Small Wars Journal

Will Today's Media Win or Lose Information Warfare for the West?

Mon, 04/13/2020 - 12:26am

Will Today's Media Win or Lose Information Warfare for the West?

Irina Tsukerman

State Apparatchiks vs. Dissident Journalists

The memories of my early childhood in the Soviet Union straddle the vast gap between bits and pieces of the narratives about the world I would catch through the state-run media on the old black-and-white TV and the stories about the larger reality from my grandparents or overheard in conversation among adults. That the press could engage in underhanded tactics to divert attention from facts inconvenient to the government was revealed to me relatively early on in life when the Swan Lake would inevitably be aired to coincide with the death of some party apparatchik. And similarly anodyne entertainment programs took the place of news coverage in the days leading up to the demise of the USSR. I only knew about the tanks in Moscow from my parents, who in turn knew about it by word of mouth. Everyone, in fact, knew, and yet the official media kept trying to cover up the inevitable and the unavoidable, as if denying the turn of events would somehow reverse them. Perhaps the only calculus there was to keep the public from panicking and making the run on the banks or otherwise filling the streets en masse. Regardless, it was clear even to a child that the "news channel" were an arm of a panicky ossified regime, making its last gasps.

Yet the news anchors for these state-mandated programs were referred to as "journalists".

Years later, when Russian journalists would be found assassinated after critiquing official policies on various issues, I asked myself how the same word could be used to signify such disparate meanings and occupations.

The first time I found myself compelled to analyze journalistic coverage was as a teenager, as part of a Social Studies requirement to report on current global events. I was following the NY Times reporting on the Second Intifada that was taking place around the time, and for the first time grappled with the question of what constitutes "neutrality" and "objectivity" in journalism, whether coverage of a conflict could ever be truly unbiased, and whether reporting on the numbers of inciters and violent activists and civilians killed in a conflict is the sort of moral equivalency that actually undermines the idea of truly objective coverage. Can or should the reporter writing the story be a moral arbiter? Are there such instances where one is forced to take sides in order for the reporting to report the reality of the conflict, and not merely some formula that turns human drama into a farce by trying to fit it into some prescribed parameters?

Not only were these questions never resolved either in my own mind or in any public forum, but over time, the crisis of journalism in the West had incubated and grown and blossomed and at last erupted with the closure of many local publications around the country, the rise of the clickbait online editions, and the elevation of citizen bloggers, which became known as "democratization" of journalism. The tightrope between highly professional journalism with a thorough editing process, targeting "elite" educated public and opening a seat at the table to broader range of perspectives is feeling the weight of increased demand for more inclusivity, perhaps at the cost to quality control and professional ethics. Is accessibility necessarily in conflict with fact-checking and high-quality delivery? Perhaps not, but the elimination of paid positions and the rise of non-profit self-funded models in place of the failed business models of publications has clearly caused many newer outlets to cut corners, while pressuring national press vehicles to comply with the demands of increasingly narrow reader or follower bases - at the cost to objectivity and credibility.

It is in this context of the media crisis, that information warriors are best positioned to take advantage of this journalistic dilemma and to use the Western press, undergoing an identity crisis, to advance their own agendas.

What is Information Warfare?

Without a formal declaration of war, battles are waged every day over hearts and minds of the Western public, voters, constituents, actors, activists, stakeholders, vying to sway their emotions through feel-good (or feel-bad) delivery all in in the span of very limited attention span an average viewer or reader can devote to issues outside his or her immediate circumstances. Information warfare "is a way of sharing, transporting, gathering, manipulating, destroying, or degrading information aimed at deceiving, disorienting, dismissing, discrediting, demoralizing, and ultimately, disarming the target. " It is a military, intelligence, or a political tactic adaptable to modern day communications systems through technical as well as rhetorical and psychological strategies. Disinformation, propaganda, and character assassination campaigns are a few examples that often - but not always - overlap. Hacking electoral voting machines or sensitive government databases, leaking embarrassing emails, bamboozling the adversary with fake news, or attacking targets through bots via troll factories are all examples of information warfare in modern settings.

