Für ihr neues Buch “Fake statt Fakt” hat die frühere Chefredakteurin der Deutschen Welle (DW), Ute Schaeffer, ein spezielles Experiment gewagt: Zwei Jahre bewegte sie sich digital vor allem in rechten Echokammern. Über ihre Erfahrungen hat kress.de mit ihr gesprochen. Schaeffer entdeckte zu ihrem Bedauern professionelle Content- und Vertriebsstrategien sowie viel Desinformation. Aber mit Blick auf den etablierten Journalismus hat sie auch einiges nachdenklich und selbstkritisch gemacht.
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We need a clear commitment in strengthening media literacy and digital participation. Only in this way will we be able to protect the freedom of expression, which is constitutive for the functioning of our democracy, in the digital information space. Only in this way can we achieve digital participation for many and protect the great opportunity of the Internet for more access to information, for educational resources and as a space for civil society. It is about the future of our social and political communication, which must face the digital challenges.
My 320-pages-book “Fake instead of fact – how populists, bots and trolls attack democracy” – is a firm plea to act in that direction, based on the conviction that no algorithm in the world will relieve us of critical thinking. The book is based on a 2-years investigative personal research in the digital echo chambers of the growing extreme-right, the muslim ISIS-extremists, and the state controlled propaganda-media from Russia and Turkey. And it is quiet obvious that these extremist, populist and non democratic actors are using the fundamental change in our political opinion-forming process to split up our public discourses, to polarize our societies and create mistrust against each other.
My book describes the actors behind the campaigns, analyses the stories and shows how the functions of the network enhance the impact of propaganda.
Read dtv’s book announcement here.
Finalizing my script about misinformation and fake news in German social media and their impact on political opinion in #Germany #btw17 #dtv
(Book to be published by dtv in May 2018)
Thanks to the Order of Malta for honoring me with the “Refugee Aid Medal” for my book “Einfach nur weg” that tells the story of 12 underage refugees and connects those with information on politics in their country of origin, their reasons to flee, and their escape way. 100% of the revenue goes to the Order of Malta to help refugee children.
You can get the book here.
Digitale Informationen sind in Krisen und Konfliktregionen wichtig, um Kommunikation aufrechtzuerhalten, als Frühwarnsystem – und vor allem auch um Gewalt und Menschenrechtsverletzungen zu dokumentieren. Digitale Medien sind aber auch in Friedenszeiten in den Ländern des globalen Südens ein Hebel für soziale und wirtschaftliche Entwicklung. Medienentwicklung und die Stärkung des Rechts auf digitale Teilhabe ist deshalb von entscheidender Bedeutung, wie die Analyse von Ute Schaeffer zeigt.
Imagine a no-name land anywhere in Africa where women and men are heavily persecuted by maroding (?) violating extremists. Nothing extraordinary, only a very realistic example of how human rights are violated and neglected.
On 14th of March 2014, Boko Haram gunmen attacked the Giwa military barracks in the 500.000-people city of Maiduguri, Borno state, Nigeria. Later the military regained control again. More than 640 people, mostly unarmed recaptured detainees were murdered. Captured in a 35-seconds-clip of an unknown mobile user was what happened to one of the victims: The video showed a Nigerian soldier murdering an unarmed man in broad daylight. This clip came across the mailbox of Amnesty International. The NGO was able to confirm the exact location of the incident, and to verify the authenticity of the clip, which “was only the tip of the iceberg”, as Amnesty International’s Christoph Koettl explains. This user generated content, attentively verified by metadata and content analysis was used as the basis for the Amnesty International Report putting light in the atrocities in Nigeria
New watchdogs: Citizen Media investigate human rights and cover elections
Imagine an African regional powerhouse with a political, social and religious gapping between North and South. Hate speeches and violent attacks between Muslim and Christian people erupting frequently. A small hate-message, a cartoon or a blasphemic comment could cause violent attacks in certain regions. This country stands in the middle of a controversial election campaign where a new president should be elected. Bad times for journalists and media? Of course not! The current elections in Nigeria proved that the opposite is true: the quality and the way digital content is distributed makes a significant difference.
It is not by hazard that those two examples come from Nigeria, a country with one of the fastest growing Internet penetration rates in Africa.
The dimension of what (social) media could do became evident during the recent recognizable power shift. The presidential elections in Nigeria went well – for journalists, media users, and for the voters: Long before the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) shared any official polling numbers, Nigerians who had volunteered among the 700,000 electoral officers shared the regional voting results of their polling stations. President-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressive Congress party’s lead in the vote last month quickly became apparent a few hours after polling units closed thanks to technologically savvy Nigerian voters using social media to share each step of the process. In this case, the high percentage of active and educated media users contributed to a peaceful, accountable and transparent voting process.
These examples show: Citizen media and user generated content could raise political participation and accountability and simplify human rights fact-finding. Digital communication and Information is opening new ways to participate in political and social processes. It allows people to share and to connect. Moreover, it creates new possibilities to investigate on human rights’ violations and to put neglected or oppressed issues on the agenda. Non-governmental structures and journalists could use these potentials: They could directly include these new methodologies in their research process. In addition to that, digital communication offers new opportunities to learn and to increase knowledge. In its basic structure digital communication is inclusive. It could be an effective tool to enhance development. All this is possible right now, not tomorrow.
Freedom on decline – What Media Barometers say about African Media
So far the general assessment – let us take a closer look at African media reality and the current global trends which put this inclusive development target under challenges and risks. The biggest risk is censorship.
