Governments and major corporations control or, at least, try to manipulate public opinion and discursive processes through mass media communication. They also wage information wars through the use of mass media communication. Like other geopolitical events, this is the case concerning the Ukrainian anti-government protests and the proceeding February 2014 coup in Kiev. This information war is a contest where the international news networks and major newspapers act as armies, the weapons being used are the media, and the frontline is the interactive space known as the public sphere. Radio frequencies, air waves, satellite feeds, social media, cellular or mobile phone uploads, communication networks, and the internet are all part of the war.
What is an Information War?
Different technologies and modes of communication are used to enforce certain themes in the conflict. Language, selective words, particular expressions, specific pictures, multimedia presentations, and communication are all the ammunition for the war.
The aims of information warfare are to use discourse to influence populations across the world and to establish a total monopoly on the flow of information, the perceptions of audiences, and the discursive processes shaping the modern world. At its basis power and relationships are being realized through mass media communication.
The messages and ideas that the mass media transmit through mass communication are constructed by those that control the media and, in succession, used by them to construct the perceptions of audiences. Since what the majority of people in most modern societies know is heavily shaped by the mass media, the mass media is used to lead audiences into forming certain opinions and to make their decisions on the bases of those opinions. This is done either subtly or overtly through the delivery of repetitive messages.
The messages, being delivered to audiences by the mainstream media and information networks, are generally a form of social action, because the delivery of information by these outlets takes the reactions of audiences into account before any information is disseminated. The reactions that are taken into consideration include physical reactions or material processes. This also includes considerations about the manifestation of protests as a reaction to the information delivered or economic considerations such as investor withdrawals, currency devaluation, and market shifts.
Monopolizing the narrative being delivered to the public and discrediting alternative or rival narratives, be they true or false, is an important aspect of the information war. Although this form of warfare is not new, it is becoming increasingly sophisticated and intensifying as it becomes an important tactic in the tool box of non-conventional warfare that is becoming increasingly characteristic of the current century.
The type of information management that both privately-owned and publicly-owned major news networks seek eventually creates what social scientists call a common sense assumption that informs the actions and reactions of the audiences towards particular subjects and situations. These common sense assumptions are not based on any real facts that exist in the real world, but are formed on the basis of what has repeatedly been presented as fact and conventional knowledge. In the reporting of international affairs the deeply politicized messages being delivered to audiences have led to common sense attitudes that believe that Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims are bitter blood enemies or that Hugo Chavez was a autocrat or that there is an irreversible deep seated hatred between Serbs and Croats. None of these assumptions are grounded in reality, but it has slowly trickled into the canon of false assumptions that inform a segment of international audiences about international issues. Moreover, in many cases these messages are delivered under the disguise of apolitical neutral objectivity, which prevents large portions of the audience from questioning the motives and implications of the messages being transmitted.
Ukraine is currently a front, just as Syria and Venezuela are, in a global information war, which is being reflected through a battle of the international media networks. The objectives of this media war are to secure and manage domestic and international public opinion in support or opposition of the coup that took place in Kiev and the new Ukrainian transitional government in Kiev.
International Media War: Move over BBC World and CNN International
The United States of America used to enjoy a near monopoly in the dissemination of information in the international media, but that has changed over the years as countries like Russia, Iran, China, and Venezuela respectively setup international news networks like Russia Today (RT), Press TV, Chinese Central Television (CCTV), and the pan-Latin American La Nueva Televisora del Sur (teleSUR) to challenge the international media networks of the US and its allies. These new anti-establishment international media networks — if they can be described thus — from Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela, and elsewhere collectively begun to challenge the status quo in the international media.
The prevailing narratives being presented by the dominant international news networks, particularly the Atlanta-based Cable News Network (CNN) and the state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which had a near monopoly on the international stage, were disrupted and slowly eroded. To borrow from the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, while he was visiting the Moscow studios of RT in June 2013, the task of anti-establishmentarian international news networks like RT is to “try to break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.”
