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Armed Conflict: In the Age of Disinformation, One Side’s Proof is Another’s Propaganda

Technology has failed to bring certainty to conflict zones where opposing sides employ information against each other

Introduction

Two hundred and ninety eight bodies in the middle of Ukrainian sunflower fields. People, passports, clothing and the evidence of who launched the missile that shot down the civilian plane MH-17 all hurtled to the ground at midday on July 17, 2014 in the Donetsk region. Most of the passengers were Dutch, the plane bound for Kuala Lumpur had taken off from Amsterdam, and many probably were not even aware of the armed conflict that has thrown Ukraine into bloody chaos in the aftermath of its pro-western Maidan revolution.

More than two years later, a report issued by the Joint Investigation Team this fall presented its definitive findings: the Buk missile that shot down the plane had traveled from across the Russian border from the city of Snezhnoe and back that same day. The plane’s pilot carried pieces of the missile to the ground in his body that proved the missile was Russian-made and not a similar weapon used by the Ukrainians.

The Kremlin responded through their spokesperson Dmitri Peskov, who said: “We have not seen any proof in the report.”

In the age of disinformation, proof is superfluous. Particularly in military zones, proof fails to bring certainty, closure or repercussion. Proof is dismissed, denied, fabricated and spun to accommodate anti-western or anti-Russian agendas. One side’s proof is another’s propaganda. Disinformation has always been part of any conflict, but it has fuelled Russia’s modern wars: in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine, and Syria, while “proof” has been deployed to keep them “frozen” and tensions high.

Open source research and social media investigations promising to bring certainly to militarized zones have somehow failed. Doubt, spread by disinformation campaigns, is potent in its ability to exploit basic psychology. Confirmation bias dictates that even when presented with compelling evidence and argument, people are far more likely to form opinions that confirm their existing beliefs. Once you inplant doubt, regardless of any proof, people will revert to what they already feel is true. In the disinformation age, to a large extent the lines have already been drawn.

How does modern-day propaganda affect wars? Does more information just serve to reinforce what we already believe?

These are some of the questions we explore in this current.