The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, June 20, 2022

What's Really Happening in Ukraine? The Rules of Disinformation During Wartime


The front page from the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" on Oct 12, 1941. A good example of wartime propaganda.  

War is a complicated story with plenty of things happening at the same time. Not for nothing, there exists the term "fog of war," and it may well be that even generals and leaders don't know exactly what's going on on the battlefield. Then, imagine how the media are reporting the situation to us: it is not just a fog that separates the news from the truth: it is a brick wall. Yet, the media remain a major source of information for us. Can we use them to learn at least something about what's going on, discarding the lies and the exaggerations? 

To start, we can look at how wartime news was reported in historical cases. As an exercise, I examined how Italians were (dis-)informed by their government during World War 2. I used the archive of "La Stampa," one of the major Italian newspapers of the time, still existing today. The other national newspapers weren't reporting anything really different. Another advantage is that the archive of La Stampa is free to peruse. 

The archive contains a huge amount of material (all in Italian, sorry). I don't claim that I examined everything, but I did go through the decisive moments of the war, in 1941/43. It is a fascinating experience to imagine people reading the news of the time and trying to understand what was really going on. Could they figure it out? Probably not, at least for most of them. But let's go into the details.

Above, you can see an example of how news about the war was presented to Italians. The front page of "La Stampa" of Oct 12, 1941, was titled the "destruction of the Azov pocket." It was true: the battle of the sea of Azov was a major victory for the Axis forces. Even the report on the number of prisoners taken, about 100,000, was approximately correct. 

On the lower left part of the front page, you read of another front: in Ethiopia. The Italian troops fighting in the Amhara region ("Amara" in the text) are said to be offering an "indomitable resistance" against the attacking British troops. Again, it was true. The stronghold of Gondar, in Northern Ethiopia, was successfully resisting. 

That's just the first page. You can read more in the inner pages: reflections on how the defeat of Bolshevism in Russia will unavoidably bring the final defeat for England, of the victorious advance of the Italian troops in the Donetsk region, of heavy losses of the enemy on all fronts, including long lists of British warships damaged or sunk. 

So, if you were an Italian reading one of the national papers in October 1941, you would reasonably conclude that the Axis powers were winning in Russia, that Italy was successfully resisting in Ethiopia, and that the British were facing serious difficulties in all war theaters. That would not have been such a bad evaluation at that moment, perhaps the most favorable for the Axis during the whole war. 

The problem is that, as we know from our modern viewpoint, in October 1941 the German advance was already starting to slow down, and it would completely stall in early December. In Ethiopia, Gondar was just the last pocket of resistance of the former "Italian Empire." It was surrounded by the British, and it had zero chance to survive. It surrendered on Nov 27th 1941. 

How was this less than exciting news presented to the Italian readers? About the Russian front, in December they were told that the Germans had decided to stop their advance and that they were preparing to restart the offensive in spring. At the same time, they were repulsing Russian attacks. Then, about the defeat in Ethiopia, the Italians were told nothing. The fall of Gondar in November was simply not reported. Only on Dec 6, more than a month later, you could read that the "Italian officers of Gondar" were allowed to keep their swords while surrendering. From this, you could finally understand that Gondar was no more in Italian hands. As a compensation, you could read in the column nearby of "more British ships sunk in the Atlantic."

This is very typical. Bad news was simply not reported or delayed during the war. When the Italian contingent in Russia was destroyed, in 1942, it just disappeared from the news. As another example, in 1943, the British had been attacking the island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea. Up to June 12th, "La Stampa" was reporting the heroic resistance of the Italian defenders facing superior enemy forces. 

Remarkably, when the news above appeared, Pantelleria had already surrendered without firing a shot. That was not reported until June 14th as just a few lines in a corner of the front page. One day later, one of the pundits of the time explained why the loss of Pantelleria was of no importance and that the final victory of Italy was certain. Then, it was silence.   

This kind of disinformation is normal: it happens everywhere, surely not just in the Italian press during WW2. The interesting part is whether we can learn something from this story. I think I can propose a few rules of thumb on how wartime misinformation works. 


1. When the news reports a major victory of your side that involves a verifiable result, say, the occupation of a city or of a region, then it is most likely true. 

2. When the news reports that an enemy attack has been repulsed and that the enemy suffered heavy losses, it may be true, but it means that the enemy has superior forces in that area and that sooner or later will break through. 

3. When you don't hear anything anymore of a specific contingent, city, or region, it means that the contingent has been destroyed or that the city/region has been conquered by the enemy. 

4. When you read non-verifiable positive news ("enemy cruiser sunk" "40 enemy planes downed"), it is most likely false.

5. Whatever you hear from the "experts" has zero value. With one exception: when the  pundits start saying that "the situation looks bad, but the final victory is certain," it means that the war is lost.  

