Brian Whitmore – a senior Russia analyst for RFE/RL and the author of The Power Vertical Blog. Photo: RFE/RL
On April 10-11, Tbilisi hosted the second NATO-Georgia Public Diplomacy Forum that brought together public diplomacy and communication professionals. Their aim: to share thoughts and experiences for responding more effectively to new challenges that the allies and partners are facing.
Brian Whitmore – a senior Russia analyst for RFE/RL and the author of The Power Vertical Blog was one of the panelists. Eto Buziashvili spoke on behalf of civil.ge with him about propaganda, information warfare and what to do to.
Eto Buziashvili: Brian, almost every panel touched upon the issues related to propaganda and information war. We have heard some pessimistic thoughts regarding those topics. Is the West losing the information war to Russia?
Brian Whitmore: Actually no, I don’t think so. Russia caught the West by surprise with this war at the beginning and the West did not really know what to do, but now, as we are becoming aware of what’s going on, the effect [of the Russian efforts] has been more than neutralized. It does not mean there is still no a risk and still not a threat because Russia is trying to undermine Western institutions. The Kremlin is trying to instill doubt in our democratic institutions, in our media, in our leaders, in international institutions. A risk right now is that the West is going through one of its habitual periods of self-doubt. After the Iraq war, after the financial crisis in 2008, there was a lot of mistrust in the authorities in the West. This is the natural process, we have gone through this many times in our history – for example in 1970’s after the Vietnam War. So there is nothing unusual – the West always evaluates its mistakes and usually emerges stronger. I think now people are beginning to wake up and I am confident that the West will emerge out of this situation even stronger.
Q: On your panel, that covered the role of traditional media, you mentioned that there is a problem with obsession with balance in the media. What is exactly the problem?
A: There is the feeling that every story has two sides and you have to tell both sides of it. But every story does not have two sides. Some stories have many, many, many sides – a lot more than two. And some stories are pretty clear and obvious – like the one that there are Russian troops in Ukraine. I do not think you have to tell the Russian side of that, when they say: “no, we are not in Ukraine”, when all the evidence shows that they are there.
If it was the middle of the day-time and I told you it is night-time, would you take that point of view seriously? You should not. Nor should we take utterly absurd statements that come out of Kremlin seriously. The same was when Russians were trying to say all the different possibilities of who may have shot down MH17. Well, we know the evidence points to one place – to the Russian-backed separatists in Donbas. There is no reason to tell another side of that story. Sometimes you do have to tell two sides– if there is an election between two candidates and they are debating each other. This obsession with balance is detrimental. The focus should be more on accuracy. Accuracy is harder than balance.
Q: You have mentioned “information laundering” during the conference. What is it and what should one do about it?
A: It is something we have to be very, very, very aware of. Something that has happened in Europe over the last several years is all the strange internet news sites that have appeared like mushrooms in the field. We do not know who is financing them, although we have suspicions, and they seem to take a Euro-skeptic line, anti-American line, pro-Kremlin line and all of the things Kremlin likes. Does this mean that the Kremlin is behind them? I don’t know, but we have our suspicions.
The publications made by those strange sites play a really important role in what I call information laundering. Here is how it’s all done: some narrative starts out on RT and on Sputnik. Then this narrative is picked up by one of these so called local language web-sites (and I am sure they exist in Georgia). After that it all finds its way into a more mainstream outlet, into social media. So information gets laundered and cleaned. This is something we have to be very mindful of. Just like bankers have to be careful of the money that appears in the banks not to be the dirty money somebody’s trying to launder – the same thing is happening now with information.
Q: Georgia is vulnerable to Russian propaganda as anti-Western attitudes here are fanned out not only by certain broadcast, print and online media, but also by some politicians, NGOs and church leaders. How can real news prevail and win minds of people?
A: I do not see any danger of anti-Western sentiments taking hold in this country. Pro-Western outlook of Georgians in pretty obvious and strong. What I do worry about is the disillusion in the West as you seem to be waiting forever to find any progress in getting into European institutions. The West needs to be a lot more honest with our Georgian partners right now. Because we repeat to them that the door to NATO is open, but everybody knows that this is not going to happen anytime soon unfortunately. And I think we need to be a little bit more honest about that, we need to manage expectations a little bit better. This has been going on for a while, especially since the Bucharest summit when the allies gave [Georgia] the promise of eventual membership. Disillusion in the West can make the ground for Russian propaganda in Georgia. And the same goes for Ukraine.
Q: Spot on. Georgia is striving to Euro-Atlantic integration and tries to prove its commitment at every step through contributing in peacekeeping missions, activating bi- and multilateral formats to fit in the West’s security architecture. Do you think there is a gap between how Georgia perceives its role in the West’s security architecture and how the West perceives it?
A: That is a good question. I cannot say I know for sure. I think the people in the West are familiar with Georgia’s role in its security architecture, they appreciate the contribution, especially the contribution per capita that this small country makes. I do know that the security community pays attention to such things. In this sense, Georgia has done right thing regardless how it has been perceived.
And in this sense, I keep thinking about Estonia. We have all learned lessons from that little country. The West did not really want to let the Baltic States into NATO in 1991. This was something the Western institutions did not want to deal with. They were afraid of angering Russia. But also they just did not want to accept the states that once were the part of Soviet Union. And Estonia made the impossible possible. The whole institution of MAP has almost impossible conditions for the Baltic States to get into the NATO. But they did it.
This is the lesson that both Georgia and Ukraine can learn. The reforms Georgia is going through is not just in terms of NATO but also in terms of EU – reforming economy and fighting corruption should be the objective of the country. Every time I speak about Ukraine I make this point that the corruption is their public enemy number one, corruption in the new communism and if you can clean this up and make your country attractive, the West will not be able to say no, they will be begging you to join them. This is the goal you have to strive for. I think Georgia has done this quite well in the security area and it needs to do it much better in terms of combating corruption and reforming economy.
Q: We have mentioned the security architecture of the West. Do you think that the US is committed to the European security?
A: Yes, I do. I do not think it matters who the president is. Because the US security community, the whole national security community in Washington is definitely committed to European security. We saw the reaction when there was some thought the new president was going to backway from European allies and as you have seen, it was a very strong reaction from the congress and in the whole security community. So, I believe that US is committed to the European security.