The classic paradigm of the Cold War went something like this: The Soviet Union and its satellites were closed societies. The poor, oppressed population had no access to the free flow of information, and therefore were easy to brainwash. Had the Soviet Union been more open, it would have fallen a lot sooner. Therefore, what was needed was the delivery of information that would open everyone’s eyes to the evils of totalitarianism and the possibilities that Western liberal capitalist democracies offered, and people would make the logical choice, or at least start questioning their premises.
Gathering information about this enigma wrapped in a mystery and distributing propaganda and information were key tools to supplement the arms race. There was no shortage of effort on both parts. The CIA (and its counterparts in other Western countries) would send their best officers to try to figure out Moscow. Simultaneous efforts both by Western governments and assorted private groups, including Jewish organizations, would enter the workers’ paradise in order to reach out to dissidents and religious minorities and lift their minds and spirits with pro-Western literature, such as Doctor Zhivago that revealed the truth about life in the Soviet Union. Private groups were more intent in giving dissidents and minorities access to religious literature, but all of the above had political effect in mind.
All of this actually failed to some extent.. There was no liberal uprising at any point in the Soviet Union itself. Instead, there was an internal coup. The satellite states were a different story, but the satellite states had their own liberation movements in the works for years before they finally threw off the yoke of the foreign invaders.
The fall of the Soviet Union itself can be attributed to a number of different factors, but information alone clearly did not suffice. Still, the beautiful dream of information as an effective tool of ideological warfare lingered for generation to come, plaguing us to this day. Let’s take a look around us and examine what role, if any, does access to alternative sources of information play in the world today. The extreme of censorship is clearly North Korea. It is a classical closed society, similar to the Soviet Union, where access to the Internet is almost no existence, and where airlifts of forbidden DVDs and books about the outside world are considered the quintessential radical act. Most countries, however, allow their citizens some level of access to the outside world. Many Saudis travel to the West or to more liberal Arabs states for business and leisure; yet the country itself remains staunchly conservative shari’a abiding, and closed off to Western pressure and influence within. Iran appears more fluid with greater evidence of Westernization. Despite heavy censorship and crackdown on Western culture and education inside the country, individuals can get around annoying protocols thanks to the wonders of VPNs. Furthermore, many Iranians travel in and out of the country on a regular basis and are well familiar with Western culture, politics, values, and habits. Russia, is a stark example of what should have been another thriving liberal democracy – but is not. Quite recently, it shut down one of its last remaining human rights defense organization, Agora. China is likewise going through a human rights crackdown, despite its high level of trade with the West, various cultural exchanges and programs, and even an Israeli university opening its campus within mainland.
All of the above countries, which have significant exposure to the West, also present significant security threats, all three are some of the top violators in the cybersecurity realm, have shown signs of aggressive foreign policy, and in Iran’s case, have been directly sponsoring terrorism, while Russia did not appear to shy away from political assassinations of its opponents abroad. It is no coincidence that such dangerous authoritarian power-hungry states would have a significant restriction of political freedom, expression, and other such manifestations of thoughts and conscience for their citizens. What is curious is how they are able to juggle the mentality of the notorious 20th century regimes in the new millenium, where all countries are globalized, interconnected, and where information appears to flow with significantly greater freedom and intensity across borders to the point that even censorship puts merely obstacles, but does not fully obstruct that flow. In light of this apparent paradox, I posit the following picture:
1. Information warfare still plays a significant role in ideological influence of states vying for power. Nevertheless, forms and functions of information are not created equal, and some are of far greater importance than others.
2. Information alone was never enough to keep regimes in place or to bring them down. It was always effectively complemented by other shows of power.
3. The most adept and successful regimes know when to pull back the reins and when to let go. In other words, they have figured out that the best approach to perpetuate their own existence is not absolute shutdown of flow of information but granting free or significant access of information, while enacting more control in other areas of information flow.
