Military conflict tied to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is largely contained within the nation, while the world looks on feeling helpless. But there is another conflict over Ukraine – a worldwide war of words on the internet, social media, and over mass media in four interrelated areas. It is important and you can be involved.
One of the most prominent areas is the politics of (dis)information, such as over what is real or fake news, what is false and what is true. This is the most visible war of words illustrated by differences in the contrast between the narrative Vladimir Putin uses to rationalize the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a special operation and the narrative of the US, UK, and other NATO countries in supporting Ukraine as the victim of an unprovoked and unjustified invasion of an independent and sovereign nation. This conflict is incredibly Orwellian, reminding us of the wisdom of the 1984 novel that ‘Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.’ Daily news coverage of developments in Ukraine creates facts and stories that are supported or contested to support one or another narrative about the justification of actions and the war raging in the country.
To be clear, I support Ukraine’s narrative and find Putin’s narrative and justifications ludicrous on their face. But that is not enough. It is important to respond to false narratives, any misinformation, and fake news stories propagated in the Kremlin’s efforts to support this invasion.
Unfortunately, the response is sometimes to censor information that challenges your narrative. Only about a quarter of Russians have access to the internet and social media that would enable them to easily access evidence in opposition to what they are told on state-controlled television and radio channels. And opposition activists face real threats, portrayed as if they were traitors. Therefore, it is not surprising that nearly three-quarters of Russians support Putin’s narrative despite his ridiculous assertions, such as about de-Nazifying a country with a Jewish president. In this context, there was the brilliant protest by a Russian TV editor who came on the set uninvited and held a sign behind the anchor, shouting in Russian: ‘Stop the war. No to war.’
Her opposition helps show that censorship is often the wrong response. Russia censors all the news, such as even removing information that escapes censors, such as the number of Russian military casualties. But unless we see and hear what Putin and Russian media are saying, it may not be even believable that they are making such unfounded assertions. Rather than censor patently false statements, make sure they are captured, challenged, and replayed for everyone to witness. Based on this logic, I argued against censorship of Russian news, such as in Ofcom’s removal of Russian Today’ (RT) broadcasting license in the UK for being an irresponsible broadcaster. British viewers and listeners need to hear what is being said by authorities in Russia.
The more unbelievable the Russian false narratives are, the more people are puzzled to find nations supporting or claiming neutrality on the invasion. 141 nations voted in favour of the UN General Assembly motion condemning the invasion of Ukraine. But Belarus, which has aided and abetted the invasion, and North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria voted against the resolution. 35 countries abstained, failing to oppose the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation.[i] By looking into the politics of each opposing and abstaining nation, such as Belarus, Cuba, or South Africa, it is possible to understand their decision as not necessarily based on the facts of the case. Instead, the leaders of these nations may feel they owe their support to Russia or do not owe support to Ukraine or NATO countries.
This is a transaction much like the machine politics of old in the US cities like Chicago. The political machines of central city parties in the US gained the support of urban residents by asking for their votes at the tavern or when they gave their family a turkey for Christmas. Support for the political machines was not based on the public’s views on the issues, but on giving support to people who supported them – who knew them and lived in their neighbourhood. Issue-based voting was more prominent outside the central city in the so-called newspaper wards.
This might be viewed as buying votes or trading favours for votes, but it has a history of significance in local and global politics around the world. However, responses to such transactions are possible, such as ensuring that the basis for their support is transparent and that those who practice transactional politics can be held accountable. Transactions go both ways, so support for Putin’s narrative can come back to haunt nations that are on the wrong side of history. This is a reason why I blogged about the vote in the General Assembly to help ensure that more people – even if one more person – knew who supported Putin by abstaining or voting against the motion.[ii] It might also be valuable to reflect on why some nations feel they owe support to Russia. In Chicago machine politics, voters appreciated a turkey at Christmas because it was rare for others to acknowledge their value. Can liberal democracies do a better job in supporting nations across the globe?
