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Media Battlefields: Hybrid Wars and Their Communicative Declaration of War

Ever since the times of the Assyrians and Sumerians, propaganda has played an eminent role in wars, whether as a way of mobilizing and motivating one’s own troops or of demoral­izing the enemy. Yet hybrid warfare relies to a particularly high degree on (dis)information and (mis)interpretation attacks – all the more so when conventional military measures and situations recede into the background or provide a backdrop as a strategic threat.

Much has already been said and written about the doctrine of Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, the “Russia Today” (RT) media apparatus with its Sputnik News Web service and global RT news network, and the Internet “troll army” based in Saint Petersburg that fills Western online forums and comment columns. More rarely discussed are the fundamental mechanisms and resources quasi-unintentionally “provided” by the adversary, which are taken up in propaganda campaigns. These are examined below.

The “new wars,” as Herfried Münkler described them in the early 2000s, mainly with a view to postcolonial and post-Soviet conflicts of disintegration and transformation, are characterized by sub-statehood, ethnicization, criminalization, and privatization, the blurring of classic roles and identities of actors (e.g. in the distinction between civilians and combatants), as well as the confusion of clear dramaturgies of war, with their acts and turning points – namely, the declaration of war, pivotal battles, and the peace agreement. Hybrid wars (as can currently be observed in East Ukraine) additionally bring ethnicization and communicative confusion – and often in such a way that our notion of the new wars is itself instrumentalized. Accordingly, instead of hybrid wars being an apparently independent force or phenomenon, one should perhaps speak of “hybrid warfare” to emphasize that this is a highly diverse, deliberately used ensemble of measures comprising economic, diplomatic, IT, and mass-media elements. Ironically, the goal behind this is stardard: to secure and expand state influence. Like terrorism (which may be one of its elements), hybrid warfare is to a considerable extent “theater,” since it aims not (only) to occupy territory, but rather minds: it targets the world of ideas in the heads of decision-makers and their electorates, who in the “ideal” or extreme case will become just as much “proxies” and “irregulars” – surrogate fighters for their cause – like separatists or special units who got lost on holiday – even if without rifles in their hands.

Propaganda can be analyzed in different ways – for example, in terms of its addressees. Was it aimed at one’s own people, for instance, at the enemy (psychological warfare), or at those providing assistance or neutral third parties, who were to be won over to one’s own interpretation of the conflict and concerns? I will concentrate here on the latter, since the former typically or even universally follows patterns of influence that have been frequently described elsewhere: the narrative of one’s own state of emergency and emergency assistance – specifically the protection of the Russian population in Donbass against “fascists” and a “conspiracy” between Europe and Ukraine – and an appeal to national pride (in consequence of which, in Russia, people have a much more positive view of their own country than they did until a few years ago), etc. This not only relies on more recent established recent notions of the enemy (as propagated via Nazi expansion or US imperialism), but also invokes basic conceptual models of being the chosen people and of historical destiny (self-determination and autonomy). Even in antiquity, in the Attic wars or in the campaigns of Alexander the Great, recourse was made to similarly interpreted or fabricated sayings of oracles or signs from god promising victory.1

By contrast, the current PR war and war of opinion against the West is more complex and more worrying. At the intellectual and specifically media-cultural level, it is a kind of mental and communicative aikido, insofar as it turns the intellectual kinetic energy and inertial force of the opponent against himself, even if the allocation of the roles of attacker and defender is itself here already part of a style of interpretative fighting.

Hybrid warfare therefore takes advantage of the fact that our perceptions and our social and political actions are to a significant extent organized linguistically, which is to say symbol­ically. We need to share a certain minimum of signs and their rules of combination and use, in order for us to communicate, reach agreement, and coordinate in words and symbols. In court and in church (i.e. in matters of law and faith), terms found in laws and commandments determine what is and what should be, how we should understand and think about things – which is why law and theology are above all sciences of interpretation. Thus, two key aspects of the problem can be derived from the term “hybrid war” itself: Coming from biology, “hybrid” means a mixing of (sub)species in the plant and animal kingdoms, a crossing or bastardization. The (semantic) content of the term and the history of its use are as revealing as they are symptomatic. “Hybrid” and “hybridization” have become central concepts in literary and cultural studies, denoting a mixing of belongings and identities, and representing the idea and proposal that fixed categories and essentialist ideas can quite reasonably be overcome with politically critical gestures. Thus, from postcolonial, gender, and cultural studies, it is but a short step to the debate surrounding the (determination) rights of Russian ethnic groups in East Ukraine, or the ideologically shaped or blinkered perception of a non-Westerner as “the Russian,” “the Oriental,” or “the Muslim,” for example. Accordingly, in this context, “hybridity” is indeed a powerful expression and sign of self-criticism (mainly in liberal academic circles) which is in itself enlightened and entirely appropriate, but admittedly can be monopolized and instrumentalized at a high level in pursuit of specific political goals.

