In July 2022, INC published a new 44th edition of Theory on Demand, called Dispatches from Ukraine: Tactical Media Reflections and Responses, which includes the following report on the debates that happened on June 30th. Order a physical copy or download the whole publication free of charge here.
At the beginning of 2022, fake news still stood as an issue but was relegated to the background in comparison to the military-economic movements on the geopolitical plane. With the beginning of the war, the larger public discussion in Europe, from Italy to Germany and France has been focused primarily on the US and Europe’s military support of Ukraine and its possible membership in the EU and NATO.
The same political levers of pressure and sanction are applied in parallel to the information war. Conspiracy theories and the concept of fake news are constantly being redefined in the context of the ongoing and highly mediated war in Ukraine. This intense dynamic, still straddling the lines of right-wing and left-wing discourse, provoke quick but not necessarily correct decisions on the part of political and media agents. This issue, however, the preconditions for which were observed before the war, has escalated since February and has explicitly divided the media community into two camps: the Internet Freedom supporters, who stand for the freedom of expression, and the Freedom of Press followers, who insist on propaganda censorship.
While the Netherlands hardly has an army to speak of, the IT or internet business and related infrastructure are considerable in size. During the turbulent 1990s, Press Now (the original name of Free Press Unlimited), the internet, and traditional media channels already came together (think of Zamir, B92, Vreme, etc). Thirty years ago, it was still a ‘tactical’ issue as both internet and store-forward bulletin board systems were still in their infancy.
Against the backdrop of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has sharply increased funding for state media, resulting in an unprecedented level of state propaganda spread on social media platforms, causing an insurmountable flood of unverifiable digital content by the state-owned Russia Today and Sputnik on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media on the conflict in Ukraine. Many US and EU lawmakers and Ukrainian officials have jolted into action by pressuring social media platforms attempting to curb Russian misinformation. So far, YouTube has said it would block Russia Today and Sputnik in the European Union, while Twitter and Meta, the parent of Facebook, have said they would label content from the outlets as state-sponsored. In the EU, the decision to suspend the broadcasting activities of Sputnik and Russia Today was made in record time in March.
However, in the question of whether or not to censor RT and Sputnik, the two worlds of the internet and news media found themselves on opposite sides.
The debate stems from a discussion between two important civilian parts of the work that is done in the Netherlands: within the new media culture, IT, and the internet world, and within the community that aims at supporting the independent press. A middle-of-the-road compromise is not readily conceivable in this case. It is about a hard choice that is on the table. Yet, does one support Brussels’s decision in this matter? Some will find the choice too blunt and will argue that internet freedom is not opposed to freedom of the press. Particularly, the blockade was criticized by the internet service providers, and internet freedom organizations for making a law precedent that can lead to the expansion of undemocratic censorship in Europe further: “allowing politicians to enact censorship policies overnight is wrong in principle” as well as it “could set a precedent for banning other politicized news outlets.”1 While some applaud the closing of Putin’s propaganda channels, others see it as pointless and a prelude to much more far-reaching top-down regulation of the European internet. This seems to be a watershed moment for European legislation. The third TMR meeting aimed to address this important, albeit rather niche, issue, which has not been carried out across the board..
DEBATING THE EUROPEAN BLOCKADE OF RUSSIAN PROPAGANDIST MEDIA
On June 30th 2022, a debate on the European blockade of Russian propagandist media was organized by the Tactical Media Room at Spui25 in Amsterdam. After the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the European Union banned RT and Sputnik, two prominent Russian state media outlets. The ban intends to limit the ability of the Russian state to wage an information war by weaponizing malicious propaganda. However, the move has been a divisive one—after all, isn’t freedom of information central to the so-called ‘European values’?
The event brought together a wide array of speakers, including academics, activists, and journalists. It opened with three short talks, by Ruben Brave, chairman of Internet Society Netherlands, Elmaz Asanova, a Crimean Tatar-Ukrainian journalist, and Sophia Kornienko, a Russian-Dutch journalist, whose statement was presented by moderator Chris Keulemans, in Sophia’s absence. Ruben’s opening talk focused on how cyberwarfare constituted a prelude to all-out war, pointing to Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian internet infrastructure before the invasion began. Another key point made by Ruben is that propaganda tends to skillfully exploit existing societal issues, and without addressing those, vulnerability to disinformation remains inevitable.