The role of information warfare today is both more complex and more subtle than at the peak of Cold War. To some extent, we are still living out the remnants of the Cold War. At the time, information warfare was a tug-of-war that the West appeared to have won but actually lost, and though the Soviet Union fell apart and its satellites liberalized, the ideological battle was never fully won. Leftism was not vanquished or eradicated; there was never a final battle, an ideological capitulation which the West enjoyed upon finally dominating Nazi Germany or imperialist Japan. Though the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Cold War went out not with a bang but with a whimper. Its facade has crumbled, but its spirit successfully infiltrated Western institutions where it wanders gleefully to this day. Our educational system, both the public K-12 and the university campus is filled with leftist teachers and professors who have stayed behind from the Vietnam era, and have passed on their ideology to the following generations.
Our media follows the same foreign policy cliques that have so comfortably formed in the same hotel buildings during Vietnam – and the patterns of acceptable coverage remain similar (see Bruce Herschensohn’s masterpiece “Passport” for a detailed history of the Cold War’s effect on our media and foreign policy). Hollywood is still rehashing in public the same tired tropes that have been in vogue in Whittaker Chambers’ times, and thanks to the overzealous hysterical fearmongering of the McCarthyites who were only successful in convincing in public that there is not a real problem, never have quite gone away. Safe space movements, obsession with political correctness, and identity politics have gone amock to the point when black is white and white is black; terrorists are heroes and microaggressions are today what the civil rights movement was back in the 1960s.
All of this has to do with successful ideological manipulation; we lost on that front, we won on the front of economic influence and the spreading of Western cultural symbols. The effect of our commercial language, however, has been limited and overrated. Ideology and information still hold key to influence of the public mind and institutions, ranging from governance to education and policy. Today’s battles are not being waged over access to forbidden books; by and large, anyone with an Internet connection can find a way of overriding censorship. Rather, the information warfare today focuses on the role of the big data in business, healthcare, and even legal practices; on the role of securing private information, which can be used to exploit the victims financially and to potentially to terrorize federal employees; the dumping of information that would best kept secret for the sake of generating buzz and distracting from more important issues, as well as exposing sensitive alliances, causing general nuisance, and potentially, harming international cooperation in the security arena and damaging agency networks. Information warfare is focused but can be deadly. For instance, a successful hacker can hold hospitals hostage until relevant parties pay up. Information can be used for old-school smear campaigns or to blackmail vulnerable dissidents living in shaky circumstances. Imagine hacking the computer of dissident X, whose private communications may reveal careful international plans for a rally against the rogue regime, or this person’s role in assisting dissident Y in an upcoming escape – which can lead to rounding up everyone involved, and at the very least making any sort of planned action significantly more difficult in the future. This is not about searching and seizing personal belongings; information warfare has scaled up to the point that it affects networks of people living thousands of miles apart.
Warmongering regimes seek to fight their battles on two fronts: the penetration of informational networks – in other words, demoralizing the enemy and coopting the adversary’s resources to wage ideological war from within the country – and financial/economic/security fronts, thus undermining the enemy’s capablitiies of resistance and dominance both in the government and private sectors. Coopting the minds of young people and making them your own zombies has turned out to be one of the most successfully resolved challenges for the enemy regimes. Saudis Arabia and other Gulf States have infused millions of petrodollars into the Middle East Studies departments across the West, supporting Wahabbist agenda, “Orientalist” views of this field, and promoting particular authors and ideologies while suppressing the voices of the rest. The field of economics in universities has largely been subsumed by Keynesian theories and Marxist influences – with the victims of this brainwashing scheme blissfully unaware of what it is they are actually learning and why it may not be the full picture. Literature has fallen victim to critical race theories and other identity politics oriented views of examining the outlooks of the author and movements based on identity politics have seen an infusion of support from unknown but easily isolated sources.
Likewise, Students for Justice in Palestine appear to be the second and more successful and deeply embedded coming of the young PLO supporters from the 1960s and 70s, with their agenda and methods taken up from the playbook of KGB nationalist movements ideologues and masterminds. Why more media sources do not reveal these seemingly mysterious connections is not puzzling, but on the contrary, most obvious – first, most younger journalists covering these stories are simply not familiar with history, and second, to the extent they are, they are familiar with those bits and pieces that tend to support their preexisting viewpoint, and in best case scenarios, care more about promoting the types of stories that are likely to generate most support than in providing unbiased accounts or in depth background coverage for the uninitiated. Thus, in yet another way, media benefits the adversary in this information dominance battle, albeit often unwittingly and with only market success as its ultimate stake in this scenario.
