From Psychological Defence to Propaganda War
Russia from one side and Ukraine and the Western countries from the other are intensively picking up pace in psychological defence and propaganda war. The objectives and criteria for success are pretty similar for both parties: to demonise and deter the adversary; legitimise their activities to the general public, mobilise their populations and promote their political elites. In the light of public opinion polls on the support to their respective governments and opposition to their adversaries, all three parties have mostly reached their objectives, but should it be considered an evidence of success and a sustainable strategy? Do the parties also have a sensible exit-strategy or will a psychological Sitzkrieg one day inevitably lead to Blitzkrieg?
A psychological war, waged by experts, can be won - regardless of the ideology - by using certain practices (democratically elected prime ministers are just as eager to climb into fighter jets as authoritarian presidents), methods and patterns (just as in conventional war, it’s important to deter and destroy the enemy, no matter how noble and benevolent we are). Showing empathy and understanding scores no points in this game.
The arms race and escalation of activities follows the same logic in psychological war as the arms race during the Cold War: any activity of one party creates the need of the other party to balance it and urges pre-emptive action, which in turn provokes counteraction. Thus inspiring one-another makes each step more aggressive than the one before and escalates a conflict, while all parties are convinced that they are pursuing a just cause and are focussed on self-defence, as all their means are merely defensive. The aggressive enemy, alas, leaves no other option but to act pre-emptively or on a new level.
In theory, psychological defence can be set up initially by an open, balanced and factual model, that reflects the reality and is not prejudiced, in which case every activity of oneself as well as the adversary is assessed rationally, sensibly and separately, and the communication is not filtered. Facts always take precedence in this model, when shaping the positions, while also accepting alternative explanations. Such model is meant for a knowledgeable and educated consumer, who won’t expect simplified and exaggerated solutions without a convincing analysis. The disadvantage of this model is that it’s resource-intensive and that all the information - massively manipulated by the adversary - can neither be analysed with the speed and skill required (as it happened after the Malaysian passenger plane was shot down) nor countered effectively.
When starting to lose out with the honest and open model, a solution is often found in reconstructing (manipulating) the image of oneself and of the enemy, allowing to retake the initiative with fewer resources. As a general rule, replacing an objective image on the media with a distorted one is justified by the practical need to retaliate in a deserving and operative manner, to mislead the adversary, or with the argument that it’s more effective mobilising and motivating the man in the street, and besides, it was meant as a temporary measure anyhow.
In a reconstructed information field it’s essential to set a single clear goal and to accomplish it a polarised image is created of the enemy and oneself (dark vs. light forces), attitudes are attributed and finally carefully selected facts are served with the “right” attitudes. Adherence to a clear and confident message is central to the process, as well as keeping the initiative (truth sides with the one who says it first) and quantitative pressure (as many mutually corroborative messages as possible). The methods include presenting true information with lies, so that the consumer - while recognising a familiar fact - also trusts the rest, as well as patronising the reader (e.g. “Even a child know that Putin is insane”) and labelling the adversary (e.g. “fascists”, “Nazis”, etc.). As a general rule, quantitative information is not source-referenced and, in case of conflicting data, a more favourable version is presented; if later on one fact or another turns out to have been fabricated, it’s suppressed. The main criterion for producing news and press releases is conformity to the preceding and the “right” ideology. One of the keys to popularity is a clear, resolute and increasing confrontation with the rival parties.
A reconstructed information field neither requires nor involves in-depth analysis of the facts or the use of scientific methods, as it would no longer be credible by applying them. Instead, self-legitimising expert opinions, presented by confident government officials or bearded opinion leaders, glorified with a fancy title, tend to prevail. The essayists of propaganda departments also gather wind under their wings in the process, while the ones presenting factual information are forced out of the media as sceptics and defeatists. The hesitant are soon paired with the enemy (“You’re either with us or against us!”), and a difference of opinion in one question is considered a sign of disloyalty also in others. Political elites, able to tell slogans and reconstructed information field from the facts, soon lose interest in the latter, as slogans facilitate gaining popularity more effectively.
As a result (especially in the case of a constrained information field), the man in the street might easily develop the belief that the presented facts reflect the objective reality and therefore, despite occasional inconsistencies, the prearranged images are true. A reconstructed reality does not pose a problem for the general populace as long as the news remains positive and credible to an extent. With bread still on the table there is a decreasing tendency to challenge the logic and plausibility of the news.
The main threat of a gripping and gradually deepening psychological war is that it draws the attention away from objective circumstances, self-criticism as well as carrying practically necessary activities of little media value. In time it may sever the political leadership from access to objective information (Hitler’s problem with news from the front during WW2), because bearers of calibrated or distorted, but good news are rewarded and critical experts are ostracised.
The second threat of a reconstructed information field is that the distorted information that was meant to deter the adversary will also be accepted for face value by the populace and eventually by the elites of its source. It’s mostly encouraged by the supremacy of this so-called constructed worldview over the actual circumstances. Once the construction has been set in motion and the wish for plausibility has been overpowered, every new vision and piece of news seems to drift further apart from the truth compared to the ones before.
Published 25 May 2015