The differences among African states when it comes to press freedom are tremendous. The ranking of reporters without frontiers 2015 puts Namibia on rank 17 – quite better than a lot of European states. Look at the forerunners in press freedom: Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, the Comoran Islands and South Africa. These countries courageously developed, shaped and liberalized their media markets. They offer a diverse and rich variety of media outlets. And they are all Middle-Income countries! But also Burkina Faso and Niger are showing up in the class „Satisfying“ – as well as France, Great Britain, Spain and Portugal.
13 other African states – especially in the eastern part of the continent – show “recognizable problems” or are among those regions, where press freedom is in a very bad condition (as do Italy or Greece). Also, there is a high percentage of African states in the last two categories- Here you find most of the authoritarian governed countries like Eritrea (rank180), Sudan (174), Somalia (172), Djiboutis (170), Äquatorialguineas (167) und Ruanda.(161)
Many African media outlets suffer from serious structural weaknesses: no sufficient publicity markets, no economic basis for media outlets, interferences of owners, politicians and the lack of professional skills. Those factors create certain dependencies – be it by oligarchs or politicians.
This makes African media fragile in many regions: A situation that becomes even worse during conflict or war times. We have to acknowledge some alarming trends in Africa, especially in the zones of current conflicts.
Take Burundi : The political and not-yet ethical conflict there is also a war against the independent media. Since the first protest against a third turn of president Nkurunziza, the
Burundian government is offending journalists. The headquarter of different journalists associations in Bujumbura as the ‚Maison de la presse’ and the radiostations „Radio Publique Africaine” and “RPA Ngozi” have been closed down at the end of April 2015. These professional and independent media-houses are now voiceless. During the same period the number of aggressive and violent voices in the social media grew. Voices that escalate the conflict. On the 13th of May – during the attempted putsch – the Police fired with machine guns and grenades at buildings of four bigger private FM Stations (RPA, Bonesha FM, Radio Isanganiro und Radio Télé Renaissance).The head of the independent Media Association OPB (Observatoire de la presse au Burundi), Innocent Muhozi, reported that journalists have been physically threatened and intimidated before this attempted putsch. He also reported the existence of black lists with names of critical journalists. Since that day only the state broadcaster is able to broadcast – all other FM-radio-Voices have been silenced by government.
We’re not only seeing the newly emerging political crises like in Burundi but also new trends like the growing religious conflicts especially in Nigeria where people and media find themselves pulverized between the religious fantasts and the governmental forces.
In 2014 Reporters without borders counted 8 murdered journalists in the war countries Somalia, DRC, and Centralafrican Republic. Our colleague and Radiojournalist Elisabeth Blanche Olofio died in June 2014 because of a serious attack of militants of the Séléka-rebels. The allegation was that her “tongue was too sharp” (?).
War over mids and values – fundamentalist groups weaponize Media to a next extent
In some of these countries, where religious clashes and fundamental Islamist movements grow, new legislation decision block media freedom. There is a trend to put antireligious comments and reports under the suspicion of apostasy. One example is Mauretania, where the Blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed was sentenced to death because he “had fall off faith”. Before, he commented on the social order of his country and described it as “backward”. He also criticised some parts of the Koran. It was the first time since independence that the death penalty was applied because of apostasy. Another example is Somalia where one of the dominant Islamist movements „Union of Islamic Courts“ (UIC) published a code of conduct for media, demanding them to act in “strict cooperation with UIC” – which could be understood as an explicit intimidation to be conform.
Fundamentalist groups like this, the IS, Boko Haram or others are using digital communication to a new extent. They question our political order, they operate in a networked manner and across borders – and they are using information and the Internet’s dissemination channels as a weapon. These new asymmetric wars and conflicts pose new challenges for the affected society, the international community as well as for media development. It’s a war over minds.
In autocratic systems media is the first victim
And in Zimbabwe? On the 9th of March 2015, the human rights activist Itai Dazamara disappeared. The EU and the African Union requested clear efforts of the Zimbabwean government to bring light to his case and to stop increasing violations of human rights in the country. The alleged abduction of the leader of Occupy Africa Unity Square –an NGO primarily aimed at protesting and inciting mass action against the racial, economic and social inequality in South Africa – is only one disguising example of how fragile the human rights situation is.
The African Union also found clear words with regard to its chairperson Robert Mugabe: ”The continuous deployment of brute force as a way of dealing with citizens’ genuine grievances signifies the extent to which President Mugabe, aged 91, is out of touch with the myriad of challenges in his own country. Quite remarkably, it also proves the failure by his government to provide clear and tangible solutions to an economy battered and bruised by policy ambiguity, policy inconsistency and lack of imagination.”
Good performers in Media Freedom: many of Africa’s forerunners are middle-income-countries
A war of Web 2.0 information emerged in which media are deployed as a weapon to a new extent: to publicize and frighten, to recruit and spread targeted misinformation. These new players question our political system, operate in a networked manner and across borders. Both use hybrid methods: they rely on traditional means of waging war, highly modern weapons, on gaining territory, military aggression. However, propaganda and subversion, fright and publicity are likewise means of waging hybrid war. The new asymmetric wars could hardly have escalated so quickly if they hadn’t been able to rely on information and disinformation as tools.
So to say-Media: Hybrid and autocratic systems understand the relevance of media
There is another new trend: creating so-to-say media. What does that mean? Multiply your media and create modern, technically attractive media. Offer the users a multitude of content – but in essence no diversity of opinions and no liberty of expression. The forerunner of this global trend is Russia, where all audiovisual media are under the control of the Kremlin.