6. The golden rule: never, ever trust anything that the media tell you. 


These rules have a certain logic: despite the attempts of the media to "create their own reality" (Rumsfeld style) they cannot completely suppress the real reality. During WW2, even with the heavy censorship of the Fascist regime, Italians could find other sources of information, including what returning soldiers were telling, and the broadcasting from "Radio Londra," the British radio. Tuning to that station was forbidden and could be dangerous, but surely many people did that. Not that the British propaganda was any more truthful than the Italian one but, at least, Radio London provided Italians with a different version of the news. For instance, the fall of Gondar in 1941 was announced in British newspapers the day after it took place, with titles such as, "END OF MUSSOLINI'S EMPIRE." Radio Londra surely broadcast that and the people who listened were informed about the event several days in advance in comparison to those who had to wait for the Italian press to report it.  

About the current war in Ukraine, these rules can help. For a start, they can be used to filter out the most blatant lies. For instance, you surely heard the story of the "Ghost of Kyiv," the Ukrainian pilot said to have downed as many as 40 enemy planes (some say just six, others 10 or 20). It was non-verifiable news, and hence you could have suspected from the beginning that it was false. Indeed, it was confirmed to be fake by the Ukrainians themselves. The same is true for many reports of the rape of Ukrainian women and children. The originator of these reports, Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine's commissioner for human rights, was removed from her post by the Ukrainian parliament under the accusation of having provided exaggerated and false news. And the same goes for the many obviously exaggerated reports of heavy losses on the Russian side.

Then, even with the heavy censorship we are embedded in, we can still manage to find a trickle of information from the "other side," not better than from this side, but still providing a different angle of view. The official Russian channels do not report heavy Russian losses (obviously!). Pro-Russian pundits repeat that Russia is winning, although they have toned down their statements several times. They have been telling us, repeatedly, that the Ukraine military was going to collapse, but that is just good evidence for the validity of the rule that says, "The opinion of the experts has zero value." In any case, the reports from both sides agree that, at present, the Russians are advancing, although slowly. Therefore, it is probably true. 

About the final outcome of the war, for the time being, we are in a condition similar to that of Italians in 1941. It would have been difficult for them to understand who would win, although they might have concluded that things were not going so well as the official reports said. But, by late 1942, a critical analysis, even just of the national news, should have made clear to anyone with a functioning brain that the war was lost for the Axis. About Ukraine, instead, we cannot say much for the time being, but it is hard to think that the war could last years. So, we should be able to know more in the near future. For the time being, just don't forget the golden rule: never, never trust what the media are telling you.


  1. take those same rules and apply them to covid...... have we been at war since 2020?

  2. You seem to forget that there were no satellite images of the battlefield in WW2 and now there are detailed photos in real-time available to governments and private news organizations. The "fog of war" can be pierced more easily if you have clear, high-resolution photographs of the land, cities, fighting men and war machinery involved.

    The US NSA and CIA have even better images, communications intercepts, etc., but even without getting any information from them, anyone with a modest research budget (including new sources) can find out pretty clearly what's going on.

    1. Yes, of course the governments have good images in real time. Ordinary citizens don't. If you do, then you are not one!

  3. Immediately after 9/11, I used to read The Times here in the UK - a Rupert Murdoch newspaper at that time. Chilling reports told of how "the terrorists" (whoever they were - and we still don't know) had accessed secret military codewords and had threatened "Angel is next". That was the codeword for the Presidential jet. The US government confirmed the report at the time. Later, they began rolling back these early reports - they were just "unfounded rumours". What they couldn't roll back was the forensics, and the videos of the events. Dr. Judy Wood, a former professor of mechanical engineering, showed film of steel girders turning to dust in mid-air. "Dustification", she called in. Heinz Pommer, a nuclear physicist, has in recent years shown evidence of a mini-nuke and a mushroom cloud. Scary stuff.

    The Times reported, in the early days after 9/11, the evidence that the US government had named the wrong Arabs as the plane hijackers! The Times later fell into line with the US government's story, though.


    1. Interesting: the fires seem to follow the front line in Ukraine. But, from the map of Europe, you would think that also Southern Italy is at war!

  5. I think we can say a lot about Ukraine at the moment. It is losing. It is being sacrificed by people who don't give a damn about the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians have created some really bad karma by rallying behind Bandera and even Hitler on occasion, just like their ancestors created some really bad karma by the bestialities performed on their Polish, Czech and Jewish neighbors in the Volyn. We could say that Ukraine has been involved in a civil war since 2014. We could say that the bizarre yellow/blue hysteria in the west is yet another march of the lemmings to the cliffs. We could say that nobody really gives a damn about the Ukrainians. We could say we are stuck with a war that cannot be ended because there is nobody trustworthy left to negotiate with. That, and a million other things could be said.

    Good rules. I would add... in a war, assume both sides lie unless you have strong evidence to the contrary.

