Peter Pomerantsev, speaking about the role of the mass media in Russia, coined a valuable phrase, arguing that President Putin was not involved in an information war, as much as a ‘war on information’.* This is certainly seems to me to be an apt characterization of the Russian President’s strategy in debates over Ukraine. His book, entitled Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, was published in 2014 (NY: Public Affairs). It now seems to be rightfully receiving a good deal of media coverage.
You can see the impact of this strategy on many within the Western media, who seem to be unable to say anything definitive about the conflict in the Ukraine – completely at a loss over basic issues, such as whether Russian troops and arms have crossed the border, when continually denied by President Putin and other spokesmen for the regime.
In such wars on information, the sourcing of information by netizens becomes ever more valuable. Rather than confusing the realities on the ground, netizens – the Fifth Estate – become ever more valuable and trusted sources of what is actually happening. Somehow, the elite press have put themselves in a position where claims and counter-claims disable them as they are kept from the actual fields of the conflict. Their responsible journalistic practices seem to have become easy prey in the war on information. For months, the NYT seemed unable to speak definitely about Russian incursions into Ukraine, although recent articles in the NYT increasingly make this observation.
We need networked individuals sourcing their own material, and we need networks of individuals working to synthesize and communicate this collective intelligence to a global community of those interested in making their own sense of conflicts sources of information.
Of course, I would certainly welcome thoughts on how to best cope and respond to this ‘war on information’ and whether it is indeed a useful perspective on the current illustration of being lost in information about Russia and Ukraine.
*Castle, S. ‘A Russian TV Insider Describes a Modern Propaganda Machine’, NYT, 14 Feb 2015: A6. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/14/world/europe/russian-tv-insider-says-putin-is-running-the-show-in-ukraine.html?_r=0
Also, see: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/01/putin-russia-tv-113960.html#.VN-PlSn2wQQ
5 thoughts on “The War on Information and the Fifth Estate”
The network of ‘netizens’ you describe already exists. Our problem isn’t even that they are fragmented – though to an extent they(or perhaps we) are – but rather the nature of the internet and social media has enabled a society of echo-chambers; in which those of a Pro-Russian, or anti-Western perspective rally around their source materials and those of a pro-West, pro-Ukrainian disposition rally around their own evidence and narrative structures.
And the two rarely interact.
James Meeks wrote a very interesting article on how this process has played out.
And I recently wrote a piece on Ukraine arguing that the Western political and media establishment increasingly appear unable to distance themselves from their projected media imagery.
Solving the problem requires having ‘netizens’ that are willing to consciously cultivate the ability to question their own biases, and reach across the aisle in order to dip into – and try to critically grapple with – the arguments of our perceived ‘enemies’.
Richard, thanks for such a thoughtful response and for the links to related work, particularly the Meeks article. I think this echo chamber problem is real, but the issue I wanted to focus on was not the strategies of Russia, the US, and other actors, but the real war on information – trying to destroy any sense of the facts of the case. Colleagues have pointed me to a great cite that seeks to address this issue. Have you seen: https://mh17.correctiv.org/english/
I appreciate the article. It actually the most thorough I’ve found on the MH17 disaster. That said, I’m not sure anyone who wasn’t already pre-disposed to believe Russia’s innocence ever bought that Russian backed forces(at a minimum) downed the plane in error.