It is an ambivalent course – and there are african imitators, which follow this path of media-mainstreaming in Africa. Rwanda is one example of a contradictory media development policy: Freedom of media is guaranteed by the Rwandan constitution and the country’s media law was liberalized in 2013, allowing journalists to collect and distribute information and – under certain conditions – to treat sources of information under confidence. There is even a new law on the access of information, also protecting whistleblowers. Forced by quite critical assumptions of the international community on the estate of civil rights, right of expression and freedom of media, the Rwandan government started a political offensive in the media sector, creating a multitude of bodies, like the self-regulatory “Media Commission”, the Media High council, a state-organ which is responsible for journalistic training and education, and the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA), responsible for questions of technical distribution and licensing.
Nevertheless it is not possible to report critically on the policy of president Kagame. It is not possible to critically discuss or comment his wish to prolong his mandate to a third term.
The result of media-policies in hybrid and semi-authoritarian systems becomes obvious when watching or reading local media: censorship by state authorities is quite rare, intimidations and mainstreaming of people sitting in responsible media positions occur more often – and self-censorship is part of the daily life in media and among journalists.
Building up democracy is still an analog procedure
Web 2.0.technologies and platforms could bypass state censorship and mainstreaming of media. But on the other hand it is obvious: These Web 2.0 Apps can build social networks but not democracies. The DNA of democracy consists of structures, institutions and political parties but not of tweets, likes and shares. There is no Facebook revolution! The build-up of a multiparty democratic system is still a quite analog challenge. Social media could be the first step towards a change but not the last – the hardest part of constructing a new order comes after the display of the cellphone went dark.
The Arab Spring showed the possibilities of social media but also the weaknesses in achieving long lasting political change. Tunisia is the only country where the people’s movement led to a challenging, sometimes contradictory and still reversible way of building up a democracy. In Tunesia’s neighbor country Egypt, the demands of the protestors in 2011 were crushed down. The freedom of speech is getting even worse: “Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has restored the order in Egypt, but at a great cost […] As Mr Sisi has kept Egypt from descending into mayhem, he has unremittingly repressed critics. We don‘t have the luxury to fight and feud, says the president. But his authoritarian habits leave Egypt in the same condition as before the Arab Spring, when Mr Mubarak, another military man, ruled with an iron fist. Many say that the repression is even worse now.”
The social effect of better (technical) accessibility of information
It is good news for journalists, civil societies and users in regions of conflict or in autocracies: More people are using information today because digital communication is accessible in most parts of the world. The consequence is clear: Information today has a greater influence than ever on social, economic and political developments.
Why is media development the key? Firstly, people can only demand their rights in a political sphere if they have access to information. This determines issues such as education and knowledge, and ultimately a person’s personal freedom. Media does even have the power to decide on war or peace, as we’ve been seeing in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq.
Whether the media push developments ahead or simply slows them down depends on various key factors, including:
• conditions under which journalists work
• criteria and professional standards for content
• whether all groups of society have access to media
• whether people can deal with, and make use of, the flood of information
Think about the reality in your own country or your neighbor countries: Women’s issues in the rural areas of Burkina Faso, Mali or Uganda are rarely covered by the media. And how many reports do you remember about the lack of health care in rural areas of your country? There are many social groups who do not have a voice in national media – and neither do their major concerns such as education and health. And there are still a lot of official political and unofficial social taboos: Gays and lesbians in Uganda are politically sidelined, ignored or even harassed by the media. Classifying violent acts as “Ethnic clashes” is an absolute no-go in Kenya. And in many countries reports on the health of the president or the battle of power in the second row of the state party are impossible.
This is partly due to censorship but more often it’s a result of politically biased editorial offices, corruption or self-censorship. To free information, we – the journalists – are obligated to get our users, readers and listeners engaged – to invite them to participate in content-production. The journalist of tomorrow will rather be a wise and neutral moderator, a curator and aggregator of content than a world-explainer.
The new competitors – chance and challenge for Media
“News spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers.” This is a clear-cut description of new competitors, made by Emily Bell, director of the tow center for digital journalism at the Columbia University. “The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences. The public sphere is now operated by a small number of private companies based in Silicon Valley. In a world where we navigate our daily lives through social platforms, just how this information reaches us, what is on a ‘trending’ list, how these algorithms work, becomes not just of marginal interest but a central democratic concern.”
And another short reminder of the facts: Facebook has 1.3 billion users, around 20 per cent of the world’s population. The social network has more than 100 million monthly active users in Africa. Nearly 10% of all Africans use Facebook on a regular basis. That’s also half of the 200 million Africans that are connected to the Internet, according to Facebook. And more than 80% of Facebook’s users in Africa are accessing the site from their mobile devices. According to Ericsson, a communication infrastructure company, the number of mobiles in Africa will rise to 930m by 2019. YouTube has a billion users and a hundred hours of video are uploaded to the platform every minute. Twitter does now have over 300 million users. Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp and WeChat are rapidly becoming default platforms for younger audiences. Internet use on mobile phones in Africa will likely increase 20-fold in the next five years.
Let us take the media mega trends in view – Think Big and act digital!
Journalism’s future and the capacity of users to participate in politics, in communication and decision-making are increasingly dependent on communication technologies. And journalism today and tomorrow will no longer control or own the means of production or routes to distribution. For Africa this global trend creates special tasks:
– Because major parts of the continent are not connected to quick Internet-networks,
– Because Internet usage is still to costly
– Because users are not able to use text information due to illiteracy
– Because African sources, African stories and African content are dominated by stories from the global north
Nevertheless African media-makers and users have to compete under these difficult conditions.
