Bernhard Pörksen is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tübingen. His new book “Digital Fever. Taming the big business of disinformation” (Palgrave Macmillan).
Mr. Poerksen, every war is called an information war. Does the Russian invasion just lead to communicative business as usual or are there special features?
I hesitate to answer for two reasons. On the one hand, the informational smog of the war, the tangle of half and fourth truths, can be felt by anyone who spends only half an hour on the Internet. On the other hand, a quick response that only seems to be sovereign seems to me to be a cynical escape from thought, a moderation of horror that breaks with the reality of suffering.
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What do you have in mind?
I mean: interpretations in such confusing existential situations can also serve to suppress one’s own pain and shock. Interpretation as a calming ritual. – Perhaps it would be more important to donate money and register on a platform to welcome refugees, right?
The effort of understanding is not useless.
No. But in such a dramatic war situation, you need a kind of introduction which might go something like this: Media studies is the endless analysis of communicatively mediated reactions to reactions, so they always derive, indirect action . Ago spontaneously drove to the central station in Berlin and took in two Ukrainian students. I admire him infinitely.
But now to the topic. Russian President Vladimir Putin has military power and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sympathy power. Is that really a power or just sympathetic?
In fact, there is a conflict between military and media power, and two parallel realities that shape perception: the reality of war and that of communication. In the first reality of the war, Putin is superior; In the second reality of communication, it is Zelenskyj who conducts one of the many online connectors through Telegram, through Twitter and in the form of video messages to his compatriots, the Russian army or the Europeans. and American politics, made possible by digital media.
Connective, what do you mean by that?
An organization without organization, a swarm with an approach that, in contrast to Putin’s strictly hierarchically structured troll armies, allows for individuality and communal experience, self-expression and directed participation. Here one finds people posting war reports on Moscow restaurant recommendation sites to circumvent Russian information control. Here you can find Wikipedia teams filling in articles on the invasion in real time, uncover US military experts, the London daughter of an alleged Lavrov lover. The pain of these days is that the media force can wake up the European community of values, but it cannot end the slaughter in Ukraine.
Putin prevents communication whenever he can. Zelenskyy spreads the communication where he can. Does the Ukrainian act more successful, more intelligent?
I would start differently. For me, the current news events can be understood as a terrible human and media experiment dealing with the extremely aggressive attempt at information control in the digital age. On the one hand: Putin, who is brutally trying to drive his country into information isolation: think of the persecution of journalists, the throttling of platforms, the new laws against fake news. On the other hand, however, there is a communication environment in the form of digital network media that can hardly be restructured in a totalitarian and coup-driven way, least of all for more than 144 million Russians.
Putin’s communication obeys the law: I say that they will listen to me, believe and follow me. Can this model still work in Russia in 2022?
Store shelves are emptying, Western businesses are disappearing, the wounded are returning from a war that shouldn’t be called a war, and even in Russia, there are still reports via WhatsApp that the state’s version of reality is incorrect. How will the Russian people react, especially in the long term? The social sciences debate two hypotheses. Number one: there is a change in the majority of opinions and an increasingly massive opposition to the war.
And hypothesis number two?
The majority follows, that is the assumption of the backlash, Putin even more resolutely and consolidates mentally. I myself argue as a media scientist dealing with forms of loss of control under digital network conditions. My hypothesis: the implosion of Putin’s propaganda building is inevitable. The scenario that could follow: the increasingly severe harassment of the protesters and a cruel end to power in the Kremlin, with unforeseeable geopolitical consequences.
Facebook promotes hate and hate speech, Twitter was Trump’s voluntary tool, Corona deniers and Putin understanders unite on Telegram. Today, however, social networks are becoming celebrated platforms for Ukrainian heroism and resilient Russia. Were popular judgments about these media and their power premature, even wrong?
Technology historian Melvin Kranzberg once said that technology is neither good nor bad nor neutral, it has an aggravating effect. It is revealing, however, that after the increasingly decisive fight against disinformation in the course of the pandemic with the war in Ukraine, numerous platforms have finally entered a phase of repositioning – far from an ideology of neutrality, far from a mere greed, comfortable. driven laissez-faire-faire towards ever clearer interventions. At the moment, the people are simply acting as a government, cooperating with Ukraine, coordinating. This makes it clear that social networks can definitely be used as tools for humanization and democratization. However, this presupposes political will, social pressure, the focus of world public opinion, perhaps also the extreme situation of such a war catastrophe, which forces us to rethink. In a nutshell: media technology can be used for many different purposes. The people themselves are responsible for the great leadership.
The distribution of Russian state media such as RT and Sputnik has been banned in EU countries. Is this step any more justified compared to the banning of Deutsche Welle in Russia and Putin’s media law, which criminalizes all objective reporting?
Yes, especially in the current exceptional situation. The following also applies: Political contexts are crucial; media legislation cannot be equated in democratic and autocratic systems. And why should Putin’s war propaganda be allowed to spread unchecked at this time?
But is such a ban really effective for what is sought: the end of disinformation and propaganda?
It would be an exaggeration to expect an end to disinformation and propaganda. It is more of a declaration, an act of ostracism, of normative self-confidence. And one more thing, and speaking very personally. Regardless of the current situation, I have long held the view that we are experiencing a transitional phase in media development, a digital puberty of networked societies.
Meanwhile, after the Brexit campaigns, Trump’s election victory, and free-floating fake news about the pandemic, I believe the enormous costs of misinformation call for stronger resistance from open societies. This is where the paradox of tolerance that the original liberal philosopher Karl Popper spoke of is revealed: Sometimes intolerance toward intolerance is needed. Of course, this requires the utmost scrupulous thought. And this is certainly not a nice or elegant solution, because open societies thrive on the ideal of maturity and enlightenment. But a liberal democracy must also protect its intellectual habitat in the form of the public. Because only then can the clarification and the fight for the best argument be successful.