The newer international news networks, like RT and Press TV, became so effective in challenging the discourse being propagated by major news networks like CNN, BBC, Fox News, and Sky News that American and British officials began to reconsider their media strategies and examine ways to challenge and cripple the international news networks challenging their control on the flow of information. The steps taken by the US and its allies included the blocking of the English-language Press TV, the Arabic-language Al-Alam, and other state-owned Iranian stations in Europe and elsewhere.
The near monopoly that the US and Britain enjoyed on the international stage was clearly broken by the time 2011 arrived as many viewers began to diversify their sources of information. Stations like CNN and BBC were heavily discredited about their coverage on the US-led NATO war against the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
Hillary Clinton, while she was the sixty-seventh secretary of state of the US, was even forced to publicly outline the important role that international news networks and the mass media played in the success of US foreign policy. While speaking to a 2011 congressional committee dealing with foreign affairs in the US Congress, Clinton declared that Washington was losing the global information war. She told the committee she was testifying to that the US needed to revert to Cold War-style media transmissions and outreach methods while requesting increased funding for US state media operations as a means of waging an information war against foreign media networks that carry diverging messages. She denounced RT without naming it directly, describing it as the English-language channel of the Russians and saying “it is quite instructive.”
Secretary Clinton lamented that the US and the state-owned BBC were cutting back their international media operations and that Washington needed to reverse the cutbacks “to get America’s message out.” She, however, was wrong about the US and BBC cutbacks. Resources were not the issue; the decreasing number of audiences tuning in to stations like CNN International or BBC World was the real problem.
Clinton’s statements echoed the state-run Broadcasting Board of Governors US federal agency, which runs Radio Free Europe, Voice of America (VOA), Alhurra in Iraq, and all the state-run international broadcasting of the US. Walter Isaacson, its chairman, declared a few months earlier that the US was waging an information war and that “America cannot let itself be out communicated by its enemies.” Isaacson, who was formerly the CEO of CNN, also emphasized that “delivering the news top down needs to be complemented by a new approach that catalyzes social networks.” This is very important to keep in mind when considering the interface between anti-government protests, social media, and the mainstream media.
While addressing Secretary Clinton’s 2011 declaration about US involvement in a global information war, the coverage of the mainstream media in the US about her statements was selective and distorted to portray a friendly and innocent image of the US government simply working to communicate with the outside world. Instead of displaying any reflectivity or making any substantive analytical reports explaining that what was taking place on Capitol Hill was a discussion by US officials about sharpening the US government’s overseas propaganda and dominating the information available to the international public, US media outlets casually glossed over Secretary Clinton’s statements at the hearing or entirely overlooked it.
The Washington Post, for example, made no attempt in its reporting to analyze what Clinton and the US senators were discussing. For instance, when Senator Richard Lugar, a known war hawk and military expansionist, said that the international media operations of the Broadcasting Board of Governors are “still a great force of diplomacy, to get our message across,” The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick did not even elaborate that what Lugar was talking about was the US government exerting its power over other nations by using the mass media to influence their governments through a US-tailored flow of information to their populations.
This passiveness of the mainstream media that the coverage on Clinton’s testimony demonstrated is usually justified on the basis of a false objectivity. This is very common when it comes to important issues involving governments, corporations, individuals, or entities that the mainstream media do not want to criticize or undermine. The claim is that the facts are simply being reported without bias or subjective interpretations.
The US mainstream media coverage of the event would have been much different if it were a Russian official speaking to a parliamentary committee in the Duma about using the Russian media to influence foreign countries. The same standards are not applied when these same outlets deal with rival entities. Instead assertive reporting that involves an active or assertive voice by the mainstream media about the news being covered is then applied to attack or undermine the decisions and actions of these rival entities in the name of investigative journalism and critical analysis.