There is no alternative for African Journalists and Media than to be prepared for this new competition in digital communication – Look at the “millennials”: media consumers born in the decades around the year 2000. How does this young generation – around 20 years – use media? What we know is: they like videos, but they do not watch TV. And they do not read newspapers. A vast majority of them gets their news from social media – especially from Facebook. 88 percent of the millennials use media reports and information via Facebook, 83 percent via Youtube, 50% via Instagram, 36 % via Pinterest, 33 percent via Twitter, 23 % via Reddit and 21 % via Tumblr. Whoever wants to get news, information or messages to these younger audiences must use web 2.0 applications. “If the news is important, then she will find me” – this statement of an America student in 2008 will soon be also a reality among urban audiences in Africa.
Digital gap will grow if we do not work on capacities of producers and consumers
It is time to wake up: this trend is a tremendous challenge for African journalists, media and media policy. The most serious effect is that the digital gap could become deeper. And it is not only existing between the global north and the global south. In regard to Africa it consists between poor and rich, cities and rural areas, connected and non-connected regions – and between literate and non-literate people.
To overcome these gaps means to not only work on the technical access to the Web, to create ICT-Labs and expand broad-band networks. It needs a multi-level approach: We have to work on the capacities to use media – be it the capacity to write and read or to navigate in the global jungle of sources to find the relevant ones.And we have to work on the capacities of the producers, be it journalists or civil society to raise their voices in an effective manner to reach their audiences.
And we should continue to work on the quality of journalists, with the aim that they could compete and interact in this new competition of Digital Communication. The Internet has fundamentally changed journalism at every stage: from research to production to choosing multimedia formats to tell the stories. This requires new skills and is the reason why partners all over the world are increasingly asking for digital training. Which interactive journalism formats are the best? How can journalistic contents be better presented online? How could we integrate user generated content in our programming? These are questions which need progressive, flexible answer which are appropriate for conditions under which African media work.
We have to stop talking theoretically on the “rosy” prospects for development delivered via the Net in Africa. The reality is, that there is little chance that “the Web” or any Web Content could accelerate African development if we do not work on this capacities issues, including higher and basic education and research infrastructure. Having understood this link, the global North started to invest more in media development.
It needs a fundamental effort to enhance independent and professional media production and to strengthen journalists, users and communities to deal with the opportunities of the (new) media. Independent and pluralistic media are of paramount importance to ensure that people know their rights and are also able to claim and exercise these rights. This is why KAS and also the institution for which I work, DW-Academy, work a broad strategic approach taking the digital development in the specific region into account. We built our media-development-work up on different stakeholders – in the aim to make them responsible, to built up capacities and to establish solid structures. This is the reason why we work with quite different “agents of change” in the sector of media development: on governmental structures AND non-governmental Organizations, on journalists AND on universities, on users AND on community radio stations. We support press councils, professional associations and media organizations so that they can clearly represent and protect their interests in discussions with political decision makers. If they all understand themselves as involved and requested in the challenge of media development, then we will get sustainable results. We share a deep conviction: media development is the key to more democratic, free and inclusive societies. Digital communication is offering new fields of action – and journalists and media should know how to deal with them!
New players are keeping world politics on edge. They question our political order, they operate in a networked manner and across borders – and they are using information and the Internet’s dissemination channels as a weapon. Both in ISIS’s digital jihad and in the hybrid war being carried out by Russia in Ukraine, war is also being waged with media. What role do the media play? A current perspective from Ute Schaeffer:
New asymmetric wars and conflicts pose new challenges both for the international community as well as for media development. It’s a war over minds. A war of information in which media are deployed as a weapon: to publicize and frighten, to recruit and spread targeted misinformation.
The same time ISIS fighters began spreading rapidly, Russia’s armed forces invaded Ukraine disguised as pro-Russian separatists. Whereas from a strategic and operational standpoint, ISIS militants tend to move in the direction of statehood, Russian forces charted a different course: they showed up not as conventional troops but rather as non-state combat groups, in order to be invisible and flexible. But both use hybrid methods: they rely on traditional means of waging war, highly modern weapons, on gaining territory, military aggression. However, propaganda and subversion, fright and publicity are likewise means of waging hybrid war. The new asymmetric wars could hardly have escalated so quickly if they hadn’t been able to rely on information and disinformation as tools.
This information offensive is the main explanation for why each month, 1,000 new fighters from around the world move to ISIS battlefields to offer their support. Some 15,000 fighters from more than 80 countries are said to be represented there – and not just from Saudi Arabia or Tunisia but also from China, Russia, Australia, and Europe. The targeted media campaign is the main reason why the Russian view of the Ukraine conflict predominates in Western media. New players like ISIS are stepping out onto the field. Other players, like the Russian state, have for several years been modifying their methods since they have come to understand: War is decided in the mind – meaning targeted media work and the viral dissemination of information and disinformation as a key weapon. These conflict actors still use regular media, television even print products. But their information campaign relies predominantly on social media and its community-based structure and functionality. They tweet and share, they comment and communicate in order to strengthen their community and recruit new supporters. And they use the credibility, dynamics and ubiquity of the social platforms in their aim to reach these target groups worldwide or in the conflict region itself.
For the actors in the current hybrid wars there are good reasons for using the functions of the Web 2.0 applications intensively. Why? What do the dissimilar players in these two asymmetric conflicts have in common?
They rely on narratives. They need a good story in order to establish and legitimize their ideology, their course of action in the conflict, their world view. They need models with perpetrators and victims, stories with winners and losers. These can be found in YouTube videos, in Facebook posts, in the massive numbers of polemic comments by pro-Russian trolls on media portals. Both have short-term and long-term goals: in the short term, they count on achieving narrow victories in the conflict and on gaining power and influence and enlarging their base. In the long term, however, they rely on the emergence of a new value system, a new self-understanding, aiming ultimately at an alternative identity.
