Computers and internet merely added new forms to age-old forms of propaganda. Its general purpose is, as it always has been, dualistic: to shape citizens’ image of their own country, and to streamline their views of foreign partners, competitors or enemies. Studies on information wars are often one-dimensional, i.e. presenting only actions directed against one’s own state. New Russian textbooks on information wars have a more complex approach and present long historical retrospective overviews.
Reports on disinformation campaigns are nowadays regular in the information sphere in Sweden, as in the West in general. The changes of today’s propaganda compared to classic stereotypes of the Cold War confrontations seem obvious. However, many debates on how to counter a feared information war or fake news campaigns apparently lack a long-term historical perspective. Therefore, they appear unnecessarily alarmist and might even miss their claimed purpose – to promote a sound political debate on domestic and international affairs.
Trends in Swedish information spheres – a retrospective overview
From time to time, a dominant political climate and consensus is challenged. During the prosperous 1950s, Sweden formed a self-image of the “golden middle way” between capitalism and socialism. Many aspects of this self-image were indeed partly myths. A Swedish author, Göran Palm, happened to be one of the succinct observers to challenge our prejudiced visions. His books “An unjust reflection” and “Indoctrination in Sweden” reached a wide audience and forced many to reconsider our achievements as a welfare state. Gunnar Fredriksson, editor of a Social-Democratic newspaper, alerted readers to the intricacies of “the politicians’ language” as a means to distort realities or evoke positive or negative emotions.
These books from the late 1960s were milestones for heightening the public awareness of mass media manipulation. A similar trend and radical change of Sweden’s self-image is taking place today. Until recently, the predominant view has been that Sweden represents a successful experience in forming a multicultural society, despite a few obvious crisis phenomena.
However, an awareness concerning the stress on the social fabric has spread from outsiders in the political scene towards mainstream parties. One example can highlight how changes have occurred. In January 2017, the Swedish journalist Katerina Janouch was scolded for an interview on Czech television, in which she inter alia stated her own personal view of the many problems that Sweden definitely is confronted with. After a vivid debate with harsh arguments involving even high-ranking politicians over her apparently controversial statements, she wrote a diary-like book “The Image of Sweden”. On a micro level, this fascinating personal experience succinctly shows how the image of Sweden changed over the last year, what has been accepted and what is still hotly debated concerning economics, migration and social problems.
Picture 1. “Bilden av Sverige” Book Cover
Over a short period, new political trends appeared. The political agenda has changed; serious debates treat formerly taboo topics. This is essentially because objective challenges to the economic stability, social fabric and cohesion cannot be ignored.
Even more noteworthy is, that given the outcome of the US presidential election campaign and the Brexit plebiscite of 2016, in particular the alleged role of outsiders’, supposedly decisive, involvement in these political events, Sweden has revitalized its organs on countering foreign political propaganda, which had been inactive after the Cold War era. Leading newspapers jointly with radio and TV intend to cooperate in order to thwart any attempts in 2018 to covertly interfere or overtly influence the upcoming parliamentary elections in September. Alerts against supposed disinformation campaigns by Russian mass media were at the center-stage of an annual defense policy conference in Sälen. The previous attempts to describe and analyze the supposed Russian information war efforts towards Sweden as presented hitherto seem, in my view, to lack in source collection from Russian mass media and blogospheres. They merely illustrate rather than form a structured picture of the Russian information spheres as a multiform complex.
Contests between the information spheres in Russia and the West
Therefore, as the Swedish proverb goes, “let’s turn the keg” and try to see things in a new perspective, by turning our usual modes of thought and preconceptions upside-down. A broad awareness on state propaganda in Russia, in the past as well as at present, can deepen our understanding of ongoing information wars. How does a Russian student in political sciences become aware of the formations of their nation’s self-image, as well as of foreign propaganda against their country? How do Russian scholars analyze their recent conflicts with neighboring states? What can they tell us of the general awareness concerning information warfare in the Russian public?
Three Russian historians, Viktor Barabash, Gennadii Bordiugov and Elena Kotelenets, all active in AIRO-XXI about which you can read more of here, give a broader perspective on how state propaganda has changed since the early 20th century till our times. They illustrate how countries at war, starting during World War I, directed propaganda to mass armies with, in general, literate soldiers and by that tried to influence the enemy’s morale. They evaluate how effective various forms of propaganda were, given the new technologies radio and TV during the Second World War and the Cold War eras.
After several in-depth chapters on the technological changes in the information era, on the cyber technological advances that have radically transformed traditional espionage, they finally describe how the information wars were carried out in Russia’s conflicts since 2000 (South Ossetia in 2008, Ukraine during the “Orange Revolution” and “Euro-Maidan”). Particular emphasis is devoted to how the conflicting parties formed their propaganda to their own population, on the one hand, and versus the opposing state, on the other hand.