Western Media Lashes out at Iranian, Chinese, Russian Media on Failures in Syria
While there has been an ongoing information war, a very distinct media war began to become visible in 2011. The NATO war on Libya, where international media networks played an important role in the war effort, highlighted this. The new anti-establishment news networks had matured enough to challenge US propaganda and provide alternative narratives that challenged the legitimacy of the broadcasts from CNN and BBC, even hurting their credibility and reducing their international and domestic viewership. Libya, however, was merely the start whereas Syria displayed an open and intense conflict between these news networks being fought mainly in the English, Arabic, and Spanish languages. The effectiveness of the anti-establishmentarian media networks in challenging the discourse of networks like CNN, BBC, Fox News, and Al Jazeera about Syria demonstrated that the days of a US stranglehold on the flow of information where long gone.
The US and British media began to very distinctly condemn the Chinese, Iranian, and Russian international media networks for their narratives about Syria by the start of 2012. The BBC incorrectly claimed, as one of its titles illustrated, that the “Chinese, Iranian press alone back UN Syria veto” on February 6, 2012 while Robert Mackey of The New York Times opined that, as the title for his text illustrates, the “Crisis in Syria Looks Very Different on Satellite Channels Owned by Russia and Iran” a few days later, on February 10, 2012. Lashing out at the perspectives of the Chinese, Iranian, and Russian media, the US and British press overlooked the segments of the African, Arab, Asian, European, and Latin American media that shared the same views as the Iranian, Chinese, and Russian media in countries like Algeria, Argentina, Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Namibia, Serbia, South Africa, Ukraine, and Venezuela. While trying to deliberately undermine and understate the support that Syria enjoyed from a segment of the international community to their audiences, the US and British media betrayed the frustration of the political agendas of the directorships controlling their discourse.
The media war is a reflection of rivalries between powerful actors in the real world. This is why it should come as no surprise that it was during the same juncture that Hillary Clinton began to publicly exhibit US frustration against the Russians and the Chinese. Secretary Clinton began lecturing her fellow foreign ministers from the other countries gathering at the international conferences that support regime change and military operations against Syria. She told the other foreign ministers that the Russians and Chinese had to “pay a price” for opposing Washington’s idea of “progress.”
It is worth revisiting Clinton’s statements from July 2012. She said as follows: “I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all — nothing at all — for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. The only way that will change is if every nation represented here [at the conference] directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price because they are holding up progress — blockading it — that is no longer tolerable!” Clinton’s definition of progress in Syria, it should be mentioned, means regime change in Damascus and a military bombing campaign against the Syrians. She was expressing Washington’s rage, because she made the statement after Moscow and Beijing refused to allow the US, Britain, and France to get the United Nations Security Council to authorize a war against Syria.
After Washington displayed its infuriation at Russia for preventing regime change in Syria, the US began to seriously contemplate ways it could apply sanctions against the Russians and methods to target the international Russian media networks in the information and media war being waged between the two camps. Those considerations are now materializing or being activated with the crisis in Ukraine. The calls for sanctions against the Russians, however, are not merely the result of the crisis in Ukraine; they are part of an inclination that Washington already had and even consideration by US officials on how to undermine the mega oil-for-goods trade deal that the Russians and Iranians have been negotiating.
How the Western Media is Framing the Actors in the Ukrainian Crisis
The mainstream media selects which narratives and messages get out and dominant conversations. Certain voices are only allowed to be heard while others are excluded or utterly ignored from the conversation while circumstances that could challenge what the mainstream media is trying to frame for audiences are in many cases left out from narratives or trivialized and discredited.
A manipulated narrative that supports European Union and NATO expansion in Ukraine is being constructed where a distorted reality is being represented about what took place in Kiev. The vocabulary chain or series of related words setting the tempo of the discourse on the anti-government protests is very telling. President Viktor Yanukovych is constantly presented as corrupt, as the constant media focus on his wealth and mansion present, and pro-Russian whereas the protesters have been presented as activists and democrats with little delving into the backgrounds of the opposition leaders.