Still, none of the current measures is enough to explain the full picture – and the full picture is the persistent question of why evil regimes continue to stand or morph into other non-liberal non-democracies despite the Everests of information about the proclivities of such regimes to engage in sordid behaviors, or else to collapse into chaos. The reality is, informational control and manipulation has always been most successfully used by clever regimes alongside other strategies that kept the populations in check. Iran, for instance, is well known for its divide-and-conquer approach to political opposition, setting different groups against one another, promoting identity politics above common goals, infiltrating oppositioners through appeals to their profit motive, and even targeting the opposition abroad and using petty feuds among egotistic and narcisstic activists to promote its own agendas and keeping these groups from wielding any sort of real influence.
As an example, promoting mutual suspicion between “Central Iranian” (mainstream) population and minorities residing largely in peripheral territories has been the Islamic Republic’s favorite way of insuring that no successful general uprising would ever take place. With each side accusing the others of racism and divisiveness, and with leaders of all groups busy squabbling over minutiae, trivial differences, and counting chickens long before the eggs have even been laid the master manipulators at the heart of regimes have been able to perpetuate the status quo for the past 37 years with only occasional limited riots in most oppressed areas to give them a bit of a headache. There is no question, however, that when push came to shove, the minorities were largely ignored in the demands of the Green Movement, and when it comes to riots and uprising by minorities in peripheral territories, the mainstream population stays quiet or else, is more worried about the potential fallout for the territorial integrity of Iran than about utilizing such opportunities to create oppositional cohesion, meet common demands, create a common platform, and overturn a deeply corrupted and paranoid regime.
Russia, Iran, and China have all successfully utilized the greed of the masses and personality cults to maintain power. Corruption leads to factionalism but also to loyalty among those who stand to benefit from status quo the most. The trickle down effect of bribery and theft among those in power to those below creates a net effect of regime control on all levels of society, because everywhere the regime will find supporters more interested in maintaining appropriate standards of living than in fighting idealistic and ideological battles for largely abstract and unknowable benefits. Erdogan’s regime in Turkey has shown the strategy of feeding the masses to pacify them to be vastly successful. Erdogan incrementally utilized the support of Islamists to centralize his own power, and bribed his way into coopting the last elections.
Though he has made a series of strategic blunders that have led to mass protests and very nearly to the downfall of his party, he utilized a combination of bribery, xenophobic fearmongering, and scapegoating against minorities, as well as external enemies to maintain and solidify control. Finding new and exciting allies, such as the rising ultra-nationalist party, likewise shows that the purity of ideology often gives way to the personality cult of the dear leader, who will shift his rhetoric as needed to appease allies du jour and maintain power, regardless of his initial agenda and platform. We see similar effects in Russia, which has become largely an anti-Western kleptocracy mildly motivated by pseudoreligious rhetoric, but where nationalist anti-Western fearmongering works quite well even without the stronger ideological agenda of Communism which appeared to have served important supportive purpose in the 20th century.
In Iran, shari’a law keeps the masses in check, gives the structure to the government, and order to the thought, but even its version of Shi’a Islam has been greatly influenced by the Soviet Union, and its nationalist leanings have preceded the Islamic Republic. Communist China actually has a great deal of economic freedom for the regime supporters, while still centralized, corrupt, and unfree. What does that tell us? It tells us that regimes can successfully main control even without strong ideological underpinnings. Having a concept of a strong central power, convenient symobology and rhetoric, and ways of controlling the population is at least as important as information control. A regime does not even need a deep philosophy to justify its actions or to maintain popularity and control.
