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April 18, 2021

Controversy on Twitter

Hybrid war is one of the incontestable realities of our times. It tends to be the main form of confrontation between ideological or geopolitical adversaries, which can be used prior to the start of a ‘hot war,’ undermining the confidence of the opponent’s public opinion in the righteousness of its own position and changing the balance of forces by lowering the morale of a nation. Recently implemented by Russia, especially using global communication capabilities made available by the new information technology – especially social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the blogosphere etc.) –, hybrid war is as old as the history of armed conflict. However, today internet has made it a redoubtable weapon, and it has come into action everywhere, offensively or defensively, through procedures meant to counter the adversary.

A recent controversy on Twitter outlines both the social networks’ unprecedented capacity to rapidly and efficiently disseminate both real and fake news, so as to exercise redoubtable influence on global users, but also the confusion in which they may find themselves in what concerns the veracity of a piece of news. Thus, it is demonstrated how insidious and dangerous the use of the hybrid war can be for the health of international relations today, and how necessary it is to combat fake news efficiently and legitimately. Boris Pancevschi (@bopanc), a German journalist who is the correspondent of prestigious dailies (Wall Street Journal among them, according to his own statements), has posted on his Twitter account an opinion poll published in Germany. The moment this opinion poll appeared is in itself significant. Just 10 days before, the U.S., UK and France carried out their military action in Syria, motivated by the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, their missile strikes hitting Syrian regime sites. As known, Russia, a prominent player in the Syrian theatre of operations, and backer of the Assad regime, challenged the legitimacy of this joint military action carried out by the three great powers – veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council –, seeking to demonstrate that the reasons invoked for it were fabricated by the British intelligence services (the chemical attack carried out by Assad regime forces against the rebels was allegedly staged). According to this poll, conducted in Germany – hence one of the NATO states that did not take part in the military action, but which officially declared its agreement with it, and also the European Union’s most important economic-political pillar –, the majority of the public opinion allegedly opposed the Western missile strikes in Syria. Here are the detailed results of this poll: “50% think US is to blame for conflict with #Russia, only 25% blame Moscow; 79% think #Trump is greater danger to peace than #Putin; 57% believe RU is trustworthy; 69% think it was wrong to expel RU diplos after #Skripal” (the readers who have Twitter accounts, but not only them, can follow the wider context of this controversy by accessing the hashtags above).

Hence, it shows that the German public opinion perceives Russia as twice less at fault than the U.S. for the extreme tension between the two great powers, tension seen during the Western military action in Syria, action that stirred great fears at international level regarding the start of the third world war. Moreover, as seen, in what concerns the leaders of the two great powers, President Donald Trump is assessed as being a greater danger to international peace than his Russian counterpart, and Russia’s statements in this case are trusted by more than half of the German public opinion. In close connection with this orientation of the German public opinion, also mentioned is the fact that in the case of the chemical attack on former Russian spy and currently British citizen S. Skripal, attack suspected of being carried out by the Russian intelligence services and which received ample media coverage, the German public opinion allegedly has a different opinion than the leadership of its own state. As known, last month, because of the action against Skripal, deemed to be Russian aggression on British soil, in an ample demonstration of Western solidarity, all NATO states expelled Russian diplomats. But the mentioned poll points out that 69 percent of Germans believe that this joint NATO action to expel Russian diplomats was the wrong reaction.

An immediate reaction to this poll followed, revealing that “Interesting detail: This poll was commissioned by #Russia’s Honorary Consul in Germany. https://twitter.com/bopanc/status/986958822198607872 …” which basically triggered intense controversy. Pancevschi immediately replied saying that this does not matter, and received this answer: “Social research must also be consumed critically, e.g. you have to look at how exactly the questions were being phrased.” Hence, the results of the poll were put in doubt, the methodology of the poll not being known. While Pancevschi ironically pointed out that the results of the poll are credible – “Clever consul. He must have read a few newspapers and watched a bit of TV and predicted the outcome” – his opponents tried, with examples, to prove that Pancevschi previously put in circulation news favourable to Russia, “doing as low-quality of journalism as possible” and being “consistent in peddling same Kremlin narrative at least.” The controversy grew, conspiracy theories being evoked referring to the situation in the Middle East or to the personality of John Bolton, known for his radical views on “treating” the complicated situation in this region, recently appointed U.S. President D. Trump’s national security advisor. Faced with this avalanche of ‘fake news,’ one of the participants in the controversy stated: “Russian propaganda works more effective in Germany than your hard reliable journalist investigation and twitt reveals.” The very thorough evoking of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact ensued, the Pact through which Nazi Germany and Russia divided Eastern Europe before the start of the Second World War, dotted with references to the status of bilateral relations between Russia and Germany. One of the tweets captured the overall reproaches regarding these relations by asking Pancevschi: “Do you think that this is related to Germany having 6,000 companies in Russia (some of them breached the sanctions)+ex-Chancellors on board of Russian state-owned energy companies and are building Nord Stream2 with Russia? And that their opposition (AfD) is even more pro-Russian?” Of course, these accusations did not go unanswered, one of the answers being given by a renowned Russian policy expert (E. Lukas): “Poland is twice more important to Germany than Russia as a trade and investment partner. Even Czech Republic matters more.” The meanders of the controversy were very ample, various aspects being brought into discussion – many referring to the current impact of Russia-Germany relations on European security –, but obviously the results of the aforementioned poll were not clarified with certainty, but rather sowed confusion. Two final notes to outline this confusion. The first believes the poll is the result of the Russian disinformation campaign that is specific to hybrid war: “This is remarkable and a true testimony to the Fake News campaigns Putin’s outlets are running.” The second reflects the confusion of the one posting the comment: “Sorry, I do not agree with everything my government does but they are not pushing any of this. (I am talking about anti- American resentment) The left and right alike are maybe pushing this. And really I do wonder pretty much under what group this poll was actually taken.”

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