A. Gattolin: speech on Countering Russian and Chinese Authoritarian Narratives about the War and the Crises

2022-11-14 | Political initiatives, Geopolitical analysis, Disinformation

 “The Next Frontline – Facing Food Security, Energy, and Migration Crises in the EMEA Region,” meeting held in Rome, Italy on October 12 and 13, 2022.

André Gattolin’s speech in Roundtable #5 on Countering Russian and Chinese Authoritarian Narratives about the War and the Crises, October 13, 2022

André Gattolin is a  French Senator and member of U4U Network Steering Committee

Dear friends,

I would like to thank IRI and its partners for the invitation to speak today.

First of all and to open my speech, I want to stress that it is important in the current geopolitical environment to analyze the narrative developed by China and Russia, in order to put in place adequate solutions to counter their sharp influences.

When we talk about propaganda produced by these two countries, we very often tend to focus on the technical instruments used. By this, I mean channels of communication developed by them for diffusing their disinformation messages overseas.

This is of course appropriate due to the fact that they both invest huge amounts of money to multiply channels and electronic networks over the world, taking advantage of the possibilities offered by new media technologies.

They also abusively exploit the freedom of speech and communication that exists in Western countries.

In many developing countries, they also take profit from the scarcity and the financial difficulties of local and national media to gain strong positions in key publics.

The best reaction is of course to ban these channels as the EU has done over its territory for RT News and Sputnik soon after the Russian aggression to Ukraine.

But the effectiveness of this ban is far from being total, and as we have seen in the past months RT News has redeployed on social networks in Europe and emphasized its presence in Africa. There, it has recently set up new headquarters of its English-language broadcasts dedicated to the continent in South Africa, a country that refused to vote the UN resolutions condemning Russia.

I must recall that RT News diffusion in South Africa has first been blocked in February under European pressures, but it has unfortunately reappeared last May thanks to its broadcasting by the Chinese satellite package StarTimes.

Russian propaganda media are currently experiencing a strong increase in their audience in Africa, especially in countries like Mali and Burkina Faso, and RT News is now hesitating between Mali, Guinea and the Central African Republic to settle its new African headquarters for its French-language programs.

Another problem arises when we consider Russian and Chinese propagandist activities in terms of contents disseminated. Most of the times, we rivet our attention on the ever-increasing production of fake news and distorted information.

Once again, I must admit that is appropriate and relevant.

Stamp out a false or a misleading information, re-establish the truth, and diffusing fact-checking is something absolutely necessary, but we must also acknowledge that it is very often a rather vain effort.

Production of fake news is incredibly exponential and its propagation is quasi-instantaneous; in general, reactions to re-establish the real facts come too late.

Recent studies show that less than 10 per cent of those infected by fake news are afterward exposed to counter actions that re-establish the real facts!

The emotional always beats the rational.

We love fiction more than reality and “the willing suspension of disbelief” – to use Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s words – is becoming increasingly relevant in our post-materialistic societies.

In terms of contents disseminated by Russia and China, we still do not pay enough attention to the global narratives they build and develop to shape or reshape positively their image.

Narrative refers to fiction and is very useful to catch attention from the publics and build new mental stereotypes.

All over the world, serials and movies attract a much wider, younger and popular audience than informative contents.

They embody in a very simple and seductive way the core of the arguments advocated by authoritarian countries through their persuasive communication.

Fake news are mainly used to destabilize the enemies and are based on short-term tactics. Narratives aim at positive and more long-lasting persuasive effects.

Due to these characteristics, narratives delivered by authoritarian countries are actually more predictable and consequently potentially easier to counter.

A good illustration of current narratives developed by Russia in Africa is the recent so-called action movies produced by Aurum, a company whose majority stakeholder is the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of President Putin, who recently recognized that he runs Wagner Group.

Wagner Group is not only a company that recruits, trains and sends in operation groups of salvage mercenaries in Africa, Syria or Ukraine. It’s also through specialized subsidiaries a significant propaganda player dedicated to the Kremlin’s cause and of course to Wagner’s business, especially in Africa.

Very early on, Prigozhin understood that, except in the case of Nigeria’s Nollywood productions, there is a scarcity of Sub-Saharan African movie production for a large popular audience on the continent.

In 2021, Aurum issued a feature film called « Tourist » taking place in Central African Republic and depicting Wagner’s Russian militiamen as heroes and friends of the African people who they fight for. In terms of rhetoric, nothing is more clear than the tagline displayed: « Russian gladiators, to help, to rescue, attack to survive ».

This year another Aurum action movie called « Granit » came out. It focuses on the actions of the Wagner Group against Islamist guerrilla groups in the North of Mozambique.

Once again it describes Russians mercenaries as friends, helpers and protectors of the African population against foreign enemies.

It has a huge success among the least educated populations of these two countries.

In terms of content, the two movies develop many of the same narrative devices used by Russia in many African countries:

  • Western countries are responsible of local disorder observed in Africa,
  • The current international order is biased and under US domination,
  • France and other European countries pursue their colonial actions in the continent,
  • Russia and the Wagner Group are friends of the Africans and support their countries’ demand for independence without interfering in their ideological choices,
  • A parallel is drawn between “special operation” conducted in Ukraine and the Russian military support to certain African regimes.
  • The West is based on a wicked value system that needs to be fought with virility.

The narrative developed by China in Africa, and in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa is more discreet but it partly relies on the same rhetorical elements.

  • China is helping African people where the West has failed to help their economic development.
  • A new world order must be put in place to give a greater place to the African continent.
  • Aid and support to African countries is given without conditions of governance.

But the narratives developed by these two countries in Africa differ according to their agenda and their own particular vision of the world.

Russia intervenes militarily in Africa and the Middle East primarily to destabilize Western countries and break the world order without any real desire to establish an alternative order.

Its objective is first to re-establish Greater Russia and neutralize the countries that surround it.

China’s aim is world leadership and the reorganization under its aegis of a world order dominated by its culture and values, the “New Tianxia”.

Given the time available for this discussion, I am only presenting here a few elements concerning the narratives developed by Russia and China in Africa.

It is essential to analyze them in greater depth if we want to better deconstruct these so-called arguments and elaborate effective counter-narratives.

Ethically speaking, we – Western countries – cannot tackle Russian or Chinese misinformation by producing fake news. However, we can react and strongly act to develop new narratives to reshape positively our image which is clearly under attack in most of the African countries.

As one German colleague said recently during a discussion on Chinese influence: “The problem is not that we would have lost the communication battle in Africa; the problem is that we still haven’t engaged it”.

Thank you for your attention.