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The First Great Information War: Ukraine and Civic Resistance on the 21st Century Battlefield

From Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 to the full scale invasion of Ukraine eight years later, Dr Jennifer Cassidy explains the impact and implications of the fifth battlespace of information

Photo: Pixel-shot/Alamy

The First Great Information WarUkraine & Civic Resistance On the 21st Century Battlefield

From Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 to the full scale invasion of Ukraine eight years later, Dr Jennifer Cassidy explains the impact and implications of the fifth battlespace of information

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Without a doubt war in 280 characters has become a central tool in each country’s crisis communication toolbox.

From the power of the hashtag to frame political discourse online, to the use of online messenger services such as Whatsapp to conduct press briefings, the technological revolution has taken the practice of crisis communication by storm. The extensive reach and instant power of connection of popular online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok have altered how we now practise and perceive the role (and power) of communication during times of political crisis in the social media age. 

And with the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces on 22 February 2022, we are seeing the central importance of ‘information operations’ in modern warfare in an unprecedented way. But where did this all begin? 

The Beginning of the First Great Information War

In November 2013 a series of protests in Ukraine resulted in a change of Government when pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted. This was quickly followed by a Russian incursion into Crimea in 2014, and an attempted breakaway by two statelets, Luhansk and Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine, supported by the Russian army. 

During this crisis, and subsequent invasion, information warfare tactics were used extensively, from propaganda and misinformation to cyber-attacks. But these were not completely novel forms of warfare. Indeed, they had been used, and tested in Eastern Europe during significant political unrest and conflict for many years prior. But the incursion by pro-Russian forces into Crimea in February 2014 and subsequent political activity in the region sparked a number of strong online reactions which can be considered as the beginning of an overt information war that was now waging between two countries. 

So what exactly is an informational war? 

At its core, the term refers to the strategic use of information and disinformation to achieve political and military goals. While a number of varying frameworks are arising to explain this new battlefield, we can say informational warfare is considered to comprise of various functional areas, including but not limited too: 

1) Network warfare, more commonly known as cyber-warfare, where computer networks are the weapons and targets; 

2) Electronic warfare, which resides in the electromagnetic spectrum and includes jamming and eavesdropping of signals; 

3) Psychological Operations, which aims at altering the perceptions of the target audience to be favourable to one’s objectives, with social information warfare becoming an integral aspect to the current invasion of the entire Ukrainian country. 

We saw social media’s first true introduction into the realm of political crisis, illustrated by the Arab Spring events, where online activity played a large part in mobilising and co-coordinating protestors. The most notable of these events resulted in a change of government in Tunisia and Egypt. However today, the pace, speed, expertise and every changing technology being used in Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, is unprecedented.

The Role of the Citizen and the State

Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine directly challenges our previous conceptualisations of a state-orchestrated information war and points to the importance of civil society and civic activity in the struggle over truths during international conflicts. State actors, actively and knowingly, do use the minds of citizens as a 21st century ‘battlefield’. However, viewing citizens as incapable agents, unable to analyse, debate and think for themselves, is not only a dangerous precedent but also inaccurate.

We see on our screens every day that the people of Ukraine are not becoming victims of the information war or mere targets for manipulation. Not only are they actively resistant to online propaganda, but they are also consciously, and strategically, reaching out to their family members based in Russia, creating and disseminating digital forums that ordinary Russians can access safely, to learn the truth about the war. 

One such example is the website ‘Papaover’ (‘Father Believe’). It was founded by Misha Katsurin, who lives in Ukraine, in response to his father – who lives in Russia – who didn’t believe and refused to believe President Putin had invaded Ukraine. The Papapover website was launched to help Ukrainians whose family members don’t believe the war is taking place, answering and debunking in real-time all of Russian propaganda regarding the current war. 

No father wakes up one day, refusing to believe his son, about a war raging in his country. So how do people get to the point where they willingly believe their country’s leader over their own son? 

The answer is complex. It is based on political psychology, limited access to a free and open press for prolonged periods of time, and a protracted state campaign of exposing citizens to an environment where truth and facts are consistently, and frequently challenged. 

Russian officials appear to relish goading their international counterparts with clear falsehoods. Sergei Lavrov Russia’s foreign minister told a UN disarmament conference that it was Ukraine that had threatened Russia, prompting a walkout by about 100 diplomats in Geneva. Lavrov’s argument that Russia had only intervened to prevent its neighbour from acquiring nuclear weapons when Ukraine had already given up the world’s third-largest stockpile in 1994 in return for Russian security guarantees, requires several mental backflips to make any sense at all. 

Truth, as is often said, is the first casualty of war. However, in this new conflict, truth was hospitalised and held in confinement long ago. 

Some Old Truths

Though the new digital tools are clearly the reason that information has emerged as the central battlefield of 21st-century warfare, let us not forget our historical consciousness. 

Information wars, at their most basic form, and motivation, are not novel.  As Hannah Arendt wrote, as early as 1951, in her seminal work ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” 

Arendt also explained the connection between falsehoods and political power: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.” 

Arendt wrote this in 1951, after escaping Europe herself, and devoting her life reflecting on the rise of European totalitarian leaders in Europe in the first half of the 20th Century, but her work has become a prescient insight into information wars in the 21st century, 

As we know all too well, history may not repeat itself, but it undoubtedly rhymes. 

Dr Jennifer Cassidy is Department Lecturer at the University of Oxford, and the author of ‘Gender and Diplomacy’. She specialises in Digital Diplomacy, Information Wars and the Foreign Policy of Silicon Valley.

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