Strong narratives and a clear sales pitch
Like any communication and marketing strategy they have to create a unique selling point which must be able to prevail in competition. Therefore, it has to be distinguishable and profile-endowing, attractive and joinable. Here, players like ISIS proceed with their media campaigns in a much more professional manner than other players before them: “Al Qaeda’s image is deeply unsexy,” remarks Audrey Kurth Cronin in Foreign Affairs. And Al Qaeda did not use media and information to that extent as a weapon. “Al Qaeda attracted followers with religious arguments and a pseudo-scholarly message of altruism for the sake of the ummah, the global Muslim community.” It created an “image of religious legitimacy and piety. [Its propaganda videos showed] ascetic warriors sitting on the ground in caves, studying in libraries…” ISIS in contrast offers a very attractive heroic message for young men, promising adventure, personal power and a sense of self and community: “The group’s brutal violence attracts attention, demonstrates dominance, and draws people to action.”
Such narratives are key for the new conflict players. ISIS needs attractive images and strong narratives to establish its ideology and to create a USP. Getting the message across – that is communication strategy’s primary goal. And to convey the message to quite different target groups; be it frustrated young users in Arab countries, or Muslims in Western Europe. A battle of narratives has started – which is not limited to the conflict regions in Syria and Iraq or in Ukraine and Russia, but is transmitted worldwide by broadband connections, Facebook communities and trolls.
I The information war between Ukraine and Russia
Russia is waging war in Ukraine without having declared one. In this “hybrid war” of disinformation, economic and political pressure, and covert military operations, media play a key role. Russia’s war of information against Ukraine began long before Crimea was annexed. In this campaign unleashed by the Kremlin, the Maidan protests – as with the citizen movements in the Arab world since 2011 – were actions fabricated by the West, an “attack on the whole Russian world,” as a first step in a “military campaign against the entire Russian nation.” The “battle for Kiev” has flared up, reported the Russian media. For the Russian media there was no doubt who was behind the Maidan protests: “The USA aspire to global dominance and think that they are always right, said the famous Russian TV presenter Dmitry Kisselov on April 27, 2014.
The Internet platform stopfake.org clearly shows how both governments are obviously using the media to manipulate the truth. Like for example the news produced by Russian media giant TRK Zvezda claiming that Poland has officially recognized Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. Another fabricated report produced by the Russian media claimed to be showing a U.S. Army tank with a Ukrainian trident iin Eastern Ukraine. Shortly after the publication of this picture, stopfake.org found out that it was actually taken from the website of the U.S. Army showing the tank being tested in Texas in 2013. The original picture has no Ukrainian trident.
Entrenched enemy stereotypes as narratives in the war of information
In its propaganda campaign, the Kremlin started lumping together all players under one roof as early as the Maidan protests: it was said that the demonstrations were the work of fascists and outlaws and Ukraine must not be left to the Nazis. On March 4, 2014, at a meeting with journalists, the Russian President answered his own question: “What is our biggest concern? We see the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.” With these old, entrenched enemy stereotypes, Putin reawakened a traumatic past – among his fellow countrymen in Russia but also among the many Russian speakers in Ukraine who use Russian media: Germany’s campaign of annihilation against the Soviet Union starting in 1941. The democracy movement on Maidan Square as a deadly threat of war which however can be overcome by Russia just like it did before. Such interpretations spread quickly on the Internet. For instance, the head of Russia’s Motherland Party (Rodina), representative Alexei Zhuravlev, wrote on his website in March 2014: “In Ukraine, a junta has taken power. An anti-Russian junta. With its hatred, it is provoking what’s happening now in the country …. It is impossible to negotiate with the new power (in Ukraine) or to agree on anything. … they view it as their mission to annihilate the pro-Russian regions.”
Even during Soviet times, there was never such a massive propaganda campaign as that unleashed against Ukraine. “Using selective information, half-truths, appeals to emotion, lies, and orchestrated events, a parallel reality is created in which Western-controlled fascists are at work in Ukraine, waging war against their own people and seeking to bring down Russia,” analyses Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov.
Building on traditional enemy stereotypes and (with the aid of the narrative of triumphant war in the neighboring country) the hero motif of Russia as the strong world power, the Kremlin’s media campaign is working: 70% of Russians feel that they are receiving objective information about the situation in Ukraine. But the media campaign is also paying off for President Putin directly: his approval ratings in Russia have reached a high of 81%.
Ukraine resorts to counteroffensive
Ukraine‘s media has also found a way to counter Russian propaganda: “Though the lies in the media are not as evident compared to what Russian media are fabricating each day, Ukraine’s media outlets keep quiet about many topics, especially when it comes to war reporting,” says Kyryl Savin, who was Head of the Kiev office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation until June 2015.
What is missing are journalistic fundamentals – among journalists themselves and among the broadcasters and media outlets for which they work. Just one obvious example of this: in order to verify the official numbers of victims or wounded, journalists would only need to research at hospitals, but instead the reporting of official statements is predominant. “To the outside observer, the standards of Ukrainian journalism are worrying. Professionals here are few and far between, and popularity is bought with money,” observes Otar Dovzhenko from Transitions Online.
This is accompanied by a false understanding of patriotism. “Unfortunately, almost all outspoken journalists tend to self-censorship: In times of war there is no place for criticism of the government.” This is the trend Kyryl Savin observes in Ukraine. And this is why most Ukrainians live in a virtual reality which is a far cry from the one in Donbass, Eastern Ukraine. And if someone dares to say anything different, they risk paying a high price – like the famous Ukrainian TV presenter, Savik Shuster. His popular and most frequently watched “Savik Shuster Show” was taken off the air after he invited a Russian journalist to his program.
