Addressing Anti-Western and Anti-NATO Narratives: Building a More Informed Perspective in Times of Uncertainty

Published Thursday 23 November 2023 at 13:21

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Image by Don Fontijn via Unsplas

Discussing anti-Western narratives is a hot topical issue nowadays, but not a new one - just as propaganda is not an expression of our times, but has a long history behind it. I will not talk about the general course of anti-Western propaganda in Eastern Europe and especially in Romania, but about my personal experience with this field and the sometimes arduous process of countering it with honest and transparent means.

This article originally appeared on Hive Mind platform.

How did we get here?

The subject was an emerging one when I was a student, from 2010-2013; the approaches were, of course, different. Let's not forget that the Russian Federation was then just shaping its new official narrative, which was to be the basis for the following propaganda. There were anti-Western narratives, and the European Union, this simultaneously "imperialist" and "purely Marxist" construct, "a continuation of the USSR ", was both a utopia and a real and tangible enemy of citizens’ aspirations for freedom.

Propaganda began to be more coherent after the armed conflict in Georgia in 2008, but the discourse became even more nuanced especially after the invasion of Crimea in 2014. In fact, to put things in perspective, 2013 seems to be the year when the notorious Russian troll farm started operating. Since that moment, the West is no longer a diffuse enemy with many avatars, but has become an institution with many departments, to be dealt with individually, directly and in a specific manner - and NATO is one of these "departments". NATO is an older enemy, as its founding generated a not-so-subtle response from the USSR - the Warsaw Pact. This time, Russia is no longer waiting in a defensive posture, but attacking - both on the physical and virtual fronts. 

The rationale behind it may seem simple: NATO, argue voices defending the Kremlin's interests, has had no reason to exist since 1991, and yet it does - indeed, it is expanding eastwards. Therefore, a key reason to demonize NATO is highlighted: any Russian action against NATO is an act of self-defense, and therefore justified, a dictum that has been used often in recent years, more often since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

Unlike other supranational and international institutions and organizations, NATO enjoys a particularly high level of trust, even if membership comes with financial obligations. Without question, NATO is not above criticism, but the level of public confidence remains high.

What Russian anti-Western and anti-NATO propaganda looks like in Romania:

The case with which I am familiar and have worked hands-on is the anti-Western, especially anti-NATO, propaganda disseminated by Russia in Romania. In this specific case, as in the case of any state subject to the Kremlin's disinformation campaigns, people's opinions were taken into account to create exactly those narratives that would have the most traction with the public. In other words, if we look at the specific context, we can understand what would work and what would not. It's a simple exercise that can yield good results even if done by a group of amateurs, with general sociological data and a barometer of opinion. For example, Romanians overwhelmingly distrust Russia, even 90% - then the subtlety of the message should not be contrary to the majority opinion, but should be disguised, wrapped in a more palatable theme for the public, such as the appeal to the (joint) Orthodox tradition.

Why is it important to have a separate discussion about NATO-related propaganda, not just the whole anti-Western campaign? If the first thing you think of when it comes to NATO is Article 5 or, lato sensu, the idea of war, then keep in mind that propaganda and war go hand in hand. Propaganda used to be subservient to classical warfare, it was like an auxiliary group; now, the way in which we operate in the information age has changed the balance of power, and war now serves propaganda. 

War is intrinsically evil -  starting from this very concept, demonizing an entity that was created in times of conflict, that now has no enemy but insists in perpetuating a long-gone animosity is thus a constructive and pacifist approach (isn't this how NATO is portrayed in Russian discourse?). Isn't this obsolete entity that propagates and provokes wars a safe target when discussing the universal well-being to which we all aspire? Even with this Zeitgeist in which it is no longer disgraceful, but perhaps even a claim to fame, for a politician to lie, the desire to live in peace still prevails.

What do the studies say?

We have explored how Russian anti-Western propaganda manifested itself in Romania prior to the 2022 invasion in a report published by Funky Citizens. Even then, we observed that Russia was exploiting the information needs of Romanians, thus managing to influence even pro-Western citizens through subtle interventions. Moreover, taking advantage of the growing populist trends, Russian propaganda is finding more and more support even from opponents who adopt a Euro-critical or patriotic stance, not only from Eurosceptics or right-wing nationalists. 

Studies indicated at the time two main categories of narratives circulating in Romania, which are still valid, with slight recalibrations, to the reality in the immediate neighborhood: Romania as a perpetual victim of the great powers and the existence of external conspiracies against Romania. Using this logic, a factual situation such as the justified indignation of citizens over Austria's baseless refusal of Romania's entry into the Schengen Area at the end of 2022 can be (and has been) instrumentalized to the advantage of anti-Western propaganda - not to mention all the anti-system positions valorized as anti-Western during the pandemic period. 

