Recently, in Latvia’s capital a new “symbol” of the struggle against Russia was unveiled. The Riga NATO HQ, which is tasked with conducting the information war in Eastern Europe, is the third American propaganda center. There are only two more in Europe, one in Belgium and one in Spain. Why was Latvia worthy of this “honor”? How can the actions of NATO journalists affect the relations between the West and Russia? And how can a common citizen protect himself from the “brainwashing”? RuBaltic.Ru went on to discuss these issues with Sergey VOLODENKOV, a candidate of political science and the scientific lead of the Political Management And Public Relations program at the Lomonosov Moscow State University Political Science Department:
Mr. Volodenkov, last week the media were brimming with news of NATO opening a headquarters in Riga to wage information war across Eastern Europe. What do you think of this?
Honestly speaking, I am not particularly surprised by this piece of news. In recent years, there has been a steady trend of similar structures appearing in various parts of the world. Perhaps, the most recent example is the creation of the 77th Brigade of British armed forces planned for April 2015, which will be tasked with informational countermeasures in social media. All of this points to the intensification of the informational struggle in the global network space and its national segments. In essence, in modern hybrid wars the importance of information components is steadily and significantly increasing, which needs the creation of structures, similar to the one created in Riga.
Their activity consists of propaganda influence on the public conscience, the promotion of the invested party’s values, symbols and meaning, advantageous interpretations of various processes and events relating to socio-political reality.
This is how the war for men’s minds is done, if we are using Walter Lippmann’s words (an American writer, journalist and political analyst, author of the original concept of the public opinion. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes in 1958 and 1962 – RuBaltic.Ru) and the creation of the pseudoreality, which will later be the only true one.
Obviously, the role of these centers in the current information society will only grow. And their activities will be used at an even greater extent in military operations due to the significant propagandist and manipulation potential of modern information and communication technologies acting as non-lethal tools of warfare. So the creation of another information center, in this case a NATO one, is completely expected and predictable.
The only other two similar NATO offices in Europe are in Belgium and Spain. In your opinion, why was Latvia chosen as a site for the third HQ?
In my opinion, this is a symbolic decision in a way. Riga-Moscow uneasy relations in this case were successfully used to demonstrate the support of official Riga by NATO. Even though the extraterritorial quality of current network communications makes it possible to create such centers even in the Antarctic and still influence any of the planet’s regions. The symbolic use of Latvia as some center of informational confrontation with Russia fits the logic of the current Latvian government. So it is more of a political decision to make another “symbol” of fighting Russia. This state of affairs pleases both NATO leadership, the US administration and the Latvian government.
What is the role of the Baltics in the information war between USA and Russia?
In hybrid wars, opponents (in most cases) don’t have direct military clashes with each other, instead using foreign territories and foreign military power.
I believe that in this case USA are using the Baltics as a site to conduct their information war with Russia and avoid direct confrontation.
The Baltics are being used in a number of ways: attempting to pressure Russia from the Baltic states’ side as part of solving various international problems, initiating and forming informational grounds for a negative representation of Russian authorities and the Russian political system headed by Putin in the European media space, creating and basing NATO military structures on Russia’s borders. I think that, in this case, the Baltics are not a partner in the US match with Russia. It is more along the lines of a completely puppet-master use of the Baltic states by the American government.
Can we view the establishment of the information HQ in Riga as some sort of show of concern by the USA? After all, not all of Europe sees Russia as its enemy, for example, Eastern European countries like Austria, Czech republic and Slovakia, even though not so long ago they were calling for more sanctions on Russia.
I believe that this is not a show of concern, but a fairly concrete plan of information work to lessen Russian influence in Eastern European countries and form pro-American value-meaning models in the European media space, and especially online. As I see it, in the coming years we will see another wave of color revolutions (possibly, in pretty soft regimes when it comes to legal change of political leaders) in Eastern European countries, who support Russia today in certain ways. I mostly mean countries like Slovakia and the Czech republic, which will have elections in a few years. And the corresponding work has already been started by the Americans.
Online influence aimed mostly on the politically active youth, which, as seen from the real practices since de Gaulle times, is the driving force of revolutionary change, is looking very promising as a tool to pressure political regimes in Eastern European countries and form a pro-American worldview. Obviously, all of these activities are predominantly anti-Russian and don’t benefit our country’s position in the world in any way. Also, it is possible that the center in Riga will be used to influence the internet users in Eastern Europe.
Tell us a bit about the specifics of NATO journalistic work. Does it live up to norms of journalistic ethics, in your opinion? How do you evaluate the work of American and Western media as a whole?
If we are talking about NATO as a military political union, then I wouldn’t evaluate NATO journalists, because at war you don’t really measure methods with their ethics, but with their efficiency. Military operations in the information space are usually done without concerning oneself with ethics, this is not something only NATO does.
There is an enemy, there is a goal, there are instruments of information, communication, propaganda and manipulation. There is a target – public consciousness. And that is it. There were never any ethics here.
