business

War of Words over South Ossetia

Both sides in the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia are engaged in a propaganda struggle in the media and in cyberspace

The war between Russia and Georgia exploded onto the media and cyberspace theater almost as soon as the conventional forces clashed, with both belligerents firing volleys of disinformation and propaganda campaigns aimed at demonizing the other.

Russia's initial major priority was to justify its military incursion into Georgian territory. Declaring the goal of helping the "brotherly Ossetian people," the Russian leadership also borrowed from the vocabulary of its perceived main world competitor, the United States. Addressing mainly the domestic audience, Moscow claimed it must defend its peacekeepers and citizens in South Ossetia from "treacherous Georgian military aggression."

The Kremlin, facing little opposition in the domestic media, has nearly complete liberty to mold any desired public opinion. The main basis for the legitimacy of the Russian invasion of South Ossetia was the accusation that the Georgian shelled the region's capital, Tskhinvali, killing close to 2,000 civilians. The reports of many deaths in South Ossetia generated massive outrage in Russia. However, as the wave of feeling rose, notably lacking was anyone asking whether this information provided by the Russian Defense Ministry was accurate and what its sources were.

On 11 August Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, after visiting the combat area, gave her view that the figures on refugees and casualties given by the Russian authorities were inflated. Against Moscow's official estimate of 34,000 refugees from South Ossetia in Russia, Lokshina insisted that Russian Federal Migration Service documents showed 24,000 refugees, and that 11,000 of those had been recorded as returning into South Ossetia. The Russian authorities noted that "the overall number [of the displaced] was decreasing because of the people who return to join to volunteer militias of South Ossetia," HRW reported.

Speaking about the casualty figures, Lokshina charged in an interview with the Russian service of Radio Free Europe that South Ossetia's self-styled authorities were counting their dead paramilitaries as civilian casualties, raising serious doubts over the true number of civilians killed. It is telling that the deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, admitted to the Russian media on 12 August that the data on casualties were being provided to them by the South Ossetian authorities. This clearly looked like an attempt to distance the Russian military from a biased and unreliable source after Lokshina's organization questioned the accuracy of the figures.

HRW later said that Tskhinvali hospitals gave figures of 44 dead and 273 wounded.

Russia is also accusing Georgia of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes, which Tbilisi denies. There is clear no evidence on any of these, and instead the inhabitants of Georgian villages in South Ossetia were forced to leave their homes, according to reports available to everyday Russians, for instance in the Kommersant newspaper. Nevertheless, these words generated a powerful resonance in the Russian society.

In return Georgia accused Russia of military aggression, and claimed its own military campaign was aimed at "reestablishing the constitutional order" over the breakaway region. Vitaly Portnikov, a columnist for Grani.ru, suggested that if Russia's leaders would listen carefully to their Georgian counterparts, they could recognize themselves using exactly the same phrase while shelling and leveling Chechen Grozny. London's Telegraph newspaper made a similar comparison, describing what happened when Russian warplanes attempted to hit a military barracks in Gori. Instead, at least two bombs struck an apartment complex, turning five buildings into blackened shells. A secondary school caught another bomb and became a pile of rubble.

When Russia received the clear signal that European countries were hesitant to accuse and put pressure on her, and seemed ready to tacitly accept any Russian option, Moscow launched a massive anti-American campaign.

It broadcast experts' opinions saying that Georgia would not have attacked without the approval of its master, the United States, and that Washington wanted to force Russia out of areas which were traditionally under Moscow's dominance. News reports by state-controlled TV channels spoke of quantities of Western-made arms and "black soldiers" helping Georgians in combat. Ukraine, another active ally of Georgia, was also accused of helping Georgia with arms and military experts.

War on the Web

The war was fierce in cyberspace as well. A CNN web-based, admittedly non-scientific "Quickvote" on the war recorded more than 350,000 responses of which 92 percent agreed that Russia's role was that of peacekeeper, and only 8 percent perceiving its actions in Georgia as aggression. Such exercises have little to do with the real state of public opinion, but the fascinating thing about this one was that the result reportedly was highly distorted thanks to a rapid response organized by Russian bloggers. According to the online journal Vebplaneta, an indexed search on the Russian search engine Yandex.ru turned up a huge number of links to the CNN website with comments like "Vote ‘yes', support Russia," "pass the link to others!" and so on. Apart from many Russian bloggers on LiveJournal, online community networks like News@mail.ru, and Securitylab.ru were involved.

Many young and computer literate Russians are feeling that Western media are offering inaccurate coverage of the war. They are unwilling to accept the convincing graphic images of the destruction and human suffering inflicted by the Russian military. "CNN and BBC feed you lies" was addressed to the English-speaking audience in a video a Russian youngster, claiming he had lived in the United States for 10 years, posted on YouTube. "Russia is keeping the peace, it is the Georgians who committed atrocities against Ossetians" was the gist of hundreds of Russian blog posts. Pro-Kremlin youth movements like Nashi and Molodaya Gvardiya have issued a call for young citizens of Russia to confront the Western propaganda, and "spread the truth." Russian blogs were littered with personal attacks and profanity against anyone expressing online doubt about the purity of the Russia's mission in the war.

More radical activity was taking place to limit Tbilisi's capacity to spread its point of view. Georgian government sites became targets of denial-of-service attacks, hindering their activity. The Georgian Foreign Ministry's site was hacked, and a collage of images depicting President Mikheil Saakashvili juxtaposed with photos of Hitler appeared there, causing a news anchor on the Russian state-controlled channel Vesti to comment, "the resemblance is incontestable." According to the newscaster, the images expressed the feelings of the Internet community toward Georgia's foreign policy.

Certain Georgian news sites were also inaccessible for various periods of time. Noting that some Russian websites encountered similar problems, Interfax suggested that the disruptions could have been caused by the very high influx of visitors interested in the war news coverage.

However, since reports that the attacks on the Georgian governmental sites were tracked as coming from Russia, Estonia has offered to host the website of the Georgian Foreign Ministry, and the news site Civil.ge has moved to a Google Blogspot domain. Estonia was prepared to send cyber security experts to Georgia.

Now that the military action has cooled down, the confrontation will most likely switch to the web. And this means what we have seen so far of the propaganda war was just a warm-up.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE