Ihor SOLOVEY: Best information tactics to deter Russians is fear; photos of corpses have a sobering effect

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Imagine what would happen if, as of February 24, all Russian TV channels and information resources continued to operate in Ukraine. How long would Ukraine last? Ihor Solovey, head of the Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security, tells us in an interview. Before the beginning of the large-scale war, Ukraine had cleared itself mainly of Russian information influence. But it had not yet completely overcome Russian propaganda. Currently, the idea of the so-called “information Rammstein” for Ukraine is being worked out at the national level. Its idea is to create an international coalition to support Ukraine in the information sphere as well — following the example of how we are supported with weapons. 

Will the information Rammstein work? What is the best tactic in the fight against Russian propaganda? Should Ukrainian media quote Russian terrorist Igor Girkin? And why shouldn’t we insult Elon Musk? This and more — in the interview. 

According to the American Institute for the Study of War, the information space in Russia is now fundamentally changing, and the main propagandists allow themselves to criticize mobilization, the military leadership, and even Putin. Does the Ukrainian Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security also draw such conclusions?

We record a change in emphasis in information policy. The policy of Russian propaganda is that the people should not be shown bad news about themselves. And now they are in such a situation when it is impossible not to do so. The Russian society began to receive information about defeats, especially in the Kharkiv region, through the Internet. Propaganda, which was built vertically, did not know how to react at the highest level. And there was a pause. However, the information space does not tolerate emptiness: in the absence of central instructions, this pause was filled by messages from Russian “military correspondents” running with machine guns and cameras on the territory of Ukraine. This situation brought down a ceremonial propaganda plaque from Russian statehood.   

You mentioned the vertical construction of propaganda. Do you know how the gag rules scheme has been working in Russia all these years?

Russian propaganda has several levels — strategic, tactical, and operative. At the strategic level, all issues are determined in the presidential administration by the relevant departments. If we discard Putin, who often generates propaganda points himself, the usual performers are his press secretary Dmitry Peskov and first deputy head of the presidential administration Alexey Gromov. The latter is also called the “master of the Russian TV,” since it is he who gives instructions what to show on the TV. 

Every week (and now, maybe more frequently) meetings are held in the Kremlin, at which the main narratives are determined. Whole departments work in their interests, third-party analytical groups, or individual experts who develop information policy. Then it goes down vertically, primarily to television — to Solovyov, Kiselev, Skabeeva, etc. Their task is to cover the maximum number of people through the influence of TV and the media controlled by the authorities (and there are simply no others in Russia now). 

The strategic level also includes the Russian Foreign Ministry, whose diplomats have turned into propagandists.

Further along the hierarchy are the direct executors in the ministries – Zakharova, Konashenkov…… They generate meanings that go down and spread through different channels. 

A little lower are specialized information units consisting of the FSB, the Ministry of Defence, the GRU, the Rosgvardia, and the FSO. Such units activate their capabilities, both open and closed, to generate meanings (based on a general framework) and distribute this content to a Ukrainian or Western audience.  

For example, the same military correspondents that I have already mentioned: they position themselves as journalists, but in fact they are the same fighters as those who run around Ukraine with a machine gun. After all, these information soldiers (who are often personnel of special services) provide information support for hostilities. 

Let’s assume that Russian propagandists begin to mercilessly criticize Putin. This does not mean that propaganda automatically begins to support Ukraine. They are still in favour of the war. So, should we get so carried away with the fact that they quarrel with each other?

Anti-Putin sentiments are not automatically pro-Ukrainian. The emergence of criticism now in Russia is a manifestation of the process of finding someone to blame, someone who will be responsible for the defeat in the war. Various agencies began to wreck each other in advance to shift responsibility for failures. Girkin is a good example. He is not an independent figure; his task is to be an information killer of the FSB against the Ministry of Defence. 

Should we be very happy? We shouldn’t. After all, they are not thinking about the end of the war, but about how to improve it in order to win this war against us. 

