War Is Peace

19 august 2015

Andrey Bystritskiy - Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, Professor, Dean of the Faculty of Communications, Media and Design at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, member of the Union of Writers.

Resume: There are a lot of stereotypes prevalent mostly within the intellectual milieu and related to an extremely na?ve understanding of the modern world in general and of Russia in particular.

There are a lot of stereotypes prevalent mostly within the intellectual milieu and related to an extremely naïve understanding of the modern world in general and of Russia in particular. One of these intellectual clichés is the claim that Russia is losing some “information war” waged in recent years by the West in the broad sense of the term and led by the United States, esp ecially since the onset of the Ukrainian events. It is noteworthy that this common “liberal” concept characteristic of several dozen thousands people, who live predominantly in large cities, is extremely controversial: On the one hand, “liberals” claim that this “aggressive propaganda” is being conducted by the Russian media while “Western media are only honestly fulfilling their professional duties,” but on the other, there is a “war,” that is, confrontation, and Russia is losing it. In other words, there is no war but nevertheless there are both winners and losers in it.

I believe that this oddity results from a misunderstanding of the modern world.

As a matter of fact, my thesis is this: Russian media are definitely not losing the ongoing information competition between various media that are in some way or other nationally or territorially attributed (Russian, US, British, European, Western, Asian, Chinese, and so on). Neither Russia nor the Russian media are suffering a defeat in this complicated process, known as “information war.” Quite the contrary, they are acting successfully and achieving some impressive results. Incidentally, a lot of Western politicians and analysts are saying this in so many words. Plenty of quotes can be cited to that effect.

However, to understand why the Russian media in general and Russian political journalism in particular is enjoying success this “information war” should be structured.

First, analyze where, in what domain this confrontation is unfolding, what the modern information-communication space is and how it is organized.

Second, understand on what fronts the “war” is being fought, what is being won, where and by whom, and what is being seized or ceded if it is a war.

Third, what kind of a world is it where such “wars” are possible? For instance, the “network society” is a very popular concept that is reduced to a system of social media although in reality the concept of the network society emerged before any social media came about (Georg Simmel actually introduc ed this concept, and even used the word “web” on the threshold of the 19th and the 20th centuries even though Emile Durkheim, essentially the father of modern sociology, wrote about something like that before him). So the creation of social media was not a cause but effect of the evolution of the network society.

The media space: old and new media

Even if there was a media revolution, it is effectively over now.

A new hierarchy has been established in the new information and communication environment t hat is dominated by professional media that have digested and integrated all the latest communication achievements.

There is a myth popular with the broad public, including many civil servants, to the effect that the so-called new media, especially social media (i.e., such as “VKontakte” or “Facebook”) have some special power and are gradually winning the information space from traditional media. I do not believe this is the case.

First of all, the very definition of new and social media is rather relativ e. In addition, all the elements of these media existed before.

Basically, my thesis, which is without a doubt debatable, is that social media have enriched human communication but have not changed its essence or given it any new substantive qualities.

Social media could be compared to the exoskeleton that is now used by some armies in the world. The exoskeleton, of course, gives man additional power, enabling him to lift concrete blocks or jump five meters high but it is only a quantitatively strengthened projection of man as such. Unlike the exoskeleton, the car has changed human life far more drastically.

It turns out that social media have simply multiplied kitchen gossip, which is interesting in and of itself, but suggests that the appearance of new Luddites – those who consciously minimize their presence in the social media if only for security considerations – is imminent. Because during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands or Russia in the middle of the past century, it was far more difficult to catch a person pasting up leaflets with information from the BBC or the Soviet Information Bureau than it is today to identify some malicious young or old man engaged in cruel, jealous trolling. The example of Snowden or Arrange is a lesson for everyone.

So this raises the question: Is the creation of social media on par with the invention of the wheel? A steam engine? For example, nuclear power proved to be important above all as a military threat. Thus, on the one hand, it enables countries such as North Korea to play all sorts of tricks and on the other, it is the most important element of mutual deterrence. Nevertheless, nuclear energy has not played such an important role in the economic domain. Are social media a kind of nuclear power – an apparently exciting, great thing but not very practical? Cosmonautics is marvelous of course, but humankind has in effect abandoned it. And it acts boorishly on earth. Isaac Asimov wrote The End of Eternity, a novel about the choice between the control of time and th e control of space flights. It is amusing that according to the author, nuclear power is an asset that can be useful or it can be useless.