Next, Elmaz sketched the grim landscape of practising journalism under the Russian occupation of Crimea, which transformed her homeland into a “peninsula of fear and madness”. She spoke of rampant discrimination of the indigenous Crimean Tatar population. Employing the tried-and-true tactic of labelling an opponent a dangerous extremist to justify ensuing repressions, the Tatars are denigrated as terrorists for their refusal to accept the occupation of their ancestral homeland. Elmaz ended her impassioned appeal by asking, “how long will I be humiliated in my native land?”.
Kornienko’s speech focused on a central tactic behind Russian propaganda: making people believe that there simply is no truth. By stripping the words of their original meaning, a delirious continuity is created between the past and present, in which “World War II never ends, fascists keep coming back”, nothing really matters anymore, and even the greatest of crimes are justified. In Sophia’s view, a powerful antidote to such manipulations is media literacy, and she emphasized the need to stop demonizing the internet as a place of lurking dangers, and to focus on its affordances for open communication instead.
After that, the discussion opened up to other panellists and audience members. The starting point was the question of whether freedom of speech is sacrosanct, whether the distribution of content via the internet comes with responsibilities, and if so, where that responsibility lies. The first discussant to respond was Ilya Shcharbitski, a prominent Belarusian activist, who focused on the meaning of the notion of freedom in the post-Soviet space — or, as he defines it, the space of centuries-long Russification. He spoke of a prevalent lack of media literacy and suggested to try and address this problem by building independent media hubs in neighbouring countries, as well as creating samizdat for the 21st century to counter the double propaganda (both domestic and Russian) in Belarus.
One of the central issues discussed was that of infrastructural neutrality. Niels ten Oever, a researcher of internet governance, mentioned three key premises in this context: that the internet is neither global, neutral or impartial but rather, embedded in an infrastructure of extraction and control built by multinational corporations. He called out the complicity of Western companies in actively building the infrastructure of surveillance employed by oppressive regimes. He stressed the need to reclaim the internet and its infrastructure, which would necessitate a radical rebuilding of ownership structures. A similar position was expressed by Leon Willems, who emphasized the need to hold big tech oligopolies responsible, tax them heavily, and redirect the resources towards independent journalism. If we want to reclaim the liberatory potential of communication, the infrastructure must be redesigned with that goal in mind.
Another perspective on infrastructural neutrality was expressed by Vesna Manojlovic, a senior community builder at RIPE NCC, the Regional Internet Registry for Europe and the Middle East. The organization’s position is that “we can only be trusted as long as we remain neutral” and that disconnecting Russia can set a dangerous precedent for the curbing of information freedom. Manojlovic emphasized the importance of keeping connectivity open, regardless of what it might be used for, and expressed discomfort with going beyond the organization’s administrative function to assume the role of a content-policing authoritative body.
The central reoccurring question of the debate was whether to block, or not to block? Both ten Oever and Willems expressed their support for the idea of depriving state bodies of the ability to spread war-mongering propaganda. Ten Oever emphasized that institutions do not fall under the purview of human rights, and therefore when the military actively violates these rights, it is fair game that their internet resources be suspended. A Russian member of the audience compared the state’s propaganda to poisonous food. He argued that if information provides sustenance for the mind, toxic content can rightfully be put out of circulation. After all, as he said, back in the day uranium-laced ice cream used to exist, yet we would not argue that the freedom to sell it remains an inviolable human right.
Still, other speakers expressed their reservations about the efficacy of blocking as a solution. Another audience member, Dimitri, who had previously worked for Russian state media, expressed discomfort at the idea of fighting censorship with censorship, noting that cutting down on freedom of speech plays neatly into Putin’s hands. Another argument against blocking access is rooted in the practical impossibility of effectively cleansing the internet of undesirable content; there are always channels through which to share it, and paradoxically, the attempt to get rid of it only serves to increase the appeal of such banned discourses.
What could be viable solutions to this double bind? One is to focus on increasing media literacy, a strategy favored by Kornienko and Brave, who emphasized the individual agency and responsibility inherent to sharing content online. This, however, is a contentious idea, which has been criticized as symptomatic of the neoliberal mindset which offloads responsibility for structural issues on individuals. To further complicate the issue, it is worth paying attention to a question raised by an audience member, Kristina Petrasova: are we even asking the right question by focusing on the issue of whether to ban or not? She made a strong appeal to redirect our attention to strengthening the ties to civil society, activists, and independent media in Russia, building solidarity instead of blockades.
A few concluding takeaways from this elaborate and nuanced debate might be that there is a pressing need to build stronger communicative bonds between communities, reclaim the technologies we have at our disposal so that they can better serve this goal, and keep resisting—both the propaganda of the Russian state and the neoliberal system that profits off proliferating such toxic discourses.
The image: @truealevtina.