Lessons from digital information warfare
I can’t look away from the news from Ukraine. I spoke there in 2017 and have had friends in Kyiv since the trip, but even without that personal connection I’d still stick with it.
The real story is the human tragedy. Civilians shivering in underground shelters, waiting for the next explosion and the mutilated bodies it might leave behind. Those who take the roads and the rails, without knowing if they will see their house and their family again. Citizens picking up guns and rockets to defend their country and their right to have their own democracy. The half-trained conscripts they often face live with the knowledge that the next bend in the road could mean flame and death.
Politicians tend to glorify our work with the language of war, “fighting” in “campaigns” with “air warfare” in “battleground” states. These words ring hollow when you can see the brutal reality of armed conflict on any screen. But without making an easy comparison between the bloodless profession of politics and the human horror of war, the tactical part of my brain is still looking for lessons from what it has seen for a week.
For once, the West seems to have understood that the first part of the war in Ukraine would take place in our heads. Instead of waiting for Russia to weaponize disinformation, America, the UK and others ripped off the lid of the box and tells the world what the abuser would say before he could say it. The narratives of the Russian government may still influence millions of its citizens at home, but anticipating the lies has kept them from shaping how the war has been portrayed and perceived around the world.
The United States and its allies still use their intelligence systems to expose propaganda, now with the help of Ukrainians on the ground. Cellphone videos and social media bring us the war from withinand images of burning Russian tanks, blown up buildings and defiant Ukrainian citizens exposed the lie of the Kremlin’s claims of military success in a just war.
We can learn from this. Democrats in particular have been caught off guard by disinformation campaigns, whether talking about socialism in Spanish-language media in Florida in 2020 or a moral panic over critical race theory. in Virginia last year. Next time, they should anticipate the attacks and counter them aggressively, toeing the tricky line of refuting a libel without amplifying it.
For starters, campaigns should show images and videos that contradict dark accusations without expressly repeating them. Accused of being a socialist? Ask local business owners to talk about you on camera. Your supporters are almost always your best ambassadors, so give them the content and leadership they need to counter friend-by-friend misinformation. Social and messaging apps can provide the channels for outreach, but supporters and allies usually need a push to use them. And keep listening, since you can’t anticipate an attack you don’t see coming.
Given the time it took them to prepare, the Russian army the apparent lack of organization is shocking. Many of their units scattered in packs as they moved across Ukraine, with clusters of a few vehicles and their crews rolling through fields and towns with no obvious air support. As a result, they were left terribly vulnerable, with many ambushed by Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers carrying rockets, guns and petrol bottles. Others, below their objectives and separated from the support units, have out of fuel or broken down on a side road. Meanwhile, Ukrainian planes are still flying and Ukrainian drones are still chasing Russian supply trucks.
Without bringing up the flippant air/ground metaphor, you can see the obvious problems that arise when different parts of an organization don’t support each other. In the political space, direct mail messages and digital advertising should generally echo each other, but they are often constructed by different teams. Digital ads can set the stage for on-the-ground awareness, but organizers often don’t know that’s an option. Data from direct voter contact can inform media strategy, but it is often isolated. Communicating and integrating: sounds easy, doesn’t it? Not really in the real world.
But the real story, again, is neither technical nor tactical. When farmers tow armored vehicles and teachers throwing molotov cocktails, you see the ultimate expression of people power. Ordinary Ukrainians are organizing to defend their homes, including documenting the violence around them for the rest of the world to see. We can’t know what will happen in the end, but they gave their country a chance to survive that most foreigners never expected.
I hope they fire up a bunch of Americans in the process. Grassroots politics seems to have lost some of its energy in the United States lately. Perhaps the sight of Ukrainians literally fighting for their democracy will inspire a new wave of us to join the peaceful struggle to keep ours afloat. Policy professionals can learn their own lessons, but we can all learn from them.
Another expression of people power that I would like to see? Many more young Russians watch videos, moving away from their tanks and heading back towards the border. What if Putin launched a war and the soldiers didn’t follow? I’m not going to predict it, but what a triumph it would be for all of us.
Colin Delany is founder and publisher of the award-winning website Epolitics.comauthor of “How to use the internet to change the world – and win elections”, a twenty-five-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at [email protected].