With Marta Kowalska on why disinformation is more important than fake news, and on what is behind Russian propaganda talk Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek and Robert Sendek.
Is the known for years saying: “he who has information, has the power” still on?
This saying was popular at the break of the 20th/21st century. I think a lot has changed since then. Today, the goal is not to have the information, but to properly use it. It’s about a skillful use of information for the purpose of your own interests: political, military, economic or even social and cultural ones. Information management – the use of information for influences. “Influence” is the keyword here, crucial in the entire process.
We are an informational society. Proper information processing and management can be quite profitable. Can such activity be more productive from a battalion of tanks?
There is a common belief that informational warfare is much more effective and less costly than any conventional war activity. In the western world of today – a democratic world – where armed conflicts are scarce, information is the main tool for conducting warfare in time of peace. Informational warfare can touch all aspects of life: political, military, economic, ecological, social and cultural. I think that we are today in the phase of a total informational warfare. It’s quite frequent, also in the Polish media, that some news in certain way misinform our society, or perhaps even frighten us with – conventionally understood – World War III. It might be true, although if we’re really facing World War III, it is being conducted just now, at the informational level.
Democracy is characterized by exchange of opinions, clashing viewpoints and standpoints. We can’t call that informational warfare, can we?
That’s right. Expressing different opinions and debating on various subjects does not automatically mean informational warfare. Such war is defined by two basic factors: intentionality and purposefulness. This means that we have a defined objective, which is related to the reason of state, and which we try to achieve at the cost of our adversary. In addition, talking of informational warfare, we talk mainly about relations between countries. Such activities cannot only be conducted by the government of individual states, but also by other international entities. For example – by terrorist organizations or – at the economic level – commercial entities, that is companies of international reach.
When talking about informational warfare, we often talk about informational activities or psychological operations. What are the differences between these terms?
“Informational warfare” is rather a media term, there is no official definition in international law, contrary to “conventional war.” This term gained on popularity in relation to current world events. We can observe a significant intensification of activity on the interstate level, including informational and psychological operations. All these phenomena started to be commonly called informational warfare. There are however no formal definitions because there are various nuances, stemming from different perspectives: it can be approached differently by military experts, differently by journalists and the media, and differently by common people. We are thus functioning at different levels. If we however tried to systematize these terms than we could define informational operations as the narrowest term, closely related to the activities of a state or other entities with international reach, which we have mentioned. Informational warfare, though, is the broadest term. However, not all what happens in informational space, is an intentional activity of one state against the other. There is a whole spectrum of activities, which are similar to the tools of informational warfare or which even use them, but still are not informational warfare, such as for instance political marketing or PR commercial activity. As I see it, what we observe and what we are talking about can be called psychological operations with the use of information.
Why informational operations are conducted?
The goal is always the same – to accomplish national and state interests of a given country in a different country with the use of information. Depending on how a country defines its own international, political, economic or security goals and objectives, it will accordingly adjust proper tools to carry out such operations. It is about influencing the awareness of certain groups or even entire society to make it accept decisions or behaviors advantageous for the influencer.
Which means that if informational operations are to be effective, they must be thoroughly prepared…
Yes, they must, it’s a very complicated process, hence it’s worth to know its mechanisms. I’ll try to explain it on the example of Poland and Russia, as – from the security point of view – it is this country which can be considered the greatest menace to us. If we assume that Moscow’s primary objective is to weaken our position in the international arena, we can also assume that it will reach this objective, e.g. by destabilizing social and political situation in Poland. It’s hence possible to lead to internal conflicts of ideological or political nature in a country, which in effect will disrupt the image of Poland as a reliable partner for our allies in the EU or NATO. Most probably, that’s what is happening just now, although it’s not the result of external inspirations exclusively. In such situations, a target group is defined and actions taken, and then the weakest link is sought for – which could be individuals or communities.
Meaning the people who quickly absorb the given content, and then will distribute it as their own?
Exactly. Here, we’re touching psychology. If we correctly identify the most vulnerable group, then carrying out a psychological and informational operation will be easier. We can then prepare news material tailored for a particular audience. This may mean conducting multiple operations simultaneously, targeted at various groups. Western societies mainly verify information, search for false news releases, which are in fact the last stage of informational warfare. We don’t see initial stages, and the reasons for conducting such activity escape our notice – we don’t get to the core of what’s really happening. We don’t see the preparation stages, which must occur, so the information is released in favorable conditions.
In other words – what’s most crucial, escapes our notice? Perhaps we should pay no attention at all to fake news?
