Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

The First Great Information War

The Observer and Guardian journalist explains how the Russian President Vladimir Putin won the first phase of his war on Europe, by convincing us it wasn’t happening

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015. Photo: Maxim Zmeyev/PA Images/Alamy

The First Great Information War

The Observer and Guardian journalist explains how the Russian President Vladimir Putin won the first phase of his war on Europe, by convincing us it wasn’t happening

I think we may look back on this as the first Great Information War. Except we’re already eight years in. The first Great Information War began in 2014. The invasion of Ukraine is the latest front. And the idea that it doesn’t already involve us is fiction – a lie.

It was Vladimir Putin’s fury at the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 that kicked everything off. Information operations were the first crucial step in the invasion of Crimea and Donbas. A deliberate attempt to warp reality to confuse both Ukrainians and the world.

This was not new. The Soviets had practised ‘dezinformatsiya for years. But what was new in 2014 was technology: social media. It was a transformative moment. ‘Hybrid warfare’ on steroids: a golden Willy Wonka ticket to manipulate hearts and minds. Almost completely invisibly.

But it wasn’t just Ukraine. We now know that Russia began another offensive in February 2014 – against the West. Specifically, but not exclusively, America. How do we know this? Because the FBI conducted a forensic, multi-year investigation that almost no one paid any attention to.

The Mueller Report. You’ve heard of it – but probably as a headline about how it didn’t ‘prove’ collusion between the Kremlin and the Donald Trump campaign. We can come back to that. What it did prove – beyond any doubt – was that Russia attacked the 2016 US Election through multiple routes.

And just *one* of the ways Russia attacked the 2016 US Election was via the tech platforms – especially: Facebook. This was a military technique it pioneered in Ukraine in 2014.

By 2016, it refined, iterated and super-sized these. Most brilliantly of all, they were entirely invisible.

And it wasn’t just Russia. Companies such as Cambridge Analytica. Political operatives such as Paul Manafort. Amoral opportunists such as Dominic Cummings. They learned how to exploit a platform that was totally open – anyone could do so. And totally closed – no one could see how.

But also it *was* Russia. That’s what the Mueller Report proves. And, again, Ukraine is at centre of it all. (Read @profshaw‘s thread here. Note walk-on role for Arron Banks’ business partner and his friend the Russian spy).

In 2016, we knew none of this. Russia and other bad actors acted with impunity and, in some cases, alignment. But now, through the sheer bloody hard work of academics, journalists and the FBI, we do know.

But it was complex, messy, difficult. So we brushed it all under the carpet.

We failed to acknowledge that Russia had staged a military attack on the West. We called it ‘meddling’. We used words like “interference”. It wasn’t – it was warfare. We’ve been under military attack for eight years now.

This failure is at the heart of what is happening now in Ukraine. Because the first offensive in the Great Information War was from 2014-2022. And Putin won.

And he won by convincing us it wasn’t even a war.

We fell for it. We said it was ‘just ads’ that ‘don’t work anyhow’. And that ‘a bot didn’t tell me to vote’. Facebook is still an open threat surface. Exploited by authoritarians from the Philippines to India to Brazil to Hungary. It’s maybe not a world war – but the world is at war.

Meanwhile, in Britain, we’re a captured state. In America, the institutions of government worked. Even in spite of Trump. The authorities investigated. Individuals were indicted, charged, jailed. The hostile actions of a foreign state were examined and unpicked.

(Not that it mattered)

The US media, and therefore the public, failed to understand the real lessons of the Mueller Report.

And in the UK? We didn’t even bother trying. We allowed Boris Johnson’s Government to sweep 2016 under the carpet. Nigel Farage. Arron Banks. Facebook. Russia. The lot.

But it wasn’t ‘just ads’ – it was war. And it’s absolutely crucial that we now understand that Putin’s attack on Ukraine and the West was a *joint* attack on both.

That began at the exact same time, across the exact same platforms.

And this new front – the invasion of Ukraine – is not just about Ukraine. We are part of the plan. We have always been part of the plan. And Ukraine is not just fighting for Ukraine but for the rest of us too.

And maybe that could be why we’ve failed to understand Putin’s strategy in Ukraine? Because it’s not just a strategy in Ukraine. It’s directed at us too. And that’s what makes this such a uniquely perilous moment. Not least, because we still don’t understand we’re at war.

If it helps, the penny dropped for me with the Skripal poisoning. Planned by the GRU – Russia’s military intelligence. As was the weaponised hack-and-leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Military doctrine carried out by military officials in military operations. Just like the one now in Ukraine.

Anyway. You may think this is obvious or simplistic or naïve (it’s all three). But f**k it. I don’t care. Because what I’ve realised is that I’ve been an (information) war reporter for the last six years. And the online equivalent of a thermobaric bomb has sucked the oxygen out of me.

The story of Arron Banks is intertwined with every single element of the above. That’s for another time. What matters now is Ukraine. And the key to helping it is to understand that Putin isn’t just coming for us next. He already has.

This Twitter thread is reproduced here with the permission of Carole Cadwalladr

TICKETS ON SALE NOW – speakers and performers include Carole Cadwalladr, Jonathan Pie, Joanna Scanlan, Peter Oborne, Sarah Churchwell, Musa Okwonga, Bonnie Greer, Sanjeev Bhaskar and the whole Byline Times team. 29 April – 1 May, Acklam Village, London.

This article was filed under
, , , , , , , , , , , , ,