In terms of their structure and intent, the Ukrainian responses are as unilateral, aggressive and exclusive as their Russian counterparts – but their content, technical quality and distribution cannot compete with the dominant Russian TV. Official communication and media in Ukraine are responding to the Russian military campaign by imitating the Russian formats and structures. For example, as a counterweight to the glossy images of Russia’s foreign broadcaster, Russia Today, Ukraine launched its own channel: “Ukraine Tomorrow” and as RT‘s Ukrainian equivalent is creating its own image of the conflict.
”The battle against us is being fought on many fronts, the information front being one of the most important ones. In a year we have created a strong army which courageously protects us in Donbass. Now it’s time to fight back against the Russian occupiers on the information front.” This is how Ukraine‘s online army presents itself on the Internet. Moreover, in November 2014, Ukraine set up a Ministry for Information. Its main goal is to create a strategy for counterpropaganda: “To this end, a group of around 20 experienced bloggers – a so-called task force – working for the government was established. Their goal is to combat Russian propaganda,” says Kyryl Savin.
The war of words started before the first shots were fired
The media has become the key player in this information war which started long before the first shots were fired. Media coverage paved the way for the military operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine that followed shortly after the Maidan protests. “[F]or Moscow, the conflict in Ukraine is accelerating profound changes already under way in the Russian media: the centralization and mobilization of information in the hands of the state, providing the Kremlin – and President Vladimir Putin – with the means to galvanize public opinion domestically and in the region, as well as to forcefully assert Russia‘s policies, views and – increasingly – values on an international level.”
Independent online media like Lenta.ru or Dozhd TV and also other independent voices like Echo Moscow and RIA Novosti have experienced pressure from the government. The Russian social-networking website Vkontakte made the same experience. Vkontakte CEO Pavel Durov was forced to flee the country and now lives abroad.
The mainstreaming and censoring of the Web and Web 2.0 started with the mass gatherings in Moscow after the parliamentary elections in 2011. While TV, radio and print outlets were always in the spotlight of the censors, the Internet has not been the focus of the Kremlin’s attention for quite as long. However, all this changed dramatically in 2011. Three years later, Putin proclaimed the Internet a “CIA project”.
The Kremlin has increased censorship, prohibited the free flow of data and undermined freedom of expression.
Putin’s cyberphobia has brought forth several laws: According to one law passed at the beginning of 2014, any website can be blocked without court order if it contains extremist views. But what is defined as being extremist? No one has provided a comprehensive definition yet. Several months later, another law was passed which requires all web-based writers with posts that exceed 3,000 page views to register with the government. “Approximately 30,000 Russian bloggers were included under these new stipulations requiring that they check the facts and delete any inaccuracies in their posts or risk their sites being removed or blocked. […] it also applies to social media accounts that have posts with over 3,000 daily page views.”
The Kremlin’s High Gloss Media Campaign
Moscow has realized how important media are for the country’s image. And that by using media, politics can be accomplished and that domestic and foreign policy interests can be enforced. Therefore, the Kremlin’s information policy is two-faceted: within the country, media with a relevant outreach are censored and mainstreamed. All wide-reach channels are in line with the Kremlin, all independent voices efficiently suppressed. And outside the country, the media campaign is based on high-gloss products like Russia Today – and on an effective propaganda army – the trolls – using the Web 2.0 functionalities to spread the official Russian point of view. The headquarters of this armada are situated in St. Petersburg: the PR “Agency for Analyzing the Internet”. It currently employs about 600 people. Their main task: Influencing opinions on the Internet, disseminating the Kremlin’s position in a targeted manner through reader comments. The Kremlin’s media experts have understood that a successful social media campaign means that you cannot only publish and control your message, but that you have to participate in key conversations aiming at achieving a significant influence in Web 2.0 conversations. This is exactly how the Russian trolls act: they comment on reports by Western media – in English, German or French. In these comments they engage in undermining the credibility of the author’s quality or the quality of the whole product. And they produce their own “snackable” web products, for example the YouTube video “I am a Russian Occupant” which was watched by nearly 7 million (sic!) users. The Kremlin has invested a lot into these Web 2.0 activities knowing that success on Web 2.0 platforms means: building social authority.
The Web 2.0 campaign has two targets: to place the official Russian perspective and to undermine and disconcert public opinion among Western audiences. This second target aims at demoralizing the enemy, be it Western media, Western policy, Western public opinion. In the programs of Russia Today, conspiracy theories and simple disinformation co-exist peacefully with professionally-produced journalistic products. This makes it difficult for users to differentiate between truth and fiction. You could have found the breaking news “Ukrainian parliament prohibits Cyrillic script”. And the same evening, demonstrations took place in Moscow: “Give us back our Cyrillic!” That was a coordinated action to create riots. This is one example of how intensively planned and coordinated information and disinformation is used.
Using one-way regular media it is quite easy to create a persuasive, dominant and attractive image: this role is played by glossy TV channel Russia Today targeting foreign audiences and by the video agency Ruptly which was created in 2013.
Using these media, the Kremlin disseminates to the world its view of things: it influenced Western reporting about the Ukraine crisis to fit its needs, and via its Russian media won the propaganda war in the eastern areas of Ukraine. An investment that is paying off: In the nine years since it was founded, Russia Today has surpassed CNN in its reach. With nearly 1.2 billion YouTube views for television reports, Putin’s propaganda broadcaster is second only to the BBC. In the UK, more people watch RT than Euronews; in several large U.S. cities as well, RT is the most-watched foreign broadcaster. Its 2,500 employees report in Russian, English, Spanish, Arabic, and German. RT, former Russia Today, as described by the Lithuanian Minister for Foreign Affairs is “no less destructive than the military marching in Crimea.”
