The First Casualty of War

War in Europe, Russia invades peaceful neighbor Ukraine. Or rather, steps up its on-going invasion, eight years on. Many old truths have been reversed, such as: EU sending fighter jets. Germany increasing military spending. Sweden sends anti-armor weapons.

Some old truths come back strong: truth is the first casualty of war. As in the casus belli is full of lies: genocide, Nazism, history. Newspeak: “military-technical measures”, “peace-keeping” or “de-militarisation” rather than invasion.

“War is a mere continuation of politics by other means”, wrote Prussian major-general Carl von Clausewitz in On War (1832). Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin proves the point by claiming historic rights to Ukraine, saying it’s not a proper country. (Historian Yuval Noah Harari points out Ukraine has 1000 years of history as a nation.)

Except in this case, truth died long before the war. The fake news, the farce of Russian politics, the troll factories. Perhaps truth is not the first casualty of war, but rather war is the consequence of an absence of truth? If so, the war on truth has been going on for decades. Yes, there has always been propaganda and misinformation, but the digital public sphere struggles to tell truth from lies.

Other public spheres have measures in place to maximize truthfulness – checks and balances. Classic media has press ethics, publishes corrections, is run by educated editors, has a system for scrutiny of publishing decisions and more. It tries to learn and do better. In science, there is the peer-review system for publishing papers in academic journals, contributions to conferences and awarding degrees. In representative democracies, the political opposition keeps its thumb firmly in the eye of the rulers, there are auditors, elections, free press and NGOs scrutinizing decisions and holding the people making them to account. Publicly traded companies must publish quarterly reports, big and small investors continuously evaluate their business, auditors check the numbers, the exchange holds up rules, the finance analysts and business media do their best to find correct information, there are authorities overseeing trade and so on. This is not to say these systems work perfectly, rather they are full of flaws. But there is an ambition to truth, and an ambition to do better.

This is in stark contrast to the online public sphere. Internet platforms shy from any sort of editorial responsibilities. In fact, sometimes algorithms amplify fake news and profit from hate, a result of the business model. Maybe the nihilist attitude to truth is a consequence of digital technology basics: all ones and zeros are equal. All data has the same value. Every impulse to distinguish true from false or to install a dimension of quality must be added on, rather than integrated to the data-traffic.

My social media is full of people who – as far as I can tell – volunteer in spreading Putin’s war propaganda. They say Ukraine prolong the war by fighting back. They have all kinds of videos and infographics to support their case. Except each of them falls apart upon closer inspection. On a personal level, this is throwback to all other fights I’ve had with trolls over the years: pirates, anti-vaxxers, racists, sexists, Qanon… even the NFT-crowd. Different topics, sometimes the same people, the modus operandi is the same. The bait is ambiguous statements that can be interpreted as something horrible but just as easily denied. When challenged, they pedal back from the horrible interpretation, then offer all kinds of arguments to support it. The false statements, videos, infographics and comment come in quicker than I can double-check them. It is very effective. I try not to take the bait, but I often fail – thinking somebody has to bring a different view. They share the view that institutions cannot be trusted. “Do your own research” is the call-to-arms. This article describes the psychological process, except only to fall into its own trap of thinking there is a bigger force behind it all, pulling the strings.

Of course, Putin’s apologists and everyone else have a right to their own opinion. But do they have a right to their own facts?

To their credit, Big Tech has taken some action – too little to late but welcome all the same. The basic problem remains, there are no press ethics, no system, no real ambition to separate truth from lies. This is not an unsolvable problem, in fact it has been solved many times – as demonstrated by the examples mentioned above. Ironically, it is a Belarusian expat who explains this best: in his 2011 book The Net Delusion (Public Affairs), Evgeny Morozov makes the point that Big Tech’s loyalty will be to their share-holders rather than liberal ideology, if or when it comes to taking sides.

Internet platforms are in no way to be held accountable for Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. The responsibility lies solely with the Russian regime. Putin himself is the one who can stop the war. There are many things in the balance, social media plays an important part for keeping in touch while in shelters or seeking refuge, much of the news from the war zones come via digital channels. It is fair to say that the Ukrainian leadership has been able to use social media to get support for their fight. All those things and more are good. At the same time, internet platforms are channels for propaganda and fake news.

The European Union has taken steps to counteract Russian misinformation or “psy-ops” as the military calls it, including restricting access to some Russian sources, thus walking the tightrope of freedom of speech versus information wars. I have people in my social media calling this censorship and not trusting the European citizens to see through Russian propaganda. On the other hand, I some of those European citizens in my social media amplifying the Russian propaganda. Again, this dilemma might have been avoided if platforms had transparency and editorial policies.

How can we have more of the good and less of the bad? How can we bring back truth? This may be the key to avoiding conflict in the future.

This time, the free world stands united. Let’s do what we can to keep it that way.