Fake news, information warfare and the weaponization of information have become everyday topics within the Western strategic discourse. According to the dominant Western view it is the cyber domain together with the all-penetrating social media that form the dangerous cocktail that makes democratic Western societies vulnerable to the predatory policies and actions of adversarial states. Although the weaponization of information has become a household word connected to many actors, Russia is at the epicenter of this phenomenon.
According to the dominant Western narrative, ever since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 Russia has been targeting Western societies and states with fake news and other manifestations of weaponized information. This is certainly true, but this Western take on Russia only scantly touches on the real problem in the defense domain. By defining the threat inadequately, many Western states are developing erroneous countermeasures to the challenge posed by Russia. Choosing to neglect the military aspects of the confrontation with Russia, it is possible to focus on the “easy” and “small” responses to the challenge that it poses. Expelling a few diplomats, talking tough at the UN, adding a few new names to the list of sanctioned oligarchs or improving strategic communications are ways to express outrage and resolve without actually doing much and without spending extra dollars or Euros.
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Over-focusing on the information domain of the Russia-West confrontation means under-focusing on efforts aimed at bolstering military defense at the national and NATO levels. This problem is most acute in Europe, where traditional defense capability has withered away ever since the early 1990s. Rebuilding “real” defense capability in Europe would take more than a decade and cost hundreds of billions of extra Euros. Thus, it is politically easier to focus on the weaponization of information, aggressive troll farms, fake news and election meddling. Taking defense seriously would actually mean a long-term commitment of effort and resources.
The dominant Western take on the weaponization of information and fake news particularly has three analytical problems that actually hinder any attempts to prevent malign interference within Western societies and against the interests of Western states. First, the contemporary fake news narrative assigns Russia a dominant position within the competitive international arena, despite its many weaknesses in the political, economic, military and even in the information domain. Second, hyping fake news and election meddling overlooks some domestic problems within the Western states themselves that need to be addressed over the long run. Third, the Western “fake news” narrative over-accentuates the information domain in international relations. Even though information is—and has always been—an important factor and a “tool” for states and other actors, focusing on information leads easily to the under-accentuation on other domains—particularly the military domain.
First, analyzing statements by Western policymakers and public officials as well as media reports on Russian fake news, election meddling and a host of other similar topics, one could easily be fooled to assume that Russia is located at the peak of the global power structure. The sheer volume of “news” reports and warnings on Russia’s influence in Western societies is staggering. The Kremlin is portrayed as a monolithic hub of power, which has weaponized information and is now taking aim at the West.
It has become so commonplace to report on the prospects of Russian election meddling before any upcoming elections that we are actually approaching “crying wolf syndrome”: in order to be heard, one needs to shout louder. Election meddling hardly gets people to raise their eyebrows anymore as we have seen and heard about it so many times during the last four years: from the United States to France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, the Czech Republic and Finland to point some examples. And election meddling is just theme within the broader category of information warfare and fake news.
The Western fake-news narrative empowers Russia. It assigns Russia with imagined abilities and agency that it does not deserve. And at the same time, the fake news narrative compels Western decisionmakers to respond in a way that actually amplifies Russia’s aura of power. By responding to the very vague threat of information warfare Western states are bolstering Russia’s powerbase and its possibilities to formulate the rules of the international power game. Russia has the initiative and the West is forced to react.
“Troll farms” and Russian paid ads in Facebook and Twitter have become hot topics within the West, as if it could be taken for granted that being exposed to untrue content in the social media makes people change their opinion on issues that are deep-rooted in their identity and many national narratives. In fact, narratives are not easily changed. Besides, narratives are collective social facts, which transcend any particular individual.