In other words, social media do not eliminate the principal challenges: horrible wars, the hunger for power, and cruelty. Nor did I expect them to do so.

For instance, does the Islamic State (of Iraq and the Levant) need social media? Well, probably yes – to disseminate the picture of the execution of journalist [James] Foley. However, an automatic rifle is a more convenient control and mobilization tool.

So, in order to comprehend the effect of social media, several tiers can be singled out to see what changes have occurred in recent years.

If we look at society’s political life, social media have not made a significant impact on it. There is ample reason for saying this. Recent surveys show that television and radio (in their traditional definition) is a far more potent instrument of influence on society than social media. Thus, according to Eurobarometer, the radio remains the most effective European integration medium regardless of the way it is disseminated. In Russia, Europe and the United States, according to various services (Arbitron, TNC, the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion on Social and Econo mic Questions or the Levada Center) television remains the main source of news and information. In all, around three quarters of the population uses TV as a source of information.

In other words, human behavior is far more stable than it seems to be. Thus , the events on Tahrir Square in Cairo – the Internet was shut off – were mainly attributed to the mobilizing role of the mullah and the mosque. In Istanbul (social media are prohibited in Turkey), the main mobilizing institutions were student organizations and trade unions.

In 1848-49, a revolutionary conflagration erupted in Europe. There was no internet, radio or television there at the time. A few newspapers were published while mail was delivered mainly by horse and carriage.

When the Soviet Union was crumbling millions of Muscovites took to the streets without any independent television or radio, let alone Twitter. Despite the fact that residents in the capital city are closely involved in social networks the opposition has been unable to gather more than 10,000 people while average indicators are far more modest.

There are also other vivid examples of what is happening. As I previously wrote, at critical moments, the self-defense forces in Ukraine and the military in Thailand do not attack bloggers’ apartments or their servers but attack TV and radio stations.

That is to say, social media cannot replace traditional media. The reason must be because social media largely divide society and do not create an explosive effect. Needless to say, Facebook h as a bigger audience than any TV channel, but this audience is, as a general rule, divided into small segments. A blogger who has 100,000 subscribers usually gets only a few reposts so the wave subsides very quickly. And even though there are a lot of such waves there is no cohesion between them.

So, the volume of relevant knowledge, common to all, about ongoing developments disseminated by social media is very small. Particular sets of perceptions and facts circulate mainly among the relatively small, actually subcultural communities formed as social media branches.

Of course, there are circumstances that should be taken into account. Although they are not critical for my concept of the role of social media circumstances are essential.

First, the correlation of credibility and responsibility in social media. This is a common communication problem of course: as a matter of fact, lies appeared because of communication. Remember that Satan is the father of lies.

However, social media have greatly exacerbated this situation. The amount of unreliable information, half-lies and outright lies is enormous. It is impossible to cope with this problem. Moreover, the greater the need for accurate and reliable information, the higher the level of lies.

Second, the over-simplified access to various databases, libraries, collections, and so on. Even though this is actually an achievement of the new information-communication medium (the Internet) it is perhaps one of the most essential manifestations.

Social media have provided a unique opportunity for the dissemination of valuable knowledge, but human nature has cleverly turned social media primarily into a method of disseminating incredible intellectual garbage. As a result, the general structure of human consumption of valuable knowledge has almost not changed.

Third, a crucial change in content consumption models. Notably, new content consumption models are relatively independent of the content generation method. Simply, what was technically very difficult has become generally available: the multiple dissemination of content, delayed consumption, the creation of an individual information profile and so on. Of course, all of these phenomena were in some form or other available before: for example, it was possible to com pile dossiers with newspaper clippings or record a favorite TV program but the capabilities of the present content dissemination system are incomparable to the old capabilities.

