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War propaganda: seeing the fake game up close

PRESS / After several hundred thousand dead, it is time for a pause to think about the war in Ukraine. What we in the press do is propaganda, and the price can be high. News is often created within a self-referential framework, writes war correspondent Ragnar Skre.


The optimistic forecasts for Ukrainian opportunity to recapture territories met a wall of reality this summer. The goals of the military offensive were unrealistic. This should lead us to go inside ourselves and examine the media's role in distorting our perception of reality.

We war correspondents

My first meeting with the war propaganda was an August morning fifteen years ago. As the only Norwegian journalist, I was dumped in the middle of the previous Russian invasion of a neighboring country: Georgia, 2008. The war broke out on 8 August. Then Georgian soldiers moved into the enclave of South Ossetia, which Georgia claimed but claimed independence under Russian protection.

A few days later I woke up to the news that the mountain peak of Makhata, a few hundred meters from my apartment in Tbilisi, had been bombed during the night. It rhymed badly. I slept with the window open and would have woken up to explosions so close.

This was my assignment this day as Aftenposten's war correspondent. A short taxi ride and conversations with people were enough to disprove the 'news'. The residents instead pointed out that a radar approx. ten km outside the capital had been bombed. Makhata was between the radar and the center. This was today's issue. I took a taxi to the ice-bombed radar – and there were other correspondents on the move.

Later while I was out on daily missions for Aftenposten, I saw how the other war correspondents coordinated their facts – as I had read in Ulf Hannerz's anthropological study that the journalists in Beirut did in the 1980s. A phenomenon that is also well described by the journalist Michael Alan Lerner in the movie Deadlines (2004): "Every war has its hotel", says the protagonist. In Beirut in the 1980s it was Le Commodore. Lerner, who worked for a time for Newsweek, described how the journalists crossed ethical boundaries, such as the relationship with the sources, to win the competition to have the biggest 'scoop'.

The waterholes became a meeting point for diplomats, journalists and employees of so-called NGOs.

That tendency was also sy#Tbilisi in 2008. There were two significant hotels there – the two Marriotts – and a cafe along the main street called Prospero›s Books. If you kept an eye on these three places, you had the pulse of what the international media were up to. The waterholes became a meeting point for diplomats, journalists and employees of so-called NGOs (for which I also worked) and in sum became a form of media house where the news was created within a self-referential framework.

Georgia initiated the war

The war in Georgia had several similarities with today's war in Ukraine. The invasion took place along a fringe of disputed territories along Russia's outer borders, with a background of ethnic tensions and territorial ambiguities from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It also happened in the wake of an anti-Russian government coming to power in a neighboring country, and after a gradual escalation of the spiral of violence.

Another similarity with Ukraine now is the information fog. The war turned into something the philosopher Jean Baudrillard might have put in quotation marks – a myth about a clear sequence of events. The Georgia War is still surrounded by a veil of unreliable information, knowledge gaps and disputed facts. The only reasonably independent investigation into the war – the EU's Tagliavini Commission from 2009 – became a cold table where everyone could pick whatever they wanted to support their view, and the conclusion that Georgian President Saakashvili started the war was watered down.

Der Spiegel's revelation a month after the war was that the Georgian military had lined up a third of its arsenal and 12 soldiers along the road to Tskhinvali on the morning of the outbreak of war, 000 August. I could see for myself how a military emplacement outside my kitchen window in Tbilisi – which that summer was being filled up by artillery units – was suddenly completely empty a few days before this. But the interpretation that Russia was out swinging the sledgehammer in its 'near abroad' has proved to be the ruling one.

How does propaganda arise?

The English pacifist#Arthur Ponsonby# observed how falsehoods abounded during the First World War, and that although the authorities made attempts to censor and influence, the really great cases of propaganda arose spontaneously as a form of walking stories in a mood where people were carried away and continued on what they had heard.

Do we have Ponsonby's Falsehoods in War-Time (1928) in the back of our minds, it becomes easier to understand how for over a year and a half we have rushed from one news to the next without thinking through what we are doing. Who are the sources for each case? Have all sides in the case been presented? Has a filter been applied?

The Butsja massacre has become a reference point in the war. It has been read out and agreed that what happened there was a massacre. US President Joe Biden demanded that Putin be put on trial for war crimes.

The most thorough investigation to date, which was carried out over eight months by The New York Times in collaboration with the Ukrainian police and military, and published last December, paints a picture of particularly brutal behavior by the Russian soldiers and violations of the rules of war, if the reporting is correct – but not a massacre as the word is usually used.

As the image of a massacre fades, arguments from the other side are ignored. Some of the civilian victims wore a white armband, a symbol of neutrality, it is said from the Russian side, and it is further claimed that these were killed by Ukrainian police on suspicion of being collaborators. We know from a simultaneous BBC report in Kramatorsk that Ukrainian police were hunting defectors in the recently liberated areas.

If we ever learn everything that happened in Butsja, the events have already played their role politically.

Maybe it's false, and maybe The New York Times' reporting is false (they were wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). But if we ever learn everything that happened in Butsja, the events have already played their role politically. Many leaders drew parallels to past war crimes under the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and in the former Yugoslavia. Butsja has become a catchphrase and an incantation filled with meaning which is traced by the associations one gets from seeing pictures of graves and body bags.

About a deeply divided country

One of the things that has surprised me the most on my trips home after fifteen years as a foreign correspondent is to see how suddenly the people I know in Norway have gotten rid of the peace traditions that we in my generation grew up with.