“We’re in the middle of a relentless propaganda war,” says Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an influential Washington think tank. Weiss describes this propaganda as a crucial tool used by Russia to conduct its foreign policy. Moscow is looking beyond the short term, seeking to influence opinion in the long run to create “an alternative discourse in Western countries as well,” says Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Kremlin foreign broadcaster RT which owns Ruptly. This strategy is working, as can be seen in the reporting by German media on the war in Ukraine. Here, there are persistent images and stories claiming that radical right-wing individuals in Kiev run the government, that the Maidan protests were nothing but a campaign by Western countries, not to mention the blanket opinion that Ukrainians are incapable of statehood. These are all assertions and narratives that have their roots in Russian sources, whether public media or users on social media. This is also the source of the German discussion about the “lying press” that has unjustly cast Russia in a bad light.
II Digital jihad – the home-grown terrorist
The globalization of ISIS was only possible because of the digital communication we have today. Take the 21-year-old Arid Uka, a young man from Kosovo living in Frankfurt, working as a temporary worker at the airport. German security agencies like the German Federal Bureau of Investigation (BKA) and the intelligence services (Verfassungsschutz) had had an eye on him. He carried out the first terror attack in Germany in March 2011 that could not be prevented by security forces. In this attack Arid Uka killed two men. How could that happen? The answer is striking: “Within a couple of weeks this unknown young man radicalized himself only by sitting in front of his computer and consuming the propaganda of radical Islamic preachers,” says Loay Mudhoon, political scientist and specialist for political development in the Arab world at DW. “The biggest challenge we are facing right now here in Europe is that we don’t know who is capable of terrorist attacks and how many potential terrorists are out there. How can we tell who is likely to turn in a short space of time from a normal next-door guy into a home-grown terrorist supporting the ideas of ISIS or other radical organizations?”
Viral distribution of information used as persuasive advertisement for terror
In the past four years, 680 men and women left Germany to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. These are people who feel discriminated and marginalized in their own societies, they feel misunderstood and isolated. Their only way out of this is the Internet. So they seek out like-minded people in chat rooms, connect with peer groups on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. In their quest for recognition they create their own “me-sphere” which becomes their home – and a substitute family. The group dynamics develop a virtual reality in which young people easily become receptive to ISIS propaganda. “Without the digital media as transmitter of ideas, ISIS would not have the enormous influx of young men and women from Europe. Moreover, the globalization of ISIS was only possible because of the achievements of the digital age we are living in and how we use them,” says Loay Mudhoon.
Terrorism is a form of persuasive communication. Digital media play a key role for ISIS – being a persuasive form of advertising. Over the years they have learned to use them very professionally. While they once used VHS and audiotapes to convey their messages, they now harness the power of modern technology. Their messages are tailor-made for different target groups.
And they use all Web 2.0 functionalities: For example, for those young men and women sitting in front of their computers in Belgium, Germany or Sweden, ISIS delivers its messages not in Arabic but in the languages of its audience. The narrative is clear: You live in an unjust society which offers you no perspective. Join us. Here you can become someone. “ISIS conveys a romantic narrative, they foster a nostalgic desire for a nation based on justice,” says Mudhoon. This is the common rhetoric they use beyond their boundaries. However, within their scope of operations they use a different language and different topics including their claim that Saudi Arabia is not sufficiently Islamic as well as their fight against this shift in the society towards Western values and life-styles. Another topic is their fight against the Shiites which they proudly present in videos, one showing prisoners kissing the hands and feet of ISIS fighters who freed them from captivity in the Syrian city of Idlib.
What we need to realize in order to understand the importance of media for ISIS is that ISIS is more than a group of terrorist militants or a run-of-the-mill terror organization. On the contrary, it is a novel attempt to form a state in accordance with jihadist ideology. This is extremely important for understanding the complex structures of ISIS and particularly its media tools. For ISIS, media are an integral part of its jihadist undertaking to form a state.
ISIS deploys a lot of money and know-how for its information campaigns and furnishes itself with an array of its own media companies:
The media makers of ISIS also cooperate regularly with various other media companies which produce for ISIS and distribute rebroadcast ISIS contents like
ISIS media target young users
ISIS’s media makers use all possible means for their propaganda – digital as well as non-digital, like newspapers and magazines. The success of ISIS’s media is based on the fact that they are made by young Muslims for young Muslims. If you look at the media trends, it is obvious that Web.2.0 is the predominant gateway to reach young people worldwide. There is a constant increase in the usage of social media by young people. The current Reuters Institute Digital News Report comes to the result that the use of smartphones and tablets has jumped significantly in the past year, with fewer people using their computers for news. It recorded that more than a third of online news users across all countries (39%) use two or more digital devices each week for news and a fifth (20%) now say their mobile phone is their primary access point.
The ISIS media makers understand the global accessibility and attractiveness of social media for young people – and they understand that those young people are frustrated, fascinated with violence, and yearn for support and belonging, and they deploy the power of images in a targeted manner. This is why social media play such an important role. It offers to those isolated, alienated, rootless individuals the perspective of being part of a community with “people like me”. In this virtual community they attain the social relevance they do not have in their real social surroundings. This is explains why social media are becoming a dominant source of news among young users. Credibility in content is created by the fact that this news is shared by “people like me” not by hostile or interest-led media houses.
