The fall of journalism and the rise of information warfare

Politics - February 23, 2023

In general terms, information warfare can be defined as “the tactical and strategic use of information to gain an advantage” (Hanci Lei, Modern information warfare: analysis and policy recommendations, Foresight, Vol. 21, No. 4 , Emerald Publishing Limited, 2019, p.510). Disinformation is a common form of information warfare and is part of the foreign policy instruments of states, both in peacetime and wartime, with the aim of destabilizing the adversary and thus obtaining an advantage in the power equation in relation to it. The use of these tools is by no means a new phenomenon, but it has taken unique forms of manifestation in the current context of the international political structure, which has encouraged some states to use them as important tools in foreign policy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation found itself in the difficult position of competing geopolitically with alliances whose power exceeded it. From a military point of view, it completely lacks the scope of the United States of America, and from an economic point of view, it is dependent on gas and oil exports, having a much smaller and less diversified economy than its Western opponents. In this context, it has developed a new form of manifestation of power, hybrid warfare, which, when used effectively, allows it to remain a threat to much more capable opponents.

Disinformation is not a new phenomenon, and successful disinformation “amplifies existing prejudices and builds on structures of communication, power and influence” (Eileen Culloty, Jane Suiter, Disinformation and Manipulation in Digital Media, (tr.a), Routledge, 2021, VitalBook file, p.1). However, disinformation in the online environment is a complex problem, often consisting of a mix of correct and questionable information, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish between information and ideological opinion. However, the characteristics of social platforms bring important differences in terms of the capacities and forms of disinformation compared to traditional media, amplifying to an unprecedented extent, the scale to which it can be applied, the speed with which it can be disseminated, as well as a much more varied range of types of content that it can use. “Even if the motivations behind the production and consumption of disinformation have not changed much over time, the rapid evolution of digital platforms has created new opportunities for malicious actors while their regulation has not kept pace” (Culloty, p .2).

In 2018, EU Security Commissioner Julian King warned in a letter sent to Digital Economy Commissioner Mariya Gabriel about the dangers to which democracies are exposed: “psychometric profiling activities are only a preamble to the deeply worrying effects that actions such as disinformation can have on functioning liberal democracies. It is clear that the cyber threats we face are changing from those consisting in the ever-increasing mobilization of IT means for the purpose of manipulating behaviors, amplifying societal cleavages, undermining our democratic systems and generating doubts about democratic institutions” (Răzvan Diaconu, Arbitration of social networks in the political struggle, Chronicles. Governance course, no.91, Bucharest, February 2021, p.135). Two years later, addressing the same subject, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen declared in her intervention at the forum in Davos “Today we have come to wonder if democracy has been damaged forever” (Diaconu, p.135) .

The qualitative decline of journalism generated by the decrease in its monetization potential is a major aspect in terms of combating the phenomenon of disinformation. Journalism today is largely adversarial and seeks to use and amplify conflict to attract attention and generate greater advertising revenue. The news has become confrontations, fights, expositions of antagonistic attitudes and accusations, objectivity being often left aside and reduced to the presentation completely opposing points of view. This form of journalism led to an excessive presentation of the negative aspects of society in the media, which generated a decrease in public interest. In this context, social platforms have become a frequent source of information for a large part of the population. The debate regarding the danger represented by their lack of effective regulation is an intense one both in Europe and overseas, in the United States of America, territories that seem to be most deeply affected by the phenomenon of informing the population through social networks, tools that have the characteristics of an environment conducive to the extensive propagation of disinformation.

The concept of power is deeply related to the notion of system, both of which are central subjects of study in the social sciences. To understand the mechanisms of power, it is important to analyze both the relationships between different social actors and those between actors and media technologies. “By exploring the interactions between social actors and how media are used to shape these interactions we can gain an inside perspective of the relationships between these actors” (Axel Bruns, Routledge companion to Social Media and Politics, (tr.a.)Routledge, 2015, VitalBook file, p.9). International systems are based on competition and conflict, but in the current era they also present a high level of interdependence. Those who have more power are obligated to cooperate with the weaker ones, which gives them the opportunity to influence the behavior of the former in an asymmetrical way relative to the resources they have.

Western democracies, with elective political systems and free societies based on the rule of law and the principle of individual freedom, need a high degree of transparency between decision-makers and the population. Traditionally, this function was performed by the press. However, the technological developments of the last two decades have generated a substantial alteration of this mechanism through the appearance of what we can generally call online media, composed of both websites and social media platforms. The costs of entering the new media market have fallen significantly due to both advancements in technology and the lack of regulation. In addition to these, the reduced regulation specific to the online environment facilitates the development of an informational ecosystem that is unprecedentedly vast in terms of quantity but extremely inconsistent in terms of quality. The versatility of the characteristics of the digital information environment facilitates the spread of disinformation while undermining the production of quality content making it extremely difficult to combat the phenomenon.

The transformation of the traditional way of informing the population has generated a current situation that is extremely favorable to the use of disinformation as a political tool both nationally and internationally. Vulnerabilities generated by these rapid changes, driven largely by technological developments that have in turn generated significant behavioral changes among the population, are often exploited by actors with fewer resources, giving the latter unprecedented tools to influence the dynamics of the balance of power. In this sense, the greatest threat to democratic systems is not represented by disparate pieces of disinformation but by “the sustained assault on evidence-based thinking and trust in information. In other words, the true success of malicious actors is the erosion of the common ground of debate and communication” (Culloty, p.23).