Why The West Can’t Win This Propaganda War

I happened across this post by Alicia Wanless aka La Generalista – A Propagandist for the Digital Age, on LinkedIn and immediately got in touch with her to ask if I could share it here with you. I hope you enjoy Alicia’s article as much as I did. ~ Nicole

 “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of hundred battles”

“To know your enemy, you must become your enemy”

The Art of War, Sun Tzu

Let’s just pretend, for a minute, that what we read and hear in the Western media about Kremlin-driven information warfare is entirely true. In order to stop Russia, they argue. Western governments and media outlets need to set up alternative sources of information to win Russian hearts and minds. Unfortunately, if the commentary of pundits and media coverage on Russian hybrid warfare are any measure by which to judge the efficacy of such efforts, the West has little chance of winning this propaganda war.

The problem is in the West’s approach. In attacking their perceived enemy – in many cases embodied by RT (formerly Russia Today), the state funded Russian media outlet – Western figures and journalists not only reinforce RT’s stance as an ‘alternative news’ source to Western media but they also ostracise audiences affected by the Kremlin’s information campaigns. To provide a simplified analogy, it’s like attempting to bring another person around to your side of an argument by telling him he is stupid for believing blatant lies.

Want to Win Hearts & Minds? Avoid Denigrating Them First

In this propaganda war, Russian information is frequently described as “crazy” and “insane”. Similarly, Russians are depicted as brainwashed, because “90 percent of Russians get news from national television”. Suggesting that what a target audience accepts as fact is crazy, and that they are too conditioned to know the difference is denigrating. For many, such statements would be perceived as an affront to their ego.

Research has shown that attempting to promote a counterargument in a way that threatens a person’s ego will actually result in the opposite – the threatened person will believe more stridently in their original position, rather than accepting the new information. Thus, stating that it is insane or crazy to accept Russian information as fact will only encourage those who currently believe or are inclined to believe Russian media to accept it even more.

According to a recent poll conducted in Russia by the FOM Group, 57% of respondents said that Russian media provides an objective description of life in the country while 29% said it does not. Over 70% of respondents replied they believe state media news more than non-government sources, while only 16% answered the opposite. Many in the West accept such polls as proof that Russians are brainwashed. Propaganda countermeasures, as a result, stem from a belief that “if only Russians knew the true facts they might think differently.” Any counter measures based on such a position of moral or philosophical superiority is destined for failure. Such an approach assaults Russians with arguments that will only make them more defensive, resulting in a deeper entrenchment in what Russians already believe.

A better approach would be to assume that Russians can and do compare their own existing socio-economic and political realities with their knowledge of the West and with what is portrayed by national media. As rational actors, they see possible discrepancies in the ‘real versus virtual worlds’ and can discern government propaganda from coverage that coincides with their own observations. After all, this is a country that has experienced the rise and fall of Soviet propaganda. Few other populations have had such a curtain fall before them. In many ways, Russians are more aware of propaganda attempts made against them, than their Western counterparts.

An audience that is conscious and aware is more difficult to crack form a counterpropaganda perspective. However, if one wishes to win the hearts and minds, an approach based on respect and understanding is required.

Facts Alone Do Not Make Reality

As a child you might have believed in Santa Claus. And why not? Your parents told you he existed. Many of your friends probably believed the same. News coverage on Christmas Eve tracks his progress. Heck, the old man brought you presents – how much more proof did you need? The small world of your childhood made Father Christmas a reality; to many children he is a truth. That’s the problem with reality – it’s relative to what you are told, and what those around you believe. Truth is as much based on facts as it is on one’s perception of the world – how their mental framing sees and understands the environment around them.

Attempting to counter Russian information with so-called “myth-busters” will do little to change the minds of those who already accept such coverage as truth. Setting aside the mathematical challenges of disproving disinformation with proof otherwise (it takes far less time to create and spread lies than it does to prove them wrong), fighting lies with facts actually does little change perspectives. Changing minds comes down to the framing of an argument.

In some studies, facts have been proven to have less influence than the framing of an argument in convincing people to accept new information. Indeed, facts are more prone to being viewed as biased, if such facts are not framed in a way that resonates with the target audience. Likewise, audiences are more likely to accept new information if it is framed within their existing ideology or beliefs.

Russians overwhelmingy support Putin with an 86% approval rating. A vast majority of Russians (88%) believe the West is conducting information warfare against them. Far from being ashamed of their country, 86% are proud to be living in Russia and 81% have never thought of moving abroad. Any attempts to sway Russians must fit within their existing values and perceptions. Proving that RT lied will have little impact.

If they don’t like you, they won’t believe you

During the Cold War there was no Internet and the Soviet populations locked behind the Iron Curtain had no access to independent sources of information. They had little knowledge of the West and were somewhat easy targets for a plethora of Western information services, such as Voice of America and the BBC. From within the crumbling system, the wonders of freedom and dreams of making it rich held appeal, and in 1989 they seemed attainable. Any such illusions, at least in Russia, were well shattered with the disastrous 1990s – a tumultuous decade now closely associated with liberals and dermokrats (a derisive nickname using a slang Russian word for shit.)

Beyond their diet of state-fed television, Russians now travel considerably, work abroad and have access to the world via the web. Russians can now make up their minds based on their own experiences.

