Deciphering weaponization of information in Russia-Ukraine conflict

The shadow-boxing has involved competing narratives of war casualties, potential use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, regime change, and even destruction of precious art, among others.

ukraine russia conflict
The West appears to be a step ahead of Russia in its information dissemination strategy which, ironically, the Kremlin had pioneered. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Dr. Rajorshi Roy

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has now been raging for over a month. While a solution to this crisis appears some way off yet a few strands of the adversaries’ war tactics are clearly decipherable. And one of them is the increasing weaponization of information aimed at shaping opinion, morale and reputation. This emphasis on an effective communication strategy has, unsurprisingly, seen the emergence of competing narratives.

Evidently, the gloves are off in the race to be heard. In this, information as well as disinformation, often rooted in insidious propaganda, have emerged as vital elements of the wartime toolkit. The shadow-boxing has involved competing narratives of war casualties, potential use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, regime change, and even destruction of precious art, among others.

The pertinent questions, therefore, are what is the nature of information strategies adopted by the key stakeholders? And the lessons for India from this contestation in the information space.

Weaponization of Information

It is evident that Russia and Ukraine have sought to outdo the other in telling their story on the conflict. The targets are not only their domestic but also global audience, with the digital space increasingly emerging as a new battleground. Both sides appear to be seeking to leverage the reach of social media to make themselves heard. Their toolkit includes videos, photographs, podcasts, memes and influencers.

Russian Strategy

Arguably, Russia would appear to have a head start in framing this hybrid conflict. It was one of the first countries to acknowledge the importance of information in national security by enshrining it in its national security doctrine. In fact, the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution of 2014 led to Russia re-strategizing its conflict playbook. Controlling the information narrative emerged as a vital part of the Russian stratagem. Over the last eight years, Russia has been accused by the West of disseminating propaganda (disinformatsiya) aimed at sowing divisions in the Western world.

Today, in Ukraine, Russia appears to have adopted a two-pronged information strategy aimed at domestic and global constituencies. The former is particularly relevant amidst the incipient protests over the Kremlin’s “special military operation” in a neighbourhood which Russians have traditionally viewed as part of their civilisation yolk.

Notably, foreign policy aimed at restoring Russia’s Great Power status remains a key source of domestic legitimacy. It, therefore, has become imperative for the Russian regime to justify its operations in Ukraine amidst unprecedented Western economic sanctions. These sanctions could, in fact, lead to painful readjustments in the Russian way of life. As such, the usual Russian modus operandi of rallying its people around the flag by tapping into the famed Russian resilience, inevitably, has needed recalibration.

Russia has responded by tightly controlling the information that its citizens are exposed to. Censorship, particularly, of the Western media, has been prioritised. This has led to a ban on the majority of the Western electronic, print and social media platforms. It includes Meta, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. Meanwhile, Google and Telegram have been labelled anti-Russian. These could be next in-line of being purged from the Russian waves.

Pertinently, Russia’s banning of these platforms, which enjoy immense popularity among the politically vibrant younger Russian generation, could be a double-edge sword. While a ban may prevent political activism yet it could also lead to protests over widespread disruption to peoples’ social lives. Perhaps, this explains Russia making an exception for WhatsApp. Meanwhile, locally developed alternatives like Vkontakte (VK) have a reputation of regulating content at the behest of the national government. In fact, a number of VK users have been fined for posting “fake information” on the war on this platform.

The state-run Russian media, unsurprisingly, too appears to be toeing the official position. This includes justifying Russia’s “military intervention” as existential in order to deter Ukraine’s westward drift and to purge Kiev of the violent neo-Nazis. These right-wing groups have been painted as perpetrators of violence who have used civilians as human shields to fortify their urban positions. Similarly, the Russian media has pushed the government narrative of the West collaborating with Ukraine to develop weapons of mass destruction that would target Russia. It is also not uncommon for the media to highlight Russia’s accusation of the Ukrainian government targeting its own citizens to pin the blame on Moscow. Interestingly, these state-run companies have been prohibited from using the terms “war” and “invasion” in their reportage.

In fact, the new narrative of the Russian President enjoying more than 70 per cent approval for the ongoing military action is undoubtedly timely amidst the growing cracks in the carefully crafted media narrative. This includes the much publicised protest by a state-run Channel One employee apart from the mass resignation of journalists on RT channel.

Amidst the strengthening of this iron curtain, independent media houses in Russia too have come under Russian censorship. Being labelled as “foreign agent” has hung like the proverbial Damocles Sword. This would restrict their access to private funding and invite greater governmental oversight.

Other tools invoked to shape the official narrative include the Russian government introducing a new law that imposes penalties and jail terms for spreading “fake information” about the ongoing conflict.

