Tied-up in the Rashomon Controversy: Information Warfare & Political Divides


Reflections on the week passed

by Elbay Alibayov

The Rashomon effect

Perspective matters. The way we look at things, especially if we have a strong emotional connection with the object, has a potential to (at times, profoundly) influence what we will arrive at in the conclusion. And given our natural inclination to explain things by either establishing strict cause-effect relations between two or more events or finding a pattern (trend) of the things occurring this conclusion often-time is not exactly reflecting what is out there (put simply, is false) but comes with appearance of being reasonable.

How else would you explain a circumstance when a number of witnesses offer their own—contradictory but equally plausible—accounts of the very same event? Moreover, this happens in a situation when there is no other (“verifiable and objective”) evidence to counter any and all of those statements. This is known as the Rashomon effect, owing its name to Kurosawa Akira’s 1950 famous film. In the original story it concerns the human recollection, but is equally applicable to perception. Interestingly, the film’s plot is based on two short stories by a brilliant Japanese writer of the early 20th century, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, who also happened to hold that how the story was told was more important than its content and plot—quite a relevant hint to understanding the psychological effect he coined.

The campaign

Psychologists have studied this sort of phenomena (known as biases and fallacies) for decades, yet in controlled, lab conditions. While there are numerous real life cases unfolding right in front of our eyes. Take for example the ongoing story about the alleged Russian (dis)information campaign in an attempt to influence the outcome of the last year’s presidential election in the United States. Not one, but three separate investigations have been set up to look into the issue—the House, the Senate, and the FBI-led. And I suspect the story is only gaining momentum.

Everyone is excited, this way or another. Especially politicians and the media—as soon as they smell blood, they are instinctively driven there with the growing hype. This explains (in big part I assume) the overwhelming number of articles, posts and reposts, statements, comments and opinion pieces in the mainstream and social media alike—ringing alarm bells that the American democracy is under threat. Quite a campaign, in its own right.

In turn, those who reject any connection with the alleged Russian information attack, and especially dismiss its influence on the election outcome, build their counter-argument. Customarily, President Trump also took the issue to the social media, in a tweet which became instant classic (if to measure by the number of media referencing it): “Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!”

The real threat

Well, to be fair, everyone can be caught up in the perspective trap. And I mean it—everyone. Even experienced political analysts and intelligence experts for whom the propaganda/counter-propaganda game is daily bread (including those who join a certain camp because they have to). I read this week numerous comments on the subject, and what I found common among those otherwise politically distinct view holders was almost unanimous conviction that a Russian disinformation campaign targeting the 2016 election was (almost solely) responsible for generating deep social and political divisions within the American society and aggravating the mistrust to a degree that poses a direct threat to the underlying values of liberal democracy.

Really? One propaganda campaign? By a well-known rival? Let’s not fool ourself: no external actor (whatever strong and technically savvy) can create “serious socio-political divisions” (and especially in such a short time span) anywhere, let alone in America. Those divisions are there as a result of decades-long (and mostly overlooked) processes—that are continuously influenced (constrained or reinforced) by and, in turn, themselves exert influence onto a set of internal, country-specific (e.g. wealth redistribution) and external (e.g. globalisation) contexts and structures—that signal their existence through a broad range of manifestations, at any given point in time. And it is not something specific to America—today, almost all countries across the globe, from liberal democracies to those run by authoritarian regimes, face similar social, political and ideological problems.

And to be sure, it was not a “conflict-ridden” election campaign of both the Republican and the Democrat candidates that divided the society, but to the contrary—they merely resulted from, reflected the existing divides. To sum up, if there is a serious threat posed to American democracy, it definitely comes from within. I understand that it is very tempting to find someone from the outside (especially if this “someone” is a decades-long foe who does not need further introduction to the audience) and blame all the problems on them… but it is not the case I am afraid.

Getting it right

This is not to say that the Russian intelligence services haven’t disseminated certain symbols (words, images, etc.) and manufactured information products (like “fake news”) with an intention to deliberately influence perceptions, attitudes and behaviours of the Americans. They do it all the time, to be sure. This is known as propaganda. But they are not alone—reciprocally, so does the intelligence service of any major player on the territory of their rivals (and allies too, at times), be it the intelligence community of the United States, Britain, China, or Israel.

Nothing new here. Simply this time around the FSB (or GRU) took advantage of what was already there. Just like the CIA did to the Soviet Union back in the late 1980s (when the latter struggled to reform while facing deep social, economic and political divisions married with the rise of nationalism, lack of trust in the system and institutions of power, particularly the elites). As a respected security advisory firm has rightly observed: “The U.S. is already so politically divided that Russia and its online army have had to do little more than plant a conspiracy theory, fan the flames, and then watch as it burns across social media and into the belief systems of millions of Americans.” Now this looks as correct perspective.

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