It is the idea of „fake news” that has evoked great interest and drawn the attention of the West to some threats. At the same time, however, it made the entire discussion on the subject shallow. Fake news is just fake news, nothing more. Fake news in itself is nothing, what’s needed is context – that’s when we can talk about disinformation. If we do the research on the fake news, we have to consider basic elements of analysis, we have to ask questions: who?, where?, when?, how?, what for? That’s how we find out about intentionality and the goal of such activity, in other words – we explain why and for what reason such news has been released. We should also remember that even the truth can be used for manipulation. Such analysis – fact-checking – is practically never done, while our focusing only on fake news automatically makes us exclude many activities of manipulation. For that reason, I would compare tracking down fake information to treating illness with painkillers: we eliminate symptoms, but not the cause of illness.
We know what informational operations are, and why they are carried out. Can you tell me what tools are used in such operations?
The number of such tools is high. Among them manipulation, including propaganda and disinformation, but also a so-called Internet trolling. The latter term was quite much talked about on the occasion of the recent presidential elections in the United States. There were voices that the workers of the so-called troll factory near Petersburg affected the voting results. However, there is no way this can be verified – the actual impact of their activity – because we have no original information which would precede the taking-up of such informational operation. We don’t know what would American voters decide – and I don’t mean here their voting preferences, but actual decisions while voting – before the Russian web brigades had started their job. The United States admit that there was some interference, however nobody is able to estimate its scale, and whether or not indeed Donald Trump in effect of this became a US president. Still, though, there is not even the slightest doubt that aggressive activities to destabilize American society and increase social polarization in the USA in fact were carried out.
You said the Internet is one of the channels for conducting informational warfare. Where else such operation can be launched?
In fact, in every situation where there is interaction between people. These are special services’ operations against other country, influencing opinion-makers, the mass media, financial pressures. In case of the Internet, we talk about the mass media, social media, and other portals or online platforms which are not media. The Western world, dealing with informational warfare, focuses mainly on the Internet. The researches on Twitter and Facebook give specific numbers, which can help to imagine the scale of this phenomenon. The example can be the aforementioned presidential elections in the USA. For instance, the Facebook Board of Directors informed that during presidential campaign the news releases produced by the Russian trolling factory were ultimately read by as many as 126 million FB users. This obviously doesn’t mean that the said 126 million Americans followed suggestions included in the news. For that reason – in spite of all – we should be careful, and not draw conclusions based solely on quantitative research data.
What actions can be taken in the real life?
One of the most interesting examples can be different kinds of scholarships. Several years ago in Russia, there was a special scholarship program for young professionals from Great Britain, Germany and the United States. They were getting a yearly scholarship financed by one of the Russian banks. They would come to stay in Russia for a year, and they had their internships in various institutions and state companies. They were shown a good face of Russia, successes in a given economy sector. This is one of the ways of remodeling awareness and making own agents of influence in other countries. For example, a journalist after a yearly stay in Russia may – although it doesn’t mean he will – be prone to be less objective, while holding good memories of his scholarship stay in Russia. Therefore, study visits of journalists or scientists in the countries, which run enemy policy against Poland, are burdened with some risk, particularly when it is them who invite.
Is forming a political party of financing radical groups an element of informational warfare?
Of course, it is. This is just another example of activity in the reality zone. Creating environments, which will be achieving the goals of other countries, is one of the mechanisms of informational warfare. These can be political parties – which is particularly dangerous – but also groups not related with politics, for example of cultural or scientific nature, or associations, academic centers, societies of friends, etc. Opinion leaders can also be trained – people who influence awareness, decisions and behaviors of others. It is interesting that social conflicts can also be evoked by providing simultaneous support to the communities of contradictory opinions, e.g. liberal and radical. It’s about escalation of conflict. Opinions themselves are not that important here.
You worked as a translator for the news portal known for being a propaganda tube of the Kremlin.
I lived in Moscow at that time, and I conducted research for my PhD thesis on the process of decision-making in Russia. In 2014, in order to find out how this all looks in practice, I took a job of a translator in the editorial office of ”The Voice of Russia” (Polish version) – the Russian state-owned media, now commonly known as “Sputnik”. This experience gave me a unique knowledge on the mechanisms and technology of Russian informational warfare against Western states.
Which means you experienced for yourself how this machine works?
All foreigners worked as translators there. We were given complete materials, which we have to translate into our native language. On that occasion I found out that not only journalists, but also translators are given restrictions. For example, there was a list of words provided, and the nature of these words was mostly emotional, so the reader’s awareness is better influenced. It was the time of active operating in Donbass, so here’s an example of Ukraine. In Russian, there is a word opoltchenzy, which carries positive notion and describes people who support government activity. The Polish media used the term “separatists”, while in “The Voice of Russia” we had to translate it into Polish as “insurgents” or “self-defense forces”. That’s how positive meaning was conveyed as regards the activity of separatist squads, which fought in Donbass. Words have their meaning.
Can you measure performance of informational operations?
