Do we counter or compete with Russia’s challenge in the information environment?

Do we counter or compete with Russia’s challenge in the information environment?

  • რიგა 2016
  • 25 ოქტომბერი, 2016
  • 15:25
  • ადმინისტრატორი

Dr. Ieva Bērziņa The Ukrainian crisis highlighted the importance of information as a factor in security. The intensity with which Russia constructed its own so-called reality in the Ukraine crisis, as well as its scope, came as a surprise to many political and military leaders in the West. As a result, “countering Russia’s disinformation” has become a political priority in many western countries, the EU and NATO. There is no doubt that Russia’s activities in the information environment are disturbing, but is counteringthem the best way to react to this problem? Perhaps a change in paradigm to “competition in the information environment” may provide more effective and sustainable solutions? The essence of a “countering paradigm” is acting against the opponent, whereas the core of the “competition paradigm” is providing a better alternative, and some considerations in favour of the latter do exist.

The main argument relates to the root of the problem. The Kremlin’s approach to domestic and international political communication is indeed different to that of western democracies. The concept of “political technologies” as a blatantly manipulative method of communication has been used for almost two decades to describe the particularities of political communication in post-Soviet Russia. Due to the specific features of Russia’s political system, like the dependency of the media on the political elite, the lack of a strong civil society, legal nihilism and others, political manipulators are limited mainly by their fantasy, rather than by public demand for accurate information. As the boundaries between internal and international communication are becoming increasingly blurred, the same type of mindset is being used in Russia’s communication with global audiences. Russia’s growing presence in the Western information environment is leading to a clash of two different political communication cultures, with the scale of manipulation in the Russian media being difficult to understand in the West.

However, the main problem is not the tools and techniques of manipulation used by the Kremlin in the global information environment, because they relate only to the problem of how views and ideas are being promoted. A more important question is about what these views and ideas actually are? Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov writes: “[..] there has been a relative reduction in the influence of the so-called “historical West” that was used to seeing itself as the master of the human race’s destinies for almost five centuries. The competition on the shaping of the world order in the 21st century has toughened.”[i] The key issue in relation to the confrontation between Russia and the West in the information environment is the fact that Russia is developing a different system of views on the world’s future development.

What are the major differences in the world views promoted by the West and Russia? The key contradiction is that in the post-Cold War situation, the US and its western allies acted according to a belief in their global dominance based on the moral superiority of western democracy. Whereas, Russia has developed the idea of a world order with several power centres and diversity in models of political and economic development. These distinct visions are at the heart of many narratives promoted by Russia. For example, the need to return to the principles of Westphalian sovereignty and non-intervention, the rejection of American exceptionalism and the democracy promoting initiatives of the West as a tool of influence, the dysfunction of western democracy, the need to preserve the UN and the UN Security Council as the main platform for international dialogue and decision making, and many more. The problem is that these views, to at least some extent, echo global development trends. Marc F. Plattner notes that democracy, as a global standard, is being called into question due to the declining economic and political performance of advanced democracies, the growing vitality of authoritarian regimes and the consequent shift in the global balance between democratic and authoritarian countries.[ii]

In such complicated circumstances the “competition paradigm” provides more effective principles for the development of communication strategies, because no matter how disturbing Russia’s communication may be, in the end, it is western democracies that provide each and every individual with more freedoms and give people the opportunity to live the lives they want. This is a far more important message than unmasking Russia’s disinformation. In other words, the emphasis must be put on what we stand for, rather than what we are against. Of course, it does not mean that we should not increase awareness of the tools and techniques used by Russia to influence western societies. But this may not be enough. It also has to be admitted that the formulation and communication of what we do stand for is a difficult task, but we should do this to protect what has been achieved in the interests and well-being of ordinary people.

The “competition paradigm” implies a shift in focus from Russia to our own societies. It has two aspects. One is the assessment of the impact of Russia’s information activities, because the end state is determined by the views, attitudes and behaviour of people, not by media content. The question is really about – how effective Russia’s activities in the information environment really are? Aren’t we overreacting in some cases and yet not noticing dangerous developments in other cases? The second aspect is related to our responsiveness to the needs and wants of our societies in the light of a declining trust in governments, the media, and the political process in general. The strengthening of the long-term relationship between governments and societies is the best solution for how democratic societies can decrease their internal vulnerabilities to prevent them from being used as leverage by an adversary. And finally, it is also worth considering that countering, is in its essence, a reaction. When we counter something, we follow the actions of the opponent. The West must lead by providing a positive and appealing vision about the future development of their societies and the World.

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