SDSN Youth Russia Volunteer
I wish I could be writing about general issues that shape the contemporary European security architecture such as the interests of the main actors, encompassing international organizations, alliances and particular states or about how important it is to see the effects of climate change on the current politics. However, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine all those issues have moved to the background. That is why I will be focusing on my personal vision of anticipatory concepts preventing threats to security at international and regional levels. The threat that I will be examining closely is propaganda, as I believe it to be one the biggest threats to our security both: now and in the future.
There are multiple official reasons and opinions on why the war has been started, a lot of them contradictory and controversial. There seems to be no single truth for everyone, neither in Russia, nor in Ukraine and the West, even though the split between the two is very visible. In this essay I will focus on the problem of propaganda and the perception of truth only in Russia. Although the concept of truth in Russian reality is now blurred and almost inexistent.[i]
Every war is never only about the tanks and boots on the ground, it is also about information. There is always disinformation from all sides of the battle, be it for encouragement of own soldiers, diminishing the spirit of the enemies; or receiving support from people back home. The war in Ukraine is no different. Let us focus on the problem of visual propaganda. Anna Lena Mehr, the director of World Press Photo competition, says that one of the most common propaganda methods is photography.[ii] It has been happening in all wars, ever since there was a chance to take pictures. All recent conflicts became information wars more and more, and the war in Ukraine is no exception. This tendency is facilitated by the speed at which photos now become available to general public.
According to A. Mehr, there is disinformation and alteration of pictures from both sides. However, other experts, such as the head of media safety and IT forensics in Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, Martin Steinbach, claim that they do not have any proof of the photos of war in Ukraine are being manipulated. Adding that proving the originality of the shots is a difficult task, which needs to be performed at many levels. As photos can be manipulated at multiple levels as well.[iii]
Why am I discussing the manipulation of photos at such length? That is because I believe pictures to be one of the most emotional tools of manipulating public opinion. Russian population is now living in reality, which has been created by the government and is now fed with emotional photos. Or on the contrary, the emotional photos are claimed to be fake. This leads to people not believing what their family members are saying. Even when one part of the family is telling another that they are being bombed. The ones in safety and armed with the official confirmation that the pictures are fake, do not believe in bombings.[iv]
The alternate reality of Russian population has been carefully built throughout many years. It was not only built with obvious tools, which we can still see on the tv. It has also been built for the people, who refuse to watch the tv. The propaganda machine deliberately chose to show clowns instead of politicians, shouting competitions instead of real debates. So that the foundations of system would seem shaky and built on lies. The reality seemed to be so beyond the truth that people, who refused to believe in propaganda, were sure, it would fall apart.[v] However, it did not, it turned into a very real war.
Now I will discuss why it is so important to prevent the spread of propaganda, both: on the level of the population and on the level of the government. Propaganda on the level of population is dangerous because it leads to people blindly supporting the government and not holding it accountable for its wrongdoings. It is also dangerous on a deeply personal level because the world of the people, who blindly believe in propaganda may fall apart in case their illusions disappear. That could lead to emotional and psychological damage.[vi] Propaganda on the government level is dangerous because people within governmental structures can start believing the lies that are fed to people. For example, the deputy head of Rossotrudnichestvo, Natalia Poklonskaya, claims that there has been a diversion of information within the government. She specifically referred to Russian troops expecting to be met with flowers, instead of resistance in Ukraine.[vii] Which could lead the army being less prepared for the battle and to demoralization.
Even though it is important to fight propaganda on both levels, I am focusing on population, as I think they are the main recipient of it and the main reason why it is created in the first place. Unfortunately, however, it is almost impossible to change the mid of the people, who were poisoned with propaganda. It is possible to protect oneself from it with facts and logic in advance. It is also possible to protect children by teaching them to think critically.[viii] Therefore, I believe one of the strongest tools for the future security of Europe and the whole world is the ability to think critically.
What about the present? Even though the situation we find ourselves in seems to be lacking any room for hope, I would like to end this essay on a somewhat positive note. According to the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who received a Nobel price for his theory of decision making, more than 90% of the time our actions are irrational. That means that all that time we are acting automatically, emotionally or under the influence of social norms or habits. Our decisions can become rational under three conditions: first, the decision that we are about to take must be important for us personally. Second, there is enough time, information and knowledge in order to think about the decision. Finally, we are calm when making the decision. There is a way to get rid of the propaganda in our heads if we meet all those three conditions and that is what humanity needs to strive towards in order to achieve peace and security.[ix]
Скажи Гордеевой [Tell Gordeeva] YouTube. 31.03.2022. “Наталья Поклонская: «Украина — это не Россия»” [Natalia Poklonskaya: “Ukraine is not Russia”] [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oXkDSgmybs [Accessed 01.04.2022]
Istories Media. 25.03.2022. Можно ли защититься от пропаганды [Is it possible to protect oneself from propaganda?] [online] Available at: https://istories.media/amp/opinions/2022/03/25/mozhno-li-zashchititsya-ot-propagandi/ [Accessed 01.04.2022]
Meduza. 01.03.2022. Вторжение в Украину — это финальная битва Путина с реальностью. Максим Трудолюбов — о том, как проиграть войну, просто начав ее [The attack on Ukraine is a final battle of Putin with reality. Maksim Trudolyubov about how to lose a war by just starting one] [online] Available at: https://meduza.io/feature/2022/03/01/vtorzhenie-v-ukrainu-eto-finalnaya-bitva-putina-s-realnostyu [Accessed 01.04.2022] (Прим. ред.: Издание «Медуза» внесено Минюстом РФ в реестр СМИ-иноагентов).
[i] Istories Media. 2022
[ii] DW. 24.03.2022
[iv] Istories Media. 2022
[v] Meduza. 2022
[vi] DW. 05.03.2022
[vii] Скажи Гордеевой. 2022
[viii] Istories Media. 2022