Victim-blaming is a common mistake when talking about crime. Women are told that their clothing or social habits are to blame for sexual assault, for example. That arouses justified outrage. But does the same apply to our discussion of Russia’s hybrid warfare?
Last weekend I was chairing a panel on “Hacks and (Fake) Facts: Warfare in the Information Space” at the Lennart Meri conference in Tallinn, the main security shindig in the Nordic-Baltic region. The other participants were Kier Giles, a leading British expert on Russian e-spookery, Gerhard Conrad, a former German spymaster now running the European Union’s intelligence-assessment center, Ivana Smolenová, a Slovak information-war expert living in Ukraine and Taimar Peterkop, who runs Estonia’s national information systems agency. Sadly we did not enjoy the company of the chief of Germany’s domestic security service, Hans-Georg Maaßen, who had to pull out at short notice.
Several points leapt out. We spend too much time admiring the problem, and not enough dealing with it. Technology is creating new threats, not just fake news, but fake audio, pictures and soon fake video: convincing computer-generated footage of politicians saying and do things which bear no relation to reality.
But one phrase in particular stoked controversy on social media. Sarah Kendzior, another writer on disinformation, tweeted a paraphrased quote from Smolenová, "We focus too much on what Russia does, and not enough on what they exploit. We need to look more at ourselves.” To some people outside the room, that smacked of victim-blaming. Surely the answer to Russian aggression is to deter it, and to counter-attack, not to criticize the people who suffer from it?
To be fair to Smolenová, she was responding to my introduction, where I made the same point. And I would stand by it. The great weakness of the West in dealing with our adversaries is that we respond to the part of the problem that we see most easily, with the tools that we have to hand. That may give us a satisfying feeling that we are doing something. It does not mean that we are making ourselves safer.
The first point therefore is to understand how we are being attacked. Russia launches an array of weapons against us, from money in our political system to physical intimidation, via cyber-attack, propaganda and many other means. We are not good at assessing which of these work and why. Even in the narrow question of the effectiveness of Russia’s overtly published propaganda, we have limited information about who consumes it, in what quantity, when, where and why. So before getting too excited about the lies and hatred spewed out by, say, Sputnik or RT, we need to know where it is landing. The answers may vary sharply by country, and across the demographic and social spectrums. But finding them requires quantitative and qualitative research.
This is not hard. We do it for toothpaste and beer and other consumer goods. It is astonishing to me that despite all the hullaballoo (and considerable private and public money) now surrounding the issue of Russian propaganda, we are still in the dark about the shape and size of the problem.
The other big point is that the vulnerabilities in our society will mostly still exist, whether or not Russia is exploiting them. It is true that the Kremlin’s subversion and other dark arts seek to exploit regional, religious, social, political and other tensions. But they do not start from a tabula rasa.
It is therefore vital to think about how to make our societies more resilient. Even if Russia stops attacking us, someone else will start.