The Digital Dimension of War: A Battleground for Control of the Narrative

The Portulans Institute is an independent, non-partisan institution. This article was written by a guest contributor, and the views expressed within the content are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Institute. 

The digital dimension of war: a battleground for control of the narrative

As the war in Ukraine continues to unfold, social media, online blogs and news outlets have been awash with photos, videos and satellite images documenting the conflict and condemning atrocities to an international audience. At the same time, digital platforms have also become essential tools employed by governments to spread disinformation and control how the conflict is depicted. The war in Ukraine is no exception. In the age of digital media, it is unsurprising to see that war has evolved on multiple digital fronts with the ultimate goal of controlling, or at least influencing, the spreading of information and, consequently, public opinion. 

Digital means of propaganda have long existed as one of the many instruments of war, more subtle than the physical tools of destruction employed by parties involved in conflict. These have evolved from high-impact posters and graffiti employed in the First World War, to more sophisticated video documentaries designed by the Nazi Party to spread misinformation on the tragedy of concentration camps. In more recent times, television has been a key player in the battle for the control of narrative, being the object of refined and calculated attacks. The Russian attack on the TV tower in Kiev echoed the 1991 attack on Vilnius television tower by Soviet soldiers, a time when taking over the airwaves meant that an invading force or rebel army could control the narrative. While television no longer matters the way it once did, it still represents a powerful tool of control, especially for older generations. This mismatch between youth and elders has been highlighted in interviews with younger Russian protesters and refugees, who are often more engaged with more modern digital tools and thus receive information from multiple sources. In Russia however, the large majority of the population still relies on television as its main source of information, especially Russians over 65.

These numbers clearly matter to Vladimir Putin, who has employed multiple strategies to have Russian society brainwashed by propaganda. The narrative portrayed by State-approved Russian media describes the war in Ukraine as just a special military operation ordered by the Kremlin. Any other narrative and contradictions of state propaganda are threatened with sanctions and incarceration of up to 15 years, as indicated by the new “fake news” law signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a calculated effort to reshape history.

On the other side of the conflict, the European Union has also engaged in a systematic information war, suspending the broadcasting activities of state-owned outlets RT/Russia Today and Sputnik. Further, YouTube, TikTok and Meta (Facebook and Instagram), have all blocked RT and Sputnik news content while Google has removed the channels from its news search tool and dropped their mobile apps from its Playstore. These measures appear as Europe’s latest attempt to stop the Kremlin’s systematic information manipulation and disinformation after having first applied sanctions on the leadership of RT. At the same time, taking Russian media off the air on behalf of the West may well open the door to a dangerous future where restrictions on speech and on media become a normality, even if the intent is that of protection from misinformation. Cancelling Russian blogs and news outlets is not the solution to the war of information; rather this causes undeserved and much more severe repercussions for the Russian audience. Thus, new methods need to be developed to fight misinformation, exploiting the increased connectivity of people around the world. In fact, the progressive development and pervasiveness of social networks and other online platforms represents a double edged sword: on one hand making the search for truthful and valid information harder while, on the other, providing innumerable opportunities for collective action and crowdsourcing.  

In the 21st century, the Internet is at the very centre of information spreading, and its centrality has helped reveal how porous the traditional methods of propaganda can be. More specifically, while fake news is as old as the concept of “news” itself, the widespread use of social networking platforms is now a key player for each side of the information war. For instance, the use of fake accounts and bots flooding Telegram, TikTok and other major social networks has become widely adopted in creating and disseminating pro-Kremlin propaganda. On the other hand, Russia’s war propaganda has been equally fought on multiple online fronts, including open source communities debunking disinformation in real time. While these strategies are not full-coverage, as fake news still finds a way to get through fact-checking, their implementation would certainly be a preferable approach to tackle misinformation and disinformation without banning entire sources of information.

— Claudia Fini

Claudia Fini is an Associate Researcher at the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights based in Rome, Italy, where she has analysed the ethical, legal and public policy challenges of artificial intelligence with a focus on human rights and sustainable development goals. She is passionate about trauma-informed policies and practices that will make the transition to a digital society safer and more effective for all populations. Claudia holds a BSc in Neuroscience from King’s College London and an MPhil in Criminology from the University of Cambridge.