Russia/Georgia: War of the Web

About the author
Evgeny Morozov is a technology and new-media expert and independent consultant. He is an Open Society Fellow.

When a few years ago Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU and one of the chief proponents of citizen journalism, tried to describe the fundamental shift in the balance of power between the media and the public caused by blogs and other forms of user-generated content, he famously spoke of "the people formerly known as the audience". "[They] are simply the public made realer, less fictional, more able, less predictable", he stated in a rather solemn tone.

Call me elitist, but I never fully embraced the notion that this great unwinding of reality, fiction, and predictability merited that much celebration. Watching the information wars of the last few months-first in China in the aftermath of the Tibet and the Olympics protests and now in Russia in light of its war with Georgia ands its coverage in the Western media-I couldn't help but wonder if Rosen fully understood all the implications of his otherwise spot-on diagnosis.

My biggest problem with Rosen's optimism is that, when applied in the international context-where "media" are the CNNs and the BBCs of this world, and the public are the Russians and the Chinese angry with their coverage (most often because their governments told them so) - it is not at all clear what those "former audiences" have really morphed into. Rosen is correct: passive they are no more. They-and especially the young people- are all actively producing information on blogs, forums, and comment sections of the sites belonging to some of the most venerable names in the news media. But could it be that the people formerly known as the audience have become the people currently known as the information warriors?

The online spats that have followed the information war between Russia and the West lend much evidence to this claim (notice that Russians don't view this as an information war between Russia and Georgia - it's an information war with the whole of the Western media which, according to the most bellicose of Russians, plays along with Georgia). This information war is the first truly global user-generated conflict: the war of the professional sound bites and the TV imagery has been relegated to the background, with blogs and comments playing the leading role (the most egregious of the professional TV propaganda have found a temporary home on YouTube). Even the conventional cyberwarfare - the hacking of servers and the defamation of sites, while also present in this campaign, seems of very little strategic importance to either side in this conflict.

The Western media conspiracy

Instead, it is the comment sections and forums of New York Times, BBC, CNN, The Guardian and the like - and some of the silliest online polls that they organized (e.g. CNN's "Do you think Russia's actions in Georgia are justified?") - that are the real battleground for the ultimate truth. Russians have taken to these websites in droves, posting links, photos, facts - anything that could only convince their Western counterparts that they live inside an anti-Russian media bubble constructed by complicit Western corporate media advancing political interests of their countries (detailed media analysis of the CNN coverage and the coverage of the conflict in the British media was quick to follow). As most of these sites have a strict moderation policy and don't publish openly extremist comments, many Russians only get angrier: their deeply held suspicions of a big media conspiracy against Russia have been proven again.

Some Russians want to engage with the West so badly that those of them who didn't speak English started posting templates with messages like this one with comments that contained links to inaccuracies in reporting and coverage exhibited by a handful of Western media (Google spotted more than 600 identical instances of this very comment springing up in the last few days). Some Russians may not have fully understood what they were posting, but they were confident that it was a good way to educate their peers abroad and help their country in an unfair struggle with the Western media.

In theory, this sounds wonderful: people whose opinions were badly suppressed for ages have finally acquired a voice and are eager to engage with the world, providing ample material for case-studies in the soon-to-be-published textbooks on intercultural online communications. But, on closer examination, such conclusions ring shallow and, at best, resemble the starry-eyed optimism of utopian visionaries like Nicholas Negroponte, who, back in the mid-1990s, eagerly spoke about the end of nationalism that would happen as the whole world gets online and starts clicking.

But none of that happened; the loud chorus of mouse clicks heard around the world today sounds more like the deeply disturbing nationalist operas of Richard Wagner than the funky world beats of Peter Gabriel. That nations would finally transcend their biases and join in a globalist unison extolling their commonly shared virtues of human rights and liberalism was the never-fulfilled early promise of the Internet. Given the loud and all-pervasive nationalist outcry heard around the Web today, even the truly internationalist online outlets may soon need to qualify their names to reflect this disturbing reality. "Feeble Global Voices" would be a more appropriate way to describe the rapidly shrinking online influence that even the most brilliant among them exercise today.

