The Russian “virus” spreads into the weakened body of the West

Alina Bârgăoanu, Eveline Mărășoiu

On November 13, the EU Foreign Affairs ministers addressed two intimately linked topics: the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and Strategic Communication (StratComm). The communication campaigns undertaken by the Russian Federation in the context of the Brexit referendum and the Catalan separatism, as well as the hostile communication activities constantly unfolding in the Eastern EU member states have generated deep concerns at the level of EU officials, thus making communication a top priority on the Council agenda.

These deep concerns, albeit genuine, have not been taken over in the written Conclusions of the Council, especially as a result of the reluctance that Germany and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security expressed behind closed doors. Written conclusions absent, the EU Foreign Affairs ministers addressed, nonetheless, the means for consolidating the institutional means both EU and member states’ level that could deal with the subject of strategic communication.

The states who have called for channelling more resources to StratComm are Great Britain, Sweden, Romania, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Croatia. Spain has recently joined this call, after discovering that a considerable amount of messages in favour of the Catalan separatism were broadcast from the Russian territory. Spain’s newfound attitude equals a genuine paradigm shift; previously, the Southern European states (including Spain) have been highly reluctant in considering the anxieties of their Eastern peers and their calls to address and counter hostile messages emanating from the Russian territory.

Therefore, one can notice that attention paid to Strategic Communication follows the heightening of tensions and conflicts between states. Is this new? History tells us otherwise. History of communication studies teaches us that communication has been factored in as a war weapon ever since World War I, when the attitudes and opinion of people behind the front lines were addressed as an explicit part of the war efforts. Mock and Larson, for example, published a book on the 1914-1918 propaganda, titled Words That Won the War. Propaganda became the defining term of the interwar period, entering the academic curriculum, too. In 1939, Lee and Lee published the book The Fine Art of Propaganda, which was meant as a university textbook. During World War II, Carl Hovland’s famous studies on the effects of the movies The Battle of Britain and Why We Fight on the morale of US soldiers fighting abroad made attitude the central element in the analysis of mass media persuasion. The systematic study of communication effects developed towards the end of the Second World War and the meetings organized by the Rockefeller Foundation had an essential role. It is under these auspices where Harold Lasswell came up with his influential communication model – who says what in which channel to whom, and with what effect. What we call today the discipline of communication emerged after WWII, building on the lessons learned from propaganda analysis. The founding fathers of communication – Wilbur Schramm, Carl Hovland, William Lasswell, were affiliated, more or less explicitly, with the war efforts; thus, the “war of communication” (the name associated with WWII) led to the birth of the discipline of communication. All these founding fathers emphasised that, in order to be effective, communication entails profound and sophisticated knowledge of the audiences, targeting and tailoring the message to fit their needs, and a permanent adaptation of the communication processes to the ever-changing social conditions. They all came up with communication rules, that have stood the test of time; “know your audience” – a rule so simple, yet so often ignored – has the quasi-power of a law of physics.

So much for history. What is new today? Technological changes, the explosion of social media, cutting-edge algorithms able to generate content, computational propaganda, troll farms, likes factories, the change of warfare from classic to hybrid have changed only the communication means, and altered its substance only to a limited extent. Now, the buzzword of communication concerns is “strategic communication”, which is more of an umbrella term. It can be broadly defined as a series of activities undertaken at strategic, operational and tactical levels that allow the transmission of messages (including strategic narratives) to the target audience, promoting certain types of behaviour and/or perceptions. Propaganda, as a type of strategic communication, represents a series of deliberate and systematic activities focusing on the dissemination of false information or the presentation of alternative realities, with the objective of forming perceptions and attitudes leading to the achievement of the initial goals. Strategic communication is used extensively in hybrid conflicts. Dealing with such conflicts requires interdisciplinary approaches and responses. While electronic warfare, cyber-attacks and counter-espionage must be dealt with by applying predominantly the lens of extended security and defence studies, propaganda, disinformation, the fake news phenomenon must be primarily analysed and dealt with from the perspective of communication science. All these perspectives must be harmoniously blended in order to serve the same objective, that of building and maintaining the resilience of today’s societies in a challenging and fluid security environment.

Communication must figure prominently in all efforts undertaken by EU, NATO, and national governments. No matter how commonsensical or even redundant it may appear, we couldn’t emphasize enough the fact that communication – strategic or not – is an endeavour for communication specialists. They should put communication body of knowledge, their understanding and expertise to work in order to give substance and to support the decision-making processes at all levels – strategic, tactical and operative. Again, we couldn’t emphasize enough the fact that we deal with subtle communication, psychosocial processes, for which the technical, bureaucratic approaches are wildly insufficient.

The current efforts made by the European Commission in order to counter hostile communication activities suffer from many ills. One such major ill has to do with the fact that they barely address the fragile psychological background against which fake news, propaganda and disinformation are effective. Until we ask ourselves what root causes are in place which allow hostile communication to have effects, what chords fake news and disinformation strike, we will not be in a position to come up with adequate responses. Let us refer to a piece of analysis published by David Von Drehle in the prestigious Washington Post journal on the 17th of November – “We are at cyberwar and the enemy is us”. The analsysis emphasises that the propaganda (Russian or pro-Kremlin propaganda, we can call and frame it either way) – has spread a virus. True. But it is equally true that the virus has found a weakened, fragile body. In coming up with his conclusions, David Von Drehle has the US in mind, but, in our opinion, his assessment can be extrapolated to the EU, to the entire Western world. The extraordinary speed at which the virus has propagated itself within this “weakened and discredited” organism says a lot about the virus, but it says even more about the organism that it has caught off guard.

The paradox of the whole situation is created by the fact that America – precisely the country where the communication discipline was founded and communication greatest scholars and practitioners have excelled – is caught off guard and is on a defensive mood exactly in the field of communication. It can hardly enter our mind that Russian or pro-Kremlin propaganda could defeat or even challenge America on the communication ground, the ground that America created and generously offered to the entire world.

About the Author

Alina Bârgăoanu

Alina Bârgăoanu, profesor universitar Jean Monnet la SNSPA, decan al Facultăţii de Comunicare şi Relaţii Publice; Președinte al Consiliului de Administrație al Institutului European din România; cele mai recente lucrări: „Why Europe? Narratives and Counter-Narratives of European Integration” (2017, Peter Lang), „United by or Against Euroscepticism. An Assessment of Public Attitudes Towards the EU in the Context of the Crisis (2015, Cambridge Scholars); bursier Fulbright (2001- 2002).