Whether during the Cold War or today, "free", open, liberal democratic societies are at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to the playing field and information flow.  First, having access to information alone is not sufficient for the critical assessment of that information. Indeed, indoctrination through repetitive exposure to a particular point of view can be as harmful in that sense as complete lack of access. Nor does greater access to information by itself lead to greater security. Failure to identify and prioritize important and correct information can lead to devastating intelligence and policy failures. (As an example: studies on the prevalence of respiratory infections in the "wet markets" in China have been freely available since 2007, yet no state has taken appropriate steps to prepare for potential fallouts). During the Cold War, while the Western intelligence agencies struggled with physical barriers to smuggling information in and out of the Soviet bloc and other Communist spheres of influence, the Soviet Union successfully infiltrated Western institutions, academic circles, and mass media.

“Men who sincerely abhorred the word Communism in the pursuit of common ends found that they were unable to distinguish Communists from themselves. . . . For men who could not see that what they firmly believed was liberalism added up to socialism could scarcely be expected to see what added up to Communism. Any charge of Communism enraged them precisely because they could not grasp the differences between themselves and those against whom it was made.”

-- Whittaker Chambers, Witness

Authoritarian societies had greater access to information about "free" Western societies, and thus could understand social issues, political structure, and philosophical challenges which made it easy to recruit agents, to infiltrate circles under various pretexts, and to utilize known vulnerabilities in manipulating fellow travelers. In contemporary context, however, this advantage is amplified manifold. Authoritarian societies have bigger security apparatus to allocate to recruiting agents, and for infiltrating the social strata of the society. More importantly, however, they are more ruthless in utilizing modern methods of information warfare to demoralize and to indoctrinate their adversaries. For instance, where the United States reserves cyber strikes as a defensive or retaliatory method against particularly intrusive belligerent acts by its adversaries, countries like China, Iran, or Russia can hire third party hackers to target sensitive infrastructures of their Western adversaries - whether government or private - as a method of fear, or espionage, as an active measure.

Why are Authoritarian Regimes Winning Information Battles?

And it is easy for foreign intelligence agencies to intervene with the online intervention flow by spread disinformation through shell outlets and digital broadcasting, bots and troll factories, and the like. Western governments may infiltrate online communities to gather information, but do not typically engage in massive disinformation campaigns to influence elections or other political processes in foreign countries. And to the effect, Western governments have backed political campaigns in other states, that has typically involved funding, backing, or giving tacit political support to groups and organizations in societies that were already semi-open or opening up (see the Western backing of Muslim  Brotherhood candidates during the Arab Spring). Arguably, however, the scenario that prodded the Western governments to back representatives of an authoritarian organization that was using democratic methods to get to power in itself showed the success of authoritarian mindsets in penetrating Western intelligence analysis and presenting themselves as the lesser of possible evils, rather than just some of the many possible and potentially more preferable outcomes.

By contrast, Western efforts in providing accurate information about the West to authoritarian societies often fail or backfire for several reasons:

First, the aforementioned brainwashing mechanism is so powerful in such societies that by the time adults emerge from the school systems of these countries they can even travel to Western states, and spend time studying and observing Western societies, acquiring necessary skills and then return home where they become more successful members of their own societies. A combination of close ties to local cultures which may be predisposed to collectivist rather than individualist mindset, and indoctrination that starts in childhood, makes adult students or workers less likely to be swayed by the Western political systems and philosophies and to be more critical of what they see. However, acquiring Western skills makes them more desirable back home, so upon their return they are well compensated and less likely to be critical of their own societies.

The case of Chinese students is by far the best example of that. In less ideological but corrupt societies, such as Russia, the indoctrination is nationalist and anti-Western, but the nomenclature is more interested in bare grip on power and wealth than in the survival of any particular system. For that reason, they often see the West as a place of potential escape and in fact encourage their own children to move to the United States and Europe.  Ironically, Russian government looks to destabilize and create chaos in European and American societies, but at the same time this is the place where high level apparatchiks and their families go to play, where they own assets, in case of a need to escape their own country, and which they view as places to educate and train future generations. The same, to a lesser extent is with Iran, where much of the society is dependent on the government and its institutions for living, but detests the system and is increasingly open to the West.