The words and phrases indicate or, to put it more bluntly, betray the political position of the media networks. These descriptions and messages are formulated on the basis of judgment calls that are conveying the position of the supposedly objective media sources. The en masse conveyance of these news networks starts turning more and more into psychological imposition as it gradually becomes accepted by audiences as they are constantly bombarded by the same view points and narratives about the anti-government protests in Ukraine.
The narrative being framed is that a corrupt pro-Russian regime has been ousted by a democratic revolution. This has no bearing to what has happened. The same media sources that have portrayed Yanukovych as a greedy figure and corrupt autocrat fail to mention that the opposition figures that they present so favourable are also wealthy and have mansions, priceless art, pools, car collections, and vast wealth. They also fail to mention that the main opposition leaders were already in power before and lost popularity, because of their mismanagement and corruption. Nor is the fact that the opposition leaders took power through a coup mentioned. As for the allegations of Yanukovych being pro-Russian, any source that mentions this is either lying or utterly ignorant about Ukrainian politics; Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions caters mostly (but not only) to Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians in Ukraine (which do prefer Russia to the US and the EU), but his party is not pro-Russian at all and has even advanced cooperation with NATO and even disappointed its constituents by trying to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union, instead of Russia, after the most recent elections in Ukraine.
The vilifying language being used against Russia and Vladimir Putin in these reports is very telling too. This language illustrates or presents the attitudes or beliefs that these media outlets want to project about the Russian Federation and Putin. President Putin is being framed as an autocrat and militaristic brute. Putin’s ex-KGB background is frequently referred to as a means of demonizing him whereas the CIA background of George H. W. Bush Sr. was almost never referred to by the same outlets when the latter was president of the US; when the CIA background of George H. W. Bush Sr. was mentioned, it was done either in a passive or positive voice. The negative language that has been reserved for Putin about a Russian invasion of Crimea has never been used by networks like CNN or the BBC to describe any US president or British prime minister involved in the invasions and wars against Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya either.
These attitudes framing the discourse on Russia and Putin are based on an adversarial stance towards Russia as an economic and geopolitical rival, which is structurally engrained in the power structure controlling the mass media in North America and the European Union. Journalists and media sector employees consciously or subconsciously work around its contours and either knowingly or unknowingly serve its objectives to vilify Russia and otherizing it as an adversary or alien.
Western Media Target RT and the Russian Media to Control the Narrative on Ukraine
During the start of the crises in Libya and Syria the US and its allies refused to admit that they were supporting militants with deviant and intolerant views that many have described as either Al-Qaeda forces or affiliates of Al-Qaeda. With time the US and its allies were slowly forced to admit that these intolerant deviant forces did exist in Libya and Syria. This acknowledgment by the US and its allies was the result of the successful information campaign being waged by the mass media of Syrian allies like Iran, China, and Russia. The Qatari-based Al Jazeera Network’s overbearing position in the Arab World was even marred as channels like Rusiya Al-Yaum, Al-Manar, and Al-Mayadeen challenged its coverage on the Syrian crisis.
The case with the Ukraine has been the same. The US and its allies have tried to deny the ultra-nationalist involvement and to frame the story that benefits their interests in Ukraine. The Russian media, however, has been a thorn in their side and challenging their discourse. So a campaign has been initiated against the Russian media by the US and its allies. Like the frustration that was expressed against the Russian international media networks over their coverage of Syria, the aim of the mainstream media in North America and the European Union is to present the Russian mainstream media as unobjective and untrustworthy; that is why the US state-run RFE’s Claire Bigg reported in a December 2013 article, as her opening line says, that “Russia’s state-run television channels are not known for their impartiality” and tries to paint a conspiratorial picture of the Russian media where they claim that the bad weather is linked to the protests in Ukraine by taking one Russian meteorologist’s comments out of context.
