Public domain image
Hack attack: Russian hackers defaced the Web site of the Georgian Foreign Ministry with a collage comparing Saakashvili with Hitler.
It started as a fairly
predictable digital conflict, mimicking the one in the real world and
displaying no shortage of conventional cyberwarfare: Web pages were attacked,
comments were erased, and photos were vandalized. A typical prank on the Georgian
Foreign Ministrys Web site visually compared Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili with Adolf Hitler.
As Russian tanks lumbered
southward over mountainous Ossetian terrain, Russian netizens were seeking to
dominate the digital battlefield.
But sophomoric pranks and
cyberattacks were only the first shots of a much wider online war in which
Russian bloggers willingly enlisted as the Kremlins grass-roots army. For
Russian netizens, unconventional cyberwarfarewinning the hearts and minds of
the Westbecame more important than crashing another server in Tbilisi. Managing information seemed all the
more urgent as there were virtually no images from the first and the most
controversial element in the whole warthe Georgian invasion of Tskhinvali, the
capital of South Ossetiaand the destruction that, were one to believe the Kremlins
account, followed shortly thereafter.
Much of the public argument
for a harsh response among Russians rested on Kremlin-backed reports of
extremely high casualties among South Ossetias
soldiers and the civilian population, which Georgians fervently denied. This
lack of clarity and factual evidence only ratcheted up the speculative nature
of most discussions.
Those skeptical of the
official statistics argued that the government could have fabricated the
figures. In response, a group of Russian bloggers sent a public letter to SUP, the Russian company that owns and manages
LiveJournal, one of the most popular blog services in the country (but legally
still an American entity). They asked it to impose curbs on free speech and
censor anyone seeking to undermine Russias war effort by expressing
pro-Georgian sentiment. Regular laws of peaceful times do not apply; we are at
war! read their somewhat hysterical letter. (Thankfully, SUP ignored their
Not everyone in the Russian
blogosphere shared concerns about the war; its obscenely rich, glossy, and too
self-absorbed fraction carried on as usual. I dont give a f**k about this war
is a very loose translation of a post that Artemij Lebedev,
one of Russias
most famous digerati and bohemians (and this years Young Global Leader in Davos to
boot), wrote on his LiveJournal blog.
The post received more than 900 comments and was followed by a photo of a nude woman.
Young global leadership for new times, indeed.
Amid the millions of
comments that Russian bloggers wrote on the issue, a few themes started to
emerge. The dominant narrative was that of a grand anti-Russian conspiracy
carried out by the Western media. As reports from American and European media
poured inmany with extremely graphic images of the destruction caused by Russias
bombing of Georgian townssome Russian bloggers despaired that their government
couldnt respond with its own powerful imagery and words.
Russia doesnt have its own CNN,
and this is felt really badly. The governments objective for the next few
years should be to create a powerful propaganda machine and train thousands of
highly qualified and ideologically faithful journalists. This task is as
important as the production of new nuclear [war]heads, wrote one such blogger.
Russia does, incidentally, have its
own mini-CNN. Its a very well-endowed channel called Russia Today that broadcasts in
English and aims to reach a global audience. Yet although many readers in the
West were still missing many details about South Ossetia
(perhaps the best time to feed them Kremlin propaganda), Russia Today was still
not catching up with its Western counterparts in terms of professionalism. Get it off your chest is how
they named their Web forum on the war. If this was meant as propaganda, it
wasnt very subtle.
With Russia Today unwilling or unfit to fulfill its global mandate, some
patriotic Russian netizens decided to wage their own propaganda campaigns. Like
their Chinese colleagues who, earlier in the year, rushed to YouTube and Web
sites of foreign media to leave comments about Tibet and the Olympics, Russians
didnt think twice before flooding the Web sites of CNN and BBC with comments.
Even very marginally related online venuessuch as the European
forum of the popular game World of Warcraftwere hijacked by angry Russian
commenters (the threads have been subsequently deleted).
The most educated among them
even started posting simultaneously in two languagesRussian and Englishto
convince speakers of both. Many of their comments pointed to inaccuracies
in Western reporting and contained examples of possible mistakes in several
graphic images from the war that the West might be taking at face value. People of the world. You deceive! World mass media
conduct propagation of a false information, begins one such comment
titled Typical Address to Stupid Foreigners. Bloggers encouraged each other to
repost it on English-language sites as part of the campaign to educate the
Western public (according to Google,
this very comment has been reposted hundreds of times in the past few days).
The assumption that some
Russian bloggers made was that if only the West could read accounts of the
great injustice Georgians had inflicted upon South Ossetia,
they could be converted to the Russian cause. So, relying on tools such as Google Docs, a
popular online platform for sharing documents, they quickly split the work of compiling and then translating the timeline
of the events into English. It seemed crucial to have enough reports to show
that it was Georgia that
first attacked South Ossetia.
No matter how the real
conflict between Russia and Georgia ultimately ends, Russias young
people are joining their Chinese counterparts in a great fight to make Western
media more sympathetic to their countries. They are unlikely to succeed, but
their very actions suggest much greater self-confidence on the world stage than
their parents could ever exhibit. It remains to be seen whether their
belligerence ends at fighting Western media in comment warfare or spills into
more radical attacks.