Nevertheless, due to this very dependency on Iranian government for livelihood, due to fears of the fates of their families, or due to a short-term thinking that is less ideological than that of the ayatollahs and the IRGC, many Iranians establish themselves in the WEst and form lobbies that are largely sympathetic to the Iranian regime, often anti-American, and known for spreading false or distorted and hateful information (see NIAC in the United States), push agendas that may be detrimental to US interests but helpful to the interests of the sponsor regime (such as the JCPOA), while running their own candidates in the very country they criticize and fully embedding themselves in the political system.  Some members of these networks are merely doing it for cash, without necessarily considering the long-term implications of their involvement. They may eventually fall victims of their own success.  Others are fervent true believers who utilize the vulnerabilities of the openness of Western societies against themselves.

Such emergence of multigenerational fifth columns is nothing too shocking: first, it is a more successful implementation of the old Soviet model of "illegals", who lived under deep cover for decades and were essentially sleeper cells to be deployed in case of emergencies, and who successfully recruited fellow travelers in the meantime. Utilizing such agents to meddle in the governance and to sway US domestic and foreign policy is information warfare at its finest; it is utilizing disinformation to sway hearts and minds through active measures, not merely bots and trolls online, which are meant to be disruptive. Fifth columns of active agents sympathetic to the goals of the governments but who are fully embedded in the systems and understand the Western minds, on the other hand, are constructive and are meant to create footholds for the implementation of the long-term revolutionary visions of such societies. Chinese attempts to blackmail or otherwise infiltrate their diaspora in the same way are increasingly well known, but less skilled and somewhat less effective.

They rely less on long-term ideological grooming than on crude interventionism. So while authoritarian societies are utilizing all methods in their disposal to disrupt the flow of information in the West, to demoralize Westerners by increasing polarization and increasing distrust between the people and their governments, by riding populist grievances to the most demagoguic and extreme conclusions, and by creating lobbies and agencies of Americanized influencers, the West struggles with providing accurate and compelling information about the West to the most closed societies, an outdated models that may have served some purpose before the effective spread of global communications but clearly is failing now.

At the same time, however, as authoritarian societies are failing economically having become exceedingly corrupt or having over invested in external adventurism - such as Russia, Iran, and to a lesser extent China - they start to revert to older models of increasingly closing off communications, emulating the extreme case of North Korea. Russia and Iran have both experimented with shutting down or limiting Internet access or creating internal networks which will close off their societies from any Western influences. Even with that step backwards, however, they have not given up on using media, lobbies, and agents to spread their message externally. And overtime, other actors, such as Turkey and Qatar, have joined in the game.

By contrast, Western governments or even private interests groups have been either disinterested or relatively unsuccessful in building lobbies or influence groups inside fully authoritarian countries or closed societies. The instigation of activists involved in the Arab Spring has been the closes to that, but it could be argued that the support of such activists had less to do with any genuine concern about human rights and support for the building of civil societies and reforms in such states, than about some modern day version of "controlled chaos". Most of the color revolutions by themselves did not lead to complete overhaul of corrupt systems nor stopped Russian attempted influence inside the countries, partly because there was no plan aside from limiting Russian influence.

Inside Arab states, the vision was was in part due to President Obama's hope for bringing to power less violent Islamists to counter potentially deadlier radicals, and in part due to the foreign policy direction of strengthening IRan against Sunni Arab states in an effort to ensure the success of the JCPOA and also to keep countries like Saudi Arabia from rising up in a more dominant and nationalist foreign policy direction. Whether the United States and other Western powers really understood what the balancing of Sunni and Shi'a - particulary Khomeinist Shi'a - actually entailed in practice remains an open question, in light of the mess left in the wake of these policies. What is clear, however, is that the proponents of the narrative became so vested in defending this policy, that, without regard to the ultimate destructiveness of underprepared meddling in the region, these narratives survived the administration and continued to be propagated by former Obama foreign policy team members, Iran apologists in the media, and assorted political operatives.

