2 March 2022

The West risks launching an information war on itself

By James Ball

After years of warnings about a real but exaggerated Russian online information war, the West is at risk of launching one against ourselves.

At the moment, with indirect thanks to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the Western coalition is the closest it has been for decades – acting with unusual unity to step up military spending and aid, to consider accession to Nato for more states, and to introduce unprecedented sanctions.

But while in the real world a calm but serious coalition is being built, the online world is much…noisier. Given social media rewards the flashiest information and the spiciest ‘takes’, Twitter, Instagram and others have not enjoyed the same show of unity.

At the core of the problem are high-profile accounts operated either by preening narcissists who don’t care how bad their opinion is, provided you’re talking about it, and people who’ve become afflicted by so-called ‘main character syndrome’ – a process by which (consciously or otherwise) people become convinced the world is a narrative in which they are the protagonist.

Such accounts are pushing dangerous but catchy ideas like the idea Nato should enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This initially sounds reasonable, until you think about what it involves: Nato would need to shoot down Russian planes, and entirely probably target radar and command and control centres within Russia’s own borders.

In other word, it is suggesting direct armed conflict between Russia and Nato – and thus dramatically increasing the chances of nuclear war. Every nation, think-tank, academic and retired general is united on just how calamitous an idea this would be, but such is the dynamic between social and traditional media that it’s getting at least some discussion.

Traditional outlets (especially online ones) are so used to taking what is trending on social media and feeding it into their coverage that this reflex doesn’t turn off when it’s being used during wartime – even though the stakes are somewhat higher than during a more traditional online debate over, say, cyclists.

Armchair generals are as old as armchairs, but in the pre-internet era could at least only bore or alarm their families, or their mates down the pub. When they have access to online audiences, and start to lead to the commissioning of articles on why there isn’t a no-fly zone, they inflame tensions at a time when that’s the last thing we need.

Faced with blowback, they also have a tendency to try to find some more reasonable looking half-measure – for example, enforcing a no-fly zone within a certain radius of nuclear power plants. That sounds fine, again, until you think about what’s involved: Russian and Nato air power flying in a hot war across shared airspace, again with the prospect of firing upon one another, and with huge potential for deadly misunderstandings.

The one thing anyone who knows anything about nuclear weapons know is that this is an area in which ambiguities and grey areas are to be kept to an absolute minimum. This would do anything but that.

Instagram may not have quite so many warmongers, but it’s got something almost worse: influencer accounts who will usually pump anything that does good numbers, spotting a trend towards Ukraine content, pump out entirely unverifiable (and often fake) dramatic footage, apparently from the ground in Ukraine – providing an endless stream of work for online fact-checkers.

The temptation is to say that maybe, in a weird way, Russia has got this one right – having all but shut down Twitter and Facebook in its own territories, having failed to control what information is posted to the social network. Might it not be better for all of our sakes if, just for a little, we stemmed the flow of hot takes?

Leaving aside that such action would be wildly illiberal and quite probably a violation of human rights laws across the west, it would still be counter-productive: Ukraine and its people are using social media with astonishing proficiency.

Despite everything we hear about algorithms and targeted advertising, it turns out true and human stories can win through – Ukraine is making both its suffering and its courage under adversity impossible to ignore. So clear is that story that it is cutting through to Russians, even despite media bans: the peoples of the two countries are close, and Russian influencers are picking up and spreading serious anti-war messages.

If the price of that getting through is accepting the terrible takes from the usual suspects, it is a price worth paying. We need to accept the ups and downs of social media, but that doesn’t mean we need to listen to the idiots. Respectable outlets should remember they don’t have to report on something just because it’s trending, and those of us trying to remain sane online should remember where the mute and unfollow buttons are.

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James Ball is Global Editor at the Bureau for Investigative Journalism.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.