The prevailing Russian view on the West is not a positive one. A poll from February 2015 indicated that 81% of Russians viewed the United States negatively (up from 44% the year before) and 71% disliked the European Union. Just 40% of respondents believed in strengthening ties with the West. This creates a significant challenge for any Westerners hoping to win Russian hearts and minds, as likeability is a factor in a target audience accepting counter-messaging.

Studies suggest “that likeable sources and sources that share characteristics with the message recipient are” more likely to be accepted by the target audience. If the West is viewed unfavourably, it doesn’t matter how much money it sinks into countering Russian information, it will have little affect.

Attacking RT Only Strengthens its position

RT positions itself as an alternative voice in news. It’s a strategically smart move. Every time someone, particularly from the West, criticises RT the outlet can simply refer to its positioning as the motive for such challenge. In other words, Russian media claims that it is attacked because it alone offers a counter narrative to the English-dominated Western news hegemony. Not only does such criticism provide RT with controversy and thus free PR, especially when such attacks equate the outlet to ISIS, but it also lends legitimacy, at least among those who already accept the outlet as a true alternative source.

The more negative attention lavished on RT, the better it is for the outlet. It’s like the media equivalent of a badly behaved celebutant – who is famous for being famous. RT is, in the minds of a growing audience, an acceptable alternative source of news simply because the established media says that it is not. With American trust in mass media at an all time low (40%), the more RT is criticised by the established outlets, the more legitimate it will appear to those who have lost trust in traditional news organisations.

The best way to diminish RT’s influence is not to struggle against or block it from the airwaves, but to embrace it as a media outlet and then ignore it. The less controversy stirred, the less free coverage it will receive. If it is accepted as a mainstream outlet, RT will lose its status as the outlier, as the lone voice speaking the truth. Alas, this is a position most in the media and Western government agencies will be unwilling to take, particularly because the threat of RT presents the justification for seeking increased funding from their own governments.

Western media outlets that position themselves as ‘on the edge of public debate’ may also consider providing more coverage to events that RT targets in their reports. Beyond reducing RT’s claims of exclusive or alternative coverage, this could also elevate media outlets in the eyes of local public and restore the perceived loss of power of the ‘fifth estate’ in shaping national debates on pressing issues.

What Is To Be Done?

The current Western approach to countering Russian information warfare will fail. Disproving lies and opening new Russian TV stations will not win hearts and minds. Engaging in a battle of online trolls can only help if the version of reality propagated resonates with Russians or those who have come to accept Russian information as fact.

And this is to say nothing of the paltry budgets assigned to counter the alleged Russian propaganda. U.S. lawmakers recently introduced a new bill seeking $30 million to counter Russian and ISIS propaganda. To put that into perspective in terms of ad spending, the Canadian government spent $21 million on advertising to promote its Economic Action Plan in 2011-12 – to an internal audience of 35 million people. RT alone enjoyed $216 million in funding for 2015. $30 million spread across multiple efforts will have little to no effect.

If the West truly wants to counter Russian information campaigns, it should consider an unorthodox approach: acceptance. Of course, this is a most unlikely scenario – thus the prognostication at the beginning of this article stating that the West will not win this propaganda war. For to win this information war requires taking actions that are most uncomfortable, such as:

  • Accepting Russia as a legitimate force in international relations. Russians will not accept any other narrative than one that recognises their country as a world power. Any message the West wants Russians to accept must be framed in this context. Diminishing Russian contributions to world history, such as their role in ending the Second World War, will only ostracise them further.
  • Embrace and befriend Putin. Leader popularity ratings soar during conflict. Conversely, when things are stable, leader ratings tend to drop. Accepting Putin back into the international fold could be a political kiss of death. Such acceptance must be done from a position of strength. The more grounds gained by pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine, the weaker the position for accepting Putin becomes.
  • Learn to live with RT. The state of journalism is shaky at best. The West really has no moral ground to stand on when it comes to media integrity – just look at its role in drumming up support for war in Iraq. Struggling against an outlet like RT only seems hypocritical. It would be better to adopt a view that RT is simply the Russian version of Fox News, and stop strengthening the outlet’s position as an alternative news source through constant criticism.
  • Develop a compelling counter-narrative that is rooted in Russian reality. The lures of democracy and capitalism might have held allure during the Cold War, but no more, at least not in Russia. Even the bait of European Union membership is losing its appeal – if ever it had any in Russia, which was likely never under any illusion it would ever be considered. The West must find a new narrative or ideology that can appeal to Russians – and indeed, increasingly its own local populations that are turning to Russian media for an alternative. Without this beacon, Russians will continue to develop a narrative of their own that will not include the West – one based on a pan-Slavic Orthodox culture, with Russia at the centre.

If the current approach is pursued, it is unlikely to achieve the intended results – namely, that Russians will start seeing the world through our lenses. On the contrary, hyped up rhetoric is likely to reinforce existing stereotypes on both sides thus spiralling into a vicious circle of mistrust and conflict. In this kind of environment, when one side cannot really influence the other to either bridge the gap or affect behaviours, the only target audience that will be affected are those that are already entrenched on one side or the other – in this case, the Russians believing more fervently in Putin, and Westerners fearing even more the Russians.

Alicia Wanless studies influence and propaganda in a digital age, applying her research to strategic communications campaigns. Alicia’s 15 years of professional experience cover a broad scope of skills that uniquely position her as a propagandist, including work as a security analyst and strategic communications architect. In addition to applied research, Alicia has created and delivered training on managing information in a digital age, including on monitoring, investigating and verifying user generated content and what spreads online. Connect with Alicia on Twitter and LinkedIn.