Disinformation and postmodern Russia

“Telekinetic dynamite! Psychic warfare is real!
You better believe me, brother, x-ray vision!”

-Clutch, X-Ray Visions

Infosota [Infowar]
Saara Jantunen, Otava, 2015

Better to make it clear straight away that I have absolutely no expertise in information warfare. Saara Jantunen, on the other hand, has written a quite lengthy book about that. Although Jantunen has a PhD in military science, the book is aimed for a broader audience – which is nice for the likes of me. The book makes somewhat dry but easy reading with a little bit of personal touch in the form of stories and examples from Jantunen’s own life. What one could ask for is more references though. That is, there aren’t any in this book.

References or not, it is clear that Russia has been immensely successful with their propaganda in Ukraine and it is also fairly obvious that armies of trolls are marching in Finland too. Jantunen notes that democratic states are especially vulnerable in information wars as disinformants use demands for freedom of speech and transparency as tools for furthering their own – often less transparent – ends.

The bad boy of the book is, unsurprisingly, Russia. With some imagination, one could see their disinformation programs as an empirical test case in social ontology. If one keeps on lying and pretending that certain things exist, does that eventually make those things to exist? Jantunen says no. I am not totally sure of this but perhaps she has a point in saying that, for example, there needs to be some sort of international recognition for the Donetsk People’s Republic to be an actual state. Russia, on the other hand, seems to take a more postmodern route where there is no one truth or meaning. Thus, they are seemingly free (or obliged) to make one up by themselves.

One thing that left me genuinely puzzled was that why do people (Johan Bäckman and Janus Putkonen at the forefront) so willingly take part in all this? Are they doing it for the money? Maybe. Are they aiming to further some political ideology? Again, maybe. However, the ideas that the disinformants are sharing seem to be so contradictory that one might doubt if there is any holistic system of beliefs behind them. Are they in it just because they do not know any better? There certainly is a group that believes what the ‘alternative media’ says but I am pretty sure that the biggest disinformants know that they are not sharing any facts. Although there are no answers to these questions in the book, it is somehow relieving to see that what I called ‘troll armies’ above are actually quite small groups of people. To be sure, they have a large online presence but it would be interesting to see if they have really managed to shift the public opinion.

If there is only a small number of those who are willingly spreading disinformation, then the solution to the problem seems clear: high level of education, media reading and critical thinking skills, transparency, and upholding democratic ideals. Not surprisingly, these are roughly what Jantunen suggests at the end of her book. (The current Finnish Government, on the other hand, aims to cut funding from education.)

Overall, I find myself agreeing with most of the key points. Jantunen’s positive discussion on Israel is sure to piss someone off. My main issue, instead, was that at points she seems to hold onto a strong distinction of ‘talk is talk but war is war’ that comes combined with a claim of nation states’ absolute sovereignty. Though I agree with her that in Finland’s case we should not overly limit our political options just because we think that Russia might interpret some decisions differently, it still seems naïve to think that states should not care about what other states decide to do with themselves and that speech acts are somehow irrelevant when it comes to matters of war. This is not probably the most charitable reading of what Jantunen is saying but that is how it surely felt in some sections of the book. If you don’t believe me, read it yourself. 😉