Why Putin may lose his propaganda war



In the Boer War at the battle of Spion Kop on January 23, 1900 there were three figures on that hilltop 24 miles southwest of Ladysmith who would survive the fighting and become luminaries in their own right. Louis Botha, a soldier who would become the first president of the Republic of South Africa; a stretcher bearer by the name of Mahatma Gandhi; and one Winston Churchill, then a correspondent for The Times of London.

Churchill wrote his reporting on the war by hand on reams of paper which were then concealed in an everyday ham sandwich, the would-be lunch of a driver taking his train on the long trek from Durban to Cape Town, from where the ‘sandwiched reportage’ boarded a ship bound for Southampton. All of this arduous operation was to avoid censorship by the authorities. The ‘filing’ of Mr Churchill’s copy for The Times took about 12 days to see print. Talk about breaking news!

Over a pint in my local I am watching the war in Ukraine, more than 2,000 miles away, unfold frame by frame, effectively in real time. On a small gadget in the palm of my hand.

I am watching the war on BBC News or CNN or Sky — I constantly switch — but for others, particularly the younger generations, what with Twitter and Insta and Facebook and WhatsApp and Telegram, a veritable flood of videos and selfies of fleeing refugees or those under constant bombardment allows us 2,000 miles away to identify Russian tanks rolling over Ukrainian bridges and Russian helicopter gunships blasting mercilessly away at people’s homes.

Yet, for all of the visuals of death and mayhem surging across the internet, one wonders whether they are, in any real way, helping people understand the unfolding moment-by-moment horror. Is too much knowledge a dangerous thing, in that it desensitises us? I would suggest, too, that the intensity and immediacy of social media are creating a new kind of ‘fog of war’, in which information and disinformation are continuously entangled with each other — clarifying and confusing in almost equal measure.

The modern combination of smartphones, social media and high-speed data links are providing images that are now certainly faster, more visual and more voluminous than in any previous military conflict. The mass mobilisation of Russian military forces has been broadcast for weeks on TikTok, the newest and fastest growing social media app, with hundreds of videos from nearby onlookers showing the movement of ballistic missiles and armoured vehicles.

Such media outlets, however, have also brought, I would contend, new efforts to deceive, while the war is unfolding alongside an aggressive and widely distributed campaign of disinformation heralded by Vladimir Putin that makes it difficult at times for ‘crowdsourcing’ to establish the facts on the ground.

Still, there is a positive aspect to all this. Before the war, Kyiv Digital was the official city app for Ukrainians to buy tickets for transport and pay for parking or utility bills in the country’s capital. Now Kyiv Digital has been transformed into a life-saving tool that warns of air raids, and directs people to the nearest bomb shelter or safe house. With the help of the country’s chief digital transformation officer – Kyiv Deputy Mayor Petro Olenych – the app’s focus changed within just 24 hours of the Russian invasion.

And another thought. After the invasion of his country, Ukraine’s Minister for Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov launched a campaign urging global technology companies to withdraw from the Russian market — to join the growing group of firms across many industries that have called it a day with Moscow. “They kill our children, now kill their access!” he tweeted at Apple.

The Russian regime has made substantial use of State-run ‘news’ channels on social media to spread propaganda both at home and abroad, but the growing opposition and everyday civilians gain just as much — if not more — from the ability to see and to share real stories on other media that diverge from the Kremlin narrative. This is especially true now that Russia’s independent media have been silenced.

Information technology has gained a significant foothold in Russia, making it difficult for the State to blot out the messages it abhors, and the country’s younger people have been exposed to too many Western experiences, through travel and social media, to ever again swallow whole Putin propaganda.

By all accounts, Mr Putin, already losing the war, is also losing his extended propaganda war on the home front…

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