This narrative served Iran's interests well and was both amplified and became part and parcel of Khomeinist information warfare efforts in getting the public to to adopt a mindset hostile to the Saudi bloc and more accepting of Iran's role in the region and a more compliant US policy towards Tehran in general.  Some of the main efforts in US and other Western involvement in building up alternative "lobbies" and activists in the Arab world stemmed from these narratives. These efforts to back proto-revolutionaries and activists in Arab Gulf states failed to have the intended effect, and in fact invited a backlash and the rise of a nationalist movement, with governments taking more direct and visible control of reforms.

The economic and social failures by West-backed Muslim  Brotherhood President Morsi invited a coup and a similar backlash and government-directed reforms in Egypt.  And where Western states failed, Turkey and Qatar utilized the vacuum of any long term vision for the Arab Spring uprisings to send in their own versions of controlled chaos policies. Any such organized effort - if it ever existed- has been a complete failure in the strong fully authoritarian states proper. The penetration of China and other countries via VPN has been slow and met with significant backlash; furthermore, authoritarian states frequently have stringent restrictions against any foreign-funded non profit or lobbying activity; so such entities are likewise limited in their ability to disperse information.

Ultimately, however, where Iran, China, Muslim Brotherhood and many others were able to take control of popular narratives in the West to the extent that they have come to build up entire societies in their own image based in the premises of political corrects, self-censorship, and taking cues from the organizations backed by these entities, the West struggled to create even long-term relationships in fully adversarial states that could be utilized towards any such active measures. Beyond basic intelligence gathering and occasional security related operations, the West has failed in giving strategic depth to its information warfare efforts abroad.

The Use of Media in Information Warfare

With this strong inherent advantage of being able to utilize all aspects of Western societies as an informational "vulnerability" in educating and directing active measures, it is no wonder than closed or unfree states and authoritarian organizations and movements are also many steps ahead in the ground game element of  what is known as "hybrid", "fourth-generation", or "gray" warfare. We have seen some example of a successful combination of electronic attacks, such as GPS jamming, funding and support for asymmetrical warfare, cyberattacks and disabling of critical infrastructure, coupled with troll related attacks and propaganda campaign essentially guarantee victories (or at least getting away with impunity) for Russia's operations in Ukraine and for Iran's role in the oil tanker crisis over the summer 2019. This hybrid warfare is accepted to be the "new normal". Utilizing media to propagate justifications and to direct popular reaction away from the aggressors has been a significant part of this successful move away from conventional warfare, which would have been detrimental, if not completely devastating to Russia's, Iran's (and even China's) subpar military capabilities. Redirection and deception are both central towards any successful information warfare campaign.

By that token, foreign powers and interests that have taken advantage of the journalism crisis in the Western media circles, understood the value of redirecting Western attention from adversarial maneuvers and towards attacking each other and one's allies, and the value of deception in hiding the true source of these campaigns and confusing "heroes" and "villains". Those following mainstream media closely may have noticed the collusive and repetitive nature of seeming obsession of many leading outlets and networks with certain topic, issues, and angles, be it the largely discredited "Russia collusion" line of attack against President Trump, or the strange fixation on the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and, later, the death of the former Saudi government spokesman and intelligence operative Jamal Khashoggi.  The role of the media in both stories was in some ways "meta", because it was media playing a significant role in shaping government policies and national perspectives regarding stories themselves centered about press and journalists - and the understanding of who or what journalists are or are not.

"As The Washington Post explained, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used leaks about the Khashoggi affair, some true some not, as a political instrument to target Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Trump administration.

What the Post failed to disclose was that it played a role in Erdogan’s campaign. Indeed, in the last few years, a whole swath of the U.S. press and foreign policy establishment that had been openly hostile to the Turkish government suddenly began publishing almost everything the Erdogan-allied media gave them, relaying anonymous leaks from Turkish officials, often secondhand, to American audiences for the purpose of damaging a Trump ally." - writes Lee Smith in his column "How should we read the American Press? In Arabic". He then goes on to describe the transformation of the diverse American media into a gathering of paid agenda vehicles for foreign and US intelligence interests, not too different from their counterparts in the Middle East, where each publication is affiliated with some faction and is read not to understand the current events but to understand the interests and perspective of that faction.

