War is not only fought in the air, at sea or on land. The multiplication of the means of communication and their massification have given new weapons to the warriors of the 21st century. The Ukrainian crisis has thus become the terrain of a struggle for influence between the various protagonists. A fight by the image, from which Ukraine emerges victorious for the moment. And a failure for Vladimir Poutine, analyze Baptise Robert, cybersecurity researcher and “virtuous hacker” founder of the information monitoring site Predicta Lab, and Arnaud Mercier, professor of communication at the University of Paris-Panthéon-Assas and co-author with Jean -Marie Charon of the book Mass Communication Weapons: Iraq War Information, 1991-2003 (CNRS editions, 2004).
Marianne: Images of the conflict saturate the networks. Who of the Russians or the Ukrainians inundate us the most?
Arnaud Mercier: They flood differently. The two belligerents want to give reasons justifying their war. When the Russians broadcast images, it is mainly aimed at their population, in order to justify their action. They have been broadcasting images depicting a genocide in the Donbass for years, which has served to prepare people’s minds and justify the current “special operation”.
While Ukraine has three targets: the Ukrainian people in order to maintain a spirit of resistance and unity; the Russian people by reversing Putin’s argument that Ukrainians and Russians are brother peoples; international public opinion and, there, the Ukrainians are playing on velvet because the violation of international laws and the laws of war logically places them in the position of victims in the eyes of the world.
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This strategy works and pushes the Russians to change tactics in their offensive on the ground. Today, Kremlin troops are bombing Ukrainian cities, which necessarily leads to civilian casualties and is not good for their image.
Baptize Robert: From what we can observe on social networks and from the monitoring system that we have set up via Predicta Lab, most of the images circulating come from Ukrainians with a smartphone and who are keen to document this conflict.
The logistics used by both sides are much simpler than you might think: they mainly use Telegram messaging. As a whole, the content that reaches us is distributed by people who are informed by the right Telegram channels.
Which does not mean that there is no false information. At the beginning, we saw a lot of images taken from the Syrian conflict or film extracts. Like this tweet from Florian Philippot where we see Zelensky [le président ukrainien, N.D.L.R.] who enters the Ukrainian Parliament and kills all the deputies. In truth, it was a video taken from a film in which he had acted. But, today, there are many more videos from the field. We see less “fake news”.
In what way is this informational war special compared to other known conflicts?
Arnaud Mercier: The use of social networks in the war was initiated by the Israeli army 10 years ago against Hezbollah. But all this was done on a small scale. It’s massive here. These are Western, European countries, where everyone has a smartphone and the Internet works well. That’s why we have dozens and dozens of photos and videos from Ukrainians. They are the ones who document the war.
“We have a conflict in “live tweet”, that is to say in real time: the Internet has not been cut, the civilians are involved and are keen to document everything that is happening, the channels are constantly powered. »
Baptist Robert: We have a conflict in “live tweet”, that is to say in real time: the Internet has not been cut, the civilians are involved and are keen to document everything that is happening, the channels are fed permanently. There were precedents: we have plenty of images from Syria and Afghanistan. But with the Ukrainian conflict, we enter a relatively large quantity and, above all, immediately made available.
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On the other hand, Russia is more and more isolated, in particular because of international sanctions and web giants which have cut (a little) the taps [le 4 mars, le régulateur russe annonçait le blocage de Facebook dans le pays]. Russia has cut off Twitter from ordinary mortals on its soil. Can only have it those with a VPN. Which blocks the official counter-discourse.
You say that Vladimir Putin focuses on Russian public opinion. However, voices are beginning to be raised in the country against the offensive in Ukraine. Has he lost the information war?
Arnaud Mercier: Vladimir Putin has lost the image war. He trapped himself by refusing to speak of war but of “special operation”. However, one cannot justify a war against a brother country by explaining that this brother country is going to be bombed. His communication is also changing. The spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged for the first time at the end of February deaths on the Ukrainian ground.
The Russian army also deprived itself of a certain number of strong images at the start of the war since it was a surprise operation. It swooped down on Kiev and its mission was to decapitate the power in place, while the official speech said that it was a question of liberating the Donbass. Not only did the troops meet with resistance from the population and from Zelensky, but in addition heaps of photos and videos circulated showing how much they made a fool of themselves.
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In terms of image, it’s a disaster for the Russians. Putin has therefore moved on to phase 2: attack on all fronts and win. And too bad if we terrorize and achieve civilian objectives, because, until now, the information disseminated gave the impression that Russia was losing.
Baptist Robert: In this first phase of the conflict, the Ukrainians obviously won the information battle. But this crisis is preparing, in my opinion, to become a long war contrary to what the Russians thought. We are talking about weeks, months, years, a Syrian scenario. Whether the Ukrainians will be able to go the distance is a question. Especially since it is very complicated, in Russia, to move an ear. Will a major grassroots movement bring Putin to his senses? The Russian system is such that Putin is not just a man. He embodies this system.
Do visual propaganda methods diverge between the two belligerents? Particular methods of misinformation, such as deepfake are they used?
Arnaud Mercier: Ukrainians mainly use social networks when the information goes through television among Russians. The two situations are opposite: when the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense asks to stop broadcasting videos of ambushes and bombings that have put the enemy in difficulty, the Russian channels are hypercontrolled and portray the evil Westerners who take unjust sanctions against their country.
Baptist Robert: The only example of deepfake that comes to mind is a speech by the President of Ukraine, where he said that Ukraine was surrendering. But this practice is too complicated to set up and can be dismantled quite easily. In reality, doctored and relevant information is more useful, practical and effective.
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There are cyberattacks, even though we had greatly oversold a cyber war launched by Russia against Ukraine. Today, we haven’t seen that, even if things exist on both sides. For example, the site that manages everything railway in Russia has been hacked, as have some Russian government sites.
The National Information Systems Agency states on its website that ” much information circulating online is unverified since the beginning of the conflict. How to guard against misinformation?
Baptist Robert: In terms of tools, our collaborative software Predicta Lab automates all verification tasks via “Intelligent Open Source” (osint). Thanks to him, we are able to monitor a particular subject. We will use several words: “missile” in Russian, certain names of cities, certain models of tanks… The software recovers all posts related to these words on social networks. Thanks to this, we will be able to recognize an image via Google maps and conclude whether or not it corresponds to reality.
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An average person can do this work alone, even if it is quite long and tedious. We posted an article on how to do research on Twitter. But, once you have the information, you have to be able to analyze it. There is a real work of pedagogy and development of critical thinking to be done. We are in a world where we must start from the principle that we can no longer take our word for what we see. We are obliged to do the usual checks, except that we are still at level zero.