Western and Ukrainian Strategies

The West appears to be a step ahead of Russia in its information dissemination strategy which, ironically, the Kremlin had pioneered. This stems from the information blackout imposed by Western technology companies, which dominate the global information platform landscape, on official Russian media houses. Big Tech, therefore, appears to be toeing the Western government’s strategy of an information boycott of Russia. Perhaps, they are also behind the throttled speed of access to official Russian websites. These dynamics have, inevitably, put Russia on the back foot in effectively conveying its narrative on the global stage.

However, the surprise package of this information contestation has been the phoenix-like rise of Ukraine from the war ashes to take the lead in leveraging social media to garner global support. Backed by cyber volunteers from across the world, President Volodmyr Zelenskyy has led from the front in engaging global stakeholders. The now viral videos, memes, photographs and podcasts emanating from Ukraine have all focussed on generating a wave of global sympathy amidst the projected Ukrainian bravery against a numerically superior Russian foe. This includes highlighting the untold human suffering and the widespread destruction of property. In fact, President Zelenskyy’s clarion call to fight a just war by equating the ongoing battle of Mariupol with the famed Russian resilience during the Second World War siege of Leningrad appears to have struck an emotive chord with both the Ukrainians and the global community.

This has, in particular, seen the West rally around Ukraine. It has provided resources to not only tackle the humanitarian crisis but also to withstand the Russian military pressure. And there are incipient suggestions that this support could force Russia to dilute its ambitious political goals. More importantly, the projection of “naked Russian aggression” across the information space has led to do the unthinkable – uniting the West in imposing sweeping sanctions against Russia.

Meanwhile, Kiev has also stepped up its psy-warfare. Viral confessions of captured baby-faced Russian conscripts of being misled could have an impact on the Russian morale. Similarly, the projected casualty figures of Russian soldiers including top-level generals, while appearing highly inflated, may undermine Russia’s claims of its operation going as per plan. A radio silence from Moscow on its war casualties has only added fuel to the fire of Russia suffering severe setbacks. In fact, Ukraine being President Putin’s Afghanistan has gained traction in the social media space. Similarly, the mythical exploits of a Ukrainian pilot shooting down several Russian fighter jets would appear to be part of this ongoing narrative of boosting Ukrainian morale while simultaneously undermining the Russian one.

In fact, the disclosure of alleged personal details of more than a lakh Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine as also the telephonic transcripts between the Russian chain of command are a further reflection of Kiev upping its psy-warfare game.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has also efficiently leveraged social media to alert its citizens about bombing raids, human shelters, and availability of essentials.

Interestingly, both Russia and Ukraine have taken recourse to spreading disinformation. Several videos shared by Russian and Ukrainian official handles have been borrowed from unrelated conflict theatres and even video games.

Ponderables for India

A key ponderable for India is the growing emergence of information security as a vital part of a country’s national security. This is particularly relevant at a time when social media has made it child’s play to spread information through the mere click of a button. As the Ukrainian crisis has shown, it is easy to target impressionable minds with the objective of shaping their opinions. A deluge of biased information can overwhelm and impair their ability to make informed decisions. In the past, India’s adversaries in Pakistan and China had taken recourse to social media to spread insidious propaganda, including on Kashmir and Galwan.

Crucially, information projection also has political repercussions. Indian media houses have increasingly highlighted the Western narrative on the need to punish Russia. This may act as a pressure point on the government in chalking out its next course of action. Similarly, the plight of stranded Indian students in Ukraine, being projected through social media platforms, moved many. It would likely have been impossible to ignore their desperate appeals even though they had gone to Ukraine on privately funded study visas without seeking the government’s prior approval.

Meanwhile, the information boycott of Russia by Big Tech who dominate global information space is an indication of the hold that the West has in shaping the information narrative. This is particularly relevant amidst several instances of these companies’ refusal to abide by the local rules in the past. The growing weaponization of these platforms to fulfil geo-political goals is a new reality in the face of their earlier perceived neutrality.

These dynamics, therefore, highlight the need to rely on indigenous social media platforms to project a country’s narrative. Similarly, monitoring of the social media space with adequate checks and balances appears to be a compelling rationale. This includes fact checking to ensure credibility of information being posted.

Perhaps, the most overlooked platform that may need to be monitored is the podcast. The very nature of their conversational character may lead to key objectionable words, including hate speech, escaping the technology filters.

Arguably, the bottom-line is the need for accountability amidst increasing propagation of misleading information in the social media space.

(The author is Associate Fellow, Europe-Eurasia Center, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.  Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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First published on: 30-03-2022 at 11:53 IST