At war as at war, the French saying goes. The adversaries should expect everything and be ready to use all kinds of measures against each other to secure victory. In the beginning of the 21st century, it is obvious that the biggest battlefield is the World Wide Web and the ultimate prize are not the bodies of people but their hearts and minds. Victory then, is not measured by the number of casualties but by the number of likes, shares, and retweets.
The strategic use and distortion of information in warfare is anything but a new phenomenon.Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general turned a famous military theorist, states in On War:“…most intelligence is false, and the effect of fear is to multiply lies and inaccuracies. As a rule most men would rather believe bad news than good, and rather tend to exaggerate the bad news.”More confident in the power of information, the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu,writes in the seminal The Art of War: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near,we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.” Nowadays, the baits thrown to the enemy need not be material – they could be disguised as ideas and calls to action that play with people’s hopes, desires, and fears.
As is clear that information and disinformation are highly valued weapons of war, so is clear that Russia is better prepared than the West to utilize them to its advantage. A few (apart from those themselves involved in disinformation campaigns) can now contest the reports that Russian trolls sent thousands of pro-leave tweets on the day of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Or that a targeted Russian campaign shelled American voters with pro-Trump and anti-Clinton imagery and news in the weeks before the 2016 elections.
However, there are indications that sources close to Kremlin might be striking again, this time in France, torn by the protests of gilets jaunes or the ‘yellow vests’. The movement started in November 2018, when people took to the streets to protest against a tax on diesel and petrol planned by the government of the French President Emmanuel Macron. Despite the fact that Macron gave up the tax and made serious concessions, the protests did not stop and are now directed against his government as a whole. The analysis of the yellow vests’ motives and agenda however, took a different turn in some Russian media sources .
The Russian connection in the gilets jaunes protests could be seen as going in two directions. The first one is more straightforward and reminiscent of the above mentioned Russian meddling in the internal affairs of the US and the UK. According to Deutsche Welle, social media trolls were caught fueling the protests by “disseminating disinformation like fake protest pictures”. This argument has been supported by other analysts and journalists, for example in The Times and The Guardian. However, social media experts quoted by DW suspect that these activities might in fact be just an element of a longer-term, consistent Russian campaign against Emmanuel Macron.
Similar accounts and the bitter experience coming from the UK and the US prompted the French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to announce an investigation into potential Russian involvement to encourage gilet jaunes protests in France. Russian government vehemently denied such involvement, but did not end here. The EU East Stratcom Task Force reports that in the last couple of weeks, some pro-Kremlin media has been claiming that the UK and the US are behind the actions of the yellow vests. Citing the political scientists Rostislav Ishchenko, one website reports that the two transatlantic allies share a common interest, which has driven them to orchestrate protests in France, which could lead to the disintegration of the European Union (EU). EU’s disintegration is not in Russian interest, because if the EU survives, it will fall into the Russian sphere of influence – which America wouldn’t like to see, whilst the UK just wants to take revenge for not being able to secure a better Brexit deal, the article purports. Another article argues that the US is staging the yellow vests protests to prevent France (and Macron) from becoming Europe’s leader. In doing so, America is helped by the UK and Ukrainian intelligence, as the latter is trying to cast the blame on Russia to distract “the public opinion from the real perpetrators of such protests”. Russia emerges as not only innocent but also wronged by Western disinformation.
Potential Russian meddling in the gilet jaunes protests will have two significant negative effects on France and, by association, on the EU. First, this would be yet another example how vulnerable Western societies are to organized deception coming from abroad, targeting their values and way of life. Due not only to the massive scope of disinformation but also to a certain lack of understanding how economy and democratic governance works, people fall prey to enticing stories they want to believe – the modern take of the baits Sun Tzu refers to. Second, Russian interference will inevitably cast a shadow on basic human rights – the right to expression of opinion and peaceful protest. If meddling in protests in France is proven, the yellow vests movement will be discredited and people’s concerns could remain unaddressed. A portion of the French population will inevitably remain disenchanted (similarly to post-Trump USA and post-Brexit Britain, I daresay).
Therefore, again, it is up to governments, media, civil society and the individuals themselves to develop immunity to disinformation and become the rock of solid judgement Clausewitz envisages strong commanders to be. After all, to paraphrase the Prussian strategist, disinformation is just the continuation of war by other means.
Gergana Tzvetkova is a postdoctoral researcher. She completed her PhD cum laude at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. Her research interests lie in the field of international relations, international security, human rights and global governance. Between 2015 and 2017, she has chaired the IAPSS SRC on International Relations Theory.