Having leverage over the population and understanding how the mentality of the masses works after centuries of foreign dominance and slave-like mentality will take any regime quite far in its goals. Countries that have no historic tradition of democratic liberalism will be far easier to keep in check, to be sure, but even Western-style democracies, such as European countries and the United States, can, inch by inch, become complacent and fall prey to personality cults, economic incentives (freebies, promises of free cell phones at election times, free universities, healthcare, and other seemingly easily accessible boons that inevitably come with a price tag, as we have seen time and again elsewhere), and other signs of erasure of liberalism that can lead to increased centralized government control and deterioration of republicanism and democratic processes. Other forms of control that the regimes use alongside information control include a watchful “national security” apparatus, which frequently has less to do with actual security issue and more to do with keeping the lid on dissidents and nascent grassroots movements, economic control (very frequently, private sector suffers as a result of government control – I cannot think of a single authoritarian regime with an economic structure as close to free market as that of the United States, for instance), and frequent purges of opposing factions and friends alike. In other words, information control does not exist in a vacuum. It is always only one of the arsenal of weapons to strengthen the power of whomever is on top, and cannot exist without enforcement mechanisms, as well as a whole slew of incentives, disincentives, and complementary tactics .
All of the above, however, ultimately relies on the accurate psychological profiling of the population, including dissidents and would-be opposition. The key question central to governance of authoritarian regimes is as follows: what is the ideal proportion of pressure and control to assert over the population before it has enough and rebels? How much do you tighten the bolts to make sure the nation learns its lesson, but not so much as to lose any possibility of support and end up on the execution platform yourself? What are the cycles of increased and decreased control which work best on the population so that they would ultimately realize their complete powerlessness and accept central power and all the rules that come down from above? Reigns of terror that last too long end up in counterrevolutions and assumptions of power by new strongmen. However, liberalization that is too complete or rapid can lead to the perception of weakness and coups, such as what happened with the Soviet Union. Therefore, ideally, the regime should be just punitive and assertive enough to be feared but not so universally hated that it should lose any semblance of control in a situation where most of the country will prefer the possibility of death in battle over continuation of existence in misery. These factors will surely vary depending on the nature of the country’s history, culture, population, and many other factors, but from what we can observe it becomes clear that 100% information control is not necessary to keep authoritarian regimes in power.
We see that the Islamic Republic has survived and prospered despite the fact that its population is fairly well educated, has access to the Internet, and frequently travels to the West. As we’ve discussed, censorship can be overcome, and those who are interested in exchange of ideas can certainly do so. There are some interesting observations to be made here:
- There is a vast chasm between discussion of ideas and active change. There are groups of “dissidents” who are content in endless discussions and present little active threat to the regime. These people will be watched, perhaps arrested and beaten up. A few of the most vocal ones will end up in prisons and tortures. But overall, they have no platform, no plan of actions, and present splintered groups of activists. Minority movements which are more organized and present more danger are far from the central power, and with them, it is not an issue of information.
- Even to the extent most of the population is unhappy with the current of state affairs, there is a sizable portion of the population that profits from the existence of the regime. Change in government means uncertainty, and though some people will surely profit even from that, overall stability is preferable to those who are content to keep their mouths shut and go on with business as usual.
- Even within much more closed societies with no access to the contemporary flow of information, such as the Soviet Union, a sizable portion of the population at some point became aware of the regime’s ruthlessness, lies and propaganda. But some were beneficiaries of these tactics, others were afraid of consequences of taking any sort of actions, and still others felt powerless to do anything of any significance and preferred to keep their heads down and weather the storms as best as possible. Iranians (and Russians, and Chinese) are aware of shortcomings of their own governments, but to some extent, actively choose to either appear unaware or stay quiet, even armed with full knowledge.
Still, it is a little complicated than that. Because seemingly limitless access to information from subversive sources, such as travel to the West, is supplemented by other information outlets that far outweigh Western influence in their effects. Namely, never underestimate the importance of propaganda and brainwashing.