However, on the other hand, such internal processes (if they also become more widespread) can lead to internal personnel rotations. Personnel rotations — whatever they may be — always unbalance the system. Therefore, the more personnel changes there will be, the more unorganized the system will beсome. 

Should our media quote Girkin so often, presenting him as a “legitimate” source of information?

We can’t stop our media from quoting who they want. We, thank God, have freedom of speech. Another thing is that, of course, it is necessary to observe information hygiene, not to use dumps as sources without appropriate training. 

And from information policy’s perspective, it is useful for Ukraine to be informed about the panic in the ranks of the enemy. During World War II, people like Girkin were trained with purpose. And here we have been granted such a “gift” — no need for some extra efforts, just using the weaknesses of the enemy competently. Therefore, anything that harms the enemy helps us.  

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, people had the opportunity to listen to Radio Liberty, the Voice of America. It was a window for different information. Now, we are in the era of the Internet — and Russians can easily understand what the situation really is. Why don’t they want to understand that? Is propaganda stronger than the reality one can grasp with one’s own eyes and mind?

Russian propaganda was being built for 30 years. At this stage, we see a construction that has come a long way. Telegram and YouTube are now virtually the only channels for communicating information. Everything else is controlled. Even those media outlets that worked for Russian state money but had some more or less independent editorial policy (Novaya Gazeta, Dozhd, and Echo of Moscow) closed after February 24. Currently, a digital information ghetto is being created there. 

As the Russians themselves say to me: do not believe those who say that “we did not know.” It’s not true. Because all the information is one click away (or one move of your hand on the screen of your smartphone away). Had there been a desire to find true information. 

Then why do Russians so blindly believe in propaganda? The thing about the Russians is that over the years, the state has assumed the monopoly right to decide their fate. And, in fact, the Russians are looking for the information that simply confirms their world-view that has formed in 30 years. It is almost impossible to convince people of the age 45+, who believe in Banderites, world conspiracy, biolabs, and goose battles, of something. 

On the other hand, does the mass fleeing of the Russians abroad mean that when the situation touches them directly, they believe not Shoigu, but the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine?

Your question is also the answer as to what kind of information policy Russia needs. When the war did not directly affect the wallet or the security of the Russians, they did not care that the Ukrainians were killed. But when the matter is that you could now be killed, everyone starts worrying about their safety. This is the psychology of people because they care for something that has a relation to them, and the issue of security is the number one priority for a person. 

Therefore, when it is said that in order to convince the Russians, it is necessary to appeal to human values, humanism, and common sense, this approach will not work. After all, either ideological opponents of Ukraine go to war, or those who require the money. And now those who are forcibly mobilized. 

The best information tactic to deter the Russians from participating in the war is fear — fear of being killed, fear of being maimed, fear of not getting the money they go to fight for, fear for their family. 

That is why photos/videos with corpses or mutilated Russians that appear on the Internet have the most sobering effect for the Russians. 

You worked in Moscow for a long time as a Ukrainian journalist (Ihor Solovey was Ukrinform’s correspondent in Russia from 2006 to 2013). Do you remember the moment when Russian rhetoric about Ukraine changed a lot for the worse?

I arrived in 2006, but there was already harsh rhetoric. It began to be implemented after the Orange Revolution. Between 2005 and 2010, there was a five-year hate campaign. The information policy was very harsh. Then, since 2010, when Yanukovych became president, the situation subsided a little and Ukraine disappeared from Russia’s information radars for a year. There were so few events and newsbreaks that, frankly, I already thought of going back to Ukraine because nothing was happening there. 

This lasted about a year or a half until Yanukovych raised the issue of reviewing the 2009 gas agreements. And that’s when it started… The Russians used their heavy artillery again, and we saw the continuation of gas, meat-and-dairy, and other wars. 

