Erzhan Bagdatov: The Kazakhstani Media Space in a “Hybrid” Information Conflict
“Roughly speaking, there are no real government mechanisms for reacting to these attacks. Blocking content and putting out fires will never be preventative measures and will only lead to a loss of reputation on the part of the authorities,” – media expert Erzhan Bagdatov examines the problem of information warfare in Kazakhstan in this CABAR.asia exclusive.
Today, “hybrid information war” is a new trend in the media and political lexicon. The era of global telecommunications, the internet, social networks, and messenger apps have made the dissemination of information lightning-fast in a literal sense.
The global telecommunication strategies of multinational corporations for absorbing the international information space, with accessible gadgets and personal computers among their various goals, have made this trend even more relevant. The dissemination of information has become faster and the flow of information is increasing on a daily basis. For this reason, one pressing question in particular has appeared – how can this information be used against us? Do recent events in the information space indicate an open information assault on the consciousness and psychological health of our population?
The war for consciousness through information
According to recent research, hybrid information war is considered one of the most brutal instruments for waging war. It is no less powerful than traditional means of warfare due to its effectiveness and large-scale impact. This effectiveness is often due to its psychological effects. This form of warfare has a long history, but the development of modern mass communications has given it newfound importance. Recent events in Ukraine have shown how information warfare has become a powerful instrument for shaping public opinion not only in Russia and Ukraine but in Kazakhstan as well.
This factor becomes even more relevant when a population’s informational awareness is disproportionately channeled through the internet. Alongside traditional media, internet users are becoming newsmakers and trend setters in their own right with their posts and blogs that are wildly shared and disseminated on the charts of various internet portals regardless of the fact that they are often based on unverified and unsubstantiated information. The majority of the internet audience requires complete and accurate information, is characterized by their active civic positions, their focus on opinion leaders, and their reliance on proven resources. However it is exceedingly difficult to determine the objectivity and veracity of the presented information. The Arab Spring led the post-Soviet political elites to view the internet and social networks as a boogeyman of sorts. The authorities view domestic political instability as something hidden in the moods of Kazakhstani internet users.
The idiosyncrasies of the Kazakhstani audience
According to some experts, the flowering of activity on Facebook among Kazakhstani internet users can be traced to the beginning of 2011. This was the moment when political events in the country became a catalyst for the formation of an active user community. This community has already transformed into a tool for increased public influence on the national information field, overtaking the political tools of state agencies.
Kazakhstan’s new reality reflects certain difficulties that indicate the weakness and vulnerability of the national information space to external influences, which have been sorely underestimated. The Ukrainian crisis has shown the possible critical consequences for society regardless of the domestic political situation. The decline of domestic mass media and journalism as a whole is a major signal for the political authorities of their inability to adequately react to an information attack, which often sets into motion a poorly controlled process with internet users at the vanguard.
According to the latest data and analyses of a mapping of the internet space, the Kazakhstani internet is shown to now be absolutely unprotected against the influences coming from the Russian information space. The influence of the Russian internet is first among various factors considered to be significant dangers for the state.
If we look to the simple web traffic measurements of alexa.com, Russian sites are among the top 100 foreign socio-political sites and platforms most visited by Kazakhstani users: lenta.ru (51st place), rambler.ru (28th place), rbc.ru (81st place), mail.ru (1st place), vk.com (3rd place), and ok.ru (7th place). These sites, together with a variety of search engines and chat services, are popular thanks to the news services. That being said, the activity of Facebook users pushed that social media platform to 9th place.
The popularity of news sites like nur.kz (10th place), tengrinews.kz (22nd place), and zakon.kz (18th place) cannot be truly objectively evaluated, because these sites content draw a significant portion of their content from international news services and often from Russian news sites. Consequently, Russian sources as well as the interpretation of Russian information policy are becoming increasingly more influential within the Kazakhstani internet.
However, the marked decrease in the quality of content during the active phases of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and the Russo-Turkish crisis indicate a glut and consequent rejection of Russian content and its aggressive rhetoric by Kazakhstani users. This has led users to become more critical of publications being shared by fake accounts as well as Kazakhstani content, which is simply information from Russian sites republished or reposted.
In this context, the research of the Kazakhstani Press Club presents some interesting material. This research is based on a survey of 80 experts and journalists during the 2010 Media Kurultai aimed at assessing the impact of external factors on the formation of the national information space. The results are truly depressing. They indicate that Kazakhstani users rate the influence of Russian content (online and offline resources) more highly in current global conditions. The appeal of Kazakhstani sources was incredibly low. In these results, we can observe that a massive shift of citizens towards the information flow of Russian agencies and television channels is underway (Figure 1).
More recently one could observe some spontaneous activity that had appeared during the mass protests against the Spring 2016 Land Reforms. During those protests, activists began disseminating links to three-year old reports of Chinese troops entering Tajikistan. Consequently, news spread through messenger apps and social networks about the People’s Republic of China renting land in Kazakhstan, about the resettlement of Chinese workers, and of an entire army of Chinese labor volunteers being positioned on the Sino-Kazakhstani border.