Overall, I believe that media development entered an evolutionary and in a way controllable stage. At the top are professional media, which account for the lion’s share of content and at the bottom is a complicated and highly fragmented system of additional content dissemination among social media users. In other words, to reiterate, social media are technically perfect structures the role of which, however, adds up to ensuring long established types of communication. It is important to understand that over the past 10 years, professional media have mutated, mastered all the achievements of the new information-communication environment and turned into a symbiosis of new communication and content generation technologies.

As Manuel Castells wrote, “what has changed is not the kind of activities humankind is engaged in, but its technological ability to use as a direct productive force what distinguishes our species as a biological oddity: its superior capacity to process symbols.”

War fronts

Regarding the successes or defeats in the “information war,” it is, as a minimum, necessary to identify the war fronts, for example, geographically or by the kind of information sources they use.

In geographical terms, here is a comparison of the situation in Russia and the United States. American society practically does not trust its media. At any rate, according to Gallup, since 1994, public trust in television has fallen from 36 percent to 22 percent and in newspapers from 30 percent to 18 percent, in 2014. Meanwhile, the Internet started out with 21 percent, reaching 19 percent in 2014. It is indicative that 34 percent [of respondents] believe that their media are more or less balanced, 44 percent say they are too liberal and 19 percent regard them as too conservative. Translated into human language, strangely enough, this points to a wide gap between what the audience expects and what the media offer it. I would pay special attention to the 44 percent of Americans who regard their media as overly liberal. We will revisit this later on, as I believe that it is a very significant indicator.

In Russia, quite the contrary, there is a kind of a consensus. According to Gallup, 76 percent of the Russian public believes that the Russian media are quite reliable in providing coverage, for example, of the events in Ukraine. Characteristically, only 30 percent believe non-governmental media are credible and only 5 percent say so in respect to Western media. Even though these indicators are nothing more than food for thought, still, they are significant and interesting indicators.

Yet, even more significant are the same indicators with the breakdown by socio-educational status. Thus, Russian young people are neither better nor worse than people over 60. There is practically no difference in the level of trust between the 15-44 age brackets and those over 60 – 74 percent and 75 percent, respectively. It is only those over 45 but under 60 who show a higher level of support and trust – 80 percent. Of course, these indicators apply to the coverage of the Ukraine events but they are not in conflict with other data from other organizations.

Put simply, Russian society is quite cohesive and united in respect to information sources. In other words, there are no losses on the domestic front but only gains, both in essence and in comparison to other countries.

Sure, it can be argued that this is inside [the country] but what about outside? How is the Russian point of view presented on the world information market?

Yet even there the situation is not bad at all. This despite the very simple fact that Russia has a rather modest lineup of international media outlets broadcasting at least in English.

Nevertheless, the general consensus at reputable international political forums is that the Russian media are winning the “information war.” Thus, at a forum in Aspen, Angela Stent and Stephen Hadley stated that in no uncertain terms; moreover, they lamented the low effectiveness of the US media. Of course, these remarks are a bit disingenuous – what with the intention to conceal a certain measure of surprise over the way the world public perceives the situation in the world and the banal wish to boost funding for some media outlets.

Of course, the Russian media in the international information space do not have a very high citation index, but something else is more important here: The Russian media have proved to be in effect the most formidable opponent even though opposition is often covert. A good case in point is not even Ukraine but Syria the coverage of which has ended up in a kind of a quadrangle formed by US, Wes t European, Arab and Russian media. For example, it turned out that Russian media, both those targeting international audiences and the predominantly domestic ones, have set the tone that brought about a change in the agenda on Syria’s chemical weapons. A coherent account of the specifics of the Syrian opposition and a realistic description of its moral state and internal contradictions ultimately prevailed. Nothing could be further from my mind than the naïve idea that all of that happened only thanks to the Russian media but there is little doubt that they made a significant contribution to that.

It is equally important to note the Asia Pacific, especially the Indian information market. For all the scarcity of resources funneled into media support in the region one can only be amazed by the effectiveness of the regional media. Of course, the general mindset in the region is important but when you read, for example, Asia Times you have little doubt that the authors of this Hong Kong based publication are closely watching reports coming from Russia.

In short, I believe there is hardly a market where Russian information is not actively used and is not a substantial component in the information debate.