Picture 2. ”Gosudarstvennaia propaganda i informatsionnye voiny” Book Cover
It is striking that in contrast to the Russian textbook by Barabash, Bordiugov and Kotelenets, very few analysts in Sweden have managed to present the contemporary information wars as a two-sided conflict; with two sides mutually intertwined in their mass media and social media strivings. Instead, information warfare is described as originating solely from more or less sophisticated “troll factories” in various locations in Russia. A couple of obviously forged “documents” ascribed to Swedish political leaders are sometimes referred to, although their actual effects have been nil.
In Sweden, as well as in the West in general, much has been stated on the real or imagined disinformation campaigns launched by Russia. Sometimes, they are said to direct public opinion in other states or even to influence the electorate (USA, United Kingdom). The role of relatively peripheral news agencies like RT (Russia Today) or Sputnik have seen their role amplified beyond reasonable belief. A further simplification is to reduce any Russian interpretation of events as a piece of falsification (fake news). Warnings of “Putin’s narrative” or “Russian Television fake stories” are common in mass media. In comparison, students of the Barabash textbook must undertake textual analyses of conflicting Russian and foreign opinions.
If one does not know history, you are likely to repeat its mistakes – so goes the proverb. Just as likely is the case where one repeat past generations’ mistakes because you are leaning on the mythology surrounding many events in your country’s past.
Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinskii has carried out a broad research project on the shifting images of Russia in the West, from eldest time when written sources by travelers are available. Although other historians criticized his original thesis on this subject for certain methodological flaws, there is no doubt that Medinskii accomplished a great feat as a popularizer of intricate phases in Russia’s history.
One book concerns the new historiography of the 1939–45 war on the Eastern Front. Since the late 1980s, many formerly taboo topics concerning the war were studied based on formerly secret archives as well as on interviews with veterans. In his book on the Great Patriotic War, Medinskii carefully unravels old myths and rejects new simplifications or distortions of battle histories.
Picture 3. “Mify o Rossii” Book Cover
Every historical nation tends to develop its own historiographical paradigm, which might be more or less objective and in conformity with general interpretations in other nations. However, just as often one nation’s image of their neighbors, former enemies or partners may differ substantially; thus are created the stereotypes of “the others”. In his grand comparative survey of Russia from the 12th century to the present, Medinskii provides the engaged reader with a plethora of examples of distortions of Russia’s history, created not only by foreign observers but also by ideologically motivated compatriots. Many legends on “eternal traits” in Russia are challenged. A Western reader of Medinskii’s book is bound to reflect on the various measures by which his or her country is evaluated in comparison with Russia.
In conclusion, the information contests or wars are only one element in the wider concept of cyber and hybrid wars. Observing our Swedish debate on the nefarious effects of alleged Russian disinformation, the absence of self-awareness is remarkable on how our own image of Russia (in our mass media and in the public opinion) is in itself the unconscious product of a pre-war attitude (sometimes alluded to as our age-long Russia-fear /Rysskräck/).
On the contrary, the legacy of the Soviet epoch has apparently raised the cultural curiosity among the Russian public. Mass media and publishing companies created a multidimensional panorama of their country’s past. The concerned Russian readers seem fairly well aware of politicization of historical issues and international affairs. Not for nothing do they often get substantial “food for thought” from the foreign news media translations, provided online by the InoSmi.ru site; a translation bureau, which took over the task of the Soviet-era magazine “Za Rubezhom”, and which lends its commentary fields open for anyone to comment. Even a cursory survey of commentary fields reveals their spontaneous character, rather than something created by Kremlin’s purported “troll armies”.
It goes without saying that a general and highly sophisticated awareness of overt or covert forms of meddling by a foreign state in the political process of any country must be welcomed and promoted. However, it is an open question how successful certain organized counter-disinformation strategies will be, e.g. EU’s site EUvsDisinfo.eu, NATO’s East StratCom Task Force or the Swedish joint public radio and TV with leading newspapers to “combat fake news”. Leaving much broader fields in the information sphere for freer opinion making in mainstream media as well as in the blog sphere might prove to be a sounder path towards dialogues, debates and mutual understanding.
- Barabash, V. & G. Bordiugov & E, Kotelenets, Gosudarstvennaia propaganda i informatsionnye voiny (2015), AIRO-XXI
- Fredriksson, G., Det politiska språket (1966 and later editions), Tiden.
- Janouch, K., Bilden av Sverige (2017), Palm Publishing.
- Palm, G., En orättvis betraktelse, (1966) and Indoktrineringen i Sverige (1968), PAN/Norstedts
- Medinskii, V., Voina: Mify SSSR, 1939 – 1945 (2011) and Mify o Rossii (2015), Abris/OLMA
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.