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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Gaza vs Georgia. Information Wars.

I am following both the Arab and Israeli information sources on Twitter and Youtube. I hear the noise of words, the shots of images and see distant blinks of audio-clip explosions.

Although I do not like the term "information warfare" since this parallel fills the eyes of military planners with unhealthy shine, it is still true that one's capability to build up a supporting information field of its own is the key to winning armed conflicts.

Attacking someone is more and more connected to collateral costs in reputation and economy. The attacker may gain some physical advantages during the war, but lose on all other fronts, as happened with Russia in the war in Georgia in August 2008.

It was a bad surprise for prime minister Putin when he realized that foreign capital started to flee the country and the legend that Georgia's president Mikheil Šaakašvili was the initiator of the war started to crumble. Frustrated, Putin then gathered together the journalistic elite of Russia and unleashed his discontent on them because of their inability to wage the "information war" even at their home front.

Similarly, reputational problems have and will haunt Israel while its operations will advance in Gaza.*

For these reasons military attacks of the day normally involve a huge amount of money and effort that is put into building and installing the "weapons of truth" - clear messages and channels for spreading them. In some cases you may be able to predict military conflicts by watching the strategic preparations on the information front for many years ahead of the real operation.

The preparatory stages can take many forms, sometimes the enemy can be ridiculized, sometimes just proven wrong, but the closer the conflict gets, the more simple and clear-cut the virtual battlefield becomes. It becomes very important for both sides to "victimize" themselves and "aggressorize" the other.

The attacker wants to show that he has/had no other option but to attack, since the "other has been terrorizing innocent civilians for a while". For the attacked the same becomes extremely important, for example, he needs to show how the progressing army is not actually hitting military installments, but also (or mainly) civilian targets. For that reason there is also a race for visual material that would document the atrocities. And of course, in any kind of military conflict, there are always opportunities for such materials.

Well, I almost hear you saying that "no Nobel prize in this statement", but it gets more interesting when you look at this situation as a visualization. Basically we can imagine the informational battle as a landscape where the attacker and the attacked are positioned on different positions.

Let us imagine the proud "Mount Justice", the thorny "Mount Victimization" and the barren "Valley of Agression" lying in between them. In media and information sphere both sides want to push each other into the valley while trying to get up on the tops of mountains themselves. Both sides try to occupy the Mount Victimization and Mount Justice as a convenient elevated position to shoot information shells at the other. Thus "up" and "down" gain similar advantages and disadvantages as on a real battlefield.

Red and white characters represent the opposing parties in the war, both want to gain elevated positions by using statements, texts, images.

You can use this kind of positioning exercise on any other conflict as well, but in military cases it becomes very clear-cut and easy to follow. Since anyone can produce images and messages nowadays, bad news for the attacker is that it almost always finds itself immediately in the bottom of the Valley of Aggression, whenever it starts a serious military move. The citizen journalists with mobile phones and cameras will take care of it. Even millions of dollars of preparation do not help in these situations.

So the planners of larger military operations of 2008 thought of the "obvious" - if you can not win the information battle in the critical moment, try to postpone direct engagements with the info-enemy. Instead they tried to use the advantage of timing and "blitzkrieging" in the shadow of other large events. Russian troops went on the move on the eve of the Olympic games and Israel started its operations in Gaza in between Christmas and New Year. Most likely the idea was to gain as much advantage for the attacker before the information sinks in for the vacationing, tv-watching and partying world's public opinion. No information, no war. And later, well, the past is past. Therefore it always becomes crucial for the attacked to get the information about the attack out as fast as possible.

A photograph that "nuked" U.S. into the Valley of Aggression during the Vietnam War.

So, the conclusion? One of the conclusions is that the cost of conventional war is rising because of the informational and reputation risks and this may be good news for peace loving populations. At the same time the cost of small-scale attacks, such as happened Mumbai, is just getting lower and lower by a day. Thus, the temptation of of small groups to drag bigger countries into costly wars is continuously very high.

But I see the main risk elsewhere. As trying to imagine myself as a cynical military planner who wants to settle problems with inconvenient neighbours once and for all, I would understand that the cost of straightforward information distribution game is too high. So I might be tempted to devalue the information as such, overload the media, initiate shadow wars on many fronts to cover the real intentions, to finance fake terrorist attacks and seize the opportunities while the world is watching the other direction. I may also be tempted towards faster and more resolute "solutions" by firing first and answering questions only later.

*It is probably necessary to stress that I am not really comparing Israel and Russia on political levels and I am not taking sides in this very posting. I am not getting deeply into sympathies, principles of right or wrong, I just look into the information battles accompanying military operations against regions with civilians. It is in my interest just to point out some developments in the nature of modern war and look at the attacker/attacked problem as such.