13 August 2008, 15:34
The Kremlin's Virtual Army
By Evgeny Morozov*
It started as a fairly predictable digital conflict, mimicking the one in the real world and displaying no shortage of "conventional" cyberwarfare: Web pages were attacked, comments were erased, and photos were vandalized. A typical prank on the Georgian Foreign Ministry's Web site visually compared Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili with Adolf Hitler.
As Russian tanks lumbered southward over mountainous Ossetian terrain, Russian netizens were seeking to dominate the digital battlefield.
But sophomoric pranks and cyberattacks were only the first shots of a much wider online war in which Russian bloggers willingly enlisted as the Kremlin's grass-roots army. For Russian netizens, "unconventional" cyberwarfare - winning the hearts and minds of the West - became more important than crashing another server in Tbilisi. Managing information seemed all the more urgent as there were virtually no images from the first and the most controversial element in the whole war - the Georgian invasion of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia - and the destruction that, were one to believe the Kremlin's account, followed shortly thereafter.
Much of the public argument for a harsh response among Russians rested on Kremlin-backed reports of extremely high casualties among South Ossetia's soldiers and the civilian population, which Georgians fervently denied. This lack of clarity and factual evidence only ratcheted up the speculative nature of most discussions.
Those skeptical of the official statistics argued that the government could have fabricated the figures. In response, a group of Russian bloggers sent a public letter to SUP, the Russian company that owns and manages LiveJournal, one of the most popular blog services in the country (but legally still an American entity).
They asked it to impose curbs on free speech and censor anyone seeking to undermine Russia's war effort by expressing pro-Georgian sentiment.
"Regular laws of peaceful times do not apply; we are at war!" read their somewhat hysterical letter. (Thankfully, SUP ignored their demands.)
Not everyone in the Russian blogosphere shared concerns about the war; its obscenely rich, glossy, and too self-absorbed fraction carried on as usual. "I don't give a f**k about this war" is a very loose translation of a post that Artemij Lebedev, one of Russia's most famous digerati and bohemians (and this year's Young Global Leader in Davos to boot), wrote on his LiveJournal blog.
The post received more than 900 comments and was followed by a photo of a nude woman. Young global leadership for new times, indeed. Amid the millions of comments that Russian bloggers wrote on the issue, a few themes started to emerge. The dominant narrative was that of a grand anti-Russian conspiracy carried out by the Western media. As reports from American and European media poured in - many with extremely graphic images of the destruction caused by Russia's bombing of Georgian towns - some Russian bloggers despaired that their government couldn't respond with its own powerful imagery and words. "Russia doesn't have its own CNN, and this is felt really badly. ... The government's objective for the next few years should be to create a powerful propaganda machine and train thousands of highly qualified and ideologically faithful journalists. This task is as important as the production of new nuclear [war]heads," wrote one such blogger.
Russia does, incidentally, have its own mini-CNN. It's a very well-endowed channel called Russia Today that broadcasts in English and aims to reach a global audience. Yet although many readers in the West were still missing many details about South Ossetia (perhaps the best time to feed them Kremlin propaganda), Russia Today was still not catching up with its Western counterparts in terms of professionalism. "*Get it off your chest" is how they named their Web forum on the war. If this was meant as propaganda, it wasn't very subtle.*
With Russia Today unwilling or unfit to fulfill its global mandate, some patriotic Russian netizens decided to wage their own propaganda campaigns. Like their Chinese colleagues who, earlier in the year, rushed to YouTube and Web sites of foreign media to leave comments about Tibet and the Olympics, Russians didn't think twice before flooding the Web sites of CNN and BBC with comments. Even very marginally related online venues - such as the European forum of the popular game World of Warcraft - were hijacked by angry Russian commenters (the threads have been subsequently deleted).
The most educated among them even started posting simultaneously in two languages - Russian and English - to convince speakers of both. Many of their comments pointed to inaccuracies in Western reporting and contained examples of possible mistakes in several graphic images from the war that the West might be taking at face value. "People of the world. You deceive! World mass media conduct propagation of a false information," begins one such comment titled "Typical Address to Stupid Foreigners." Bloggers encouraged each other to repost it on English-language sites as part of the campaign to "educate" the Western public (according to Google, this very comment has been reposted hundreds of times in the past few days).
The assumption that some Russian bloggers made was that if only the West could read accounts of the great injustice Georgians had inflicted upon South Ossetia, they could be converted to the Russian cause. So, relying on tools such as Google Docs, a popular online platform for sharing documents, they quickly split the work of compiling and then translating the timeline of the events into English. It seemed crucial to have enough reports to show that it was Georgia that first attacked South Ossetia. No matter how the real conflict between Russia and Georgia ultimately ends, Russia's young people are joining their Chinese counterparts in a great fight to make Western media more sympathetic to their countries. They are unlikely to succeed, but their very actions suggest much greater self-confidence on the world stage than their parents could ever exhibit.
It remains to be seen whether their belligerence ends at fighting Western media in "comment warfare" or spills into more radical attacks.
*Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian, is the founder and publisher of Polymeme and a member of the sub-board of the Information Program of the Open Society Institute.