(Note: this post was written in a hurry; I may make changes to better express my line(s) of reasoning, especially wrt the missing context and nuances of the conversation that spawn misleading news headlines today. But I want to get this message out now. I recommend anyone who understands Dutch to actual watch + listen to today’s WNL Op Zondag show — and try to forget the pretext/frame already imposed on your brain by the news headlines while doing so; i.e., watch/listen as if you’ve never read anything about it. And either then form an opinion about the headlines; or remain undecided for the time being.)
News headlines today in the Netherlands and subsequently in international media suggest that Dutch minister of defense Ank Bijleveld has said that the Netherlands is at “cyberwar” with Russia. These reports are misleading and misrepresent reality.
On Sunday 14 October 2018, during an interview in the right-leaning Dutch tv show “WNL Op Zondag”, journalist Yoeri Albrecht brought forward the words “propaganda war” and “cyber war”; this was in the context of the disruption of a Russian cyber operation as revealed on 4 Oct 2018 — which is about intelligence & espionage, not about war (semantics matter).
The host, journalist Rick Nieman, then asked the minister: “a ‘cyberwar’, as mentioned by Yoeri by the way, is that a good description?”. The minister somewhat loosely confirmed that, without much deliberation, in a way that to me clearly was only meant to be conducive to a conversation (in an informal setting); not to confirm that we are “at war”. Yet, Omroep WNL published a piece that cherry-picked & overemphasized that side-step detail, ignoring the aforementioned details, through the following headline:
- Omroep WNL: “Defense minister Bijleveld: ‘Netherlands is at cyberwar with Russia'”
Subsequently, reports started appearing from other Dutch media:
- NOS: “Minister Bijleveld bevestigt: we zijn in cyberoorlog met de Russen” (link)
- NU.nl: “Minister Bijleveld: ‘Nederland in cyberoorlog met Rusland'” (link)
- Note: the NU.nl even states ‘Minister Bijleveld spreekt van een “cyberoorlog” in het televisieprogramma WNL op Zondag’, which is hard to interpret other than as suggesting that Bijleveld herself mentioned the word “cyberoorlog” (English: “cyberwar”). She never mentioned that word a single time.
- AD.nl: “Bijleveld: Nederland in cyberoorlog met Russen” (link)
- (many more)
And reports then started to appear in international media, for instance:
- Guardian: “Netherlands in a ‘cyberwar’ with Russia, says defence minister” (link)
…including RT (formerly known as Russia Today) & Sputnik Int’l:
- RT: “Netherlands in cyberwar with Russia? Dutch defense minister says ‘YES’” (link)
- Sputnik Int’l: “Netherlands in ‘Cyberwar’ With Russia – Defense Minister” (link)
The minister’s response, especially in its context and given the precise words & intonation etc., in no way warrants headlines of the likes seen here. Also, note that the minister herself did not mention the word “cyber war” a single time during the entire show. The minister could, and perhaps should, have objected to the word “war” — which, let me repeat it once more, was brought forward by others — but didn’t at that time. But neither the lack of explicit refutation nor (even) the confirmation, taking the context into account, warrant such headlines.
I hold the Dutch ‘fourth estate’ in high regard. But in my opinion, the Dutch journalists/editors who chose to spin the WNL conversation into dubious headlines failed us as a society today (a little bit); perhaps in an instance of ‘medialogica‘. While Dutch journalists are not responsible for what e.g. RT & Sputnik do, they do have a moral responsibility to be accurate in reporting, especially regarding these matters, taking into account geopolitical developments. That responsibility includes anticipating potential re-use / abuse of news in support of ongoing information operations — by which I’m not implying they should not report something, but by which I am claiming that due diligence is necessary when reporting about these sensitive topics.
Failing to take such responsibility means accepting the risk that one becomes a useful idiot to others — which I also stated in a tweet (it’s a bit offensive, but for good reason). Today’s headlines were misleading and unnecessarily provided informational cannon fodder for ongoing information operations that may also be aimed against the Netherlands.