainian government and the ‘fascist’ nature of Maidan protests.

Russian media dehumanizes Ukrainians in the eyes of their audiences: they are trying to create the image of an enemy who has no human traits.

Historical analogies of such practices to exist: in the 1930’s the pro-Nazi newspaper Storm Trooper published ‘tales of ritualistic murders of Aryan children by the Jews,’ accused the Jews of the Hindenburg explosion in the US

The dehumanization of Jews in German media is significantly less known in comparison to the fact that they were killed in gas chambers, but was not the latter to some extent a consequence of the former?

There is somewhat more rationality in Putin’s fakes than in the Nazi ones, however the general level of education in modern Russia is obviously higher in comparison to the Weimar Republic.

The reaction of the Ukrainian government. At the moment this reaction is limited to the suspension of the spreading of openly pro-separatist newspapers which were significantly marginal in their nature and were not especially popular, as well as switching of about fifteen Russian channels. Meanwhile the channels disappeared from cable television but not satellite or the Internet, where it is practically impossible to block them.

The reaction of the Ukrainian media. Starting the spring of the current year, most leading Ukrainian media started anti-Russian evaluations of the current situation, however the Ukrainian journalists do not resort to making up untrue stories.

Meanwhile, there is a palpable lack of operative information on the situation on the front line, which has both a negative and a positive side, and was especially noticeable in the media field on August 24-25 this year.

The West’s attitude. The spread of Russian propaganda is not limited to Ukraine and encompasses not only Russian, and not exclusively Russian-language media outside of the country, and actively permeates the West even at the local newspaper level.

The audiences for such media are inclined to partially believe such publications, as “the truth is somewhere in between,” workers of Western media are frequently too lazy to verify information from Russian media with Ukrainian ones.

The West had a painful reaction to the limit of Russian channel broadcasts in Ukraine, saying that prohibition is not a way out. This was stated both by representatives of Old Europe and New Europe, in particular, Polish media experts.

As to the US, where the first amendment to the Constitution bans the government from limiting free press. Thankfully, the States never had aggressive and strong neighbors on their continent.

The West is constantly pushing Ukraine towards compromise, as it is scared of war at the EU borders, and besides, which is not totally obvious, they may view Ukraine as partially guilty of the conflict. As “both sides are always guilty” in a conflict, in the post-modern times one side cannot totally personify evil, and the other be wholly good.

It would be good to ask here whether the Czechs are to blame for the conflict with the Third Reich in 1938, however, I am afraid that historical knowledge is a bit too week in the average European.

It should be noted that Europe and the world have probably not yet seen analogous information wars, however the West is not inclined to view this problem as especially serious.

What the Ukrainian government and media should change

Change the emphasis when evaluating the content of Russian media. Instead of calling the inventions of Russian media ‘propaganda,’ emphasize the instances of xenophobia, hostile rhetoric, calls for war, claims on Ukraine’s territorial integrity within it.

Western experts propose to ‘cure’ propaganda, a.k.a. the deception of entire layers of society, by spreading truthful information to counter it. Obviously, they do not take into account the gigantic scale of abuse in Russian media.

What is more important, however, is that propaganda is an evaluative and very broad term, by use of which it is easier for the government to impose censure on inconvenient information, so abuse power. In the West, they do not want to limit propaganda as such and do not close media outlets because of it.

On the other hand, xenophobia, calls for war, claims on territorial integrity are tolerated their much less, part 2 of the 10 Convention on Human Rights directly points to the possibility of imprisoning a person for such things.

There is a well-established practice in the West to fight with such forms of abuse, as well as a consensus regarding the necessity to stop them; which is done harshly, with the exception of, rather, separatist expressions.

In particular, taking this into account, it is best to go from the narrow to the broader understanding of the terms ‘hate speech’ and ‘xenophobia.’

The Ukrainian understanding of this term interprets it essentially as direct calls to discriminate or destroy someone, while the Western approach can be shortly described as taking into account all the expression which create or support an atmosphere of hostility towards due to certain characteristics.

The EU Council Ministry Committee passed Recommendation R (97) 20 on October 30, 1997, ‘On hate speech,’ which notes, among other things:

  • condemning the practice of  violence and discrimination, as well as any action or language likely to strengthen fears and tensions between groups from … different social backgrounds;
  • heightened media responsibility for spreading hate speech;
  • an increasing need to stop hate speech during conflicts, war, or armed conflict;
  • the government’s special part in stopping hate speech in media or expressions that possibly legitimize, spread or encourage race hostility, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of discrimination or hostility caused by intolerance.

