The term ‘narrative’ features widely in analysis and discussion of disinformation and hybrid warfare. Taken from the Latin verb narrare, ‘to tell’, narrative reflects our core instinct and desire to be storytellers. Whether at an individual, community or national level, the shape and repetition of a story works to highlight key messages and values. These values reinforce a sense of identity at an emotional level and become key frontlines in the battle over priorities, choices and perceived threats at the state level.
This makes narrative a fundamental element of any discussion of disinformation because of the opportunity for hijacking specific narratives for the purpose of manipulation and malign influence. Much is said about monitoring and debunking specific stories and articles that are false and which are shared with the purpose of deception, sowing confusion, and fermenting both chaos and paralysis. The role of narrative in hybrid warfare, however, is to take a step back and use broader brushstrokes to craft and reinforce the bigger story that can provide a framework for more radical action, even a perceived justification for kinetic warfare, violence and repression.
The Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre (UCMC) has worked extensively to identify and track narratives used by Russian state-owned media to impact the domestic audience specifically. Their report from September, 2018 titled ‘How Russian media foments hostility towards the West’, argues that ‘Threat Narratives’ are “the main tool of Kremlin propaganda”. In particular, quoting James V Wertsch in his work titled ‘Expulsion-of-Alien-Enemies’, four key themes emerge consistently and form the narrative template.
• During the “initial situation”, Russia is peaceful and is not interfering with anyone.
• “Troubles” arrive, meaning a foreign enemy viciously attacks Russia unprovoked.
• Russia comes under existential threat and nearly loses everything in total defeat as it suffers from the enemy’s attempts to destroy it as a civilisation.
• Through heroism and exceptionalism, against all odds and acting alone, Russia triumphs and succeeds in expelling the foreign enemy.
This template, when applied rigorously and with the backing of state-media outlets, cultivates and reinforces a powerful story that resonates deeper than any specific article or story and is ultimately independent of the application of logic or factual evidence. The Kremlin employed this over-arching, emotive narrative in the years leading up to its annexation of Crimea and its invasion of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine. To convince your population that it’s somehow “necessary” to turn against your neighbouring state is not something that succeeds quickly or from impulse.
In an email conversation with Liubov Tsybulska from UCMC, we put the following questions as a launching point to help unpack the concept of narrative in disinformation, and to draw lessons and observations from recent Ukrainian experience:
Integrity Initiative — How important is it to be first to “define terms” in your information space? Is that even possible in our modern media and information landscape?
Liubov Tsybulska — Even if you can’t be first, you have to be consistent in building your own image. Your positioning ought to be strong and persuasive so that the audience can form a simple and lasting perception of you/your state/company/any phenomenon. Debunking and negation of hostile messages works only in the short-term crisis communications perspective. Still, in this case your message becomes secondary, it can never reach the same amount of recipients as the one that was spread by your opponent. This happens for two reasons: 1) this message was spread before you acted; 2) even if debunking reaches the reader/viewer, he or she has to know what exactly is debunked, which means you familiarize him/her with the lies targeted against you.
II— At what point would you say that a group or pattern of messages become a ‘narrative’? How can we anticipate or predict what narratives will emerge next?
LT — Jean-François Lyotard, one of the key post-modern philosophers, defined two types of discourse: scientific and narrative. The first one supports and authorizes itself with facts, while the second uses constant repetition.
Consequently, messages that are relayed with certain a frequency and via different channels of communication with time become rooted in people’s thinking, becoming the ‘truth’. A narrative built on certain already existing perceptions, interpretations by even a small number of people, even minor historical facts works best. For example, one of the main narratives Russia tries to impose on Russian-speaking people today is the idea of it being “a proponent of spiritual values”, “a saviour”. This narrative is not new. According to it, Western states symbolize technologically advanced but morally weak power, which aims to impose values, rules and moral principles onto Russians. Therefore, the Russian government had — and still has — the task of defending its people from harmful Western influence. Russia “defended” its people and the whole world from fascism, “defended” “the Abkhaz people” from Georgians, “is defending” the Ukrainian people from Nazism etc.
The figure of ‘the enemy’ was heavily exploited by the Soviet Union, and modern Russia utilizes this technique as well. Having an enemy mobilizes and consolidates the population, distracts it from local problems and — most importantly — forms a worldview in which everyone is recognized either as “with us” or “against us”. It strengthens confirmation bias, so only information one is willing to believe is consumed. This effective algorithm simplifies and filters news selection on behalf of the consumer. The average Russian would be negatively predisposed in advance against evidence of the Russian intelligence services’ involvement in the Skripal poisoning case, if according to his/her worldview the UK is a hostile country.
The best way to predict how a narrative will develop is to understand what aim your opponent is pursuing. Additionally, as the example of narratives applied by Kremlin demonstrates, these narratives are aimed at exacerbating divisions over values and pressing social matters, identifying problematic issues and politicizing and amplifying them. Therefore, it is possible to identify the likely targets in advance.
II — How have Russian narratives changed towards Ukraine as part of hybrid warfare?
LT — From the very beginning of the war, the Kremlin has promoted two key narratives: “Ukraine is a failed state” (which means that the civilized world should not treat it as a constituent entity); and “In Ukraine, fascism prevails”.
Both of them are emotionally strong and, unfortunately, effective in many countries — especially the second one. Questioning Ukraine’s nationhood has spread extremely widely in Russian political circles, often under the pretence of a “brotherly nations” idea that was further developed and weaponized as the war went on. Meanwhile, fascism as a strong, emotionally-charged label that is mostly applied against Ukraine (and some Baltic states) — but not in a unique manner, which demonstrates the existence of basic tool-set that can be adjusted according to Moscow’s current political needs.
Anyone with a knowledge of modern Ukrainian history knows that the far-right in Ukraine has an extremely low level of support. They did not pass the barrier to get into the parliament in 2014, and their presidential candidate gained just over than 1% of the vote. It does not mean that they are non-existent, but they remain a fringe group — which does not stop the Kremlin from using social media or secret services to create provocations or portray several hundred marching nationalists as a potent and aggressive force.
In Ukraine itself the Kremlin tries to play Russian-speakers against Ukrainian-speakers. The former were supposed to be a part of a socio-cultural ‘Russian world’ community that Putin announced in 2006, while the plan for the latter was to portray them as radical and aggressive nationalists. Nevertheless, the majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians did not support the idea, because they do not feel pressured about language while living in Ukraine. This is why the ‘Russian world’ narrative is hardly ever heard in Ukraine anymore.
II — How can narratives be better used as part of both defence and counter-attack?
LT — One’s own narrative should be strong enough to make it impossible to believe the hostile one. Its power is in being factual, consistent, coherent and frequently restated. In order for it to spread, it has to be sincerely shared by a significant amount of people. For them to believe it, it has to be real for them. Seeing how a narrative brings about a emotional interpretation of events, it is worth ensuring it is heard in different areas of life and is represented in politics, culture, the economy and other fields.