The concept of “hybridity” presupposes that there is such a thing as a categorically distinct war, which then becomes mixed with other pre-, proto-, or nonwarlike forms of action. This “pure” war – with its clear battle formations, roles for actors, responsibilities, and phases – may, as H. Münkler describes, be a very recent and perhaps even only temporary phenomenon in human history. Yet it was and is not merely a theoretical intellectual construct or chimera, but rather an expression of efforts toward, or even a condition for, developing and codifying firm definitions and related civilizing or international law-of-war rules and rights, in order – from the Geneva Conventions to specific UN resolutions – to contain war with its brutality by mutual agreement, to control it in ethical and practical respects, and of course to prevent or at least punish “war crimes.”

This is where hybrid warfare comes in and benefits from historical, parallel developments. It will suffice to mention two key developments here:

1) The historical mentality of those West­ern states and their postheroic societies which attempts to avoid and prevent “war” at (almost) any price.

2) Media-cultural digitalization and its revolution in the media-communicative and media-cultural sphere, with its concomitant possibilities and uncertainties.

As far as the former is concerned, war today is no longer a legitimate – let alone appropriate – political instrument or a means for protecting and asserting interests. The heroic (male) figure, as embodied in popular film up until the 1960s by the John Wayne character, is in the present day generally just as unimaginable as heroizing monuments for Afghanistan soldiers. And the sole morally permissible, though highly contentious, option for military action (strictly avoiding the label of war) – the idea of humanitarian intervention – suffered a lasting loss of persuasiveness in the wake of “new war” experiences in Mogadishu (1993), Rwanda (1994), and Srebrenica (1995).

From a media-cultural and media-technological point of view, this converges with the so-called “CNN effect,” the idea that political decision-makers (supposedly) come under pressure as a result of continuous reporting. Images of the horrors of war, at least since the Vietnam War, are of great importance (even only because they are held to have an impact on the public due to the “third-person effect”). Since that time and especially in the last Gulf wars, military leaders have tried to control such images (e.g. via embedded journalism). Meanwhile the CNN effect has been replaced by that which Moisés Naím in “Foreign Policy“ calls the “YouTube effect,” the employment of which Cori Dauber describes as a “YouTube war.”2 Demonstrators in Istanbul, Cairo, and Hong Kong, but also militiamen in Syria, with cellphone cameras and social media, are overtaking established correspondents as grass roots reporters (or propagandists). From the Tagesschau to Spiegel Online, editorial departments are themselves increasingly falling back on tweets and private online videos as ­source­s and image resources. At the same time, established media institutions and brands, with their professional ethics standards and their specialist background knowledge, are losing influence and coming under pressure: circulation figures and audience reach are declining, while younger people in particular are increasingly using the Web and its social networks as news channels. Instead of authority and contextualization, the new guiding and quality criteria are immediacy and authenticity. A manifold fragmentation, even splintering, and compartmentalization is becoming apparent: while users piece together mosaic-like individual pictures of the situation, interpretive communities are forming and becoming established, in which, actively and passively (through search algorithms and their own mutual reinforcement of opinion), even the most outrageous views find a place, confirmed by the sources and evidence that anyone can cobble together from the Internet, distribute, or produce them­selves, just as they pleases. Between disclosure services such as The Intercept and Wikileaks, and productive, critical media and opinion participation for everyone, on the one hand, and outspoken conspiracy theorists, on the other, who look to aggrandize themselves via their pseudo-enlightening “secret knowledge,” and for whom propaganda is exclusively that which the Western-controlled “liar press” of “bought journalists” (U. Ulfklotte) spreads, the “truth definitely does not lie in the middle.”3 Nevertheless, the hybrid war propaganda of author­itarian regimes with professionally presented news sites and fake vox populi finds a breeding ground here. For want of agreement and certainty, individual interpretations, sheer opinion, and private ideology take their place – for example, in the matter of whether and what is “war,” who the aggressor, and who the “victim.” This propaganda is not at its most effective when it simply lies, but rather when it relativizes and shapes beliefs and emotions. It makes use of and reinforces not only the fear of war, and resentment of the NATO and Europe, but also uncertainty, distrust, and paranoia, in general. At the same time, it seriously undermines that which is fundamental to democracies: a disputatious and pluralistic discourse-ethical public space as the sphere of free, rational judgement and consensus building.

