The War with Words – Digital Propaganda as a Multilateral, Multi-Perspective, and Multi-Stakeholder Challenge

Maximilian Rückert


Maximilian Rückert is the director of the digitalization, politics, and media department at the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung (HSS). He is also a lecturer in the New History Department at the University of Würzburg, where he has been a researcher since 2015. From 2012 to 2015 he received a doctoral scholarship from the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung.

Digital Propaganda has changed the nature and concepts of war, argues Maximilian Rückert in this essay from Moving Beyond Cyber Wars: A Transatlantic Dialogue.

Maxwell Aitken, the first Baron of Beaverbrook (1879-1964), was a successful Canadian-British businessman, a newspaper editor, and, even in younger years, an influential grey eminence in British politics. Given his experience in dealing with money as well as with public opinion, he advanced to the position of the Minister of Information of the British government during World War I. Unlike many of his fellow countrymen, Aitken understood the great significance of the so-called war with words. He considered propaganda the “‘popular arm of diplomacy’ in which ‘the munitions of the mind became not less vital for victory than fleets or armies.’”[1] The “munitions of the mind,” i.e., the idea of shaping both domestic and foreign public opinion, were used long before and after his time in office.

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Nowadays, the contest for public opinion becomes even more important “as we learn more and more about the workings of the human mind in an era where nuclear weapons could readily destroy all human life on the planet, propaganda and psychological operations (as they are now called) have become genuine alternatives to war.”[2] In 2005, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld emphasized the importance of public support during the Iraq war in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel: “The powerhouse of the Iraq war is not in Iraq. We do not lose battles and skirmishes there. Look, the real battlefields are the public in your country and our country.”[3]

The freedom of expression in liberal democratic orders is both one of their fundamental pillars and their Achilles’ heel, used by their external opponents.

The combatants on this battlefield are, of course, not only domestic. The freedom of expression in liberal democratic orders is both one of their fundamental pillars and their Achilles’ heel, used by their external opponents. During the Cold War, Russia’s dezinformazia aimed at this seemingly weak target, especially in the young German Republic. Disinformation campaigns were aimed at exploiting already existing social cleavages and conflicts, as for example the student movement in 1968 or the peace movement in the 1980s.[4] Meanwhile, China devised its own strategy of influencing narratives in foreign states. It started to create an incrementally more convincing new baseline of its own history. Since then, the perception of the once repudiated aggressive regime of “Cultural Revolution” has significantly shifted in many parts of the world.

Today the public sphere is still a battlefield in Germany, as well as in the United States of America, but in new dimensions: The war with words is fought with binary codes and on a global scale. Via social media channels and often automated bots, malign actors are capable of deliberately spreading disinformation, thereby reaching an audience on a hitherto unforeseen scale.[5] Moreover, as concerns nearly all matters in cyberspace, there are barely any international norms regulating the spread of propaganda, let alone binding rules or solidified sanction mechanisms. This extent of digital propaganda today employed by state and non-state actors represents a common threat for both states.

The Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung (HSS) and the American-German Institute (AGI) at Johns Hopkins University invited many renowned German and American experts representing various professional backgrounds and perspectives on cybersecurity to build a transnational working group to find agreement on norms.

The U.S. and German participants of this working group agreed on common principles, like securing the free democratic order on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as stabilizing and shaping a sustainable future within. This democratic order is at risk following the increase in importance of the role of the digital-marketing industry on the one hand, and the increased use of social media for hybrid warfare on the other. Hate speech, “Fake News,” and specific disinformation campaigns target the heart of democracy when they interfere in the free, equal, and secret elections of the parliaments of both nations. The working group subsumed all these threats under the term of “digital propaganda” and pointed out that the focus of the current public and political debate should include many more activities, such as data theft and data security. The response to digital propaganda—retaliation and resilience in a war with words—has to have the same importance and significance in the political agenda as it does in the public discourse.

The German and the U.S. security authorities, as well as the participants of the working group, are aware of the fact that there is not one responsible protagonist in the conflicts related to digital propaganda, but there can only be one common reaction. One-sided blaming on individual social media platforms and the systematic fake news or so-called “Dark Ads” submitted with novel digital marketing tools are wrong and do not lead to finding sustainable solutions. Individual state actors, radical political groups, and other non-state actors that try to destabilize democratic systems by using digital propaganda cannot always be accurately attributed. According to the working group, in times of hybrid warfare online, traditional and stereotyped conceptions of an enemy such as Cold War Russia or Cultural Revolution China are no longer convincing. The concepts of the enemy in the war with words has to be reevaluated.

As a matter of diverse history of law as well as diverse legal practice, there have to be different solutions for the same problems for both nations. Because of that, the working group defined distinct fields of action for both countries to provide solutions for the causes and effects of digital propaganda in the future, to include the media, digital economy, politics and the state, civil society, and individual media skills of the general population. There is no question that every single person in both countries needs a pronounced ability to form his or her own opinion in times of daily information overload.

Relating to the field of “Politics and the State,” the working group discussed, for example, the introduction of a “Bot Labeling System,” controlled by the state, which would warn the user of possible automation intended to influence readers’ perceptions. In addition, the experts agreed that media literacy education is extremely necessary for all ages.

Relating to the field of “civil society” there are various possibilities for both countries. One could be the development of institutionalized “Fact-checking Gateways” as well as the development of state-initiated party-neutral institutions of political education, such as the German Federal Agency for Political Education.

The contributions following in this volume summarize the digital propaganda working group’s findings and highlight the action frameworks on both sides of the Atlantic for hybrid warfare in the future.

[1] Quoted in David Welch, Propaganda, Power, and Persuasion: From World War I to Wikileaks (London: IB Tauris & Do Ltd, 2014), p. 86.

[2] Philipp M. Taylor, Munitions of the mind: A history of propaganda from the ancient world to the present day (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p. 8.

[3] “Wir werden die Dinge richten: Interview with Donald Rumsfeld,” Spiegel 44/2005, 31 October 2005.

[4] See Matthias Schulze, “Hack, Leak, Amplify. Die Wirkungsweise von Cyber-Operationen und Desinformationen im Kontext der US Präsidentschaftswahlen 2016,” in Propaganda als (neue) außen-und sicherheitspolitische Herausforderung, ed. Torsten Oppeland, Schrifte des Hellmuth-Loening-Zentrums für Staatswissenschaften Jena, Band 24 (Berlin, 2018): 39.

[5] See Lisa-Maria N. Neudert, “Computational Propaganda in Germany: A Cautionary Tale,” Computational Propaganda Research Project Working Paper 2017(7). Online.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.