The activities of obviously fake user accounts on social networks and various sites were cause for particular concern as they continued to publish and repost biased and emotionally charged information, photos, and videos with evidence of so-called clear and present dangers to the country (video of thousands of Chinese workers at the Aktogay mines and of the Chinese national anthem being played at oil production facilities in Western Kazakhstan). In this context, it would be fair to note that the term “information attack” is actively bandied about and is used to attract and distract the attention of internet users, as some experts rightly point out. These attacks quickly gain popularity and are reproduced according to predetermined mechanisms. As such, the analysis and study of these attacks must become a key area of activity for state agencies and analytical bodies. Therefore, the development of standard operating procedures and an understanding of crisis communication among state agency are of paramount importance.
It is no secret that simply putting out fires is not an effective response in the face of the rapid spread of unverified and false information. Measuring public opinion is important to develop a clear decision-making strategy.
What is happening now?
In discussing information attacks, we can easily divide external from internal information flows. Internal flows are of a pronounced political nature. They are generally aimed at specific individuals and often occur before or during political events. Meanwhile, it must be stated that this instrument is becoming one of the most popular political techniques in contemporary national politics. It is impossible to deny the presence of lobbyists within the informational and analytical agencies of Kazakhstan. Their affiliations can easily be discerned based on the character of their publications and activities. Sociological sampling of public opinion, surveys, and ratings have become but mere instruments, lacking in authenticity or any form of criticism and verification.
Analyzing the data from the aforementioned research from the Kazakhstani Press Club (Figure 2), we have come to certain conclusions regarding the status quo of the Kazakhstani mass media that are no less interesting. Based on this chart, we see that the balance of opinions regarding the conditions of the information space confirms that the fears of domestic political instability stemming from an information attack are becoming more and more credible.
Now we shall identify several significant information attacks on social networks, messenger apps, and news platforms over the past 8 months:
- The Chinese threat (renting and transferring land ownership in Eastern Kazakhstan, “100 Dollar Passions” from the First Eurasia Channel) which was exaggerated by the publication and sharing of posts from fake accounts, disseminating information over messenger apps, etc.;
- The Islamic threat (the publication of photos and videos of Kazakhstani citizens fighting in Syria, calls to jihad, and information regarding the activities of non-traditional Islamic movements throughout Kazakhstan);
- Discussion regarding a “successor” (publishing analytical material, interviews with political scientists and Kazakhstani experts, the republishing of Russian expert opinions about possible scenarios and consequences stemming from a transfer of power in Kazakhstan, speculation surrounding the death of the Uzbek president, falsified information about secret negotiations and arrangements);
- Various sociological surveys and research projects regarding interethnic harmony with conclusions and analysis of a provocative nature (dubious conclusions of sociological research that is shared by users on social media or discussed in groups);
- Fake pronouncements of the possible resignation of Kazakhstani Prime Minister Masimov, gossip around his activity and public relations work on social networks (the publication and republishing of the opinions of experts, analysts, public figures and bloggers);
- Articles, surveys, and analysis of a Crimean or Donbas Scenario in Kazakhstani territory (Publications and articles by little known or unknown writers about the Kremlin’s plans to alienate defined areas with large pro-Russian populations, or an invasion by Russian or Chinese troops in response to the activities radical groups, terrorist acts or separatism);
- Discussions of the economic conditions and an upcoming collapse of the national economy (yet more publication and republishing of information of rumors of a planned devaluation of the national currency, the embezzlement of money from the National Fund, opinions and conclusions of experts, analysis by Russian experts with negative or pessimistic scenarios).
Often the population’s trust in these types of information flows is caused by the weak mechanisms for cooperation between traditional and internet-based media and the state. These mechanisms often do not exist, which generates a wave of negativity towards the information vacuum. In response to this vacuum, internet users often take the initiative into their own hands. The events in Aktobe and Almaty could be considered excellent examples of this situation with terrorist attacks met with the perceived inactivity and silence on the part of law enforcement. Other examples are the events surrounding the rape case in Esik, the disappearance of Safar Shakeev, and conflict in Southern Kazakhstan among other incidents.
Preparing for what?
Experience has shown that the presence of uncontrolled information flows turns government agencies into hostages of an unfolding situation. The political motives of recent information attacks, which are aimed either at destabilizing the state or discrediting the existing political system, are of a distinct nature. Roughly speaking, there are no real government mechanisms for reacting to these attacks. Blocking content and putting out fires will never be preventative measures and will only lead to a loss of reputation on the part of the authorities.
In conclusion, it should be added that we did not land on this topic by accident. This zone of turbulence, in which the post-Soviet states are located, has reached its apogee. The old elites are not capable of adequately reacting to events or of following new social trends and tendencies. This provides a new generation of managers with an opportunity to use new technologies and instruments to actively promote themselves as well as to sideline and discredit their competition.
Meanwhile, we have become witnesses to the active phase of information war surrounding the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov that has lead to mass speculation among experts and analysts, as well as the attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek. These events entail a string of theories and assumptions.
While waiting for a new round of information attacks and speculation, I would like to note that hybrid war has become an element of open conflict. In this context, it should be mentioned that information attacks are evidence of the activity and interest on the part of opposing internal and external players seeking to lay the groundwork of public opinion for future events. I hasten to add that the buzz and hype this autumn may be particularly sharp but will be as controlled and predictable as the expert conclusions of various “think tanks”.
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Author: Erzhan Bagdatov, Executive Director of the Center of Media Technologies (Astana, Kazakhstan)
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect that of CABAR.asia