When talking about the activities of American and Western media, then we must note the absolute mediatization and virtualization of the current public policy. The majority of the US and Western European population views reality based on the information gathered from the media. In this situation, the potential for manipulation and propaganda in the media rises significantly and is actively used to influence public consciousness, to control of the public opinion on various socio-political issues. It is obvious that the majority of the Western media are working on a private order from the vested party behind them, there is not a word on freedom of speech. The information intended for mass consumption is usually agenda-driven, pretentious and, in many cases, intentionally warped. All for the sake of building simple and advantageous explanatory models of socio-political reality for the common citizen, which are blunt and simple, showing, who are the enemies, the friends, the aggressors, the victims.
The events in Ukraine showed the extreme dependence of the Western media as they started an anti-Russian information campaign in the European media space and used a significant number of manipulative and propaganda techniques, distorting and concealing facts and one-sided interpretations of events. So I wouldn’t expect any “ethics” from the staggering majority of the Western media. In many cases, a modern journalist is just a conductor of other people’s viewpoints and interests, an instrument in a big manipulative game.
Do you think that there will be a place for certain Latvian journalists in this NATO HQ, for those who have “dutifully” kept the negative information tone in relation to Russia for multiple years? Or will all of the positions be reserved for Americans?
I get your sarcasm, however, the structure of information centers such as this includes the use of American instructors and advisors, as well as local operators.
However, as strange as it sounds, there probably won’t be a place for “some Latvian journalists”.
Militarized centers like this, as a general rule, use very different techniques of subtle influence and propaganda, than those generally used within the traditional journalistic space. They are a lot easier to use for this kind of work through less known and unknown “operators” rather than the “notorious” anti-Russian journalists, the level of trust to which has been low due to their agendas.
How will the work of the NATO HQ affect Latvian information space? Should we look out for increasing ethnic tensions in the country’s near future?
That is a very serious question. According to a number of media, the center’s director Jānis Kārkliņš has already stated that the agency will be “militarizing social media” in order to combat pro-Russian sentiment in Latvia, where around 25% of the population are ethnic Russians. That way, I can predict with high probability an increase in anti-Russian sentiments in Latvian media space in the nearest time. As well as increased pressure on the Russian-speaking population and those sympathizing Russia. Aside from that, we will probably notice that “a significant amount of Latvia’s residents” view Russia as an aggressor, who needs to be stopped with NATO military action, which must legitimize the expansion of NATO bases on Russian borders in the public consciousness.
Considering that Latvia is currently presiding within the EU, won’t such an obvious presence of American propagandists on its territory hinder diplomatic talks within the EU, for example, between two blocs: those who are anti-Russian and those who want to mend relations with Russia? In other words, how will this information HQ affect the sentiment in European space, and more precisely, relations between the West and Russia?
I don’t think a problem of that sort really exists. In most cases, the Western media space is controlled by the Americans, as well as the policy conducted by the leading EU countries, which is not done by themselves, but shaped in Washington. These are modern realities that should be openly admitted. Regarding two blocs of countries, they already exist today, and I doubt that Latvia can somehow redistribute that power balance, which was formed within the EU concerning views on Russia among the member-states. I wouldn’t be surprised, if that information center made in Riga will be used to pressure governments in countries, who don’t support anti-Russian sanctions, as well as negativizing the leaders of these countries among their own population. However, this kind of work has been done by the United States for quite some time, and I don’t think Latvia can have a great effect on its efficiency.
Very recently, American experts stated that USA lost the information war to Russia. The context of that statement was unflattering though. As if Russian media were fanning the flames of the information war with “their anti-American messages”. What do you think is the reason that, despite such statements, as well as powerful techniques of mass zombifying, America still can’t turn the world community against Russia?
This statement was made by only 30 experts, who could be representing agencies interested in budget increases for information wars. I would be cautious with the conclusions of that report. It is obvious that the Americans are undertaking an intensive information and communication operation in the global media space, and we can’t ignore that. A different case is that a monopoly in the information space may cause psychological fatigue. Thinking people clearly understand that they are limited in sources to form their own worldview. And, because of this, a demand appears for alternative sources, which show different points of view and not just pro-American. Russia Today became an important instrument of Russian information influence abroad. However, it is clearly not enough if we want to compete in the European media space and promote our ideas and meanings, there is a lot of hard work ahead.
Can you give some practical advice on how to protect yourself from the flow of false information in this state of geopolitical instability?
First of all, consumption of information needs to be thought through, regardless of its source. Being critical of the information, understanding that facts in most cases are distorted and interpreted in the interests of one side or the other. This allows to resist manipulation and propaganda influence to a certain extent.
In addition, to form a personal unbiased worldview you need to get information on one issue from different sources, who might have opposite positions on it. Nevertheless, this will help escape the black-and-white model and the friend-foe mentality and form an understanding like in the “officer’s daughter” meme – “Not everything is so unambiguous”. (When a Ukrainian online influence agent was typing a message on behalf of “a officer’s daughter” in Crimea who said that “Not everything is so unambiguous” and forgot to change accounts and posted this from a man’s account – RuBaltic.Ru)
In any case, a non-thinking, non-critical consumption of information is a clear way to become a victim of political propaganda and manipulation, regardless of who is doing it. In the end, we are the ones responsible for the worldviews we accept and live in, which means we must choose what information to trust and act upon, and what to throw in the trash bin. Our choice defines the reality we will live in.
Translation: Pavel Shamshiev.