By the way, there is an interesting interview with Igor Volobuev, former head of the information department of Gazprom, who fled to Ukraine after February 24. He told how they organized the defamation of Ukraine on the international market in information terms through gas stories. He admitted that Ukraine did not steal gas, and this was invented deliberately, and it was their department that did it all. 

That is, with a little pause, we can say that the war began in 2004, with different calm periods, but it has lasted constantly since then. 

Let’s take a look at Ukraine. Does Russian propaganda still have an effect on people in Ukraine?

Now, we have an almost perfect situation. I remember how sometime around 2011 my colleague Roman Tsymbaliuk and I worked in Moscow and were saying, what could we do so that all that information crap that emerges in Russia against Ukraine wouldn’t immediately travel to the Ukrainian media space? In 2011, this was impossible: any message about Ukraine on any random regional Russian website was automatically shared by our media. And it was impossible to stop — Ukraine existed in the fairway of the Russian information agenda. 

No such thing any longer. The Ukrainian media space has become self-sufficient. Since 2014, Ukraine has been gradually cleansing itself of negative Russian information influence. I will remind you that we banned Russian channels on cable networks, gave up various Yandex.Taxi, Yandex Maps, Yandex Search, which had a dual purpose. We prohibited things like the Kaspersky antivirus and accounting software, which were used for cyberattacks. Eventually, we closed TV channels that were ostensibly Ukrainian but were funded by the Russian government and implemented the Russian agenda (the pool of Medvechuk’s channels). 

By February 24, 2022, we already had a much cleaner information space. Imagine if on February 24, all those resources I mentioned were working… They would be convincing Ukrainian society to welcome Russians with open arms. Ukraine wouldn’t have lasted a week! 

Therefore, the government was doing the right thing, even though some of our Western partners criticized us for it. In fact, we ensured the security of the state. And now the West is following our path and using our experience. And that’s the right thing to do. 

Russians have limited possibilities to affect Ukrainians’ opinions now. But they haven’t been fully destroyed yet. People who would vote for OPFL and those with a “Soviet” mindset are still searching for information that confirms their beliefs. However, there are way fewer people like that now. In Bucha, Irpin, Izium, Odesa, Kharkiv and other cities, the Russians did everything to reduce pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine. Putin is strengthening the Ukrainian nation with his own hands.

They are still trying to reach Ukraine, though the part of population remaining pro-Russian. Especially through Telegram channels — anonymous ones or those mimicking Ukrainian channels, pretending to be somewhat normal. 

The task of Russian propaganda is to create a split in Ukrainian society. And let’s be frank — many grounds for this come up every day. Russians’ current tactic is not so much promoting Ukrainians’ affinity to Russia in the media space, but rather to incite internal conflicts to reduce Ukrainians’ ability to resist. Life provides many conflicting subjects. 

An enormous chunk of work is the fight against Russian propaganda abroad. In the first weeks of the war, Ukraine won the information war, but this does not mean that the information battles have stopped. Who in Ukraine is currently working in the foreign information field?

I was recently asked by our foreign colleagues: what kind of organizations in Ukraine make such beautiful visualizations? Pictures, videos, and everything else. I wasn’t sure whom to name specifically because everyone is doing it. From government bodies to regular people. Everyone is helping in any way they can and know how. It is a true patriotic information war.

So, everyone who can work on the international arena is doing it. Among the government, this is of course the President, Office of the President, ministers of defence and foreign affairs. Since February 24, a new format has been launched — the President’s daily addresses to parliaments and various countries. These presentations have reached a massive audience abroad. The President of Ukraine has become a visualization of resistance.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also doing an impressive job. In addition, Ukrainians abroad: either those who have lived abroad for a long time, or those who left after February 24. 

We can see the result of all this. We are receiving money, weapons; we are supported politically. This support is invaluable.

At the same time, there are problematic issues, which can be growing in the future. A good example is the case of Elon Musk. So, it would be a mistake to stop, to say that “we have won” the information war in the West. It is far from over.