All of these states (and lesser states that I have failed to mention) employ 24/7 state media apparatus that presents a highly distorted view of reality to the benefit of the party line, whatever it happens to be. Despite a severe deterioration in economic benefits as a result of self-imposed sanctions on Western products, as well as outrageous expenses as a result of involvement in foreign conflicts and invasions of other sovereign states, Russian citizens overwhelmingly appear to support Putin and his corrupt posse. The worse it gets for an average citizen, the more jingoistic the support for the dear leader. And what appears obvious to just about anyone outside the country is vehemently and blindly denied by most people within. In fact, at this point, only about 15, 000 people belong to the opposition party PARNAS. There are several reasons for this strange phenomenon:
- Seeing non-stop propaganda in every official media, and even in the banks that make derogatory comments towards foreign currency if not refuse to accept altogether is actually more important than having access to external sources. If your life largely involves around state media, even if you have technical access to outside sources, you won’t necessarily seek them out. Furthermore, when it comes to the question of national prestige, the state will make loud appealing proclamations and take actions that will make every possible criticism of the government appear as though the nation itself is being under attack by Western aggressors.
- State involvement even in relatively free media such as the Internet. Whereupon more popular local social networks are controlled by state-related agencies, and state trolls are hired to monitor external social media networks, popular websites, and other fora, and to harrass anyone who disagrees with the party line and infiltrate any potential opponents, it is little wonder than even things that have no connections to the regime will appear through regime’s lenses.
- Exploitation of natural cognitive dissonance to state’s benefit – scapegoating and shifting of responsibility are common tactics with any regime, but can work even in free and liberal societies (Just look at the current election season in the United STates!) After all, it is much easier to blame “spies”, “foreign agents”, “evil Yankees”, and just about anyone else under the sun for the deterioration in your standard of living than to admit that you are a coward who keeps voting for the same corrupt narcissistic dictator time after time, because it’s the easy way out. And it’s easier to think that your country can do no wrong than to engage in the painful process of self-examination.
- Exploitation of fear – if the state makes example of foreigners and critics, even if those examples just involve getting thrown out of the country or being annoyed with arrests, you will think twice before questioning orders. Coupled with targeted assassinations of the most outspoken opposition members, even on foreign soil, will instill the idea that the state is overwhelmingly powerful, that there is no help or support coming from anywhere, and the best you can do is either flee abroad or suck it up and support whatever your government does.
- Self-fulfilling prophesy – the less initiative any one individual is willing to take in terms of action, the more inertia, indifference, and despair set in on his immediate circles and spheres of influence. Taking any sort of action, even as freedom deteriorates, will become increasingly harder, not easier. So the more would-be activists perceive themselves as weak, isolated, and powerless, the more they act that way, and the more the state will take advantages of their own self-imposed weakness.
There is some variation on this pattern of informational control, despite the seeming liberty. An oldie but a goodie is ethnic discrimination or targeting. In Turkey, Erdogan has managed to make Kurds, foreign visitors, and other minorities into enemies, and exploited xenophobic rhetoric through inflammatory crusading rhetoric that trickled down from the top to universities campuses and gangs of hoodlums. Overwhelming response to even minor incidents cemented the perception of an existing internal fifth column of terrorists seeking nothing more than to victimize the unfortunate natives. In a similar manner, during conflict with Georgia, Putin’s regime targeted Georgian products and harrasssed individuals of Georgian descent inside the country. Attacking non-Russian looking foreigners has become an acceptable norm. In Iran, portraying all minorities as would be terrorists who seek unconditional partition of the country, regardless of whether that is an actual goal, became a useful pragmatic strategy for splintering opposition and disconnecting the center of the country from peripheral regions. Balancing censorship of certain outlets with increased output of state-imposed media information skews the dynamic in favor of the government.
Both Turkey and Russia have become known for arresting, imprisoning, and beating not only opposition journalists, but even those state media reporters who dare to cover undesirable subjects. That means that those individuals who want to find out what’s actually going on will have to overcome obstacles and potentially endanger themselves in order to do so, and while it may still be possible, natural inertia and an instinct of individual self-preservation will set in. In fact, what the government is putting out is of equal, if not greater importance, than what it keeps out or allows to be seen. The natural tendency of the population is to rely on what is the most easily available, widely advertised, prestigious, and natural, which is the state-controlled outlet. In fact, similar dynamics can be observed in the United STates, where most people will stick to the network, relying on sound bytes and what is most popular to define what stories they will be exposed to.
