Lights, Camera, Propaganda: Information Warfare in Ukraine War
7 August 2023
The ongoing war in Ukraine is just the latest theater where modern-day information warfare is playing out. As the conflict persists, people all over the world are relying on media outlets to get the latest information of the ground realities. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between factual reportage and propaganda masquerading as news.
“The first casualty when war comes is truth.” Hiram Johnson’s observations during World War I are certainly applicable to this day. The ongoing war in Ukraine is just the latest theater where modern-day information warfare is playing out. The practice of information warfare is being carried out by both the West and Russia, alongside many third party countries fiddling with the facts and figures of the conflict.
The shadow of the Cold War, despite it formally ending in 1991, still looms large over the geopolitics of today. The Russia-Ukraine war, in significant parts, is a culmination of a historical conflict, the roots of which goes back to the Soviet era. With the disbanding of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has repeatedly advocated for their own political and cultural identity.
Russia’s apprehensions regarding Ukraine’s bid to join NATO (the US led Western military bloc) has been the prime driver for this proxy war in Ukraine between Russia and NATO. Ukraine is not only adjacent to Russia’s borders but is also considered by Russia as part of its cultural and historical backyard. Simultaneously, as the contours of warfare are rapidly changing, the West and Russia are engaged in ways that go far beyond military logistics: information, economic and psychological warfare are the other involved dimensions.
World War II Origins
Modern-day information warfare and the use of propaganda is not new. It dates back to World War II, when the USA used countless feature films with war themes to shape the public opinion. The main aim behind this was to interpret for US citizens the motives of the enemy (who in this case were largely Germany and Japan) and the necessity of defeating them.
According to a report by the University of Tennessee, during 1943, at least 18 Anti-German/Nazi movies were released. These feature films were used to propagate the “American Ideals” to audiences in and out of America and to justify the fighting and use of violence to defend the “Great American Ideals”. When the showbusiness for war movies began, along came the music propaganda as well. Political music was used in such films to influence and cater to political judgements.
Entertainment became a source of instilling wartime patriotism and international brotherhood against fascism and totalitarianism. These films left a resounding impact on the minds of the people about the “American Dream”. Feature films were a new medium for the society and the audience was raw enough to take in all the information without any objections.
This trend continued into the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and the USA used cinema as an effective weapon in order to unify the viewers under one bandwidth to justify their actions. They used the power of broadcast media to promote their own political ideologies and to spread propaganda about the other.
The USA promoted the American ideals of a capitalist society in contrast to Communism and embodied the threat posed by the Soviet Union through films like Red Dawn and Invasion USA. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union tried to project the American dream as the American nightmare through movies like Meeting at the Elbe and The Fall of Berlin.
Propaganda in the Present Day
Social Media is increasingly acquiring a massive influence over the public discourse by the day. Social media giants like Instagram, Tik-Tok and Twitter are all faced with the same problem of having to continuously fact-check relentless propaganda and moderate the content on their platforms.
In recent times, powerful nations like the USA and Russia have started using several social media and streaming platforms for their benefit. Russia, for instance, has been accused of heavily censoring news and media outlets. Meanwhile, Netflix, which has over 1 million estimated subscribers in Russia, was directed to broadcast Channel One to promote the Kremlin’s propaganda across the country. The streaming giant retaliated by pulling out from Russia.
The same pattern of preaching propaganda was seen in the West as well. For example, in the latest season of the Netflix show, The Crown, one scene incorporated the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a radio coverage of the 1990s. This helps demonstrate the length of the conflict and shows that Ukraine has been attempting to part from the Soviet Union since the Cold War period.
From spreading propaganda and disinformation to manipulating and moulding the public opinion, both sides in this conflict have ruthlessly used the internet, print and broadcast media to rig the information about the ground reality and to influence notions against each other. As the conflict persists, people all over the world are relying on media outlets to get the latest information of the ground realities. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between factual reportage and propaganda masquerading as news. In this situation, it becomes the moral obligation of the public to not blindly follow the media and any presumptions they hold but to double check and verify the information from independent sources wherever possible.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Yashika Sharma is a recent Political Science graduate from Delhi University. She is currently working as a Research Intern with the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies. Her areas of interest are international and military affairs.
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