Disinformation Warfare in Perpetuating World Tensions

The unfolding, grisly war in Ukraine has made clear that in 2022 – nearly a century after communication theorist Harold Lasswell’s dissertation on propaganda – battles take place not only with physical confrontations, but also continue via information warfare designed to win the hearts and minds of observers. Communication researchers play a special role in helping to understand this process.

In the first days of the Ukraine invasion near the end of February 2022, I heard a live interview on the BBC Newshour where host James Menendez interviewed a member of the Russian Federal Assembly, Vitaly Milonov. For four minutes – with minor pushback from Menendez – Milonov parroted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s talking points, including that “the UK, European Union, and United States have provoked the invasion, that Ukraine’s president lacks public support, and that Russia has valid rights to keep Ukraine under its influence.” This interview was followed by another with former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul who proceeded to tear into Menendez for airing “nonsense” from a Russian MP. McFaul asked,

…if it was September 1st, 1939, would you put on the air a member of the Nazi Party to try to explain this ridiculous, absolute falsification of history and information that we just heard from Mr. Milonov? Because this is complete, utter nonsense what he just said, and I’m wondering if we’re doing a service to the world by giving him a voice on the BBC?

Herein is another exemplary case where the gatekeeping and framing responsibilities of journalists is crucial amidst a tidal wave of propaganda. Adding to the complex decisions traditional journalists must make when reporting on wars is the ascendance and accessibility of social media platforms. Citizens are now able to help narrate the first draft of history, highlighting the heroism of everyday Ukrainians as they resist and fight back against the Russian military. Of course, the danger is that this digital front is also vulnerable to propaganda and outright disinformation campaigns to demoralize or deceive Ukrainians and the wider world.

To help make sense of this complex environment, I turned to two of the CRC’s Research Fellows with expertise in international communication.

According to H. Denis Wu, Professor of Communication, “International news about wars has been immensely critical to people’s surveillance of the state of the world because of the nature of the subject matter as well as the information about it.” He explained,

The news about wars is more impactful for people and inevitably riskier, harder, and more expensive for the media to deliver. The coverage of Ukraine so far reflects what communication researchers have long indicated: it shows what has happened as well as the emotions behind the stories. The news has covered not just the military activities and economic sanctions – which is extremely important – but also the bravery, resistance, and resilience of the Ukrainians who face an almost insurmountable enemy. The former category of news belongs to the first-level agenda while the latter is affect-based, thus second-level agenda. It is crucial in shaping the sentiment of audiences and their actions, as illustrated in Image and emotion in voter decisions: The affect agenda.

Of course, shaping perceptions of wars has a long history. Michael G. Elasmar, Associate Professor of communication provides some of this background:

Shortly after the end of World War II, the United States, under the auspices of UNESCO, launched a major research initiative for determining the conditions that affect international understanding, intergroup perceptions, and support for military conflict among nations. It was called the World Tensions Project. The overarching goal was to determine what can be done to preempt a repetition of the devastation witnessed during World War II. The initial World Tensions Project resulted in numerous studies that examined the role that communication and media play in contributing to how other countries and people living in those countries exist in our minds. It is worth noting here that, at that time, the field of communication science did not yet exist, and the study of media impact was scattered across sociology, psychology, education, and other classical disciplines. Interest in conducting this type of research waned and mostly disappeared after the 1960s when there was a growing belief that another world war was no longer a probable event.

I asked Elasmar what the knowledge gained from the original World Tensions Project tells us about the likely changes in the reaction of Americans over time to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He explained,

Studies conducted in the two decades following the launch of the World Tensions Project taught us that news and entertainment media play an important role in creating, reinforcing, and/or modifying the images of countries in our heads and these images can influence attitudes toward other countries and support for military action. And that pre-existing information about a country will determine which portions of the new information about this specific country the human brain will focus on and retain in its memory. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, surveys of Americans conducted in 2020 by the Pew Center for the People and the Press (PCPP) and by Gallup in early February of 2022 have consistently found an unfavorable opinion of Russia among a vast majority (70% and 85% respectively) of survey respondents. Between 2007 and 2020, PCPP found that favorable opinion of Russia among Americans had fallen by 25%. Gallup found that favorable opinion of Russia dropped from 51% in early February of 2012 to 15% in early February of 2022. These patterns show that the preexisting information about Russia’s government was already overwhelmingly negative prior to its invasion of Ukraine.

Applying what we learned from the World Tensions Project, we can predict that the images of atrocities and destruction stemming from the Ukraine invasion will strongly reinforce the pre-existing negative information about the Russian government held by Americans. One direct implication of this effect is that American consumers might shy away from traveling for leisure to Russia and/or consuming Russian-made goods and services for a long period after the Ukraine war no longer dominates international news. Another indirect implication is that the images of destruction and atrocities emerging out of Ukraine might interact with other negative factors prevailing in the minds of Americans in ways that no one could have predicted just a few weeks ago. The longer the war in Ukraine goes on, and the more its effects are felt in their daily lives (through price increases of everyday necessities, threats of cyberattacks, news about the potential of nuclear bombs by the Russian military, predictions of a recession etc.) the more likely will Americans demand for and support a direct military intervention to end what they perceive as a Russian threat to their safety and the safety of their families. Americans will want to hold the Russian government accountable for destroying a modern European country and committing atrocities against civilians, and to punish the Russian government for a war that is causing an impending economic recession and stifling American optimism about the end of the pandemic.

As the war in Ukraine drags on, our CRC Fellows continue to monitor the important role of mediated communication in forming, changing, and reinforcing perceptions of war, countries, governments, and people around the world.