The campaign against the Russian media particularly targets its English-language segments and international arms, namely RT America and RT International, which have challenged the narrative that Washington and Brussels want to sell to public opinion about the coup in Ukraine. The comments of two RT employees and the issue of Crimean autonomy have been used in the attack against RT America and RT International. In the case of the latter point, it is worth noting that when it looked like there was a possibility that the coup against the Ukrainian government could fail (speculatively speaking, probably because they expected the coup to take place on February 20 after the snipers murdered protests), the Atlanticist media started reporting about how the western portion of Ukraine could breakaway without any traces of concern.
The Guardian reported the following about the situation on February 21, 2014: “While protests continue on the streets of central Kiev, the cities in the west of Ukraine are slipping towards autonomy with new parallel governments and security forces that have openly admitted they have deserted to the side of protesters.” Albeit it is important to note that the report fails to mention the role of ultra-nationalist militias in taking over the western cities and intimidating their politicians, the point is that the Crimean move towards independence in the Atlanticist media has been overtly treated under a totally different standard. The mainstream media in North America and the European Union had no problem with autonomy in the western half of Ukraine, but clearly do not apply the same standards to Crimea and oppose it. The same media ignores or downplays the agency of the Crimean people, instead framing the Crimean move towards independence as a decision taken by the Kremlin.
Repetitively RT has been blasted either subtly or overtly by the mainstream media in North America and the European Union as a propaganda arm of the Kremlin on the basis that it refuses to report “truthfully” about a Russian invasion of Crimea like the BBC, CNN, Fox News, Sky News, and France 24. Yet, it is CNN and these news networks and outlets that have a very well known track record of distorting the facts. They are now steadily demonizing the people of Crimea that are pro-Russian. The Telegraph in a March 11, 2014 report authored by Patrick Reevell and David Blair has even gone so far as to report that the voting in the Autonomous Republic of the Crimea has only two choices for the Crimean population: join Russia now or later. Stretching its interpretation of the question on the ballots, the British newspaper says that the referendum will ask the people of Crimea if they want to join the Russian Federation directly or through parliamentary means. Instead of directly saying that the referendum will ask the people of Crimea if they want to join Russia or remain a part of Ukraine under the 1994 Crimean Constitution, which could allow for the possibility of a parliamentary vote to join Russia, the British newspaper uses contorted language to confuse the matter as a means of discrediting the referendum.
Another example of this type of demonizing reporting is an article written by CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Laura Smith-Spark, and Ben Brumfield that near the start says, “If you come by train, expect to be searched by pro-Russian militia. If you want to rally in favor of Ukraine’s West-leaning interim government, expect to be surrounded by pushy pro-Russians.” In this narrative the people being repressed are those that support the unconstitutional post-coup government in Kiev while those that are pro-Russian are conveniently portrayed as aggressive, as the comment about being search by pro-Russian militias and being surrounded by “pushy pro-Russians” if you try to express yourself are intended to mean. Not only does the narrative being presented paint Russia and those in Crimea that want to join Russia negatively, it ignores the coup that took place in Kiev and the fact that the searches on the border are aimed at preventing any armed agents or ultra-nationalist individuals from destabilizing Crimea.
Both visual and verbal modes of communication have been used to discredit RT. For example the BBC claimed that RT was presenting the eastern and southern portions of Ukraine as a part of Russia in its reporting on the basis of a map that was taken out of context. Other claims showed a map of Crimea out of context saying that RT had recognized it as a part of Russia. The individual or individuals at the BBC and elsewhere that decided to reproduce the de-contextualized visuals from RT are categorically dishonest and unprincipled. They intentionally misrepresented the meaning of the images by presenting footage or screen grabs that were taken out of context. They omitted the facts that the maps were presented as part of a report showing internal demographic breakups in Ukraine’s geography or the different possibilities that the Crimean people faced.