Propaganda relies on intermediaries to spread messages, consciously or unconsciously, and an environment that allows misinformation to flourish. This enabling environment thrives when the trust in state institutions is low, when the society is divided and democracy, weakened - all realities of present-day Romania. These vulnerabilities, visible since 2017-2018, but exponentially accentuated by the pandemic, not only allow propaganda to flourish, but also enhance it. We emphasized in the previous analysis that disseminators, whether influencers, media outlets, political parties or ordinary citizens, tend to do so in their own self-interest rather than in explicit support of the propaganda source. Those who help spread propaganda narratives are not necessarily pro-Russian sympathizers but, in many cases, unwitting disseminators. There is of course an explanation for the unintentional propagation - it leaves the impression of group secrecy, of superiority, of an understanding beyond that of the common folk (see the term "sheeple" being enshrined in conspiracy discourse). It is also noted that misinformation travels mostly unhindered in the Romanian information space, being covered and promoted in some cases by mainstream news sources.

What can be done?

When referencing current affairs, it is my impression that we are too connected to events to be objective. After all, in any information game, we like to think of ourselves as the calculated Vulcans, not the impulsive hooligans. For a similar and familiar context, a prelude to all that is happening today, we should reference 2014’s Euromaidan. Simultaneously, in Crimea, the planned pro-Russian counter-movements were presented by the Kremlin as "Russian Spring", which seems to be not a reference to the "Arab Spring", a recent phenomenon at that time, but to the "Prague Spring" - because that's how propaganda works, by inverted symbols. 

Moreso, if the symbolism wasn't enough, the Euromaidan symbols were perverted and claimed by its enemies. For the formula to be complete, the classic approach of propaganda works to discredit the enemy: Euromaidan was, of course, an external manipulation, the result of the nefarious intervention of the United States, which, in its good tradition, was attempting a forced regime change against the will of the people. It was also then that we saw the ancestor of the 2022 special military operation, for on Russian TV there were talks of an "anti-terrorist operation", terminology that not only placed a negative label on the enemy, but made a counter-narrative more difficult to construct. 

The meta-narrative was one that had both internal and external use: the desire for (false) "freedom" is just an unfortunate remnant of the Cold War and will never bring peace or prosperity, only conflict, poverty and division. If this sounds familiar, you may be accustomed to the discourse propagated in the Republic of Moldova, where we are dealing with this particularly nuanced discourse pushing all the right buttons for the general public for decades now. Beyond the propaganda itself, Peter Pomerantsev argues that direct intervention is needed to demonstrate the metanarrative - even if that means invading a neighboring state in order to prove to the public at home that the desire for freedom is a poisoned apple. Pomerantsev also makes the point that propaganda cannot be fought with propaganda. If you're wondering why, it's the divisive effects of propaganda that seems to work the very same no matter who disseminates it. So what do you do then?

Our previous recommendations stemmed from the classic approach: although proven effective, they did not cover the whole range of solutions. All of these methods have been used successfully in recent years by Funky Citizens and are ways of countering known forms of propaganda. 

  1. First, we need fact-checking and contextualization. Traditional fact-checking platforms play a vital role in our world, but sometimes respond rather poorly when misinformation has already reached the level of public communication. This is precisely why fact-checking should not be a stand-alone operation, but integrated into the day-to-day work of all those who disseminate information to the public. 
  2. Next, transparency in institutional communication is essential. This must come from independent sources, as trust in public institutions in Romania is consistently low. Institutional communication should focus on providing rapid, complete and objective information of public interest, especially in sensitive situations, to stop the spread of misinformation, especially in the post-pandemic world.
  3. In addition, media and civic education should be a priority in schools. It is crucial to teach young people to develop the critical thinking and skills needed to navigate the world. Similar to the first point, we are not talking about separate subjects, but about integrating this way of thinking into every activity. 

Debunking, prebunking and positive narratives

However, the landscape has changed quite a bit since then, especially after the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We've spent the last year and a half fighting narrative after narrative and writing fact-check after fact-check. Our work sometimes hits an emotional roadblock - because propaganda doesn't reach the rational level, but operates at the level of strong, almost exclusively negative emotions. In this context, I proposed a complementary approach, namely the construction of positive narratives and prebunking. 

Prebunking, as opposed to debunking, i.e. what we do through fact-checking, is a proactive strategy for dealing with false narratives; whereas debunking involves dismissing false information after it has already been disseminated, prebunking focuses primarily on preventing the spread of false information. This approach encourages media literacy, fact-checking and healthy skepticism, which are essential tools to counter the influence of propaganda. 

If propaganda narratives start from sociological profiles, whose key points they exploit, then a similar approach could prove effective -  but based on objective information and positive realities. Constructing positive narratives is a powerful and strategic approach to countering anti-Western propaganda. By proactively shaping and promoting constructive narratives about Western values, principles and actions (with an emphasis on concrete actions), countries can not only defend themselves against misinformation, but also promote a stronger sense of unity and trust among their populations. Positive narratives highlight achievements, shared values and collaborative efforts within Western societies, emphasizing the benefits of international cooperation and democracy.