For quite some time now the familiar notions of armed conflict and war (conventional warfare) have been joined by two new terms — information warfare and hybrid warfare, which are synonymous in their essence. But the most important word in all of the aforementioned is “war”.
We know that war is a state of armed conflict between states, governments, societies and informal paramilitary groups and is characterized by extreme violence and the use of force against the opposing side, and at times civilians as well.
Previously, we understood the word “war” as two countries or identifiable groups of people using weapons against one another. With the emergence of the internet and the ongoing globalization it has become more difficult to identify the so-called “aggressor”, who instead of weapons exploits the information space in order to alter peoples’ attitudes and perception concerning different events in the past and the present, simultaneously shaping a particular opinion for any future events.
The key to “information warfare” lies in the first word — the result previously achieved with weapons is now achieved with the use of information. Moreover, this result can be produced both by publishing particular information and by specifically not publishing it. In modern times, a large role is also played by “public opinion” which manifests in the form of comments under articles or as separate entries in social networks.
We have recently been able to better understand the importance of information warfare. But to understand is one thing; the other is to establish laws and grant the necessary tools to law enforcement institutions. This is particularly difficult in cases, when the place of origin of the information is located outside your country, as it is also outside your jurisdiction.
We could go on and on about information warfare and its different characteristics, but that is not the aim of this article. Our aim is to understand whether we are currently tied in it, or are we slightly losing. As already stated, the aim of information warfare is to alter attitudes and perceptions about past events and to shape a particular opinion on possible future events.
I came upon some material that is great for this analysis — a research that found there is a decreasing number of people in the Baltic states who believe that Russia is the one responsible for the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. First, I was quite skeptical about the findings, assuming that the research was made with the aim of cultivating a particular opinion — that we actually have a quite friendly neighbor living next to us and that we are not appreciating him enough. I saw it as a great example of information warfare, a tool intended to make the public believe that Ukraine is not so innocent and good and that Russia is not that evil and aggressive.
However, when I looked at the authors of the research, I found that it was conducted in January 2019 using face to face interviews in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The goal was to determine the potential for polarization among the societies of the Baltic states. The research was lead by Mārtiņš Kaprāns, a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia, in cooperation with the leading social research companies of the Baltic states.
Let us choose the Crimea issue as the reference point, considering that since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict a lot more facts have emerged. For instance, the Russian Ministry of Defense approved a new award — the Medal “For the Return of Crimea”. Already on 24 March 2014 Sergey Shoygu awarded the medal to Russian naval infantrymen and other participants of the war. The fact such a medal exists clears up any reasonable doubts whether the Crimea issue was an expression of free will by the Crimean people, or instead an event staged by military persons — something that Russian President Putin was undoubtedly well informed of. Another fact — Russia currently considers that Crimea belongs to them, in contrast to the stance of other nations.
However, it is worrisome that it is not the facts that have changed, but the attitude of the public towards them. Here is an excerpt from the research: The decrease in the number of people is less prominent in Latvia. Currently, 36.7% of those interviewed believe that Russia is mainly to blame for the conflict; in 2016 this number was 41.5%. While in Estonia and Lithuania the number of people believing that Russia is mainly to blame was larger. In 2019, 42.5% of Estonians (41.1% in Lithuania) believed so, but in 2016 the number was 56.8%. (63% in Lithuania).
This is quite disturbing, since a shift in opinion does not happen by itself. It seems that deliberate and extensive actions have been taken to shape public opinion.
If the opinion on who was the real aggressor is being altered so notably, one must ask a rhetorical question — how can you alter public opinion, if the initial facts are not that easy to identify?
I believe the results of the research sound a loud alarm that tells us — we cannot call ourselves winners in the current information war.
But it is one thing to establish a fact and a completely different thing to figure out what to do to improve the situation. Most importantly, the public needs to be informed about information warfare, and the more we can give examples of it, the better. When someone publishes a fake news article or one that is overly praising someone, we must immediately present facts next to it. We must forget our shyness, and politicians must foresee a sufficient amount of effective tools to prevent the cultivation and emergence of dubious opinions. Of course, some will object and call it censorship. Yes, in some aspects it can be considered censorship, but its legitimate aim is to maintain the security and existence of the state. If our society is poisoned one drop at a time, it would be foolish to do nothing to stop the poisoning.
*About the author: Independent journalist Zintis Znotiņš