Another arena of the war of words is symbolic. It is not about the facts of a case or an event but about a symbol that has taken on an important meaning for the public. Think about the growing prominence of the Ukrainian flag and its yellow and blue colours. In contrast, think about the use of the letter Z as a symbol on Russian military trucks and tanks, and worn by people as a symbol of being for Russia in its invasion. A Russian Olympic athlete had a Z on his chest at the award ceremony at the Apparatus World Cup in Doha, Qatar. The Z is countered and ridiculed by critics on social media using the same symbol as the first letter of ‘zwastika’, linking it back to the symbol of the Nazi party.
Symbols can become an effective way to express support or opposition to any action and certainly to the invasion of Ukraine. Normally, to remain more neutral, I avoid wearing or using symbols, like a hat or flag or gesture, or promoting a meme or evocative photo. However, the invasion of Ukraine is not normal. It is so abhorrent, that I have no reservations in posting a picture of the Ukrainian flag to express my support.
Don’t dismiss symbolic politics. It is an effective media for communicating across languages, cultures, and time, even if it is often blunt and misunderstood. Counter symbolic politics with better symbolic messages carried by more people.
Another reason why some actors seem to be irrational or oblivious to the realities on the ground is what might be called power-base politics. Appealing to one’s base of political support is a worldwide phenomenon. In the US, you often heard about Donald Trump focusing on appealing to his base of supporters, which led him to say or promote ideas that were counter to the general zeitgeist of public opinion.
In Russia, we could see Putin speaking at a Trumpian-like political rally in a Moscow stadium that hosted the World Cup Final. It was filled with young people bused in to create an audience. It was so full of disinformation and posturing about Putin’s ‘special operation’ that it was a strong advertisement against the Russian invasion for any Western audience. However, he was speaking to the 75 percent of Russians who only watch Russian television and do not get any news or information from a multitude of online sources. He was speaking to his base in an audience living in their own manufactured world of false information. He is in trouble in Ukraine and therefore soon to be in trouble in Russia, so he needs to rally his base of supporters. He therefore focuses on rallying his supporters, suppressing protestors, and silencing, even locking up, the opposition, such as Alexei Navalny, jailed for nine more years.
However, opposition forces in Russia can, if clever and resilient, get access facts and information from an Internet that is still accessible to many Internet users, such as over Telegram, to help them counter such ridiculous claims. Their personal influence can be critical to the future of Russia. The impact of the media on politics is most often a 2-step or multi-step flow of information from the media – even digital media – to opinion leaders who personally influence others.
This happens in the west as well, such as in the US, with some politicians, such as Tulsi Gabbard[iii], and news commentators, like Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, citing Russian-backed conspiracy theories to engage their base of supporters or viewers. Carlson was said to have ‘gone off the rails’ to incite outrage to draw viewers to the Fox News host’s show.’[iv] Americans need to rapidly, and effectively, counter such arguments, not just dismiss the carriers of such disinformation. Challenge their statements with evidence to get the truth out. Too often, those with the facts or confident in the weight of evidence are too poor in getting their views out. Too often, the conspiracy theorists are better communicators than the critics of the conspiracies. Don’t just say they are wrong. Convey the truth in sufficient detail and in ways that can engage a significant audience. Prove your case.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s video appearances put all these elements together in being a stateman for his nation. Johnathan Freedland put it brilliantly in writing that Zelensky is ‘Churchill with an iPhone‘. He conveys information, does not hesitate to discuss what is at stake, evokes symbols effectively, and reaches across the world to appeal to a huge base of support. It may be important to change the minds of Russian people, but it is equally if not more important to win over the minds of a growing worldwide coalition of politicians and leaders nations. Zelensky has demonstrated an ability to reach leaders in powerful ways in this world wide war of words over Ukraine.
In conclusion, you can get involved in what is a worldwide war over the fate of Ukraine. Be attentive to the attacks on Ukraine within any of these arenas and respond in ways that counter misinformation and promote a better understanding of history and the present in ways that can help shape the future of an independent and sovereign nation. Don’t look to big tech to ‘curb Russian state disinformation’. Big tech are not arbiters of the truth. Don’t look to government censorship, that is the Russian – Orwellian – way. Be cognizant of the wars of words and try to challenge disinformation, make transactional politics more transparent and work to gain support for Ukraine, understand the importance of symbolic politics, and hold politicians and commentators accountable when they abuse the facts simply seeking to gain support for their careers. You can be involved in this world war that is underway right now.