While before it was common to see a conflict from a mediator's point of view and emphasize elements that can contribute to resolving the conflict, from 2014 Ukraine has been seen from the perspective of one party in an internal conflict within the country, and this tendency has been strengthened after the invasion in 2022. The internal conflicts in Ukraine have been thoroughly studied and documented since independence in 1991. University libraries around the West are full of books on the subject. Also about the movement in Crimea for reunification with Russia.

It should therefore be well known to the Norwegian public that it was a matter of a deeply divided country and a fragile structure, and that in 2014 we should be careful not to tip the scales in any direction by siding with one of the parties and rather try to strengthen Ukraine as a multicultural project and curb the ethnic contradictions. But it has now become so that we wholeheartedly support one side. It is obvious that if the Ukrainians are to continue living in the same country in the future, after the war, they must in a certain sense become friends with each other.

When my generation was growing up, Norway had a section in the penal code that forbade insulting another country's head of state. Today it is mandatory to do so, against the 'new Hitler' who is designated at all times. During a family gathering last year, we went round the table, and everyone had to disown Putin one by one, as if it were a roll call. Good Christians in the family that I looked up to growing up expressed the wish that someone put a bullet in the forehead of the Russian president. Who has done this to them?


Our leading media

Look at the way the war in Ukraine is portrayed, day by day, by our leading media. It's good versus evil. Our side is right and the other side is wrong, just as Ponsonby described. We don't want to know how they think on the other side. It strikes me how little the people I know realize that it is not only them themselves who feel the atmosphere of war, but also us who make the news. It has implications.

As a correspondent in Tbilisi, I was surprised at how entrenched thinking can become in a conflict.

Two misunderstandings stand out in particular: that the war was unprovoked, and that the ethnic Ukrainian population is the real Ukraine. I will not go into this here, it would require a separate article, but a thorough and concise argument is available in Benjamin Abelow's new book How the West Brought War to Ukraine (2022)

Slow censorship - Georgia and Ukraine

The most deep-seated misunderstandings stick over a long time with a slow censorship. As a correspondent in Tbilisi, I was surprised at how entrenched thinking can become in a conflict: Each side has its own name for things. South Ossetia is called the 'Tskhinvali region' in Georgian because they do not want to recognize the area. In every weather forecast on TV and radio, they announced the weather in areas that have not been part of the country for over 30 years. Reality must be 'forced' through by adopting a terminology.

Daniel Heradtstveit and Tore Bjørgo described such rhetoric in the book Political communication (1992) with examples from the Middle East conflict. But the phenomenon also started to appear in Norway approx. ten years ago and accelerated after the upheavals in Ukraine in 2014. The Georgian breakaway republics, which the Norwegian public had previously seen in a peace perspective without taking sides, were gradually referred to as 'the occupied territories' – which is the terminology used by the Georgian side in the conflict . The use of the language was appropriated by leading NATO countries and eventually also reached Oslo. And then we arrive at the linguistic turning point in February 2022, when everyone suddenly had to start saying 'Kyiv' and adopt the ethno-nationalist terminology of one side in a war.

Most of what we know about countries such as Georgia and Ukraine has been created in an interaction between Western journalists and the cultural elite of the target country, which is largely made up of employees of various organizations funded by the West. The local elite is donor-financed and eager to get the next grant application approved, and therefore mirrors the reality of the donors.

It is under the guise of that game that it has become taboo to show both sides of the great power game between the West and Russia.

I'm not the only one who's seen the rigging up close. The German Till Bruckner caused a furor in Tbilisi a few years ago with a crass article about the NGOs after working for a time for Transparency International. We who have followed developments in Eastern Europe over the past two decades in the strip of countries that came into play after the fall of the wall, have seen how the media and political leaders and various organizations have along the way misinterpreted what has happened, through a cooperative wishful thinking: These countries is 'west facing', it says. They are undergoing 'reforms'. They will become like us.

Meanwhile, the gap to reality is getting bigger. It is under the guise of that game that it has become taboo to show both sides of the great power game between the West and Russia. As in a dysfunctional couple relationship, Western politicians have tried to dictate to the outside world that no matter how much the eastern flank is strengthened, Russia has nothing to feel provoked by it.

Information vacuum

The dangerous thing about the development we are in now is that restricted access to information affects the way we interpret events. In 1999, psychologists Kruger and Dunning described a phenomenon that can shed light on the propaganda we indulge in. A person who has less knowledge about a field has an easier time overestimating his own knowledge about that field.

A filter is placed over what is allowed through from the 'enemy' side, and from March 2022 several Russian media (RT, RIA Novosti) became the subject of open censorship abroad. In addition, we are advised against following the Russian media. This leads to us filtering out not only the Russian propaganda, but also the legitimate arguments from the Russian side in a given situation. RIA Novosti reported some time ago that Finland's and Sweden's entry into NATO is a security threat to Russia. This is a debate that the Western public needs.

We have therefore crippled our own perception of reality through a year and a half of war, and as Kruger and Dunning pointed out, insufficient knowledge leads to an overestimation of one's own insight.

We who work in the press must go within ourselves and see to it that the state of emergency that has prevailed for over a year and a half is lifted. We must bring out the breadth of what is happening.

Skre is a freelance journalist and social anthropologist based in Tbilisi and Brussels since 2007. He was Aftenposten's war correspondent in Georgia in 2008.

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