How can we defend oneself against this? With counter-propaganda and/or censorship – perhaps by banning Moscow broadcasters as in Latvia and Lithuania, or with one’s own Russian-language TV service, as envisaged by the EU? But what about blogs, forums, and online comments, where not only disinformation but also perhaps abstruse and vulgar, but nevertheless permissible opposing views are published? At any rate, before the question of method and efficiency comes the ethical/moral question, and consequently that of values, which themselves are quickly sacrificed in the effort to protect them. Not least as a result of experiences with two dictatorships in Germany, state censorship and propaganda rightly do not have a good reputation. In terms of its word stem, propaganda – like “hybrid” – refers to nature or, more precisely, to its cultivation – to spreading, propagation, such as of plants (e.g. by sowing). As the spread of opinions or more precisely the “right faith,” the term of propaganda can be traced back to the Count­er-Reformation – the “Congregatio de Propa­ganda Fide” established by Pope Gregory XV at the time of Thirty Years’ War (1622). Until the 20th century, propaganda was not a negative term. Today, propaganda theorists and philosophers are at least in disagreement as to whether propaganda should be judged deontologically or teleologically – that is, whether (in the tradition of, among others, Jacques Ellul) it should be rejected per se as a method or mode of communication because it systematically undermines and hence in the long run erodes fundamental knowledge and truth values of interpersonal dialogue; or whether, regarded neutrally, it should be judged according to its respective specific goals as being “good” or “evil,” morally “right” or “wrong.”4 In support of such realism, it can be said that the idealistic position offers a very narrow understanding of propaganda, which between ideology and education, PR, advertising, political debates, and information campaigns cannot be reconciled with the everyday abundance of different rhetorical approaches and attempts to persuade and convince. Ultimately “propaganda,” a term which carries negative connotations, is just as multilayered, amorphous, and ambivalent as “hybrid war”; it is therefore a question of usage and definition.

1 For a readable and entertaining general history of propaganda, see Taylor, Philip M. (2003): Munitions of the Mind. A history of propaganda from the ancient world to the present day (3rd edition), Manchester and New York.

2 Naím, Moisés (2007): “The YouTube Effect. How a technology for teenagers became a force for political and economic change.” In: Foreign Policy, no. 158, Jan./Feb., p. 104, p. 103 (sic!); Dauber, Corie E. (2009): “YouTube War: Fighting in a world of cameras in every cell phone and Photoshop on every Computer.” Strategic Studies Institute, United States Army War College. Carlisle, PA.

3 On news coverage of events in Ukraine, see: Bota, Alice (2015): “Die Wahrheit liegt eben nicht in der Mitte”, Zeit Online. (accessed March 13, 2015).  

4  For an overview, see: Cunningham, Stanley B. (2001): “Responding To Propaganda: An Ethical Enterprise,” and: Black, Jay (2001): “Semantics and Ethics of Propaganda,” both in:  Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 16, nos. 2/3, pp. 138–147 and pp. 121–137.



Bernd Zywietz is active in the field of film and media studies and is a founding member and board member of the terrorism research network Netzwerk Terrorismusforschung e.V. He completed a degree in journalism and film studies at Mainz before gaining a doctorate on the subject of terrorism in film at Tübingen. He works as a university lecturer, journalist, author, and editor, but also has experience in the media and teaching.  He is a member of the Society for Media Science (Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft, GfM) and the German Film Critics’ Association (Verband der deutschen Filmkritik, VDFK). His current research focuses on online propaganda – especially that of the “Islamic State,” its design, and its challenge to media ethics. He has provided advice and worked on various media reports on this subject for both ARD and ZDF.