Mis- or dis- information? Russia’s potential influence over European discourses and media

14 December 2016 /

The 23rd of November 2016 is a date to be remembered. The European Parliament has adopted a resolution in order to limit Russian media activities in Europe. 304 deputies have voted in favour, 179 against and 208 abstained. The document asserts that Russia promotes anti-EU propaganda. The press agency Sputnik, the television station RT, the foundation “The Russia world” and the Russian Federal Agency “Rossotroudnitchestco” are concerned. The Russian answer was not long in coming: the spokeswoman for the Russian diplomacy Zakharova argues that this resolution is the “witness of an information crime.” So where does the “information crime” come from: Russia or Europe?

The Russian stance towards information warfare

During the Cold War, goals of USSR and Western countries were to spread their truth in order to undermine the enemy. Various methods were used: press, way of life, music etc. During the bipolar order, the idea of hybrid warfare emerges with a combination of non-military, military and paramilitary actions. First, the USSR focus on the military (2/3) and less on non-military (1/3). For Gerasimov, the ration between the non-military should be 4 (non military) to 1 (military). The objective of hybrid warfare was, at first, not to be defeated. Then, due to the Gerasimov doctrine, the aim is the classical military victory: the opponent should stop resisting. Because an overwhelming share of the ratio is based on non-military, information is at the centre of hybrid warfare. With the emerging idea of constant war in Russia, the central element of combat for new generation is information warfare.

The bipolar order ended with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and this idea of “truth” died with it. According to Pavlovski “the concept of truth was important in soviet times. Now […] you can just say anything, create realities”. Currently, this is, what can be called, the “post truth” period, when the media is not longer anchored in the facts.

The case of Brexit: Facts or lies?

In the Brexit case, the Vote Leave side did not fact-check many of its arguments: media is not longer relying on facts. The famous example of the bus advertising that the EU membership costs £350 millions a week to the UK underlines this argument. Indeed, when what the EU gives back to the UK is taken into account (subventions and so on) the cost is around £120 millions and not £350 millions. Brexiters based their campaign on false argument and misinformation. Their main objective was to get people’s attention. It is not accidental that this kind of information is circulating; it can be a part of a deliberate strategy of the information warfare. In fact, information is a way to channel power, to control and not inform.

The discourse style is important to convey a message. In the past, political speeches were based on Aristotle’s triad of rhetorical tools: logos i.e. formal arguments, ethos and pathos i.e. personality, authority and emotions. Currently, discourses rather use ethos and pathos than logos. Rhetoric of promotion gets the upper hand on traditional rhetoric due to the use of the best marketing strategy (intensity and brevity). Now, perceptions matter more than facts, it was also the case of Brexit and Trump’s campaigns. On one hand, the Remain campaign was lampooned and described as “Project Fear”. Philip Corr, a City Universitypsychology professor in London stresses that the Remain side campaign had a “very effective means to convey a message” because it personalized the economic risks of leaving by using words as “your future”, “your risk.” On the other hand, Brexiters used discourse style to prove their point. Their favourite tools were super-short sentences emphasising certainty and determination that lead to emotional logic. Their mottos were “Take back control” or the day of the referendum was depicted as the “Independence Day.” These phrases offered the prospect of opportunity and hope. In the Brexit campaign, both sides employed mal-information methods as well as disinformation, which is often used by Russia to interfere in European affairs. Yet, Russian influence is far from being confirmed in the UK, contrary to Poland.

The Polish and Hungarian cases: a major influence of Russia?

According to a case study by Wiktor Ostrowki and Kazimierz Woycicki of the Krzyzowa Academy, Russian information warfare operations have had some success in Poland. The anti-western stance is a recurring tropism in Russian disinformation since the cold war. The swindler western partner invaded Polish media in the past, contrary to Russia that is presented as a better-suited partner.