What can be done here? The Ukrainian state is currently working to convey a simple idea to our Western partners: the information aspect of our war is no less important than the hostilities. And just like Western countries united to support Ukraine’s physical security, they should also unite to support it in the information sector. 

It would be an international coalition similar to the Rammstein format. This was repeatedly suggested by Minister of Culture and Information Policy Oleksandr Tkachenko, and this idea is already in the works. I hope that in the near future we will see the formalization of these intentions in the form of an international meeting or conference. 

If Western countries find the strength to create a coalition supporting Ukraine in the information sector as well, it will be good not just for Ukraine, but also for the West itself. Putin said it all in his speech: he is at war against the entire West.  

Therefore, whether the Europeans want it or not, the war has already come to their homes. So far, in a hybrid, information format. In winter, it will extend to the energy sector. But the hybrid format can always grow into something more. The example of Ukraine is illustrative. 

The “information Rammstein” will help Western countries stop Russians in their tracks, learning from our experience and using our opportunities for resistance. 

Regarding Elon Musk’s tweets. I would like to believe that he simply lacked information about the situation in Ukraine. But this is more like a special info operation. How did you explain this story for yourselves in the Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security?

I doubt that Musk is a person who is under the control of some shadowy Russian centre. Like every person, he has his interests, views, and preferences. Musk voiced the expectations of people who don’t know the situation deeply and have only surface-level understanding. 

For instance, I don’t agree with people who started publicly insulting Musk for this position. This is unacceptable. Yes, he is a public person, he expressed his perspective (a wrong one). But you need to oppose with reasoning, not with insults. We shouldn’t cross this line. His real support (not just words) at the real front line is at stake here. 

What should we do about Facebook, which blocks publications where Ukrainians write about Russians’ atrocities? And it’s not just publications; it blocks and removes entire accounts. Recently, Facebook has been massively issuing warnings to opinion leaders with the wording Account restricted. Have you looked into this problem?

At the beginning of the full-scale war, Meta behaved like a socially responsible network, they accommodated the situation. I don’t know what software it was, but there was a lot of information about the Russo-Ukrainian war, and Ukrainian users had the “green light.” 

We are working with Meta. At times, it was more effective, at times — less so. The Centre and civil society organizations stay in touch with Meta. And we see that our points of contact sincerely want to fix the situation. However, there is a certain reality, which is that this is a large organization with many different people, and decisions cannot be made quickly. 

The situation we have been observing recently may be connected with testing of new algorithms or some new approaches.

And of course, let’s not forget these are all private social networks, with their own policies on capitalization, information policies, etc.

Among all social networks, Meta has shown the biggest readiness to communicate about existing problems. Compared to TikTok, Telegram, Twitter, or even YouTube, Meta looks best. 

How does this communication with Meta administration work?

We work on systemic things. For example, at the beginning of the full-scale war, we made a white list of government organizations with their social media pages. We explained to our partners: this is a list of authorized resources that belong to government representatives. So, please, if you see clones created or attacks against these resources, this deserves the greatest attention, since they are government organizations and play an enormous role. 

We also inform Meta about the manifestations of information campaigns on Facebook and Instagram, when we see that it is some kind of IPSO. We collect it all, monitor it and send it for their consideration. We are not a law enforcement agency, not a special service. We are an organization that can provide information using our expertise. And then Meta itself or another company makes a decision based on its own interests. Therefore, we cannot guarantee a positive decision fully. 

As for individual users whose posts are blocked, there are terms of use for each social network. Each network decides what is prohibited — hostility, hate speech, etc. The machine responds to violations first (it is not done manually by people). Therefore, not to be banned automatically, you should avoid potentially contentious content. 

Of course, there is content that is difficult to change or disguise. But you need to be ready to fight for it. Or to be ready for it to be removed.

Interviewer: Uliana Stelmashova

For reference: The Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security was established under the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine as one of the mechanism against disinformation by joint efforts of the government and civil society. The Centre focuses on communications-based resistance to external threats, particularly the information attacks by the Russian Federation.

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