ISIS media makers understand these effects and they adapt their media strategy, using all functionalities of Web 2.0. from content/news production, sharing, commenting and communicating. ISIS content production is modular, multimedia-based and in this sense “snackable” for Web 2.0. applications. ISIS content is distributed by their own media and shared by social media – like the news on the liberation of a prison in Bagdad in April 2015, or video testimonials on war progresses in Syria or Iraq or on general video channels like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or others. Using hashtags like #AllEyesOnISIS and #CalamityWillBefallUS, ISIS followers have flooded Twitter in the past with their messages.
Make information snackable: adapt your content to different target groupsThe information strategy of ISIS is extremely dynamic and is constantly being enhanced. Their media makers are adaptive and highly professional when it comes to successfully disseminating digital information: Use the media of your target group, speak to them in their language, be open to connecting, create a community and get it involved! This is what constitutes the success of ISIS’s information campaigns. Whether Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, JustPaste, or SoundCloud – ISIS’s messages are composed and produced according to the laws of the medium. The message is packaged differently for each user group: clean and bloodless for Western users, brutal and bloody for users in the embattled countries.
The video showing the execution of James Foley (in captivity since November 2012) which has so far been viewed 1.3 million times on a website that permits such films was directed at users in the West. Dressed in an orange Guantanamo jumpsuit, Foley declared the U.S. to be responsible for his death, regretted having been born an American, and exonerated others of any fault. After he spoke these words, a masked killer who spoke English with a British accent took a knife to the journalist’s throat and began to move it. Then the image went dark. Not one drop of blood was to be seen. The beheading in front of a live camera was probably simulated.
In the videos targeting Arabic users, the language is completely different: as in the video showing the murder of rebellious members of the Sheitat clan near the Syrian city of Deir al-Zour – and their brutality is unmatched. Here, the aim is: fear and subjugation. That worked well – in many Syrian and Iraqi villages, people surrendered to the terrorist militants even though they outnumbered them.
ISIS uses social networks in way that no other terrorist group has done before. It has long overcome the language barrier in these media campaigns, content can be found in all important languages, including German and English. Using the hashtag #mujatweets, not only Arabic but also German fighters talk about the supposedly wonderful life at the front. The message is directed at young Muslims in the West: look at this, in jihad we’re all the same, jihad knows no boundaries. And role models like the Berlin rapper Denis Cuspert who became an Islamist and jihadist role model on the Internet, reinforce this. Radicalization today no longer occurs in mosques but rather in front of the home computer.
Social networks create a new public space on the Internet. Whereas these communities play only a marginal role in the social life of society and often live on its verges, an isolated, extremist community is emerging on the Internet. “For quite a long time the West did not take the radicalization of young people seriously. The common assumption was that this is not a general problem but a case for the police. And this proved to be wrong,” says Loay Mudhoon.
III Empowering independent journalism – media development in hybrid conflicts
Asymmetric wars are the wars of the future. They call into question the international order and state integrity. Their players propagate political and social counter-models, like the just Sharia state, the world power, and they do this using the corresponding media. They use existing social tensions, stereotypes, collective experiences. And they bank on long-term ideological penetration of society in the conflict zones. The viral dissemination of information over the Internet is the best way to achieve such a broad effect. This is why media are an integral part of asymmetric warfare. Put differently: the rapid escalation of the current hybrid wars would be inconceivable without the viral dissemination of information and opinions.
What can media development do in societies that are affected by these asymmetric wars?
It can make a targeted contribution towards protecting journalists better and placing more emphasis on their safety. This also applies to the handling of research results, sources and data.
Professional media and journalists in societies affected by asymmetric conflicts need special support in order to be able to continue to work in a professional, independent manner. Media development can provide targeted advice on how, even under conflict conditions, to precisely research, question, and verify what the parties to the conflict are disseminating as propaganda, including on the Internet. Journalists have to be supported in such a way that their independence and professionalism are strengthened.
In addition, media development advises journalists and media companies on how to report on such conflicts in a neutral, sensitive, yet thorough manner. How is it possible to avoid having media contribute to the escalation of conflicts? Or even becoming partial?
In light of the highly professional, cross-media, viral dissemination of information by the players in these new asymmetric wars, traditional media have a special responsibility. Their reporting is the key to providing a counter-narrative to the conflict messages which exposes them as such and at the same time delivers/transmits a different message.
But they have to adjust if they want to survive. There are new competitors who have a serious credibility among (younger) users. Traditional media have to anticipate and adapt to future trends: How can the viral dissemination on the Internet and its back channels be used in order to disseminate professionally produced content and make contact with users? Traditional media have to become able to create high-quality cross-media content by using new storytelling and a better interaction with users in social debates. Otherwise, they will continue to become less and less relevant, no longer reaching the young target groups in the conflict regions. The risk is great in these conflict zones that media will no longer be the Fourth Estate but will rather become a mere tool in the hands of state and non-state players.
Applicable to all areas of life – from personal safety and integrity to health and education – but also to the handling and use of information in asymmetric conflicts: it is important to strengthen the resilience of these societies, i.e. their ability to surmount crises. Media development also has to take users increasingly into account and enable and strengthen them in dealing with sources. (Digital) Media literacy is important. In an age in which information is accessible worldwide over the Internet, the key for users and consumers is an increased expertise in handling this digital information.
This is all the more important in that the free accessibility of information on the Internet also makes it possible to limit and manipulate information in new ways. Particularly in societies affected by asymmetric wars, journalists are at risk of no longer being the Fourth Estate but instead merely a plaything of state and non-state players – censored and suppressed by state organs, economically burnt-out, kicked around between the conflict parties and working under high risk. Media development should react with a multi-stakeholder approach, supporting journalists and users in order to counteract this trend.