Is Ukraine losing or winning the information war that Russia is waging against it in the global media? What are the real-life consequences of this information war? What could Ukraine and its global Diaspora do to fight this war more successfully? These questions were raised by a panel of distinguished experts at the Petro Jacyk Education Foundation’s 30th Anniversary event, “Information Warfare”, held at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto on May 14. The panel included Myroslava Gongadze, Chief of Voice of America’s Ukrainian Service; Olivia Ward, Toronto Star foreign affairs reporter; Marta Dyczok, Associate Professor at the Departments of History and Political Science, Western University; and Lubomyr Luciuk, Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.
In his opening speech, Professor Luciuk started from the major theme that the Russian propaganda machine is trying to spread in the West: “What war in Ukraine? There is no war in Ukraine, it’s a civil war, and it’s a struggle between the separatists and central government that came to power illegitimately”. He also listed many other Russian propaganda themes which try to disguise the truth about the occupation of Crimea and shooting down the MH-17 flight, and talk about so-called violations of the Russian minority’s human rights in Ukraine. Prof. Luciuk also touched about the propaganda efforts of the Russian Internet trolls. By all that, said Lubomyr Luciuk, Russia is trying to undermine Ukraine’s future and turn Ukraine into a failed state because that country never came to terms with the break-up of the Soviet Union that happened in 1991 and with the Ukrainian Maidan of 2013-2014. Lubomyr Luciuk believes that, on top of all that, “The Russian government really has not gotten over the fear that one day – and I suspect soon – there will be a genuine wide Russian revolution. In the meantime, their best option is disinformation to disrupt genuine discourse, to sow ambiguity, to use the language of human rights to try to present themselves as being the good guys. One would think that that would make them vulnerable. And yet, Russian propaganda gets playing in the West. How do we deal with it? I think events like tonight are a good beginning.”
Myroslava Gongadze described “a very sophisticated anti-western propaganda being spread around the world through Russia Today and Sputnik News. The West has been asleep for many years and, until recently, did not understand that the misinformation can be a real threat to our national security. Kremlin’s biggest propaganda success is Russian people – they are completely brainwashed now. And, overseas, Russian media outlets are pretending to report the news. They are acting as a corrosive anti-systemic force. Information warfare is not just about getting their own message across. It is also about getting their adversary confused, divided and demoralized by questioning everything, like, who shot down the Malaysian MH-17 flight, who organized 9/11, who occupied Crimea. They are telling you that the mainstream media is lying about everything. This Russia’s “question war” is not a call for independent or critical thinking – it’s an attack on the whole premise of truth and reality. Even if the Western audience only starts believing that there are two sides of the story on the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the Kremlin has already won the important part of the war. And at this point, unfortunately, I have to admit, they are winning. Because the West is just starting to realize that Russia’s disinformation is a real threat and we have to do something about it.”
Prof. Marta Dyczok emphasized the role of values of the media audiences: “The scholars show that communication is an interactive process and the media messages are interpreted, the audiences are active. How the individual responds to the information depends on their values and beliefs, the same information gets different responses in different people. Take an article written by a prominent political scientist from Chicago University, John Mearsheimer, ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault’. His argument is based on his worldview. He sees the world in terms of power politics and that Putin is just behaving like any other great power in protecting its sphere of influence. And [pro-Ukrainian newspaper articles] are not going to change his mind… This is what we are seeing in Eastern Ukraine, why is it that some people in Eastern Ukraine do hold pro-Russian views? And how do you shape those values systems? By conducting research, by looking at things objectively.”
During the discussion, Myroslava Gongadze and Olivia Ward raised the issue of the Western media coverage of Ukraine, which is not always up to the highest standard and often uses messages from the Russian outlets. Olivia Ward noted that while, for instance, Russia Today is well-financed, the Western media “is winding down, the bureaus are folded up… And that’s why 26 year old interns write important stories, and these interns are also pressed for time, because now journalists are not just writing a story, as we used to do, they are writing a tweet, a blog, they are doing social media and videos. So the media hire young people who are good at multimedia but who don’t have basic reporting skills, and they also don’t have basic background in the country that they cover. And the whole Russian propaganda is playing on insecurities of the West, in particular in the Left in the West, with whom I very often agree, but on Russia and Ukraine I find [their position] so discouraging. Recently I had a note from somebody, whose main theme was “I’ve never read anything so stupid as your last piece on Ukraine and Russia” – in which I was talking about the shooting down of the MH-17 flight – “and it’s quite clear that your information is completely biased and that you don’t know anything about Russia”. And usually I don’t respond to these people, but I answered him saying that “Yes, you’re right, I lived in Russia from 1992-2002 and went back after that, but you are right, you need a lot more than 10-15 years to really know Russia”… Very left-winged people often in the U.S. have a fixation that the worst country in the world is the U.S. They think that U.S. is this massive power that goggles up everything in its way. Of course, the U.S. hasn’t helped with some of its actions in this respect. But I have tried to explain to people that if the U.S. had really wanted to goggle up Ukraine, it would have done so very quickly as soon as [the Soviet Union collapsed]. Instead of which, the Ukrainians are saying ‘how do we get the U.S. interested in us, how can we get them come here, they are just ignoring us’”.
Prof. Marta Dyczok touched upon the issue of journalistic standards: “In this situation of an information war, some of the rules of reporting in the liberal democracy actually work against the goal of providing an accurate picture. Journalists in the liberal democracy are required to look at all the perspectives and find all the different voices, and report on all of them. But when one side deliberately distorts the information, that side’s view also has to be reported, and for an audience that is uninformed and a journalist who is inexperienced and doesn’t have time, this leads to a rather skewed picture.”
And, finally, a natural question arose, asked by the New Pathway, what could we, as a diaspora, do to improve the quality of the Western media coverage of what’s going on in Ukraine? There could be two major solutions to that: 1) either send more Western journalists to Ukraine, but that is difficult to do due to the financial problems of the Western media; 2) or make Western media listen more to the Diaspora and Ukraine’s English-language media which is even harder to accomplish for a number of reasons. Myroslava Gongadze had a very practical solution for the problem: she thinks that a fund should be created that would open the chance for Western media to go on the ground to Ukraine and to report from there. Arguably, this kind of initiative could be worth looking at for the global Diaspora if it wants to help Ukraine win this information war.