He and many others went on to underscore how pro-Iran, pro-Turkey, and pro-Qatar echo chamber subsumed the American media in the coverage of the Khashoggi affair, failing to disclose his role of a political operative working on behalf of Qatar's agenda under journalistic cover and making him a symbolic mascot for all journalists slain for speaking truth to power. The reality of the case is likely far less dramatic than that: Khashoggi, who was copying and pasting stories in Arabic provided to him by a former Foreign Officer working with Qatar Foundation International in the US had his Washington Post editor Karen Attiah essentially transmitting plagiarized anti-Crown Prince stories presented as an original work for the Post.

Thus he was acting as a foreign influence agent, rather than merely a journalist critical of his own government, and was using his pen to take part in political campaigns and intelligence work rather than any real "exposure" or good faith investigation that landed many journalists in hot waters in Turkey, and other countries.  Ironically, same media which elevated his case ignored the stories of many journalists, who, far be it from being paid by any powers, were virtually unknown outside their home countries where they  criticized government actions to their home audiences before landing in prison or being assassinated - in Turkey, Russia, China, Mexico, and many other places around the world.

Smith describes the similarly uncritical media acceptance of foreign intelligence-driven narratives presented as the so-called "Steele dossier" by foreign former intel operatives, Russian government sources, and former Wall Street Journalists-turned-Fusion GPS operatives, and how these narratives were "weaponized" by the media to launch a political campaign against President Trump, echoing comments made by Hillary Clinton about the supposed connection between Trump and Russia following her loss in 2016, election which came as an apparent shock to much of the media world due to the inaccuracies in polling in the course of the race.

Others too, note, how journalists become not only newsbreakers but newsmakers through an uncritical acceptance of narratives presented to them via foreign media sources, to the point that even some major outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, have in the past had to withdraw their stories due to poor sourcing. Interestingly, some of the same media supports liberal and human rights causes in the United States, but often colludes and forms partnerships with foreign state mouthpieces that promote despotic policies and in fact undercut human rights, including on issues of free speech and protection for journalists. These mouthpieces increasingly become active in the United States, not only covering stories with a particular spin, but engage in "active measures" on behalf of the foreign states, such as spy operations against various entities than can be used to blackmail influencers for political gain. When confronted with the need to register as foreign agents, they work hard to disassociate themselves in public from their state control and funding - yet remain vigilant not to criticize their home countries.

Are All Journalists Created Equal?

Recent reports uncovered the role the government funded Voice of America plays in amplifying and giving platform to Chinese propagandists. In the past few years, Iranian dissidents have accused Voice of American Persian of reflecting regime talking points and suppressing the voices of the opposition. This is highly ironic given the essential role VOA and other such programs played in disseminating US government perspective behind the Iron Curtain. For my grandparents, huddling over the old radio, secretly listening to VOA was a breath of fresh air amidst the heavy-handed and monotonous Soviet state reporting. In fact, foreign regimes have been so successful in their information warfare tactics that they even managed to take over the outlets dedicated to US government information warfare efforts in giving hope and strengthening the voices of liberal opposition movements in diaspora and in repressive states.

Meanwhile, a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists highlighted that China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are among the world's leading jailers of journalists. CPJ, back at the height of the Khashoggi craze, was also at the forefront of critiquing his death as a targeted journalists, without ever providing evidence that he was targeted for his criticism of the Crown Prince, rather than having met his end as a result of some covert action related to his activity as a government turncoat (which seems far more plausible).

CPJ and many leading publications jumped on the consequent and mostly debunked campaigns by some of the leading figures behind the Khashoggi-related campaigns in trying to show that Khashoggi was not merely an instance of some spy-related affair gone wrong, but a pattern of an authoritarian leader using cyberespionage, information warfare, and even abduction and murder to silence dissent and critics all over the world.  However, these efforts quickly fell apart for lack of evidence, though no publication formally retracted their contemporaneous contributions to that choir. Given the active role many publications have played in the Arab Spring in backing some political movements over others in Egypt and elsewhere, and given the recent meddling related to Saudi Arabia's transition from the Muslim Brotherhood supporter Mohammed bin Naif to the reformist Mohammed bin Salman (who has apparently cut off much of the support for the Western media they enjoyed under his more conservative predecessors), all of this begs the question of whether the Committee's evaluation of who is and is not considered a journalist withstands critical scrutiny.

