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Raul Rebane: Information warfare also requires choosing a side

Raul Rebane.
Raul Rebane. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

Naivety is an especially poor friend in war and major conflicts. The "us versus them" and "friend or foe" models based on which dissidence happens, and is happening in Russia and elsewhere today, are shaped using long-term influence operations, Raul Rebane says in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted several pain spots that were overlooked or willfully ignored before. That is what war does. To win or even survive, difficult decisions will have to be taken. And a side absolutely needs to be picked.

While bombs are not falling, information warfare is in full swing. A new stage began just a few days ago. The Estonian Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) decided on Wednesday to cut off access to seven Russian news sites in Estonia. Less than a month before, the decision to remove from the air a number of Russian federal networks was made. Verbal skirmishes surrounding these topics have been telling and go a long way toward describing the situation in the country.

I was involved in the process and initially quite surprised to see the unity with which Russian propaganda outlets were defended in Estonia. This reached its zenith around February 7-12.

I compiled for myself a list of reasons given to keep them: most programs are good and nothing more than innocent entertainment; one needs to know the enemy's weapon; restrictions are always bad; Vladimir Solovyov is not alone in lying, NATO does it too; grandma cannot be robbed of her daily dose of Putin, he is like family; it is pure discrimination and censorship; people will know the truth and are capable of making informed choices themselves etc.

The Russian media was very united on the subject, while a part of its Estonian counterpart also rushed to defend these channels, including politicians, especially from the ranks of the Center Party. [MEP] Yana Toom even flew home from Brussels to appear on several programs to defend Russian channels. The tour culminated in her demonstratively appearing on Solovyov's show in Moscow on February 14.

While there were no battles [in Ukraine] at the time, the situation was already very tense, which begs the question of what was being protected. The right to remain between the two sides or the noble idea of journalistic freedom? If it was the latter, Russian networks on Estonian air should be protected still, which is no longer being done. Think about that.

ERR's Narva correspondent Jüri Nikolejev gave an interview to Maaleht in which he said, "A Narva politician cannot tell the truth about Ukraine. Narva residents would no longer vote for them!" Nikolajev's sentence clearly demonstrates the extent of the problem we're facing. Elections and the media landscape are directly linked.

Allow me to linger on just one aspect of this to make my point. My recommendation is to clearly distinguish between journalism and information operations served as journalism. Not everyone holding a microphone is a journalist, just like not everyone with a thermometer is a doctor.

Journalistic freedom absolutely deserves protection, while a state is obligated to defend its citizens against information operations. So-called influence campaigns are an advanced form of the latter and precisely what Estonia needs to concern itself with as they are long-lived and often imperceptible. Even the people orchestrating them do not always realize their involvement.

For example, former Tallinn TV used to air programs that disseminated Soviet nostalgia and praised without restraint Vladimir Putin, Russia and even Stalin. Right now, we are hearing calls to give everyone citizenship, while our networks have aired programs aimed at glorifying Russian imperialism. Putin's extremely conservative values system, exemplified in his hatred for minorities, is very much present in the media and social media of certain groups and looking for supporters.

It is curious how we have managed not to arrive at a universal Estonian school system in 25 years, whether such a system really is the preference of most people and how have these decisions really been shaped? The war of symbols has been raging since the Bronze Night, with the focus currently on the letter Z painted on cars.

The Latvians have been quicker to tidy up their information landscape. They shut off access to hate networks a long time ago and have blacklisted 71 websites or ten times more than we have done. They have been monitoring a curious trend discussed by [Latvian politician and political scientist] Veiko Spolitis on the ETV "Terevisioon" morning show on Thursday. Namely, how active antivaccination websites have suddenly become anti-Ukrainian in Latvia to suggest a common source. This is by no means unheard-of in Estonia.

In summary. Naivety is an especially poor friend in war and major conflicts. The "us versus them" and "friend or foe" models based on which dissidence happens, and is happening in Russia and elsewhere today, are shaped using long-term influence operations, also in Estonia. Russia's attack on Ukraine has cleared much of the air and opened many eyes. It has also made possible steps that were difficult to take before, including as concerns moving Russian channels out of the Estonian information landscape.

However, and above all, we need to realize where we live. The subject matter of information defense was elegantly summed up by Ilmar Raag in his comment titled "This is Estonia, not the Russian Empire," One would be hard-pressed to offer a more accurate description of the situation.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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