The BBC has a history of misrepresenting footage and images. The BBC has been caught red handed with these types of fabrications many times whereas there is no case of RT being involved in this type of reporting. Tibetan monks being beaten by Indian security forces were presented by the BBC as Tibetans being oppressed by the Chinese government in 2008. Another case is when Indians at a rally waving Indian flags were billed to audiences as Libyans celebrating the ouster of the Libyan government in 2011. More recently, the BBC was caught even doing voice overs in its coverage of the Syrian crisis in 2013. Former British diplomat Craig Murray is worth quoting about the BBC’s Syria fabrication: “The disturbing thing is the footage of the doctor talking is precisely the same each time. It is edited so as to give the impression the medic is talking in real time in her natural voice – there are none of the accepted devices used to indicate a voiceover translation. But it must be true that in at least one, and possibly both, the clips she is not talking in real time in her own voice.”
What Simple Questions From the Mainstream Media Say
The role of journalists in the clash cannot be underemphasized either. For example, BuzzFeed reporter Rosie Gray presented Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, the following questions:
(1) Do you regularly have meetings at the Kremlin or with Russian government officials? Can you describe them, if so? How much direct influence does the Kremlin have over what RT reports?
(2) Why is your office apparently located on a different floor than the newsroom, as one employee told me?
(3) Also, was Anastasia Churkina hired because of who her father is? Why was she allowed to interview her own father on camera?
(4) I’m told that RT Arabic is run by President Putin’s former translator — is that how that position was filled?
It is hard to tell if the questions are serious or an insult. No reporters in North America have dared asked how Mika Brzezinski got her job at MSNBC and if her father Zbigniew Brzezinski had anything to do with her employment. If questions like this are asked, they are much more subtle. Yet, North American media and its journalists do not apply the same standards when dealing with Russians or members of other societies.
Regardless of the seriousness of the inquiries, the questions are deeply flawed or designed to get specific outputs from the respondent. Firstly, the questions are leading, because they are designed to lead the answers in a certain direction to embarrass and discredit RT as a news network. Secondly the questions are loaded, because they include assumptions and try to limit the answers to serve the reporter’s agenda. A model example of a loaded question is as such: “Have you stopped beating your children?” The premise of the entire question is based on an incorrect assumption. In most cases, no matter what the responded says, they are put in an embarrassing situation and offer the question some legitimacy by merely answering it.
In response, Margarita Simonyan mocked Gray’s loaded questions. 
The Dangerous Abuses of Mass Media Communication in the Information Age
The divisions that exist between the US and Russia will harden as the situation in Ukraine continues to simmer. The ramifications of this crisis will be felt globally from Syria, the Korean Peninsula, and the United Nations to the negotiating table about the Iranian nuclear program between Tehran and the P5+1.
Ultimately, the waging of an information war between the US and Russia may sound appropriate for a juncture in history that has been dubbed the Information Age. Its role, however, is a gloomy one. The control and manipulation of information by the mass media prevents individuals from being authentically cognizant about the world around them and the social relationships that are behind the structures of their daily lives. Its power to inform decisions, socialize individuals, and shape popular culture is being misused.
The information war is not only waged between rival powers and economic blocs. The control and manipulation of information is used internally by governments and corporations against the lower echelons of society. It atomizes information as a means of creating a blinding closed system that ignores the social realities about privilege and the unequal distribution of wealth and power.
Even those behind the fabrications and false narratives can be overtaken as hostages to an inauthentic and de-humanizing view of the world. The propagandists can become hostages of that which their own hands have sown. The discourse about the might of the Pentagon makes policymakers in the US think that a confrontation between the United States and either the Russian Federation or China will have diminutive consequences and not entail the possibility of a nuclear war. Both Russia and China form a formidable alliance with a deadly arsenal of nuclear weapons and major military resources. A clash between the US and either Russia or China could have apocalyptic consequences for all life on this planet.
If information is not used properly during the Information Age we may return to the Stone Age as Albert Einstein once said.