Scientia potentia est (knowledge is power), so goes the famous Latin saying. This is particularly true in the 21st century, where knowledge and information are currencies with ever-appreciating value. But like any other instrument of power, knowledge can be manipulated as either a force for good or a dangerous weapon.

Exploiting information and psychological manipulation have been used as strategies in war from as far back as ancient Rome and Greece. For instance, during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca won several battles against the Romans by spreading disinformation about the number and location of his army. Famous Italian politician Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), considered the father of modern political philosophy, emphasized the importance of disinformation as a critical warfare strategy.

By the time of the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), the earlier little delusive tricks on battlefields had morphed into grand schemes to manipulate public perception. When appealing to images of a dark past (like the monarchs’ arbitrariness and abuse of power); or bright future (where society is founded on the principles of ‘liberté,’ ‘égalité’ and ‘fraternité’) during the struggle for power at the later stages of the Revolution, political leaders successfully deployed information to manipulate public consciousness. They used both facts to illustrate the crown’s injustices, as well as deliberate manipulation to delude the masses by portraying every representative of aristocracy or those associated with the old order as ” the worst enemies who needed to be eradicated.” By doing so, they managed to successfully use the ideals and patriotic feelings of the masses to evoke hatred towards a whole social class and turn advocates of justice into violent fighters who voluntarily participated in acts of terror. World War I and World War II have some of the best illustrations of how information, or rather disinformation, was used as a strategy to create disharmony and spread disillusion among enemies, particularly via propaganda that was spread through electronic media.

What is going on currently in Russia is a perfect example of information war that can make for a good ‘how-to’ manual. In the wake of mass protests following the arrest of Alexey Navalny; a build-up of public outrage against official corruption, and opposition to Vladimir Putin’s extended stay in power; the media coverage of these events from January 23, 2021 was reminiscent of scenes from Mockingjay by Collins, S (2010) from the Hunger Games series. In this book, campaign videos by rebels depicting crimes against humanity committed by local authorities, followed by calls to defend the rights and freedoms of the masses; were countered by videos from the government that discredited the resistance and attempted to influence the masses into believing that all criticism against authorities were lies, in addition to directly threatening those who contemplated any form of dissent.

Now back to reality: Russian independent mass media like Dozhd and Meduza showed live footage of the protests, in which armed officers were captured brutally beating and arbitrarily arresting people on the streets. Articles were published about the unlawful arrests and violent dispersion of protesters. These were supported by video interviews featuring sociologists who criticized authorities for abusing their power. The government countered this with content that depicted the protesters as violent and claimed that the armed security forces restrained themselves and did not respond with brutality. The official media carried a series of interviews with politicians who supported the government and accused the opposition of fomenting and political unrest.

Throughout history, information warfare and political propaganda have played crucial roles in shaping the ideological leanings of the masses. Like our ancestors in the past, the current generation is often caught in the middle of a competitive propaganda war, with opposing parties aggressively promoting divergent views and philosophies with the aim of creating certain perceptions or manipulating individuals into a predetermined perspective. But fortunately for us, we live in a freer society and have a right to many sources of information. We have access to online libraries, independent online journals, news forums and myriad databases. You don’t need a PhD in politics to gain a clear and unbiased picture of the world. We have a vantage point that affords us the opportunity to see different sides of divergent opinions and narratives. This thrusts a responsibility on us to seek comprehensive information on any subject before making decisions. However, most importantly, it gives the privilege of having a right to access the power that knowledge bestows.

Edited by Paul Omondi

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