The War In Ukraine: A Battle On The Information Front

The War In Ukraine: A Battle On The Information Front
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Anastasiia Nazarenko (main photo) is a Ukrainian-born, Sydney-based comms professional working for Palin Communications. In this guest post, Nazarenko calls the current russian-Ukraine conflict and “information war’, how russian propaganda utilises the principles of storytelling to push its own narrative and what we, as communications professionals, can do to help fight the misinformation…

Note: The spelling of ‘russia’, ‘russian’, ‘putin’ with lower-case letters is intentional. Since the invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022, in Ukraine it is acceptable to use the lower-case letters when addressing russia and its government. This is to reflect a disrespect towards the country’s aggressive military actions in Ukraine.

As I am writing this, Ukraine has entered the third month of war – an existential war for independence and sovereignty; the war my motherland was cruelly dragged into against its will; a war the world continues to watch.

The author, Anastasiia Nazarenko

For the past 70+ days, this war has dominated my life as I trawl for trustworthy information about the latest updates and developments. As professional communicators, we know the power of news in shaping the way we think and what we believe in. Especially, if people are repeatedly exposed to the same, homogenous messages – whether by confirmation bias or a lack of credible and diverse news. Repetition of messages can quickly turn it into ‘fact’, especially if there are no other sources that scrutinise or critically challenge it. But what if the reality, the real story, is not being represented at all?

Working in health PR, I’ve quickly learnt the importance of varied perspectives and factual evidence to support any claims. As communicators, we hold ourselves to a high standard in storytelling that withstand scrutiny and factchecking by being based on solid evidence and true events. However, when it comes to news coverage of war – especially war with complex geopolitical histories in faraway lands – this does not always pull through.

My day starts and ends with news consumption as I try to create a sense of control around what is happening in my birth country. I am subscribed to multiple news channels on Telegram (a platform like Facebook Messenger popular in Ukraine and russia), check ‘stories’ and news profiles on Instagram, and read Ukrainian and foreign media to make sure I receive credible information. I want to believe that the rest of the world is following the same narrative I am – one that is shaped by free speech, real stories of those living through the terror of this war daily and reported by journalists on the ground.

You would think it’s impossible to call an apple an orange without question. This is, however, what is happening in russia* with how the war in Ukraine is being portrayed in the media. For example, russian citizens being forbidden to say the word ‘war, and instead directed to call it ‘special operation’. The aim of this is clear – to diminish the scale and extremity of the actions of russian army in Ukraine. The language and the way we use it impacts the public dialogue and understanding of real-world issues, ultimately changing the narrative.

russia has a well-oiled propaganda machine that perpetuates a specific narrative around its superiority, in turn justifying the invasion of Ukraine, a peaceful neighbouring country. This has shown (anecdotally and factually) to be particularly effective in generating negative attitudes towards Ukraine from as far back as 2014 when russia unlawfully claimed some of the Ukrainian territories which continues into today. This goes unchecked by  an audience comprised of an ageing population that has been raised on the tales of utopic Soviet times, and who cannot consume foreign news (only about 12 per cent of the population know English).

Many of my networks in Australia and other English-speaking countries can’t believe that ordinary russian citizens are supporting the barbaric acts of their ‘leader’ and army. However, they are blessed with not seeing or hearing things that russian-speaking Instagram and Telegram feed is filled with.

But there are of course other principles of storytelling that russia is actively using to give life to misinformation that supports its narrative:

  • Presenting Ukraine and its people as ‘antagonists’, and positioning russia as a ‘hero’ saving lives of innocent people who are being prosecuted and bullied based on their language preferences (i.e. protecting russian-speaking population in Ukraine).
  • Creating a compelling purpose that is hard to disagree with. Despite russia changing some details around their purpose of invasion, the central line is built around ‘denazification’ of Ukraine, evoking patriotic feelings of russians who have historical links to fighting against Nazism.
  • Creating a sense of a direct risk by playing on Western countries’ (non-existent) ambitions to take over russian territory and ‘demoralise’ the population with the freedom of speech and progressive society.

This is where the effect of russian propaganda and the power of social media platforms are shown, with women supporting russian soldiers who loot and rape on one condition that they are not told about it; with young boys and girls forming the letter ‘Z’ in schools and kindergartens which has become a symbol of ‘russcism’ (i.e. russian fascism); with adults of seemingly sound mind repeating that Ukrainians and our language should be eliminated as we don’t deserve to exist. All the above speaks to the power of content and social media in shaping narratives that can influence the future of nations, and shows how little we know about foreign media that runs unchecked.

So, what can we as communication professionals can do to help?

From the outset, we can get comfortable with the ‘uncomfortable’ and start calling things what they are. Communications has been helping to spin the wheels of this war. In russia, news and  social media continue to tell an alternate narrative by sugarcoating the actions of their army and president. Internationally, global leaders have shown hesitancy in calling for the disempowerment of putin (i.e. Joe Biden correcting his public declaration that putin ‘cannot remain in power’).

This is not a ‘conflict’ or ‘military operation’, it is ‘war’. If we mean that putin should not remain in power, let’s say this – explicitly. By mincing words, we are implicitly assisting russian propaganda in pushing its narrative and allowing threats to the world of ‘lightning fast’ consequences to those who support Ukraine.

Secondly, we can advise our employers to take a proactive position and be publicly open about their support for Ukraine. In times of war, silence is inaction, but we simply cannot afford not to act when the independence of a sovereign country is being wrongly contested, creating a threat to the world order as we know it. Multimillion businesses like Nestle continue to operate in russia and until democratic businesses ‘leave’ the market collectively, russia will continue funnelling this money into war.

Lastly, with social media being an indispensable part of our lives and information exchange, we all need to be mindful of what we engage with.  Misinformation is pervasive on social media – especially when we reinforce it by clicking, liking and sharing.

The Public Relations Institute of Australia’s recent webinar ‘Truth as a casualty of war’, rightly highlighted that fact-checkers are clearly outnumbered by the false claims and misinformative posts circulating on socials. Many social media platforms don’t have clear policies and actions to stop amplification of russian disinformation about the war in Ukraine. As responsible communicators, we understand the importance of evidence-based and accurate information so let’s scrutinise what we consume and educate other on the consequences of misinformation.

This war we all are witnessing is not simply a war against Ukraine. It is a war against humanity and democracy. Each of us is affected by it – whether we realise it or not – but we all possess a powerful tool that we can use more of, the power of information. Let’s stay united on this front and use our skills to ensure the right stories are being told, in the right way.

If you want to help Ukraine but are not sure how, you can donate to help provide humanitarian aid and protect the lives of the Ukrainian army, who are bravely standing up against the invasion of Ukrainian land.

Any of the organisations below would appreciate your gesture of kindness:

Ukraine Crisis Appeal: https://www.ukrainecrisisappeal.org/?msclkid=126f90b5ce8e11ecb177fec80122d3dc

Save lives in Ukraine: https://www.comebackalive.in.ua/?msclkid=781ede7ace8e11ec95ae9b4609b236a4

UNICEF Ukraine: https://www.unicef.org/ukraine/en?msclkid=9713f49ece8e11ecb736c7a0f9406498

National Bank of Ukraine fundraiser for Ukraine’s Armed Forces: https://bank.gov.ua/en/news/all/natsionalniy-bank-vidkriv-spetsrahunok-dlya-zboru-koshtiv-na-potrebi-armiyi?msclkid=bd9f7959ce8e11ec9351b1a56105cc77

 

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Anastasiia Nazarenko palin communications

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