‘Don’t do propaganda’ to counter information warfare


Czech President Milos Zeman is likely to announce a re-election bid this week after a first term marked by sniping at journalists, warnings on Muslim immigration and a growing friendship with Russia, Reuters reports:

In 2015, Zeman was the only EU head of state to attend Moscow events marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, meeting President Vladimir Putin. He also criticized the Czech Interior Ministry for launching a unit to identify fake news, which the secret service says often originates in Russia [which helps explain why he is known as Putin’s Trojan Horse in Europe].

“Many of his views are deeply convenient for Moscow,” said Russia specialist Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute for International Relations in Prague, adding that the Russians appreciate “the extent to which they can use his statements as further ammunition in their information warfare”.

Last week, just days after the southern Caucasus nation of Georgia celebrated its newly awarded visa-free travel access to 30 EU countries, Russian news outlets began reporting a different story, VOA reports:

Georgia’s visa liberalization wasn’t the result of Tblisi’s successful, long-planned reforms targeting European integration, Russian outlets said, but part of a seedy quid pro quo that would require the former Soviet republic to build camps for displaced Syrian refugees on its own soil. For Giorgi Meladze, professor of media law at Ilia State University, the disinformation news cycle is a part of a broader propaganda effort orchestrated by the Kremlin and Russia’s intelligence agencies that eventually penetrates Georgian media.

“Russian propaganda is not based on identified propaganda media such as RT, but rather is trying to use well-established, traditional European publications like Bild to enhance anti-western messages,” Meladze told VOA. “The aim of disinformation is to portray Europe as an institution undermining Georgia.”

For many decades, Soviet and Russian propagandists put a premium on “controlling the message,” notes analyst Deborah Yarsike Ball.

With the ascension of Vladimir Putin, however, we’ve seen a qualitatively different approach to information warfare (IW). Instead of trafficking in petty disinformation, forgeries, leaks, etc., Russian IW now attempts to reinvent reality and create “mass hallucinations” that translate into political action.

How should America push back in the two-front war of ideas against authoritarian information warfare and jihadist propaganda? analysts Martha Bayles and Jeffrey Gedmin ask.

Protecting America’s Voice Abroad

Don’t do propaganda* is one of six “lessons learned, they contend in a memo to the incoming CEO U.S. international media (USIM).

Throughout its 75-year history, the USIM system has, with some lapses, reported truthfully about global, regional, and local events, while at the same time offering a mostly truthful account of America’s interests, intentions, and ideals, they write for The American Interest:

Another ill-informed cliché is that 21st-century transformations in global politics and technology have made truth obsolete. Truth telling is a hard principle for any government to follow, because all governments lie to some extent. But—this is important—they don’t all lie to the same extent. Authoritarian regimes and criminal gangs do everything they can to crush the distinction between objective truth and official fiction. The U.S. government should do everything it can to uphold it….Americans must reckon honestly with USIM’s essential function, which is to further the nation’s agenda as forcefully as possible without engaging in propaganda. This is nothing to apologize for. The USIM system emerged from a unique tradition of truth-based persuasion, rooted in constitutionally protected freedoms of speech, press, and debate.

“When this tradition is upheld, it highlights the difference between democratic and authoritarian regimes. When it is neglected, the difference becomes blurred. And that is a very great danger,” they add. RTWT

*See, for example, Anne-Marie Brady, “China’s Foreign Propaganda Machine,” in the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy (2015).

Martha Bayles teaches humanities at Boston College, is author of Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad (Yale 2014), and is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. Jeffrey Gedmina senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, senior advisor, Blue Star Strategies, and former president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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