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In the Atlantic article I published on Tuesday (and sent to Galaxy Brain readers), I spoke to a lot of people about the need for nuance in discussing “the information war.” One person I quoted but didn’t end up speaking with was Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at John Hopkins University’s SNF Agora Institute and a scholar of Russian propaganda. Peter had one of the more interesting observations about the conflict around the limits of the term “information war”:
I reached out to him this week to talk a bit more about what he’s seen so far in this conflict.
Russian Info Warriors Caught Flatfooted
Pomerantsev offered this reason for the Russian propaganda apparatus seeming so feeble in the early days of the conflict.
Clearly nobody told the Russian propaganda machine that the war was coming. It’s obvious that they had no time to prepare and they can’t do a comms campaign on the fly. Everyone is saying “Russian information operations failed,” but to me it is clear a lot of domestic propagandists just weren’t told. Putin moved forward with this invasion without the information and cyber brigades…and by the sound of things, without good parts of the army. But that doesn’t mean they won’t get back together.
"Propaganda of the deed"
Part of my job is to write about the ways that information travels. Watching the tragic footage coming out of Ukraine the last few weeks has been a reminder of the limitations of this work. The digital side of this conflict and the narratives that form around it are obviously important, but it’s all secondary to what’s happening on the ground: the killing, leveling of cities, displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees. When I said this to Pomerantsev, he responded with a term I found useful, and chilling: “propaganda of the deed.”
It’s not helping the Russians that they don’t have the information side activated right now. But Putin’s doing something else. He’s doing propaganda of the deed. He’s doing just terrible things right out in the open. Saying all the quiet parts out loud. Publicly entertaining the taboo topics of nuclear use and chemical weapons. He’s saying, “I’m here doing this and you’ll just stand there not doing anything and I’ll show the world you’re all a joke.” It’s propaganda of the deed instead of spin and narrative-setting.
He suggested that the Russian troll farms like the Internet Research Agency that got so much attention in the wake of the 2016 election “was just a little cartoon — the ads and the shorts before the feature presentation.” Ultimately, Pomerantsev told me, the destruction we’re all bearing witness to is the real—and most powerful—narrative.
Although he did offer this caveat: “But Putin might be fucking up. Obviously, the war is not the elegant operation he anticipated, and the propaganda of the deed here could certainly and totally backfire, depending on how the war goes.”
The Open-Source Investigation Template
Last week, I spoke with Eliot Higgins, one of the founders of the open-source investigations project Bellingcat. The Centre for Information Resilience and the Conflict Intelligence Team have worked with Higgins’ team to build a sprawling set of resources to monitor, verify, debunk, and archive the battlefield footage that’s popping up on social media. Perhaps the best resource is the Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map, which allows any interested party to search these social posts (by region or type). (Warning: There is quite a bit of graphic footage in there, though it is labeled as such.)
This network, Higgins argued, is vital not only for penetrating the fog of war, but also to track and archive potential war crimes for accountability purposes later on. In our discussion, Higgins said that open-source investigators have been working in Ukraine since as far back as 2014, after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Donetsk Oblast. These investigators had a good understanding of the conflict but also of the region, and knew what feeds to check and how to evaluate the footage. Their years of work made documentation and verification that much easier when Putin launched his invasion.