Netizens unite!

The fundamental element missing from Jay Rosen's analysis is the difference in the starting conditions between the political situation in the US and places like China and Russia, where the state still plays a key role in most political, economic, and social processes. While the Internet may have diminished the already-dwindling influence of traditional media, it may have done much to augment - often in subtle and non-obvious ways - the influence of the state.

What happened in Russia is that the people formerly known as the audience did not have to wait too long for a new identity; many of them simply got drafted (or volunteered) to assist in state-waged propaganda wars, sometimes even launching and leading guerrilla campaigns of their own. With the advent of the blogosphere, Goebbel's famous line - "if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it" -- has taken an entirely new meaning. Now, the state doesn't even have to repeat it - they just need to loudly pronounce it once and the digital guerrillas will do all the necessary repeating.

The only important role left for the state then is to convince the netizens that the stakes are high and that there is a real enemy out there that could be fought online. Thus, one of the primary objectives of the Kremlin-funded propaganda machine has been to paint the West - and particularly most of the Western media- as ignorant, biased, and mired in opinion, not reporting. The bet was that as more and more ordinary Russians are convinced that the West is dishonest, it would be much easier to fend off any real and substantiated criticism and accusation from abroad. The eagerness with which many Russians have taken to the Web during the war with Georgia proves that Kremlin's bet has paid off.

One of the chief ways to create such a climate was to fund the proliferation of sites that would selectively pick reports from the Western media, translate them into Russian, and offer ample space for commentary, often resulting in many articles amassing thousands of comments from angry Russians. The primary pillars of this e-smear campaign in Russia have been sites like Inosmi.ru (a shorthand for "Foreign Media", owned by the infamous RIA Novosti agency) and, to a lesser extent, Inopressa.ru (a shorthand for "Foreign Press", it belongs to Newsru agency ).

These sites would typically pick a dozen articles from the foreign media - mostly American and British, but also that of the Baltic states and Eastern Europe - and translate them into Russian. Needless to say, they usually do their best to pick the most heinous articles, most of them full of bad reporting and stereotypes about Russia. This may seem relatively innocent but Inosmi has quickly gained a large following, which particularly delights in commenting on articles, mostly to report on inaccuracies in the articles and ignorance of their authors.

Sites like Inosmi do their best perpetuate the myth of the "great brainwashing" -- that the Western media is either utterly biased against Russia or simply incompetent - and that the Western public and policy-makers are being constantly kept in the dark as to the true nature of things in Russia (this in itself is quite comical, as Russians themselves squandered most of their independent media in the early Putin years; arguably, they are in much greater darkness).

That many Russians don't even consider the possibility that they themselves may have been "brainwashed" only attests to the strength of their convictions and the success of sites like Inosmi in their campaign to perpetuate the myth of the "great brainwashing". It surely the work of such sites - which now even accept voluntary translations of articles done by their readers - that explains why so many Russians all too eagerly engage in "comment warfare" on foreign web-sites: they do feel that they have something to prove.

The asymmetry of this information warfare makes it all the more potent, as, thanks to sites like Inosmi, Russians can now easily point their British and American counterparts to the low quality of BBC or CNN reporting on Russia, but most of the Brits and Americans wouldn't be able to name even a single Russian news channel (for most of them broadcast in Russian and are thus are saved from any external criticism). But reading Russian media's coverage of the West (or, more tellingly, the war with Georgia) would surely produce many more suspicions of media being too closely tied to Kremlin and entirely brainwashed by the state.

Commenting on the Western media's response to the war in South Ossetia, many Russian bloggers asked why the Kremlin wasn't doing anything in the online space and it was up to the individual bloggers to defend the pride of their motherhood. Don't the bureaucrats realise that winning the sympathies of the West is as important? The Kremlin may have been smarter: after all, why bother with artificially constructed narratives, lobbyists, and manipulating traditional media, if there are thousands of bloggers and commentators, eager to advance Kremlin's line for free, and often much more effectively?