It certainly invites the question of whom the press itself considers important enough to defend, in terms of disproportionate amount of attention devoted to the Khashoggi matter over far more directly relevant accounts of investigative journalists and reporters assassinated, assaulted, or imprisoned for fairly straightforward reasons in Russia, Turkey,and other countries.  Most certainly, the need to distinguish between journalism and political operations arises in light of Glenn Simpson' Fusion GPS' Steele dossier fiasco and the feeding of his "findings" to an assortment of journalists (some of whom had also played an uncritical role in the Khashoggi pseudoinvestigation - where not one Western journalist actually went on the ground in Turkey to interview relevant witness or to do independent research and reporting). Is anyone who claims to be a journalist entitled to the same level of deference and protection regardless of the nature and quality of their work?

Should state mouthpieces be venerated with equal fervor to courageous muckrakers shown to be risking their lives in uncovering government corruption?  Is every blogger with an opinion entitled to the same level of credibility as experienced veterans with a proven record of veracity? Can we, in other words, separate our interest and dedication to freedom of speech and press and protection of the marketplace of ideas from the representations of the profession? Citizen journalists can play an indelible role in exposing newsworthy conditions on the ground - but they can also be duped by political operatives staging astroturf demonstrations. Without experience, funding, or motivation to do additional digging, these reporters can inadvertently misinform the public.

What about lazy reporters or go-along-to-get along types inadvertently disseminating "fake news" and agendas for various actors, whose poor professionalism is manipulated with skill by those who track reporters' careers and work professionally? How about wannabe political operatives who fail to see the difference between reporting, opinion writing, and political advocacy and who were see promoting particular agendas for the "public good' as part of their duties as journalists? While the role of the press in protecting their colleagues abroad is paramount, increasingly it is less clear whom exactly they are protecting and from what. If, in certain countries, the press consists largely of state-appointed apparatchiks, operatives, or worse still, undercover intelligence officers, should we be expanding our resources, compassion, and righteous outrage to battle for the extraction of such "journalists" from prisons in the event they displease their masters? Should Western bodies entangle themselves in battles between assorted political factions where journalism is a mere cover for various operations?

Furthermore, in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the roles of journalists are circumscribed not only by government interests but by many other factors, including history and culture.  For instance, in Egypt, journalists with foreign allegiances played a political role in the Arab Spring, which led to a short-term reign by Morsi, proven to be grossly unpopular among vast numbers of Egyptian. On the one hand, there is the likelihood of overcaution by the government to the point of paranoia about any legitimate criticism of official policies, but on the other hand many outlets increasingly are open to embracing previously taboo topics and giving space to more liberal, pro-Western voices and also to a more diverse field of Westerners.

Should this strange schizophrenic situation of traditional conservative pro-government media paranoid about Western and more recently Qatari and Turkish intelligence meddling but at the same type the growing openness to young open-minded voices be covered in the same broad brushstroke as the traditional way of discussing Arab news agencies and dismissing them out of hand? In Saudi Arabia, there is a great deal of diverse private media, which has traditionally engaged in self-censorship despite relatively lax looks, out of fear of losing positions. This media has often been filled not by Saudi but by Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian voices, many of whom have been at odds with the political changes in the Kingdom or reflected pan-Arabist and Islamist perspectives, causing again an appearance of political schizophrenia and confusion.

Some extremely conservative voices which have been sharply critical of the official government line on "controversial" policies such as liberalization towards Israel, and interfaith outreach, found themselves in disgrace, if not in prison, as their efforts are equated with antagonizing and riling up the conservative elements of the public against these attempted reforms. In reality, these reforms cannot come to Saudi Arabia by any traditional liberal democratic means; some element of government imposition needs to happen before the civic society supportive of this direction is strong enough to operate independently. So anti-nationalist, pro-Islamist, and other voices by definition play a political role inside the country, not merely in covering events, inasmuch as in shaping narratives that can play a dangerous, even a revolutionary goal.