Why so

I earlier mentioned the naïvete of some Russian intellectuals who are prone to simplification – malignant simplification of reality. This simplification originates either from the unwillingness or the inability to take into account some very serious changes that are taking place in the world.

Incidentally, these changes have a technological, partially informational-technological basis. As I said earlier, the network (and global!) society emerged before any social media did. Naturally, this global development was based on electronic communication. The Internet is only a later albeit pampered child of communicational evolution. This evolution led to a situation where the world system started operating in real time, went online. It was based on the telegraph, which later substantially developed – into the radio, television, and finally the Internet.

These achievements have put the Russian media into a unique position. It is not the result of some extraordinary talents of Russian journalists but of one very important circumstance: Russia today is in the process of evolution of its political, Russian nation whereas countries of the Western world are going through a totally different stage of their existence.

The key word here is identity. I understand identity as a process where the individual becomes aware of himself as some historically unique subject, as an answer, moreover a personal answer to the question: What I am in the universe?

Here is another quote from Manual Castells, a thorough analyst of modern information -political and information-social processes:

“Political systems are engulfed in a structural crisis of legitimacy, periodically wrecked by scandals, essentially dependent on media coverage and personalized leadership, and increasingly isolated from the citizenry. Social movements tend to be fragmented, localistic, single-issue oriented, and ephemeral, either retrenched in their inner worlds, or flaring up for just an instant around a media symbol. In such a world of uncontrolled, confusing change, people tend to regroup around primary identities: religious, ethnic, territorial, national. Religious fundamentalism – Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, and even Buddhist (in what seems to be a contradiction in terms) – is probably the most formidable force for personal security and collective mobilization in these troubled times. In a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning. This is not a new trend, since identity, and particularly religious and ethnic identity, has been at the roots of meaning since the dawn of human society. Yet identity is becoming the main, and sometimes the only, source of meaning in an historical period characterized by widespread destructuring of organizations, delegitimation of institutions, fading away of major social movements, and ephemeral cultural expressions. People increasingly organize their meaning not around what they do but on the basis of what they are, or believe they are. Meanwhile, on the other hand, global networks of instrumental exchanges selectively switch on and off individuals, groups, regions, and even countries, according to their relevance in fulfilling the goals processed in the network, in a relentless flow of strategic decisions. There follows a fundamental split between abstract, universal instrumentalism, and historically rooted, particularistic identities. Our societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the Net and the self.”

I should note that this network is not Facebook or VKontakte.

So we should draw some conclusions about understanding Western society and the way it is influenced by information. It is essential to single out three segments and all of them are internally divided.

First, the elites. These are very deeply divided, both in Western Europe and in the United States. Concerning the “information war,” it has evidently become a powerful catalyst of the intra -elite debate. A prominent European politician agreed with me in that the fundamental issue that is being addressed by the elite, at least the EU elite, could be formulated as the 14 or 38 question. In other words, what model can describe the conflict in Ukraine? If it is 14, i.e., 1914, then the situation is not so bad, as on the whole, World War I was a kind of misunderstanding. If it is 38, or 1938, then the situation is far worse and more dangerous while the ongoing conflict can reach overwhelming proportions, jeopardizing the very existence of civilization. But then the question as such originates from the identity issue. This is why the claims about Russia’s isolation, about its loss in the information war are false. This is why Russia’s proactive information policy prompts Western elites to maximize contacts in order to identify the situation, modern Russia and even themselves. The division line within the Western elite lies precisely between those who doubt the typology of the current identities in the world and those who believe that these identities are a given and wi ll remain immutable. It is noteworthy that many modern Russian liberals categorically deny their own country the possibility of both a new identity and a new global comprehension of the world.

Second, Western society as such, which is deeply divided. Those 44 percent of Americans who believe that their media are too liberal correlate well with the million -strong demonstrations in Paris against single-sex marriages. This is not about whether these marriages are good or bad. After all, what's so great about homosexuality! Even geese have it! This is about identity. People are searching for an answer to the question: What are we? Where do we come from and where are we headed? This is why Marine le Pen, according to the latest polls, comes second in the French presidential race (in the second round!). Meanwhile, she is rather right-leaning, almost a radical figure. At this point a mechanism that many Western analysts write about kicks in: The image of new Russia has consolidated many rightist, nationalist political parties. Strangely enough, for them, Russia’s new, emerging identification aimed at consolidation around the relatively conservative values is very much in demand while some right-leaning European politicians even regard it as a model. This is why there is a division in the perception of Russia. Yes, of course, the majority of Western Europeans, for example, are critical and wary of the Russian Federation today, but definitely not all of them.

