The cross : When you observe the conflict in Ukraine, what strikes you about the climate of communication war that is unfolding?
David Colon: We all realize, I believe, that we are in a global information war and that no one can now escape it. For several years, we have entered an era of total propaganda due to the existence of social networks, the Internet, the interconnection of individuals and the development of propaganda and mass manipulation techniques. We are currently seeing the materialization of this evolution which has rendered national borders extremely porous and offered an opportunity for propagandists to act on behavior on a large scale.
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How did Putin’s Russia seize this new opportunity?
CD: If we seek to understand Russia’s point of view on propaganda, we must begin by recalling that Russia has a long tradition of propaganda. It dates back to the Russian Revolution of 1917 with the birth of agit-prop, “agitational propaganda”. Russia coined the word “disinformation” in 1949. During the Cold War, the KGB developed ever more sophisticated propaganda strategies and tactics aimed at Western populations.
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Since 2012, in response to the democratic movements that have developed on its periphery, Russia has launched a veritable information war that has resulted in all the forms of propaganda that we know. She used “white propaganda”, that is, official propaganda – through RT, Sputnik and others – which carries Russia’s voice to the world, but she also used “black propaganda”. “, the hidden propaganda, which is based on actions under false flags (from the American expression False-flagwhich consists in pretending to be what you are not, Editor’s note), which most often aims to destabilize democracies, starting with the United States.
These propaganda operations were widely carried out on the Internet, in particular through the use of social network advertising services. The objective as much as the effect has been to amplify all the pre-existing tensions and divisions in Western societies: support for the referendums on Catalan independence and Brexit, support for social or ethnic conflicts in developed countries to weaken them, massive dissemination of conspiracy theories encouraging mistrust and doubt and interference in political life to make objective allies triumph, such as Donald Trump in the United States.
Since 2012, digital propaganda has been incorporated into Russian military doctrine by the current Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General Gerasimov, who theorized hybrid warfare, i.e. the coordination of affairs military, intelligence and propaganda. It is based on a simple idea that in the digital age, information has become a weapon of the same type as lethal and ballistic weapons.
How does Russian propaganda work today?
CD: It is based on the doctrine of control of the information sphere. This notion of “informational sphere” covers three realities: the hardware elements for distributing information (cables, etc.), the software elements and the actual content of the information. We are seeing the implementation of this doctrine on a very large scale. Its scheme is simple: for Russia, it is a question of protecting its informational sphere from any interference from the enemy and, conversely, of disrupting the informational sphere of the enemy to reduce its ability to take rational decisions which would be harmful. for her.
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For years now, we have been witnessing in Russia the takeover of the media and an effort to control social networks. For two years, Russia has been preparing what it is now trying to implement: the attempt to shut down the Internet within its borders to establish an information wall comparable to that which China has established since the end of of the 1990s.
There is talk of the “lead screed” that Putin puts on his country with the new law on information. Can such a screed really exist in the digital age?
CD: Putin has been striving since the beginning of his rule to control information, but you are right, it is extremely difficult to completely control information in the digital age. Moreover, such tight control can produce unexpected effects: from the moment there are no more Western media, nor opposition media in Russia, it is no longer possible for the Russian authorities to make prevail the idea of pluralistic information. So that we could witness the awareness of a growing part of Russian public opinion of the propagandist nature of the information at its disposal.
How can we characterize the discourse of Russian propaganda today?
CD: I am struck by the use of paranoid-style speech. Putin’s propaganda is aimed at Russians by emphasizing all that distinguishes them from the rest of the world and by exacerbating the idea that the West in general and NATO countries in particular represent a threat to the identity or Russian security, and a disinformation business. This is what is called meta propaganda: everything that comes from the enemy is presented as propaganda. So far this has been relatively effective and has allowed Putin to inoculate Russian public opinion against information coming from the West.
What is Putin’s goal in terms of propaganda?
CD: Its first objective vis-à-vis Ukraine is psychological warfare. It was about winning a victory without fighting. I believe Putin was persuaded that the war in Ukraine could be won quickly, with virtually no fighting. All his war speech rested on this strategy. Some military analysts have noted that the massive use of airborne troops in the early days of the offensive was more a matter of psychological warfare strategy than military rationality.
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How can Putin’s propaganda be defeated?
CD: If Putin’s speech did not work, it is because the American strategy very early consisted in revealing the intentions of the Russians and their strategy, including propaganda. It made it possible to protect Western populations in advance against Russian arguments. When it comes to propaganda, counter-speech and counter-propaganda are ineffective because they often have the effect of reinforcing pre-existing opinions. What is effective is disclosure.
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We didn’t talk about the Ukrainian side. What do you observe interesting about them?
My knowledge here is more limited, but I notice that there is a new political generation in Ukraine. The president comes from the world of reality TV. He obviously knows the codes of communication that he knew how to turn against Russian communication which is much more rigid, in every sense of the word. Ukraine, like all countries, resorts to propaganda, but it is propaganda much more in line with the state of mind of Western countries and it produces significant effects.
What can democracies do to fortify themselves against the exponential reality of propaganda?
CD: The European Union should soon adopt a general regulation on artificial intelligence which provides for the prohibition of a certain number of mass manipulation tools, which in particular use the predictive analysis of the personality of users. This proposal is a step in the right direction.
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In France, as in other Western democracies, it seems to me that the best thing to do is to strengthen the independent press, and to strengthen the independence of the press. It is a question of defending the major media and journalists, who have been weakened by the rise of the Internet, because a quality professional press is the best bulwark of our democracies.