Information at War: Philip Seib’s Insightful Probe into Manipulation by/of the Media

Latest Russian joke:

- Putin’s propagandists on TV said nuclear war is fine because patriotic Russians will go to Heaven. Heaven heard it and immediately applied to join NATO!

So tweeted self-exiled Russian dissident and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov last week.

People may chuckle at the black humor, but war is no laughing matter, least of all if it’s nuclear.

Another parallel battle rages: the information war.

This one is a tsunami of propaganda and lies that have metastasized since Russia launched its invasion of, and war on, Ukraine.

A must-read book

And it’s not the first time, according to Philip Seib, author of “Information at War: Journalism, Disinformation and Modern Warfare.”

Although the book was published last year, it combines déjà vu with a perceptive analysis that fits neatly into the current scenario.

Ironically, a Russian diplomat at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, resigned over the Ukraine war.

According to the Associated Press (AP), Boris Bondarev quit his job then sent a scathing letter to foreign colleagues inveighing against the “aggressive war unleashed” by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and insisting not all Russian diplomats are warmongers but many are forced to keep mum about events.

The AP said Bondarev railed against the growing “lies and unprofessionalism” in the Russian Foreign Ministry and took particular aim at Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who he said in “18 years, he went from a professional and educated intellectual…to a person who constantly broadcasts conflicting statements and threatens the world (that is, Russia too) with nuclear weapons.”

Enter Seib, a professor of journalism, public diplomacy, and international relations at the University of Southern California, who meticulously documented how information is weaponized to suit various actors.

While his book traces the chronology of disinformation and propaganda from Homer’s Iliad — pre-dating social media by a good three millennia — to the present, Seib devotes a hefty chapter to Russia, notably its targeting of Ukraine and invasion of Crimea and examines Russian disinformation aimed at the Baltic states and elsewhere.

“In addition to using information in armed conflict, Russia vigorously uses information to disrupt political processes within rival countries, such as the United States, as well as in Europe,” Seib writes.

Flashback to the Kremlin’s Cold War information instruments and the response of U.S. policymakers who “recognized that, although military preparedness was essential a less dangerous but still effective means of winning acceptance of their (the West, led by the United States and the communist bloc led by the Soviet Union) respective systems’ superiority was through information.”

Translation: propaganda.

From the Cold War to the present, Russia’s tools have included media organizations TASS, Ria Novosti, Russia Today (renamed RT) and Sputnik.

But just as important is the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), a/k/a Glavset, which Russian officials said in 2017 was a corps of “information warfare troops” targeting domestic and foreign audiences.

Seib refers to U.S. targets, notably the 2016 presidential election during which Russia supported Republican candidate Donald Trump and disparaged rival Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

In Ukraine, the current conflict is framed as “special (Russian) operations,” despite the obvious all-out war. Seib provides the historical context.

In Ukraine, after protesters who were part of the Euromaidan movement chased pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych into exile, Ukraine’s new government flirted with the EU and NATO, angering (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. Underlying this was Putin’s personal goal of reconstituting as much of the old Soviet empire as possible. (Putin in 2005 had described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” In February 2014 — soon after the conclusion of the Winter Olympics Games in Sochi, Russia — Russian military forces, described by the Kremlin as Ukranian “self-defense groups,” seized the Crimea peninsula of Ukraine and then moved westward into Ukraine’s Donbas region. The troops appeared to be “irregulars,” in that they did not wear Russian insignia. They were referred to by some as “little green men” because of their unmarked green uniforms, but some Ukranian news organizations labeled them “Russian invaders” and “occupiers from Russia.”

Seib documents the resultant information war and cyberattacks and observes the breadth of the Russian effort enabled by adding social media to the traditional mix of broadcast and print content, as is being waged today.

Interestingly, this year’s Russian war on Ukraine began four days after the end of the Winter Olympics Games in Beijing, China.

In an earlier chapter, the author examines the impact of legendary CBS radio correspondent Edward R. Murrow’s detailed dispatches from London during the World War II Nazi blitz on that city.

“The domestic political backdrop of Murrow’s reports was a contest between strong (U.S.) isolationist sentiment and President Franklin Roosevelt’s recognition that Britain would not survive without American help,” according to Seib.

But it wasn’t until after December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, (“a date which will live in infamy,” Roosevelt said), that America finally entered the war full force and deployed troops in the Pacific, as well as in Europe and North Africa to help allies fight Adolf Hitler.

The propaganda war also went into high gear as Hollywood played its part in backing the military effort with documentaries, newsreels and patriotic feature films along with traditional media that rallied support for Washington’s involvement.

I remember a former media professor at my university in Washington, D.C. telling us World War II was a good war and that the U.S. fought for what was right on the military and media fronts against tyrants, but that Vietnam was bad and had no real purpose.

The big difference, as Seib recounts, was the three main TV networks beaming coverage of the Vietnam war into American living rooms every night, unlike Morrow’s radio reports, although very descriptive, that couldn’t be seen.

As the troop numbers and casualties increased, (President Lyndon) Johnson’s political support gradually declined. The American public was receiving mixed messages about the war. From the government came upbeat reports about seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel” as the forces of democracy beat down the evil communists. But from many journalists came very different appraisals — lack of combat success for the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies and dramatic reports of a country being torn apart while American soldiers died.

Seib also covers the 2011 Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria in a chapter entitled “Competing for Information Control.”

In another chapter dubbed “Social Media Go to War,” he turns his attention to Wikileaks, terrorists’ use of online platforms and the battles between the Palestinian group Hamas and Israel.

But he sidesteps the bigger and very contentious issue of Palestine and Israel with the ongoing military and information battles between the two entities fighting over the same territory, and Israel clearly having the upper hand.

Seib’s penultimate chapter focuses on the need to move from media manipulation to media literacy. Although he contends media literacy training is gaining traction in some places, it lags in the face of disinformation tactics advances.

He concludes with a warning in a 2020 quotation from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about China’s ascendance in the information war front as it shifts the global balance of power, heats up the race for economic and technological supremacy and multiplies the threats to open societies and individual freedoms.

Other than expansion of its traditional media outlets worldwide, “the Chinese government can call upon hundreds of thousands of internet trolls in the ’50-cent army’ (so named because of the amount the trolls were supposedly paid, although today they are apparently not paid at all),” Seib writes.

From Homer to Edward R. Morrow to Vladimir Putin to Xi Jinping. A long and twisting trail.

These people have one thing in common: an understanding that war and information are inseparable, whether in terms of memorializing fabled battles, describing a city’s brave survival as bombs rained down on it, undermining a nation’s unity to try to make it ripe for conquest, or finding a way to win global supremacy without gore and destruction.

Seib’s insightful study is a must-read for media experts, journalists and anyone interested in how information is manipulated in a never-ending battle.

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Magda Abu-Fadil

Magda Abu-Fadil is a veteran foreign correspondent/editor of international news organizations, former academic, media trainer, consultant, speaker and blogger.