Even those who try to diversify their informational portfolio tend to rely on echo chamber-type outlets online, and exist in informational vacuum of the like-minded, where rumors, distortions, and fabrications exist side by the side with kernels of true stories. One must make effort in order to create an increasingly accurate and well-rounded portraiture of the world, and most people just do not have the time and the inclination for launching such investigations. Thus imposing a preferred line of understanding is enough to do even in a democracy with infinite number of choices, outlets, books, and so forth. In democratic societies, we have the freedom to seek out our own answers, but we are overwhelmed with mountains of irrelevant, disingenuous information and agendas of various parties. So freedom is not a guarantee of accuracy; one must be driven by a dedication to truth, accuracy, and a curious, skeptical outlook on life in order to keep well informed and relatively free of imposed external influences.
Even under the best circumstances, when we are free from fear of punishment by the government, we are not free from concerns about the social consequences of access or preference for a particular type of information. People living in authoritarian regimes are not living under the best of circumstances. They are slowly inocculated against truth-seeking and conditioned into an inert attitude, whereupon they learn to adjust to various state-imposed limitations and find ways of going along to get along. Survival, adjustment, and newly defined success become priorities over more abstract agendas, which also appear harder to attain – freedom, truth, happiness, pluralism, human rights. Uncertainty of the unknown always remains a threat, as is the possibility of life getting even worse if one rocks the boat and fails. Most people just want to live their lives, and the few dissatisfied activists are seen as troublemakers rather than heroes. The fact that the definition of opposition, of what constitutes a dissident, becomes increasingly broad, vague, and frequently redefined escapes most people who succumb and become accustomed to the incremental deterioration of freedom and acceptable standards.
Behemoth economies such as China are perceived as “too big to fail”. Going against state machinery seems the very definition of insanity. Instead, society breeds people who are accustomed to be grateful for relative economic stability and the few freedoms they are allotted. They are frequently not unhappy with their lot. After all, they get to travel, see the world, have nice things, build families – why should they be critical of the government? The cunning step these authoritarian regimes have taken is redefining the idea of rights. These rights are seen not as natural or God-given but as stemming from the governments. There is no social contract, but instead these regimes have some inherent power, some inherent goodness that their subjects do not possess, to judge what’s better, what’s needed, and to govern wisely. The people become answerable to the regime and not the other way, and in such circumstances, it matters not how much liberty the nation possess. That liberty is seen as a favor that the government has granted, and no one dares make a peep for fear of losing that privilege granted by someone more powerful and wiser. The issue, then, is not with the access the information, ultimately, but with the perceived relationship between the citizens and the state.
Only when the people perceive themselves as a source of power to the government and not the other way around can a peaceful or at least stable transition of power can actually take place. Until that perception changes, the state will always retain control, and the privilege of access to the information it “grants” to the population will do nothing to create additional demands on human rights, cutting off support for terrorist organizations, withdrawal from unwanted and unnecessary foreign engagements, or other liberalization. It is ultimately only this paradigm that can explain the diversity of outcomes in the former Soviet republics and satellite states that has occurred after the break up of the Soviet Union. Some states have become as Western as any European country, others remained semi-dictatorships governed by strongmen, others remained weak republics quickly coopted by internal and external corrupt influencers, and still others soon reverted to Russia’s spheres of influence. Should we then be looking towards Tunisia as a model for peaceful transition towards liberalizing democratic governance? Not necessarily. Russians are not Tunisians, Iranians are not Chinese, and historic, cultural, and political realities of all of these countries must take their own paths and incorporate elements of successful models in a way that makes sense for them. However, it is unlikely that large rising powers with expansionist ambitions will follow anything even remotely resembling Tunisia’s model in the near future. Expansionist states have fewer incentives to liberalize, greater incentives to retain control, and great reasons to manipulate informational flow in a way that benefits those in power – authoritarian leaders with little connection to the population or liberal philosophies.