What’s really happening in Ukraine? How to deal with the media during wartime

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The front page from the Italian newspaper “La Stampa” on Oct 12, 1941. A good example of wartime propaganda.  

War is a complicated story with plenty of things happening at the same time. Not for nothing, there is the term “fog of war” and it may well be that even generals and leaders don’t know exactly what’s going on on the battlefield. Then, imagine how the media are reporting the situation to us: it is not just a fog that separates the news from the truth: it is a brick wall. Yet, the media are a major source of information for most of us. Can we use them to learn at least something about what’s going on, discarding the lies and the exaggerations? Not an easy task, but we can try.

To start, we can look at how the news was reported in historical cases. As an exercise in applied history, I examined how Italians were (dis-)informed by their government during World War 2. I used the archive of “La Stampa” one of the major Italian newspapers of the time, still existing today. There were several more newspapers, but they weren’t reporting anything really different. Another advantage is that the archive of La Stampa is free to peruse. 

The archive contains a huge amount of material (all in Italian, sorry). I don’t claim that I examined everything, but I did go through the decisive moments of the war, in 1941/42. It is a fascinating experience to imagine people reading the news of the time and trying to understand what was really going on. Could they figure it out? Probably not, at least for most of them. But let’s go into the details.

Above, you can see an example of how news about the war was presented to Italians. The major news of Oct 12, 1941, was the “destruction of the Azov pocket.” It was true: the battle of the sea of Azov was a major victory for the Axis forces. Even the report on the number of prisoners taken, about 100,000, is approximately correct. The Germans had conquered the industrial region of the Donbass and from there the way was open to moving into Crimea (which was conquered) and Moscow (which was not). 

On the lower left part of the front page, you read of another front: in Ethiopia. The Italian troops fighting in the Amhara region (“Amara” in the text) are said to be offering an “indomitable resistance” against the attacking British troops. Again, it was true. The stronghold of Gondar, in Northern Ethiopia, was successfully resisting. 

That’s just the first page. You can read more in the inner pages: reflections on how the defeat of Bolshevism in Russia will unavoidably bring the final defeat for England, of the victorious advance of the Italian troops in the Donetsk region, of heavy losses of the enemy on all fronts, including long lists of British warships damaged or sunk. 

So, if you were an Italian reading one of the national papers, on Oct 12, 1941, you would reasonably conclude that the Axis powers were winning in Russia, that Italy was successfully resisting in Ethiopia, and that the British were facing serious difficulties in all war theaters. That would not have been such a bad evaluation at that moment, perhaps the most favorable for the Axis during the whole war. 

The problem is that, as we know from our modern viewpoint, the German advance was starting to slow down and it would completely stall in December. In Ethiopia, Gondar was just the last pocket of resistance of the former “Italian Empire.” It was surrounded by the British, and it had zero chance to survive. It surrendered on Nov 27th 1941. 

How were these less than exciting news presented to the Italian readers? About the Russian front, in December they were told that the Germans had decided to stop their advance and that they were preparing to restart the offensive in spring, while repulsing Russian attacks. Then, about the defeat in Ethiopia, the Italians were told nothing. The fall of Gondar in November was simply not reported anywhere. Only on Dec 6, more than a month later, you could read that the “Italian officers of Gondar” were allowed to keep their swords while surrendering. From this, you could finally understand that Gondar had fallen.

This is very typical. Bad news was simply not reported. When the Italian contingent in Russia was destroyed, in 1942, it simply disappeared from the news. No mention anymore that an Italian contingent in Russia had even existed — and yet more than 200,000 Italian troops had been sent to Russia and only about half of them came back. 

This kind of disinformation is rather normal: it happens everywhere, surely not just in the Italian press during WW2. The interesting part is whether we can learn something from this story. I think I can propose a few rules of thumb on how Italians were misinformed at the time. These rules are likely valid as well for the current media disinformation. 
RULES OF DISINFORMATION DURING A WAR

1. When the news reports a major victory of your side that involves a verifiable result, say, the occupation of a city or of a region, then it is most likely true. 

2. When the news reports that an enemy attack has been repulsed and that the enemy suffered heavy losses, it means that the enemy attack was successful and that your side suffered heavy losses. 

3. When you don’t hear anything anymore of a specific contingent, city, or region, it means that the contingent has been destroyed or that the city/region has been conquered by the enemy. 

4. When you read non-verifiable news (“enemy cruiser sunk” or “heavy losses of the enemy”), it is most likely false.

5. Whatever you hear from the “experts” has zero value. With one exception: when the  pundits start saying that “the situation looks bad, but the final victory is certain,” it means that the war is lost.  

6. The golden rule: never, ever trust anything that the media tell you. 

 

These rules have a certain logic: despite the attempts of the media to “create their own reality” (Rumsfeld style) they cannot completely suppress the real reality. During WW2, in Italy, people had other sources of information, including what returning soldiers were telling, and the broadcasting from the other side. Listening to “Radio Londra” was forbidden and could be dangerous, but surely many people did that. Not that the British propaganda was any more truthful than the Italian one but, at least, Radio London provided Italians with a different version of the news. For sure, the fall of Gondar was announced in British newspapers the day after it took place with titles such as “END OF MUSSOLINI’S EMPIRE”   

About the current war in Ukraine, these rules can help. For a start, they can be used to filter out the most blatant lies. For instance, you surely heard the story of the “Ghost of Kyiv,” the Ukrainian pilot said to have downed as many as 40 enemy planes (some say just six, others 10 or 20). It was non-verifiable news, and hence you could have suspected from the beginning of being false. Indeed, it was confirmed to be fake by the Ukrainians themselves. The same is true for the many obviously exaggerated (or underreported) losses of the casualties from either side. Then, when the pro-Russian pundits say that the Russians never planned to take Kyiv and that the attack on Kyiv at the beginning of the war was just a feint, then you may at least suspect that the truth is very different. Pundits from both sides have been telling us, repeatedly, that the other side was going to collapse. The fact that neither has collapsed, so far, is good evidence for the validity of the rule that says, “the opinion of the experts has zero value”

Can we say something more general about how the war is going? Who is winning? Alas, for the time being, we are still wading in a sea of disinformation, locked, as we are, on the other side of the fog barrier. The only thing we can say for sure is that what they don’t tell us is the most important thing. But unknown unknowns (as Rumsfeld said) are the most difficult field of epistemology. For the time being, the most we can say is that you shouldn’t forget the golden rule: never, never trust what the media are telling you.

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More

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