In life, one can often learn more from one’s enemies than one’s friends. Such was the case when master meddler in sovereign geopolitics Mark Turnbull, the director of ‘infoterrorist’ firm Cambridge Analytica said the following during a hidden camera meeting with an undercover journalist. Turnbull told his potential client, “It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion, it’s all about emotion”. While this statement is the opposite of righteous and ethical, it does reveal an unmistakable truth about human beings and their interactions with other humans and their environment.
The age of social media has meant that while governments and corporations try to clamp down on free speech more mercilessly than in the recent past, the people speaking freely are usually several steps ahead of the censors. At this point it is necessary to remind one of the old adage “talk is cheap” – meaning that action is more valuable than words.
Of the various serious actions one can take, flying a plane is one of them. During every working hour of a pilot’s life, his or her life and the life of scores of others is in his hands. A pilot must therefore be a individual who is intelligent, responsible, diligent, calm under pressure and unemotional at times when others have heightened sensitivities and fears. Such a person may or may not be someone who is a barrel of laughs at the weekend, but it is someone whose hands one would trust one’s life in.
Geopolitics is no different. In the current environment, those who are convinced Arab Nationalists are supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, those who are Russian patriots generally support President Vladimir Putin, those who support modern China’s progress are supporters of XI Jinping and his official Thought. On the other side of the spectrum those who have an earnest love of neo-liberalism support Hillary Clinton and various European regimes that ascribe to the neo-liberal mentality whether it be that of Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel.
In free speech discussions where nothing significant is on the line, a debate between Assad supporters on the one hand and Merkel supporters on the other could get extremely tense. Likeiwse, a debate between admirers of Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov could get heated in a debate with supporters of Hilary Clinton and Theresa May.
The hearts and minds of the ‘true believers’ of any government, leader or cause, are not for sale. But the minds of those in the larger but less vocal group of undecided observers of world events are the true targets of the multi-lateral information war.
Because this is an age where international information is more readily available than during any previous epoch, those whose minds are not made up are subjected to a barrage of information from all sides. If there were obvious winners and losers of this infowar among this crowd of ‘undecideds’, there would clearly not be so much fuss about the infowar itself. In reality though, with western governments attacking independent media outlets, independent journalists and organisations like RT, CGTN, Press-TV, Telesur and Sputnik, clearly someone thinks there is a lot at stake and furthermore, the western mainstream media and their political allies seem to think they are losing the infowar, in spite of having generally far higher budgets than their rivals. If they thought they were winning, they would not give outlets like RT so much publicity by constantly excoriating them in public.
Why then are the media outlets which take the perspective of analysis in the wider global ‘east’ and ‘south’ allegedly winning the infowar among ‘undecided individuals’ against their much wealthier western competitors? Are the non-western media outlets more honest? I certainly believe that on the whole they are, but there is another reason that as Mark Turnbull himself said, is far more compelling.
At an emotional level, when undecided citizens with open minds living in the western world see and hear from the likes of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Wang Yi, Sergey Lavrov, Bashar al-Assad etc., one sees people who may or may not be familiar in their mannerisms. Such western observers may not even like the specific policies of such ‘eastern’ leaders. Such western observers may moreover not even grasp the main issues that the leaders of Syria, Russia and China are facing, but they do see leaders who have all of the attributes of a good pilot.
While reporters spew facts and analysts write about what these facts mean, for many people, the issue simply comes down to the fact that if they and their children were on a plane flown by Xi Jinping, Sergey Lavrov, Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin, they would feel safer than if the plane was flown by Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Emmanuel Macron.
This emotional response is based on a layperson’s analysis of character that is often more accurate than it is fallacious. Vladimir Putin, Sergey Lavrov, Bashar al-Assad, Wang Yi and XI Jinping exude calm under pressure, intelligence that can be detached from overriding sentiment, good humour in good measure, responsibility, strength and logic, while their western rivals often appear to be hysterical, overly instant on their own narratives, unintentionally clownish and persistently illogical. These human qualities are not necessarily evil (although they can be), but none of them build trust in a life and death situation.
One should not overlook this unconscious realisation on the part of many who may not even want to know more about China, Syria or Russia, but who instinctively know that if Vladimir Putin was flying their plane across an ocean, they would feel safer than if someone like his western antagonists were doing so.
While geopolitical issues ought to be decided on substance rather than style, in many cases they go together. This is the reason why all of the infowar money in the world cannot change certain people’s minds when they have to decide who they inherently trust more: the calm and rational leaders of the global ‘east’ and ‘south’ or their smaller than life opponents in the wild, wild west.