Disinformation vs no information: Putin and Sisi compared

Disinformation vs no information: Putin and Sisi compared
Comment: While Sisi and Putin both hope to manipulate public opinion, the Egyptian leader lacks Putin's know-how and masterful handling of information, writes Robert Springborg.
7 min read
14 Sep, 2016
Unlike Putin, Sisi seems blissfully unaware of this basic principle of effective communication [Getty]

Information management is central to dictators, to whom truth is an enemy. But different dictators seek to distort the truth in different ways. In the case of Vladimir V. Putin, dezinformatsiya is akin to the "weaponisation of information" by which he actively seeks to defeat domestic and foreign enemies, real or imagined.

His orchestration of distorted information and falsehoods through print, electronic, and social media is based on the "big lie" principle: No matter how profoundly false or grotesquely distorted the account, as long as it is presented skillfully and frequently, with the endorsement of the dictator himself, the big lie can be made to acquire the status of truth.

Disinformation is a central tool of Putin's national security policy. Systematic, elaborate, carefully conceived campaigns have been undertaken to address an ever broader range of national security issues. The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine was blamed first on the CIA, then on Ukrainian fighter pilots, rather than on the Russian backed insurgents who brought it down with a Russian missile.

The 2014 invasion of Crimea was justified as a reaction against an alleged, but non-existent Ukrainian plot backed by the West. Bold disinformation campaigns with such wild claims that its soldiers are likely to rape local women have been launched against NATO in Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states.

Potential or actual supporters of Putin in the West, ranging from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump, have been the beneficiaries of his well-crafted media attacks on their opponents. He used WikiLeaks, for example, to reveal the Democratic National Committee's behind the scenes efforts to bolster Hillary Clinton's prospects against Bernie Sanders.

A particularly nasty version of such media tactics - in this case intended to undermine Angela Merkel - was the totally fabricated report that a young Russian-German girl had been raped by migrants.  

For Putin, disinformation is a key political tool used aggressively to reward and punish foreign friends and enemies

For Putin, disinformation is a key political tool used aggressively to reward and punish foreign friends and enemies, respectively, while creating a domestic narrative of Russia under threat, thus inducing citizens to rally around him. Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, devotes massive resources to spinning lies and half-truths, the reach of which is ever more global.

The intent and method of information management in Sisi's Egypt are markedly different to Putin's. Not seeking to play a global role like his more experienced Russian counterpart, Sisi appears to have a one size fits all approach to disinformation.

That which is dished out to domestic audiences is also served up to more discerning foreigners. The KGB, the FSB and the present standard bearer of Russian intelligence services dating back to the Czars, President Putin, by contrast, long ago figured out that messages need to be tailored for specific audiences.

Sisi appears to have a one size fits all approach to disinformation

Sisi seems blissfully unaware of this basic principle of effective communications. His security and intelligence services, unlike those in Russia, have been focused overwhelmingly on domestic rather than regional or global threats.

Sisi's personal experience in military intelligence was similarly domestic in focus as that organisation's principle function is to monitor Egyptian military personnel, not to assess enemies nor to craft disinformation campaigns against them.

The approach of both security/intelligence and military intelligence in Egypt is to impede information flow, not to create and channel it as part of a sophisticated communication strategy, a la Russia.  

Generalising from Egyptian experience has not served Sisi well. With a tradition dating back to Nasser of government ownership and censorship of the media, Egypt's presidents have been contemptuous of the truth when addressing their fellow citizens. Nasser told the nation within hours of the destruction of his air force on June 5, 1967 that all was well at the front.

Sadat named himself "hero of the crossing" in the wake of his catastrophic subsequent mismanagement of the successful crossing of the Canal for which his generals had been responsible. Mubarak repeatedly denied his intent to engineer his son Gamal's succession to the presidency when he spent years preparing it.

Egypt's presidents have been contemptuous of the truth when addressing their fellow citizens

Investigative journalism only began in Egypt in the mid to late 1990s. Immediately, it confronted a host of obstacles put in place by the state. Media management by Egypt's rulers is virtual child's play as there are few alternative sources of information and no authoritative ones.

Fact based information coming from reliable sources is notable in its absence in the mass media, so there are few if any yardsticks by which competitive claims can be evaluated.

A communication context of this nature does not provide a useful learning experience for someone hoping to compete in global information wars. Putin could substitute for his similar lack of experience in a free media environment reliance upon his professional, globally oriented intelligence services.

But Sisi has not had institutional resources of this nature to fall back on. So the media outreach of the Sisi regime has been limited to delay, stone walling and bare-faced lies.

The media outreach of the Sisi regime has been limited to delay, stone walling and bare-faced lies

The mismanagement of information surrounding the Giulio Regeni case is the most egregious example of such failure. After almost eight months of denying that the Egyptian authorities had any contact with him, and of offering a series of preposterous accounts of his death, the public prosecutor finally publicly acknowledged in early September that Regeni had been investigated by police shortly before his disappearance.

That this belated confession obviously results from the steadfast pressure applied on Egypt by the Regeni family, the government of Italy, the EU and other international actors, rather than from any desire by the Sisi regime to get to the truth, further undermines its credibility.

The conclusion most neutral observers have reached from the pathetic disinformation campaign which is that the police tortured Regeni to death, is just the opposite of what that campaign intended.

Handling information flow about the crash of the Russian aircraft over the Sinai and of the Egypt Air plane into the Mediterranean has, if anything been even cruder. Basically it has amounted to stone walling - refusing to release any relevant information, whether from the recovered black boxes or otherwise.

So the world continues to wait, not knowing whether the crashes were the result of terrorist acts, technical faults, explosion of cargo, pilot error, or something else. Little wonder that air carriers have been reluctant to resume flights to Egypt and that tourists are staying away in droves.

Sisi's information strategy will continue to emphasise interdiction over fabrication

Sisi's information strategy thus rests first and foremost on the principle the less information, the better, precisely the reverse of Putin's. Sisi prefers no information, Putin opts for disinformation. Both have lots to cover up, but Putin's approach of the best defense is a good offense seems to work better, raising the question of whether Sisi might at some stage try to copy his fellow dictator’s disinformation strategy.

This is highly unlikely. Sisi was a military officer, not a spy. His career training did not include manipulation of public information to confuse and disunite enemies. The Egyptian government has only a shadow of the institutional capacities for disinformation that the Russians possess in abundance.

And for Sisi, a more adventurous information policy would be risky. He and his regime are in the process of extending the military's control over all aspects of Egyptian life, ranging from the economy, to the polity, to the civil administration, to cultural expression.

This is being done as quietly as possible. Public information occasionally released about it is transparently propagandistic, obviously for the purpose of gaining support for militarisation, such as by announcing that the armed forces will provide less expensive baby milk powder than private purveyors.

So with neither the personal knowledge nor institutional capacity to generate effective disinformation, and a clandestine program to subordinate the country to the military, Sisi's information strategy will continue to emphasise interdiction over fabrication. Given its track record of producing totally implausible accounts when under pressure, this is probably wise. No news is better than obvious lies.

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs.

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak’s Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.