I will answer using the example of Poland. I’m under the impression that our doings are generally a response to external operations. I know, however, that it’s difficult to overcome them with symmetrical responses. This means that when a fake news is released, we respond to it by verifying it, dementing it, and then releasing a real one. The efficiency of symmetry was analyzed based on Twitter and Facebook: it turned out that real news does not counteract fake news. That’s how it works: first, fake news finds its way to a given audience; after a while, real news is released, but this one gets only to a small number of those who had earlier read the fake news.
Which means that the answer can be asymmetrical response.
Yes. On the other hand, speaking of security – and this also stems from Polish strategy of national security – we rather pay attention to being free from any threats. Such attitude means that we do all we can to prevent them. However, being a part of the western world, keeping relationships with other countries, we have to be ready for threats. Surely we have to learn how to manage threats and the risk of their occurrence before they actually occur.
Perhaps prevention should be launched?
What’s important is to build social resistance. At this point, a question arises who should do that, because prevention cannot happen exclusively at the state level. We have to capture the idea of threat in a broader way. Disinformation and informational influence are the problem of entire society, and that means everybody should be engaged in dealing with it. For that reason, a model of cooperation between a society and state structures should be developed. This is what Poland lacks.
Could you give an example of a country where it does function ok?
A good example are the Scandinavian and Baltic states. In Estonia, communication between the nation and state structures is very effective. Several years ago, Estonians developed a great project, which is also implemented in the remaining Baltic states and in Ukraine. It is about training professionals who deal with the issue of informational warfare, but also about the engagement of students, young people and people who just enter professional market, and who can in the future analyze informational operations, and actively counteract them. Cooperation between different sectors allows for effective implementation of own strategic communication, which means proactivity towards external enemy informational influences. We shouldn’t however mistakenly consider such proactivity as internal propaganda or indoctrination of own society, which is very natural for non-democratic countries.
Does historical politics can be considered as an informational warfare tool? For example, in Russia, introduced recently, there is a law on counteracting the rehabilitation on Nazism. In practice, this looks different. For instance, an Internet user was sentenced a while ago, because he posted that in 1939 the Communists and Germans attacked Poland.
It would be best if we left history to historians, and not talk about this in a current political situation. But of course, history can be regarded as a tool in informational warfare. Particularly in the context of the role of the Soviet Union in the outbreak and ending of WWII, or rather – as the Russian put it – in liberating Poland from fascism. If historical politics is used to influence a society of other country and change its attitude towards historical facts, than we are dealing with psychological and informational operation. Rewriting history is however a very dangerous tool.
Can you somehow compare activities of various countries in the field of informational warfare?
Mechanisms are the same, regardless of latitude. Influence operations or generally informational influence will probably be run by most countries. There are however crucial differences between them. From our point of view, we should assess such activity most of all in the aspect whether or not it can pose threat to our security. The country considered to pose potential threat to the security of Poland is Russia. At the same time, the EU and NATO members are our allies. If the goals which these countries want to achieve in Poland can be obtained via debates, talks, e.g. at the diplomatic level, than there’s no need to reach for such complex activity as informational or psychological operations. In the case of the United States, for instance, we’re rather talking about strategic communication, or possibly about propaganda.
What about other power states?
China has been acting a little differently. The Chinese don’t do such informational operations as Russia, at least they haven’t so far and not here, in Poland. They rather use their direct contacts, business relationships. It’s about business, and entering our market with Chinese production. It is China’s way of having influences in Poland. It’s very probable that soon this will be joined by informational influence. Some time ago, Huawei employee was arrested. As it can be expected, it is not solely the company itself which launches communication and image action in Poland, but China in general can be doing some informational campaign.
How do you assess the effectiveness of the so-called Islamic State in media war?
This organization performs high on a slightly different level. A combination of psychological operations with the use of new informational channels – social networks or YouTube – made ISIS effectively gain new supporters not only in Islamic states and in the Middle East, but also in Europe. What’s more, terrorists, next to recruiting new people, were able to make them commit suicide. It’s the highest level of manipulating a man.
Let’s go back to Poland. Are we doing ok in the matter of informational warfare?
Recently, there have been quick moves, particularly in cybersecurity, which is still treated separately from Polish informational and social security. The problem is that – if we ever fight with informational and psychological operations – we fight them outside public domain. It seems that state institutions decided they could manage on their own. Also, for a long time Polish society considered themselves resistant to any enemy informational influence, particularly Russian. As a result, when some informational operations are revealed, our reaction is much delayed or even none at all. We are at the very end among the states of the Baltic region or of the Viségrad Group, if it comes to threat awareness or situation analysis.
How can we change that?
First of all, the government and state administration should be aware of threats. The main task should be building such awareness, exercising in people their resistance to informational threats, forming positive civic attitudes, teaching how to be responsible for ourselves, our society, our country.
Marta Kowalska is a Vice President and co-founder of “Center for Propaganda and Disinformation Analysis” Foundation. 2015-2017: expert of “Casimir Pulaski” Foundation.
Translated by Anita Kwaterowska
autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz