Too much to say, not enough bandwidth.
So here’s Russell Brand who pretty much sums it up I think.
The comments are worth a gander too.
Obviously I’m hugely sympathetic for the Ukrainian people who are just pawns in the whole mess. But I’m equally concerned about what the media messaging is doing to people’s minds at home right now. And how people are losing sight of the bigger picture, the historical complexities, not to mention the West’s own part in the escalation of the war.
Banning Russia from Swift might yet backfire on us more than on Russia. That some people think saying this out loud is traitorous speaks of the in-group bias going on, the loss of objectivity and collapse of critical thinking.
People seem to be operating in purely reactionary ways — often without due consideration for the consequences of their words or actions. Nor are they respecting their own knowledge gaps.
Armchair epidemiologists have been replaced by armchair Ukrainian and military tactician experts. Every single person online seems to know someone who is Ukrainian.
I was confronted yesterday by a somewhat hysterical guy arguing that we must impose a gas-shortage related lockdown on people to help defend Ukraine. “We have to make sacrifices to show Putin what’s what” was the semtiment.
This sort of posturing is not useful. It only escalates things and makes matters worse.
There is a reason why they say the first casualty of war is truth.
We would all benefit from remembering that in modern hybrid warfare the predictability of our reactions and how they can be gamed is as much a weapon to be exploited by the enemy as a tank or a molotov cocktail.
As it stands the internet is full of contradictory images, accounts and videos. But these contradictions are being side stepped in the greater mainstream narrative, which clearly doesn’t care about the details or how it may be being duped. The only thing it seems to care about is that it’s on message. Going around other corners of the internet (and probably the result of someone else’s propaganda op):
There are a frightening amount of reporters mindlessly repeating what they see without thinking about why they might be seeing it. Or how that image or report might have come about. It’s all a bit like the early days of Covid, when every media outlet ended up with the same syndicated and pooled broll footage of over-crowded wards from one specific UK hospital and one other Italian hospital, all of which became the go to footage to represent Covid stories all over the world.
Hospital access became a form of embedded journalism 2.0.
Nobody asked why we weren’t seeing more organic imagery. Nobody asked how come the collapsing people we saw in leaked Chinese social media videos weren’t being seen here in Europe. Nobody asked how come journalists weren’t hanging around hospital entrances (despite having reporting exemptions).
Nobody wondered what might happen to critical journalism if the world’s reporters were all told to stay home and report only on what they could see from the internet in their atomised bubbles.
Media control has evolved with every war. So we can trust it will evolve now too.
In Vietnam the restrictions were too loose which led to too many critical pieces and far too many protests back in the US.
By the Falklands war this mistake was nipped in the bud. Only approved reporters got to sail out with the British armada to Port Stanley. Brian Hanrahan had to input esoteric messages into his reports just to get the truth out.
Gulf War One was arguably even more hostile to journalistic access – it was the first full scale video game war with aerial footage of ground targets being blown up distributed form military sources only in a totally dehumanised way. Press were mostly briefed like school children in controlled sessions by General Schwarzkopf, with only a privileged few allowed access in embedded form. For that privilege came a deal that demanded reporting compliance. It was the war that made Kate Adie.
The Balkans perfected the Wag the Dog doctrine. While access to the theatre of war was far less restricted than Iraq, leading to more independent journalists on the ground, hugely emotional counter narratives and testimonials were used to drown out inconvenient truths elsewhere.
Afghanistan lost some control with John Simpson slipping through the net disguised in a burka, and Express journalist Yvonne Ridley being kidnapped by the Taliban. Then after WSJ reporter Daniel Pearl got murdered in Pakistan, coverage remained localized to Kabul or to embedded trips only in armoured vehicles.
Gulf War Two once again perfected embedded journalism with access deals.
Since then we’ve had the introduction of totally distanced OSINT and forensic data reporting of confrontations in places like Syria.
But if you might think that last development might have rendered the control mechanisms of embedded journalism ineffective – think again.
Covid has now opened the door to an entirely new type of media control – one I would call the Trevor’s Axiom reactionary model of controlling the narrative.
This strategy has borrowed straight from digital marketing. In the first instance it focuses not on suppressing the message but on deflecting it. On burying the news that is suboptimal with carefully crafted copypasta that is more tolerable instead. That copypasta sometimes exists to highlight the preferential message. Other times it exists to tactically enrage and troll readership for knee-jerk counterresponses that serve a broader objective instead. Those objectives might be to discredit the enemy or to cause a deflective distraction, by sending uncomfortable messaging into a sinkhole. Other times they aim to create a spam attack that bombardes the public consciousness — often by creating the false impression that a little held view is much more widely held than it is. The strategy clearly involves plants, bots and real-world useful idiots too. Purposeful deepfakes to entrap and discredit or cunningly leaked true info to control the message.
Phase two involves deploying the big guns – censorship and restrictions of messages that do not align with policy.
On censorship it’s worth reminding people that back in the day in the UK, the MoD would appeal to newspapers for cooperation on sensitive national security stories under the D-notice system (now called the DSMA committee). In theory, the committee’s recommendations were only supposed to be treated as guidance and the whole thing was voluntary. In practice it was a very comprehensive system of control. Ultimately the mechanism worked via a form of self censorship imparted on journalists from the top down.
It seems likely something similar will have been established with social media platforms more broadly today. I haven’t looked into the details, but I would be surpised if not.
All these tactics and more (presumably deepfakes, troll armies, digital soldiers, access deals, appeals to self censorship and more) will no doubt be in play in the Ukraine war. Things I find particularly suspicious (and kind of deplorable) is the abundance of snuff footage of dead bodies and prisoner of war content. I’m not saying it’s all not real, what I’m saying is that it’s clearly being used as a tactic. Either way it’s immoral and in the style of adigital trophy scalping — something that in less hysterical times would be condemned.
Btw I’ve chosen to illustrate this post with a picture of the Brendan Bracken statue from the FT’s museum at Bracken House for a reason. Bracken was not just the FT’s founder but also the Minister of Information during the war. He was also the man — and the “BB” — who supposedly influenced a chap called Eric Arthur Blair to write a book about a dystopic information state rule by an all powerful despot.
The Ministry of Information evolved to become the Central Office of Information, which evolved to become the Behavioral Insights team, better known as the Nudge Unit — a department overseen by the Cabinet Office directly. Simon Ruda, one of the units co-founders, recently had this to say about the Nudge Unit’s role in managing perceptions during the Covid pandemic:
In my mind, the most egregious and far-reaching mistake made in responding to the pandemic has been the level of fear willingly conveyed on the public. Initially encouraged to boost public compliance, that fear seems to have subsequently driven policy decisions in a worrying feedback loop. Though I don’t think it’s fair to blame behavioural scientists for propagating fear (I suspect that this was more to do with Government communicators and the incentives of news broadcasters), it may be worth reflecting on where we need to draw the line between the choice-maximising nudges of libertarian paternalism, and the creeping acceptance among policy makers that the state should use its heft to influence our lives without the accountability of legislative and parliamentary scrutiny.
In the US it is technically illegal to use state propaganda against your own people. Seems that’s not the case in Britain.
Supplementary note: In terms of why I have any credentials at all to comment on current affairs, I thought I would quickly jot down some of my odder (dare I say polymathic) background for those who know me more for my finance work. In the early part of my journalistic career I spent a significant amount of time reporting out of Eastern Europe (Warsaw), then the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia). This was during the post-communist emerging market days, so I got to understand the challenges facing these economies as they transitioned to market-based systems. I’ve also reported independently out of war zones like Afghanistan and neutral zones like Nagorno Karabakh. (Here’s me in Ngorno Karabakh). I speak fluent Polish and have a pigeon GSCE understanding of Russian. More broadly, I have been fascinated with pipeline politics and commodities from the very early days. It’s in part how I ended up working for BP under Anji Hunter, an experience which allowed me to interview people like John Manzoni (currently head of the UK’s nuclear capability and previously Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office and Chief Executive of the Civil Service, where among other things he oversaw the “nudge unit) visit production assets, solar factories, pipelines and much more. Which is to say I know a little about a lot. And when I lack specialism, I admit it, but in general there’s some good experience-based background I am drawing on. Also my journalism MA was focused on media control during the Falklands War and general bias in the media reporting of protest movements.
Thank you for setting up this site Izabella, your insight is much appreciated. One thing that has struck me is how fragile liberal principles are, you had a leading shadow cabinet politician (Chris Bryant) advocating for the removal of British citizenship from dual nationals all this following from Shamima Begum is indicative of a worrying creep of state impunity with no seeming countervailing force. What do you think are the forces or agents that can temper state overreach or are we past the point of no return?
Just out of curiousity, would you have been able to publish a piece of this nature in your previous role or are we seeing the benefits of seeing you “off the reservation” so to speak.
Thanks for this, very interesting, the youtube inserts were great!
As a tangent, given the development of GPT-3 and related tools for text and video generation wholly indistinguishable from real products but which can be used for very nefarious purposes, are we headed for an information environment so polluted and uncertain, that eventually the only thing you can trust are face-to-face interactions in real life?
What ever the outcome, the change and evolution in the information sphere continues to be massive, and one of the big stories of the age. All this is of course a long-winded way of saying that I really like you’re focusing on the the broader topic!
Well at least you can be reassured I am a human for as long as I make absurd literal and typographical mistakes 🙂
Yeah, yeah, right. That’s exactly what a malicious AI looking to confuse smooth-brained humans would do and say 🙂