Western media played a strategic role in undermining the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. In the ’50s and ’60s, Radio Free Europe beamed compelling news and cultural programming from Estonia to Romania. The BBC World Service was listened to everywhere for its straight-ahead news of the world. By the ’70s and ’80s, West German television offered a nightly vision of a freer, democratic lifestyle across the Berlin Wall. Soviet efforts to block radio and television were easily sidelined.
Today, that world has been turned upside down. The victors in the information war now are autocrats. The Great Chinese Firewall has succeeded in blocking the world from most Chinese citizens. The Chinese Communist Party has expelled many Western media sources, from the New York Times to Google. The Russians are demonstrating today their ability to blanket Ukraine with Russian disinformation. Meanwhile, they are slowly strangling any independent or foreign media access in Russia, closing the country to anything but their own propaganda.
We therefore face a serious strategic deficit. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin dread an angry and rebellious citizenry far more than sanctions and military pressure — their true fear is being overthrown by their own inner circle. Unless we can get better at flooding this enemy’s airwaves and cyberspace with news of how much damage has already been done to Russia’s standing in the world, destabilizing Putin’s grip on his own people is a dubious prospect.
Ironically, Ukraine’s media-savvy president have been schooling us on how to fight an infowar with very limited resources. From Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s daily messages to the nation by iPhone, to his powerful virtual address to the European Parliament, thus far the victim is overwhelming the aggressor. Ukrainian accounts of the horrors Russia is inflicting have dominated news globally — except in Russia and China.
The Russians are presumably not shutting down internet and cell service in Ukraine because they believe they can compete using their often hilariously amateur propaganda. When they recognize they have lost the infowar, they may shut down those channels.
Today we cannot get messages of freedom and democracy to a captive audience as effectively as we did in the Cold War. In cyberspace, the United States has been reluctant to hack into Russian television and internet networks. The fear is of an escalating battle, one that could shut down utilities and hospitals. This is stymieing a more aggressive digital offence.
This begs two questions: Why are our cyber defences still so inadequate? And why are cyber safety regulations not as prevalent in the democracies as food safety regulations? We don’t allow McDonald’s to sell burgers produced from a leaky supply chain without tough health and safety protections. Why should a power utility not face similarly rigorous scrutiny of its cyber defences?
Winning an information war is a measurable force multiplier. A people’s morale, buttressed by a stream of celebratory stories while facing a brutal enemy, becomes a powerful weapon. History records many cases of a smaller force overwhelming one far mightier. From Athens to Vietnam, the thread that links such is a deeply committed military backed by a determined people.
Let us hope that the U.S. and NATO are quietly feeding cyber attack tools to the Ukrainians, ones capable of scrambling field communications, monitoring military communications in real-time, and pushing appeals to defect through military broadcast channels. In other words, becoming hackers equal to the Russians. Morale has been demonstrably weak on the Russian side in the first week of battle. A drumbeat of appeals to soldiers to avoid the shame of murdering their Ukrainian brothers and sisters might weaken it more severely.
We demonize hackers and are scandalized by nations that employ cyber thugs to shut down hospitals, and we should be. But of equal importance to improving our defence is strengthening our ability to return cyber fire, in order to win the battle for information supremacy as convincingly as we did in the first Cold War.
Robin V. Sears was an NDP strategist for 20 years and later served as a communications adviser to businesses and governments on three continents. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robinvsears
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