By Roman Horbyk
Mediatisation is among the trendiest concepts in today’s media studies. By it, we usually mean the dependence of our societies on the media in virtually all spheres of life.
The press was once a key actor in all processes from politics to culture. But now the very politics and culture are happening in the media and have to adopt their requirements and logic.
The March annexation of Crimea and the on-going unrest in Eastern Ukraine will be in media studies handbooks as the first truly mediatised wars in history. The outcome of the conflict was determined by the value both sides attributed to their media-constructed images.
Unlike the participants of other recent media-saturated conflicts, Kyiv and Moscow based all their tactical actions on the awareness of being tweeted, posted on Facebook and live broadcast 24/7.
We can try to imagine how the situation would have developed in a less globalised and informationally dense world. Well, there’s even no need to imagine: this is how things unfolded in all armed conflicts between Ukraine and Russia in the past, most notably in 1917 – 1921, when Ukrainian People’s Republic fought for independence desperately against all Russian armies, “red” and “white”. It was all about war as continuation of politics by another means, direct and open use of force, and conventional warfare as we know it.
In 2014, unlike almost 100 years ago, the presence of local and international media created a surveillance effect very much in the style of Michel Foucault. How you are seen is what matters most in the global Panopticon. And both sides put all effort to avoid the story where they would be seen as the initiating side in an all-out war.
The question remains, of course, whether Ukraine could afford acting differently given the combat, material and moral weakness of its force in Crimea. But both states dashed aside from “the first shot” just because they were watched. That’s why the first shot was never fired. That’s why everything happened the way it did.
Actually, the most important thing was perhaps not only the presence of a watching eye, but also the message transmission speed and the time needed to make sense of it.
High transmission and reaction velocity makes events more fast-paced, but it also complicates the work of propagandists who always counted on the belated reaction to manipulation that wouldn’t matter anyway when the manipulation was revealed.
Yet it’s also important to perceive this condition critically. The increased visibility prevented hypothetical casualties and made conventional propaganda less effective. At the same time, Russia managed to utilise it to its own ends.
Russia fully exploited the disadvantaged position of the defending side which was almost forced to assume the role and responsibility of a military aggressor on its own ground. This has all the chances to become a blueprint for future conflicts as the world gets ever more mediatised.
The annexation of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea is the most mediatised war to date itself. Previously this title was contested by both Gulf Wars and perhaps every other visible armed conflict. But their claims were rather based on the extended and thereto unseen presence of the media on the battlefield.
In Crimea, however, the media became the battlefield. Information warfare was the principal part of it, whereas the use of force by the warring sides was, in their own unwritten agreement, restricted to the forms of a mediatised social movement with its repertoire of spectacle techniques: blockings and takeovers, protest as well as military occupations at once – a sarcastic aftertaste of “Occupy Wall Street”.