Third, finally, the Western media. In my opinion, this is a totally separate subject even though it is, of course, closely connected both to the elites and to society in the broad sense of the word. Western media leadership is mostly leftist, concerned with human rights issues and is a little hypocritical. This is why despite the fact that the media in many countries are almost completely dominated by leftists, the followers of the late [far-right] Dutch [gay politician] Pim Fortuyn have amazing indicators. Of course, tolerance is a big talking point but when a pol itician is stabbed to death by an Islamist or when Christian girls in a small English town are raped for years the somewhat evasive and hypocritical position of leading media outlets, prone to glossing over the nature of the conflict, irritates a significant section of the population. Angela Merkel’s famous remark about the collapse of multiculturalism originated from the fact that a new, acceptable identity for a new, united Europe has failed to materialize.

This is why the principal gain made by the Russian media in the present situation is that they position Russia as a country with a new identity, a new balance between globalization and national specifics. This is why despite their mixed nature all the three segments – the elites, public and media – had to respond to that. The events in Ukraine only became a catalyst in this process, exacerbating it, but the process started before, possibly even before the breakup of the USSR.

Castells writes: “It is significant that fundamentalism, whether Islamic or C hristian, has spread, and will spread, throughout the world at the historical moment when global networks of wealth and power connect nodal points and valued individuals throughout the planet, while disconnecting, and excluding, large segments of societies, regions, and even entire countries. Why did Algeria, one of the most modernized Muslim societies, suddenly turn to fundamentalist saviors, who became terrorists (as did their anti-colonialist predecessors) when they were denied their electoral victory in democratic elections? Why did the traditionalist teachings of Pope John Paul II find an indisputable echo among the impoverished masses of the Third World, so that the Vatican could afford to ignore the protests of a minority of feminists in a few advanced countries where the progress of reproductive rights contributes precisely to diminishing the number of souls to be saved? ”

This question was not asked yesterday but the answer remains unchanged: The fact is that globalization does not allow an individual to answer the question about identity. Globalization obliterates personality, as it were. In the not so distant past personality lived in a small world. People lived in a system of multiple hierarchies. Two hundred years ago a person could have been a successful poet or (butcher) in a small African town and felt as happy as another poet (butcher) in a neighboring town. The communities of both towns were self-sufficient and comfortable for the poets’ self-fulfillment. In other words, the world consisted of a plethora of socio-hierarchical pyramids. Today there is only one pyramid. The lack of space for personality is in fact the answer to Castells’ questions. The network society is tricky.

Raymond Barglow points to the paradox that while information systems and networking augment human powers of organization and integration, they simultaneously subvert the traditional Western concept of a separate, independent subject: “The historical shift from mechanical to information technologies helps to subvert the notions of sovereignty and self-sufficiency that have provided an ideological anchoring for individual identity since Greek philosophers elaborated the concept more than two millennia ago. In short, technology is helping to dismantle the very vision of the world that in the past it fostered.”

This crisis is far more serious than the Western-Russian confrontation over Ukraine. It concerns the individual’s position in the modern world. This individual is hungry for information. He is looking for guidelines and anchors. We – I mean the people of Russia – should not be provincial in our perception of the world. There is no center anymore and so there is no periphery. At any rate, such is the trend.

In short, Russia is not losing any “information war” if only because there is not an “information” war but a full-blown world civil war going on. Practically the entire world is involved in it. Thank God, it is a sluggish, relatively low intensity war but still, it is a real war. What is at stake in this war is how, within the network world (not to be confused with social media), our identities and our relations will evolve, what systems of values will coexist and in what hierarchy. During this world civil war all identities – religious, national, ethnic, etc. – are being intermixed. The outcome of that is a big question.

However, here is what is reassuring:

The present world civil war will end in peace or there will be no world. So war is peace.

Valdai International Discussion Club

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