This results in the fact that the content of Russian media may be seen as hate speech if they spread information about Ukrainian citizens or certain social groups of Ukrainians who are pro-Europe, from Halychyna, Maidan and so forth and at the same time:

  • tell about invented instances of their violating rights or abusing power;
  • such messages are systemic in the same medium;
  • the reports do not represent the pro-Ukrainian or independent expert point of view.

With the presence of such factors and appropriate grounding we can totally speak of dehumanization of Ukrainians or individual social groups, which in conditions of armed conflict in Donbas creates a powerful threat in the form of conflicts both within Ukraine and between individual representatives of Ukraine and Russia even outside of the country.

There are real examples, in particular when in Kharkiv a Russophile hit a beaten Euromaidaner over the head with her feet, and inside the ‘DNR’ political opponents have their stomachs cut open.

Lead the factual and legal basis to temporarily ban Russian TV channels. By factual basis I mean a thorough monitoring of these programs with the goal to document abuse of free speech. At the moment the National Council for TV is conducting certain monitoring, however, it looks insufficient due to its scope and quality of the analysis.

The legal basis to ban foreign channels in Ukraine is admittedly contradictory. There is no clear right of the National Council to address the court to stop broadcasting a foreign channel, neither is it said which court is should be, and in practice at the moment they are administrative courts, and there is no court procedure for the examination of such cases.

The National Council has also long-practiced the differentiation of foreign channels into adapted and non-adapted ones, thus limiting the broadcasts of the former, though the law ‘On TV and radio broadcasting’ does not speak of limiting the broadcasts of the channels in general, but the cable provider’s obligation to ‘adapt the content of the broadcasted programs to Ukrainian legal demands,’ article 42, which is difficult from the practical standpoint.

Therefore, the cable operators, having felt the ‘attention’ of the National Council, would have stopped the broadcasts themselves to avoid hassle and sanctions on part of the regulator.

However, to execute this step, the National Council should have enough resources, in particular in the regions, to monitor the channels in cable networks and to operatively impose sanctions on violators.

Therefore, if we do not take into account the instances when the National Council petitioned with the court, it chose an easier switch-off method: ‘because they are not adapted.’ However, from the logical standpoint, the following question emerges immediately: what does lack of adaptation manifest in; and answering it would require pointing at certain fragments of the content of Russian channels.

From the legal point of view, lack of adaptation is a formal aspect which may be seen as an excuse, and to ban the channel, there need to be significant violations which would pose a significant threat to social security.

At the moment the National Council can pose the following arguments to the West, though it does not hasten to do so:

  • the channels, at least some of them, were banned due to court decisions. For Europeans it is a priori a more independent authority;
  • the channels were only switched off from cable networks, but are still available on satellite and online.

Show to the West the real face of Russian media

Russia cannot use all the lies against Ukraine it launches on its territory in the West. For example, that there were already dead bodies in the downed Malaysian airplane. What is more, it cannot use the tales how the damned West provoked Maidan in order to weaken Russia and what ‘intrigues’ it is planning against it.

If we draw the attention of Europeans and Americans to what the Russian media are writing about them, how in particular they manipulate information about the events in Ukraine, it will undermine the trust they have towards Russian media.

Therefore, it is good to develop and support initiatives such as StopFake, order explanatory advertisements in Western media, social networks, search engines with concrete examples and hyperlink to appropriate Russian resource pages.

The loss of trust the Western audience has towards Russian media will negate the sense of spreading lies about Ukraine on their part.

React to ordered pro-Russian materials in Western media. Doors are normally opened to those who knock. As opposed to Ukraine, self-regulative or state bodies for professional media standards function better in the West, therefore they are worth addressing.

Pro-Russian materials normally offer inaccurate or partial, unbalanced information, which is a violation of professional journalistic standards.

The problem is that the mechanisms to stop such abuse in various countries work differently, therefore to react to such abuse it is necessary to involve the Ukrainian diaspora from the appropriate country or Ukrainian embassies, so the experts on the specifics, which would ensure the local processes of examining these instances of abuse in ethics committees or similar institutions.

During the examination of appropriate cases on abuse in media, we should draw the attention of their fellow journalists.

Create an effective international broadcasting channel: TV, radio and Internet broadcasting. Ukraine cannot struggle with Russia in terms of resources, therefore we shouldn’t hope that our foreign channel(s) might surpass Russian ones.

Taking this into account, the audience for a Ukrainian foreign channel should be those who want to know valid information about Ukraine, as well as foreign journalists and media.

And get ready for a long struggle.

Counteraction on Ukraine’s part in the information sphere will be constructed not based on doing everything as quickly as possible, but making it as effective as possible.

Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
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