Ukraine: Information, Misinformation, Disinformation

 

The old adage has it that the first casualty of war is the truth, and I think we can see this being played out in the hoo-hah surrounding the landing of missiles in Poland a couple of days ago, a spillover from the Russo-Ukraine war currently grinding on and which, unfortunately and sadly, killed two innocent people who were merely going about their ordinary business.

The accusations of who was responsible flew thick and fast. At the beginning, Russia was almost universally blamed, and suggestions that such an obvious and blatant attack against a full NATO member might trigger Articles 4 and 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty which in turn could lead to retaliation from the USA and its allies circulated.

Then it was declared that it was probably the result of a Ukrainian anti-missile, launched to intercept the Russian barrage following their loss of Kherson, going astray. Others suggested that both pieces of a Russian missile and a Ukrainian one had been found at the crash site.

All of this speculation was fuelled by social media, which went into a frenzy of theories, counter-theories, and conspiracy theories. Even now there is no real public consensus on what actually happened, although the truth will out eventually. It usually does in the end.

The problem is that in the modern age of hyper-communication and twenty-four hour rolling news we are constantly swamped with information, and none more so than modern militaries, who have so many sensors available to them that their challenge is increasingly not how to gather intelligence but how to process it.

For the rest of us, we should just pause for a moment and try to get a handle on what’s going on here. Most of the stuff coming at us over the airwaves and via our phones and laptops is plain old information; the only problem we have, in my opinion, is that there’s too much of it, and we tend to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it. This means, unfortunately, that the accurate gets mixed up with the inaccurate, and unless you have the time and patience to differentiate between the two – as in the military turning it into intelligence by careful sifting and double-checking – then we can all get a bit lost and confused.

Then there’s misinformation, where those promulgating or reporting the news just get it wrong. You could argue that much of the recent coverage of the missile(s) landing in Poland fell foul of this one. The various media outlets looked at what they were getting, passed their own judgement on the veracity of it, took a position and published their opinion. Nothing too sinister here, people make decisions on the information available to them at the time, and if it’s wrong, well, changing your mind has always been a perfectly valid part of the intellectual process. As Paul Samuelson, the famous economist reportedly said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”

But then we come to the black sheep of the family, disinformation. Very roughly, this is the end product when individuals, organisations, or indeed governments deliberately falsify or manufacture information which they know not to be true to gain an advantage over their adversaries, whether they be commercial, political, or military.  The hallmarks of deliberate campaigns of disinformation are often précised by the phrase “deny, distract, and blame”. Various forms of disinformation are commonly practised by intelligence agencies around the globe, including our very own in the UK.

The Russians, however, are the past masters of it, with their doctrine of maskirovka (camouflage and deception, approximately) deeply embedded in their political, military, and diplomatic operations. In the Second World War, for example, they proved adept at moving entire army groups vast distances under conditions of utter secrecy, thereafter popping up where and when their enemies least expected them. Stalingrad is a good example.

Are they employing maskirovka in Ukraine? Undoubtedly yes, although their mojo here may be a little rusty. But fears of possible “false flag” operations remain, and of course their seemingly successful evacuation of Kherson under the noses of the Ukrainians may suggest they haven’t lost their touch entirely.

 What we see and here, particularly through the fog of war, may not always be what it seems. We need to remain on our guard at all times.

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