Nowadays, Polish nationalist websites are implicitly in favour of Russian nationalism because “at least there they can tell the truth” (Ostrowki & Woycicki). Polish nationalist magazines, as in the daily mail and other nationalist magazines in the UK during the Brexit campaign, have adopted anti-EU rhetoric and use Russian-inspired media tools. Wiktor Ostrowki and Kazimierz Woycicki take the example of the conservative Gazeta Polska in July 2016, which put on the front page a swastika tearing through a hole in the European flag; it is an image that could figure in a Russian magazine. Nevertheless, Poland also has its own misinformation. Thus, pinpointing which misinformation is from Poland or from Russia is far from being easy as propaganda is also supposed to be subtle enough to convince without caricaturing facts.

© Internet Archive Book Images, flickr.com
© Internet Archive Book Images, flickr.com

In the meantime in Hungary, the contested president Viktor Orban walks on a tight-rope in belonging to Europe, while fuelling national pride and sovereignty.  In his Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) speech of 26 July 2014 addressed to young people, Orban underlined the failure of liberal ideas. He takes the examples of three periods: WWI, the end of the cold war and the 2008 economic crisis and points out the liberal weaknesses of the USA “the strength of American “soft power” is deteriorating, because liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex and violence, and with this liberal values discredit America and American modernization.” Due to new challenges such as the financial crisis, terrorism, migration and a generational change, liberal democracy is not efficient anymore and is no longer defining the Hungarian current politics. It appears that liberal state is not strong enough to protect the people and to catch up with these new challenges. In order to unite people, liberal democracy is not useful and no longer valid, so Orban is looking for something different, a new democratic system closer to “the stars of international analyses” such as China and Russia: “a trending topic in thinking is understanding systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies, and yet making nations successful.”

Thus, the Russian influence is almost palpable. First, because of the admiration of Viktor Orban toward its Russian big Brother; the French magazine L’Express in 2015 even described the Hungarian president as “the small Putin of Budapest”, hence a close relationship between the presidents. Some Europeans even see this relationship as treason: they even describe their Hungarian counterpart as the “Trojan horse” of Russia. Second, Russian clout can be seen in Orban ideas in order to renew its state.

Impact on the opinion and efficiency of the rhetoric

In Brexit and Hungarian cases, campaigns and speeches focused on specific arguments. Both Brexit and Remain sides share a common theme, similar to the Hungarian president speech: fear. According to Ruth Wodak, professor of linguistics at Lancaster University, these politics of fear are “very strong in persuading audience who don’t have much information so that they will vote with their gut feeling, which is where rational discussions don’t find a space.” Emotion is once more preferred to logic and rationality. Orban and Vote Leave in the United Kingdom (UK) have centred on the encroaching powers of the EU if Britain were to stay in the bloc of if Hungary should accept the quotas of migrants. Other arguments in both countries are the loss of sovereignty and the lack of control over immigration.

In the UK, there have been ups and downs in the survey and a high number of undecided.  The electorate was indeed confused due to political leaders discourses and the media. Yet, what is even more concerning is that the rhetorical devices that prove more persuasive may come back for the future election and in politics for the next few years. Indeed, the objective of the new disinformation is not to convince, but to distract, to confuse, and to keep people passive and paranoid. Governing illiberal state, such as in Hungary, is then much easier. Because the people consume the media so willingly, it is making the task easier for the illiberal state.

In the case of Poland, the major goal of Russian propaganda is “social disintegration” (Ostrowki & Woycicki) in order to accentuate the division of the society and finally make the people loose their faith in liberal democracy and Western Europe –as in Hungary. The propaganda aims at sowing doubt in politics by promoting extreme Polish nationalism. In Poland, Russian disinformation is nurtured by social networks. According to Edward Lucas and Peter Pomeranze in their report, Winning information war, “this means that the content is more likely to be read, understood and shared.” Thus, Russian influence is eager to spread both  in Europe despite measures recently taken by the European Parliament and in the USA as it is suspected during the presidential elections.

Blandine Malvault est étudiante en Master 2 Sécurité Extérieure et Sécurité Intérieure de l’UE à Science Po Strasbourg

Share and Like :