Information warfare, shaken— not stirred?

4 mins read

By Alina Krintovski

Mayhem broke out as YouTube deleted two German-speaking Russia Today (RT) channels following an earlier suspension of another German Russia Today channel. Reactions came immediately, both from the RT Media Group as well as from the Russian Foreign Ministry. They appeared dismayed and angry— and assumed that Berlin had a role to play in the shutdown, which occurred at the end of September 2021. From this came talk of alleged censorship and the suppression of press freedom. 

Russia Today is an online medium funded by the Russian state that publishes articles and videos in various countries and languages. Most recently, the media makers have attracted attention for their coverage of the Covid pandemic and the false information about the Covid vaccination. 

On September 28, the Russian Foreign Ministry called it an “unprecedented information campaign” against one of the most popular media sites in Germany with the agenda of getting rid of “unwelcome information”. At the same time, they announced appropriate countermeasures to respond to the “information war sparked against Russia”. Thus, symmetrical countermeasures against German media in Russia ought to be deployed, which, according to the foreign ministry, have been caught several times for their involvement in interfering in Russia’s internal affairs.

At the German government held its press conference on September 29 in Berlin, government spokesperson Steffen Seibert iterated that the decision was made solely by YouTube, and that the federal government nor representatives of the federal government supposedly had anything to do with the decision. Anyone claiming that was conspiring, according to Seibert.

The human rights organisation Reporters without Borders told the German media website Deutsche Welle that deleting contributions is fundamentally problematic when essentially covered by the freedom of information and the freedom of the press if they do not pose an immediate danger to life and limb. This also applies to Russia Today , notwithstanding the increasingly severe violations of press freedom in Russia and growing censorship of the Internet in the country. One of the most prominent current examples is the imprisonment of opposition figure and avid Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who was recently awarded the EU Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought at the end of October.

So, Russia now accuses Germany of having instigated an information war and announces countermeasures accordingly. Germany denies this, and even an independent NGO doesn’t fully approve of YouTube’s deletion of Russia Today  channels either. So where do we stand now? And where did we stand before this argument?

This incident is not the first situation in which the concept of information warfare has been used in German-Russian relations. Back in 2017, Russia was accused of influencing the German general election through false information campaigns—a similar accusation which Russia is currently making against Germany. Such accusations were also made by the US government when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.

This has most likely grown out of the continuing tensions between Russia and the rest of the Western world. Germany and Russia are linked by a long, and chequered history of mutual admiration and dislike. Therefore idealisation and demonisation are playing a greater role than ever before.

Spreading false information has never been easier by virtue of rapid digitalisation. At the same time, not everyone has managed to distinguish how to check and validate the truthfulness in  sources, news and reports.Fake news are not always questioned, as sites like Russia Today have a credible appearance in their news reporting overtly, although notorious for taking statements and facts out of context, artificially inflating circumstances likewise for creating headlines through sensationalist reporting where there perhaps are none to be made. Often enough, Russia Today  is considered as Russia’s effective soft power in the world.

Yet, to speak of a de facto ‘information war’ here is somewhat difficult. The term itself has yet to be established in our everyday lives. The concept of war has long been located in the physical sphere, whereas war in the digital age is new, more subtle—there are no rules as to when boundaries are crossed. What is impermissible, or even a war crime on the web? Herein lies the big problem: even if Germany or the USA have substance to their claims  about national election interference, or Russia having valid reasons for raising their latest case, no one can currently be held accountable; despite it being a concrete matter of targeted interference through fake news and censorship.

The striking aspect is that this is not the first time that Russia has attracted attention to this type of cyberattack and not only state-led media outlets constitute crucial parts of information warfare; as some dropouts have reported to Handelsblatt, employees in agencies related to the Kremlin were paid to produce content which supports Putin and blames the West. A former employee reports that she put up to a hundred comments and contributions a day, as an alleged housewife,  a student or an athlete in discussion forums and newsgroups, chat rooms and blogs. The most famous of these so-called troll factories is located in St. Petersburg, and employees are usually multilingual. Troll factories rely on quantity; the more trolls that deliberately spread false reports or twisted facts, the greater the range and the more vast and accessible  the reach to authentic Internet users becomes. But is that actually allowed? Or are the users themselves to blame if they fall for trolls and fake news?

As long as the concept of information warfare is not defined as misconduct on the part of states or, in any case, transnational corporations, and rules are established, this debacle will remain a matter of accusations, snotty press releases and strain international relations. We appear to be in a volatile phase of international interference developments. Attacks will probably unfold to an ever-increasing extent in the digital sphere, but are we prepared? Absolutely not, especially not for consequences that may or may not follow in the physical world.

Cover: Pixabay

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