Should the defenders of press freedom in the West not take into account that defending and intervening on behalf of deliberately antagonistic voices will end up empowering counter reformist movements in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states? Such movements  could bring back the more oppressive and conservative governments who in the past employed people like Khashoggi to censor more liberal perspectives? True humanitarians would at least give the matter a passing thought; certain circles who find themselves behold to past relationships with these authoritarian elites should then be honest with themselves and the public that their true aim is financial or political self-interest, and concern about Saudi Arabia's resurgence in international politics as a leading actor. None of these considerations have anything to do with press freedom or protection of journalists dedicated to exposing corruption and bad practices. Indeed, not an iota of the same attention has been devoted to disappeared Chinese journalists or assassinated Russian investigative reporters. Is it because there is less investment or hope for undermining Russian or Chinese regimes than of taking advantage of chaos in a potentially upended Saudi society where a  young, inexperienced leader, could be forced to step down or be tied down by the sheer weight of bad media publicity?

The answer lies in the widespread media reaction to the Chinese Communist Party's role in the spread and cover up of the corona virus COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the very same journalists who had been attacking Mohammed bin Salman over Khashoggi through in an endless stream of coverage came to China's defense on many fronts: in condemning the use of the #WuhanVirus hashtag campaign to highlight the cover-up of the outbreak, in attacking calls to divest from China in light of its abysmal practices that have come to threaten all of the world, apart from its own long-suffering population, and the critiques of WHO, which appears to have taken cues from China's cover-up in denying or minimizing the nature of the pandemic and downplaying early best practices for combating it. These same actors have likewise failed to give mea culpas following the debunking of the Steele dossier, nor have acknowledged that in the process of what appears to have been a Russian "witch hunt" to take down the President, they themselves have fallen victims to Russian hoaxes and narratives propagated by an adversarial intelligence agency in a successful effort to take advantage of political polarization in the United States.

In other words, which journalists end up getting the bulk of our defense strongly depends on who defines journalism, and if the defenders of press freedoms are themselves neither journalists in the true sense of the world, nor free nor independent in that they are beholden to ulterior motives and agendas driven by hidden "clients" and "customers", domestic or foreign, the entire concept becomes an unfortunate farce that is hard to take seriously. A mockery made out of a legitimate defense of important rights ends up increasingly lying hollow to the public and fails to generate anything but cynical and exasperated responses.  Still more unfortunate that these standards are applied haphazardly, when violations of press-related freedoms in the West are overseen under the guise of political correctness or out of old colonialist mindset that Western countries are by definition above and beyond scrutiny on issues related to freedom of the speech.

The suspect defamation standards in UK and France, the Holocaust denial limitations in Germany, Austria, and other countries, the hate speech concerns on US campuses and in various private publications are all issues that should be vigorously debated and criticized, because such limitations ultimately erase basic freedoms and ultimately pave way to creeping authoritarianism, serving best Muslim Brotherhood an assorted dictatorships seeking to rebuild Western Societies in their own image by taking advantage of the excess of concern for various protected groups' feelings and unwillingness to face and ignore offense.

So long as the Western press is willing to ignore, dismiss, overlook, or excuse away attacks on journalistic freedoms in the West, there is little hope of any real protections ever being successfully extended to less open societies. Why should anyone take seriously professions or their representatives who are not fully committed to their own principles in all contexts and who appear nothing more than self-righteous finger-wagging virtue signalling hypocrites when it comes to addressing serious issues?

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that with the exception of some controversial truth-tellers, the main body of Western journalists is dedicated to retaining reputation in close-knit cliquish circles and access to those who can give them exposure and easy feed to news stories and controversies, rather than to seeking and uncovering unpopular realities that can put them at risk of disfavor with those are pulling the strings.

What Does Victory Look Like in the Context of Information Warfare?

