COVID-19: the Western counternarrative against disinformation coming from East

A video published on NATO’s Youtube channel outlines the Alliance’s strategy to counter Russian-Chinese disinformation. But the “fluid truth” of our times does not lend itself to being locked in the cage of ideologyOriginally published in Italian by Formiche.net

by Andrea Monti – Adjunct professor of law and order – University of Chieti-Pescara

The role of the media in the information war that broke out between the US and China and fought on the COVID-19 field is well highlighted by the video published on May 12 on the NATO Youtube channel titled How is NATO responding to disinformation on COVID-19?

In (chrono)logical order, the video establishes the first rule of the Western counter-information strategy: ignore the opponent’s propaganda to avoid “acknowledging” it and amplifying its circulation.

The second is to create a joint information base: with a somewhat naive game of graphic emphasis, the video (minute 0.53) specifies that

Nato regularly shares information and insight with allies and partners

and then adds

and counters false narratives.

The use of logical connective ⋀ instead of building a cause-effect relationship changes the overall meaning of the message: “NATO shares information AND fights false narratives” means something different from “NATO shares information TO fight false narratives”. The difference is subtle but substantial: information sharing is presented as a value in itself and not as a tool for an end (which, in reality, it is).

The third rule is to provide “facts” to journalists. After graphically enunciating this slogan, the video leaves the floor to NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, who states

I believe that the best response to disinformation and propaganda is free and independent press, is the work of journalists. When they ask the difficult questions, then disinformation and propaganda will never succeed.

Having “authoritative” and unquestionable sources at their disposal allows journalists to give consistency to theses that, otherwise, would only be artificial reconstructions of unrelated facts. Self-attribution of the power to affirm “the truth” through the selection of facts to present to the public opinion is the central element of the entire communication strategy: it is the hook on which the whole information chain hangs.

The fourth is the control of the spread of disinformation through “research groups” to measure the impact of disinformation, identify the fake-news spreaders and “vaccinate” the public against the propaganda virus… of the enemy. In other words: the aim is to make sure that people believe the propaganda of the “good guys”, to defuse the deflagrating effects of the enemy one.

In this case, as in that of the press conference of the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on China’s responsibility in the spread of the Coronavirus and the Chinese response entrusted to a cartoon, we face a skirmish in which both parties use the “Goebbels doctrine” and what I have called “the second law of propaganda”.

The hammering repetition of a narrative to the point of making it perceived as “true”, is flanked by the proliferation of more or less reliable “sources” from which flows a deluge of news. An overabundance of information males a phenomenon difficult to understand and induces the public to an act of faith: I don’t understand, but if “the experts” say so, it must be true.

Media play a crucial role in this game, both in terms of open support to a party and as the victim of a more or less unacknowledged instrumentalisation of their role. “Partisan” articles, therefore, are flanked by “investigations” and “scoops” made possible by “confidential documents” and other information “escaped” by the strict control of the institutional structures. Sometimes it is so, as in the Snowden case, sometimes it is a matter of holes left voluntarily open to let out what is necessary to start an “exclusive” journalistic investigation.

Media strategic role y is clear: lack of evidence is compensated by a counternarrative about the scarce Chinese transparency and media “credibility” amplifies this position, thus making the audience resilient against external threats.

It is apparent, then, that on both sides of the Iron Curtain methods and objectives are the same. Regardless of its calibre, a bullet always does the same job, whether it is fired from the East or from the West.

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