The other side of War: disinformation

Ricardo de Macedo Menna Barreto (Guest Professor at the University of Minho Law School) 

Last Tuesday, March 8, 2022, during a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Josep Borrell, EU diplomacy chief, warned that the Russian government will systematically lie about Ukraine’s military situation. At his intervention, Borrell defended that: “(…)accompany Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, spreading false information among their own population about why this invasion has taken place and what is the situation in Ukraine(…) it not just bombing houses, infrastructure, the bodies of the people; they are bombing their minds, they are bombing their spirits”.[1] The EU diplomacy chief underlines a problem that, in his opinion, is getting worse as our lifetime goes by: the daily battle in the informational field. A battle whose main characteristic is the manipulation of information, a particular form of abuse of power, that is, of social domain. According to Teun van Dijk, manipulation is a form of illegitimate influence, achieved through discourse, in which manipulators make the manipulated believe in (or even do) things that are of special interest to the manipulator (and usually against the interests of the manipulated). In this sense, we can consider discursive manipulation as a complex social phenomenon, involving interaction and abuse of power (domination) between certain groups and social actors. It is also a complex phenomenon, taking into account that it presents itself in two ways: a) as a cognitive phenomenon, since it implies manipulation of the participants’ minds; b) as a discursive-semiotic phenomenon, since it can be expressed in the form of text, conversation or visual messages.[2]   

In this terrible conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which we follow every day in the media, there is also a covert daily struggle for the dominance of information – which was well understood by Borrell. Nowadays, this kind of struggle occurs mainly in cyberspace – virtual space opened up by networked computers. Cyberspace ended up reconfiguring the media’s discourse, since different voices – and not only the “official voices” – can find a social echo in the face of the great ease of access and the decentralized structure of the network, a problem that certainly upsets Putin in his project of domination. At his European Parliament intervention, Borrell identified the rising censorship of the media in Russia through the creation of new laws criminalizing the “false information about war”, with sentences up to 15 years in prison. This causes huge obstacles in the work of International journalists[3] and can be seen as a sign of how much this reconfiguration upsets Putin.

Being so, we cannot ignore that political power is not only interested in, but also “shapes”, or even “makes” communication. Analyzing Putin’s actions, we can infer that he tries, at all costs, to transform all kinds of Russian media into his “official channel”, where cunningly shaped information echoes, aiming to influence Russian public opinion. In other words, politicians know very well that they can easily manipulate public opinions. However, as Jürgen Habermas reminds us in Faktizitä und Geltung, politicians also know that public opinion cannot be “publicly bought”, nor even “snatched” from the public through an exercise of public pressure. Precisely for this reason, spaces for public opinion cannot be “manufactured” at the whim of anyone[4]. Not even Putin.

Habermas defends that “Public opinion space” (or sphere) can be understand as a network to communicate contents and positions, which form as opinions. In it, communication flows are filtered and synthesized, in such a condensed way that they turn into public opinions grouped around specific themes. However, the more the public spaces disconnects from the physical presence of its users and approaches the condition of virtual readers and possible physically distant spectators (through the intermediation of the mass media), the higher becomes the abstraction of the public opinion space. We also must highlight that, for Habermas, we cannot simply understand by public opinion the mere “representativeness” of opinions – in the state sense of the term –, much less the “set of individual opinions expressed privately”. According to the same author, we can characterize the space of opinion by the struggle for influence and the struggle that goes beyond the exercise of influence, a struggle that permeates established political agents, and groups of people and specialists that maintain influence on public spaces[5].

Borrell recalled another important aspect of the discursive-informational dimension of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, when he stated, “Over the last weeks, much before the invasion started, the Kremlin’s outlets were preparing the ground, by reversing the cause and consequences of this aggression and portraying Russia and the Russian people as a kind of victim: ‘Genocide’” [6]. In his opinion, Putin anticipated that the Russian People would be labeled as being the aggressors and he tried to avoid it by presenting the Russian people as being the victims. In addition, from a critical-discursive point of view, there is the use of a very typical strategy: the distinction “us” / “them”. It is an ideological strategy capable of sustaining and reproducing social conflicts, domination and inequality. According to Van Dijk, these conflicts can involve any type of interest and normally appear through the polarization “us” / “them”. Such polarization is, in fact, the basis of many ideological discourses, used as a strategy of positive self-presentation and negative presentation of the other[7].

It is also important to note that the negative presentation of Ukraine appears in Putin’s justification for the beginning of what he called a “special military operation” against Ukraine: the need to “denazify” and “demilitarize” the country. Supposedly, such a strategy, would “justify” the Russian invasion, because according to Putin, the Russians found themselves in the condition of being attacked. Thus, we can identify it, as an attempt by Putin to characterize the Russian military operation as a supposed defense strategy. It is clearly a manipulative discourse, in which, not only the real intentions of the Russian invasion are hidden, but also certain facts incompatible with Putin’s discourse on “denazification” – among them, the fact that Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, has Jewish ancestries.

Therefore, in the context of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, we should not disregard the social scenario of disinformation and social manipulation. The international community is witnessing today a maliciously engineered movement of Russia, bombarding the public with disinformation, to try to influence public opinion and hide the real motivations for Ukraine invasion. We can consider the unbridled and abusive exercise of Putin’s political-discursive power as one of the many elements used in his perverse strategy of social domination, generating a scenario of death and suffering, manipulation and disinformation, involving constant violations of social, legal and ethical-discursive principles.

[1] European Union, External Action Service, “Disinformation: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the EP debate”, published at 08/03/2022 – 13:00, with UNIQUE ID: 220308_14. Available at: <>, accessed on March 13, 2022. 

[2]  DIJK, Teun A. van, “Discourse and Manipulation”, In: Discourse & Society, 17 (2), pp. 359-383. London: SAGE Publications, 2006, pp. 360-361.

[3] European Union, External Action Service, “Disinformation: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the EP debate”, published at 08/03/2022.

[4] HABERMAS, Jürgen, Facticidad y Validez, Sobre el derecho y el Estado democrático de derecho en términos de teoría del discurso, Trad. de Manuel Jiménez Redondo, Madrid, Editorial Trotta, 2010, pp. 444-445.

[5] HABERMAS, Jürgen, Facticidad y Validez, Op. cit., pp. 440-444.

[6] European Union, External Action Service, “Disinformation: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the EP debate”, published at 08/03/2022.

[7] DIJK, Teun A. van, “Opinions and Ideologies in the Press”, Paper Round Table on Media Discourse, Cardiff, July 08-10, 1995, In: BELL, Allan and GARRETT, Peter (Eds.), Approaches to Media Discourse, Oxford, Blackwell, 1998, pp. 62-63.

Picture credits: memyselfaneye

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