In the context of abstract psychological operations, "victory" may seem hard to define when clear policy goals concerning the adversary itself are not being articulated, nor followed with any level of consistency. For instance, Russia has largely been abandoned to its own devices in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, and all over Africa, to take advantage of the US vacuum of power; Turkey has met with relatively feeble resistance in light of its destructive policies in the region, its espionage activities in the US, its unwelcome purchase of S-400s from Russia, and its generally hostile role towards the West and others; Qatar has been successfully playing all sides without any real pushback or consequences from the United States or Europe, Iran  has met with a polarized and incoherent policy response from the United States and open friendship from Europe; and despite tough talk from the Trump administration on China, US is ill-prepared to respond where it matters, with its resources stretched thin by the pandemic and arguably misplaced priorities. China may not wish to invite an open confrontation, just like Iran is avoiding direct combat with US forces, but it can and continues to push the envelope.

Information Warfare is not itself an objective, it's a supportive mechanism towards some broader political or military goal. However, what is clear is that without defining how it could be helpful in ensuring the objective of weakening, destabilizing, and nullifying the enemies of the West, neither objective will be properly fulfilled. What is obvious is that like its adversaries, US and other countries should and could be using information warfare to confuse, distract, and deceive its enemies; it can use strategic and critical communications to turn Iranian regime apparatchiks, conflicting intelligence agencies, and proxies against one another; for instance, or to disclose and discredit effort by fake opposition leaders in dividing the Iranian people opposed to the regime. Similar offensive tactics can be successful against expanding Russian, Chinese, and Muslim Brotherhood influences should the US administration ever figure out and commit to the need to do so; private actors in the meantime can take on that essential role in supporting US interests.

Just as importantly, defining the role media can play in this context important. US and others have an interest in an independent, functional, critical press with a strong element of traditional investigative journalism that can keep both the domestic and foreign governments and entities accountable. None of that is going to happen if the so-called mainstream press is not itself held accountable for egregious wrongdoing and evasion of basic needs. Before anyone can be defended as a "journalist", a return to the basic understanding of journalistic ethics and professionalism requires reexamination and enforcement. That means, media entities that appear to be beholden to foreign agendas and that appear to collude in inappropriate ways, should be investigated like any other cartel or foreign agent, and be forced to comply with appropriate registration laws and limitations. The media should not be subject to inappropriate government persecution, but neither should it be immune from scrutiny for violation of existing norms and regulations. Government-funded bodies that have been coopted by adversarial interests should be defunded, reassessed, and reorganized appropriately.

White House and other press credentials should be given not to cliques with big titles but to professionals with a demonstrated record of credibility and dedication to professionalism, whether they are part of some consortium or entirely independent. It is time to return on evaluating journalism, like any other professions, on its merits and quality of work, rather than by rote, some glorified entitlement, or by criteria that have to do less with the functions of the job than by external perks assigned to it. Even if most of the current media ends up being erased almost entirely by investigations and loss of credibility, returning to high quality professionalism - and more creative, functional, and realistic business models  - that serve the society rather than destroy and polarize it - is well worth the effort.

Stakeholders interested in professional journalism will be willing to invest in thoughtful business model, and non-profit and independent quality journalism should have the full support of private backers so long as they can demonstrate the quality of their work and the ability to deliver what is currently lacking. Finally, truly dedicated old school journalists have an important role to play in teaching new professionals of all backgrounds and ages the skills and the ethics that once defined the essence of the professors, away from the diluted agenda-driven, ego-stroking methods of the clickbait industry and mentality. The audiences satiated with overwhelming influx of nonsense will gravitate towards more challenging but mentally rewarding options once they become available. Real journalism and real media is well worth the renaissance, the preservation, and the defense. But if our society has come to a point that it cannot distinguish between political operatives, frauds, and hacks for hire from real reporters, the media has lost its way, and needs to be reinvented, if necessarily from scratch before we end up - as we have been doing so often lately - defending and protecting our enemies at the expense of our allies and friends.

About the Author(s)

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security lawyer and analyst, who has written extensively for a variety of domestic and international publications on strategy, geopolitics, and security in the MENA region. Her work has been translated to many languages, including Arabic, and she has been interviewed and cited in a variety of Arabic-language media. Follow Irina on Twitter @irinatsukerman.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 6:13am

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