    1. "The Ukrainians have created some really bad karma by rallying behind Bandera and even Hitler on occasion"

      It's called "tit for tat". Go further back in history and read about what the Russian communists did to the Ukrainians in the 1920s and 1930s: they stole their crops in order to fund the building of their Soviet industrial technological society, thereby causing massive famines in Ukraine and killing millions. Is it any wonder that the Ukrainians supported Hitler and Bandera in an attempt to get rid of the Russians and communists?

      You should consider reading "Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin" by Timothy Snyder.

      And what of Russia's karma with regard to Ukraine? Large powers don't usually get karma, of course. Just as well, since I live in England.

      Of course, the USA has badly provoked Russia in its handling of Ukraine since 2014. But the general population doesn't know that and sees only big bully Russia massacring the Ukrainians, hence the "hysteria".

    2. K: quite. The bad karma is pretty convoluted.
      You say: "Is it any wonder that the Ukrainians supported Hitler and Bandera in an attempt to get rid of the Russians and communists?"

      No. But the massacres of the Volyn are in a class by itself. And none of the people massacred had anything to do with politics. Btw, it goes further back. To Austro-Hungary. And then it goes forward, where the Banderistas of today have nothing to do with the Soviet outrages. Someone I know, he has an aunt in western Ukraine. She hung the picture of Bandera on her wall with the words: ... "Bandera is our religion." Where does this insanity end?

      And then there is the bad karma incurred by the west for grooming the ukronazis and sitting by while the people of the Donbas were being shelled and killed off on a daily basis for near 8 years...

    3. Lets not forget that the ussr was ruled by non-russians most of the time. So we can make the case that the Russian leople didn't incur bad karma.

  6. Excellent piece, Ugo...C.

  7. In 1918, US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson said "The first casualty of War is Truth." Of course, with social media and multiple independent news sources, management of info/disinfo by states is a much bigger job. However, using search engines and funds transfer companies as agents of censorship has become somewhat effective. Still, there are some news outlets which have been able to push back a little and combat disinfo. To wit:

  8. Here from an alternative media source, about the geo-politics of empires, also ties into previous post about the decline of Europe.

    Every day, the Western media has been setting out its interpretation of the war in Ukraine. It is a narrative formulated in Washington. Countless times in organs based in countries that are part of the Washington consensus the line spelt out is the culprit responsible for the war is Putin. This approach is achieving blanket coverage.

    ...Taking a long view, Putin would be justified in believing the cards will fall for Russia. The united front against him will weaken over time. Western economies are feeling the pain as gas and oil prices along with inflation soar. In time, there will be a retreat from economic war.... Eurasia is about to become the new frontier of the world economy...

    John S

  9. Reminds me of that observation credited to Mark Twain: If you don't read the news, you are uninformed; if you read the news, you are misinformed. As the 'propaganda' arm of the ruling elite, the media is probably one of the last institutions we should rely upon for 'objective', 'credible' information. One of the main aims of the media is to set the context (i.e,, cognitive framing) through which most interpret events/evidence in order to steer the narratives that exist, especially those that support/maintain the status quo wealth/power structures. For let's not forget as US Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler warned, War is a Racket; its true purpose/aim known only to a small cabal of elite and its price borne by the masses while the profits it generates funnelled to a few among the ruling class.

    1. Precisely.
      We could add that, in some cases, the war is aimed at replacing one elite with another. The ruler who is pushed to war does not realize that he is signing his own demise and that behind those who have pushed to war is a new ruling class.
      This is a variation of the "Saddam trap" that Ugo has described. Has anyone seen the movie "The King's Man"? Not a good movie for sure and historically dubious (France did not participate in WWI?) , but the way the king, the kaiser and the czar (and the US president, the funniest way) are manipulated to go to war is shockingly credible, to say the least. Other details make me think that the screenwriter knows much more than it seems.

    2. Indeed. You have the impression that everything that happens follows some kind of script.....

  10. Iraq's oil minister says - Shell and other major international oil companies seem very keen to leave Iraq - the soonest possible.

    This far, some of them are putting their shares in Iraq's oil on the market for sale - dirt-cheap....

    Another War is coming - what some of the locals understand from that statement...

    The Russian oil ended up today - almost only exchanged inside the energy black market - to avoid sanctions - we are told....

    Our Western Civilisation seems very keen to get all other oil supplies, especially from Iraq, Saudi and the Gulf - follow suit - and only traded inside the energy black market, too.

    When the media tells us that Venezuela is under sanctions, Russia under sanctions, Iraq (still under sanctions, believe it or not) ,Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Sudan - and all these are oil rich countries - one needs to understand that there is a relationship between oil and sanctions.

    7. The golden rule II: When an increasing number nations are put under sanctions and made war-torn - decades in decades out - you need to understand that the running Social Contract is struggling.

    And when sanctions are focused on oil-rich nations, you need to understand that the Social Contract is running out of fuel, too

    In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most


  11. "2. When the news reports that an enemy attack has been repulsed and that the enemy suffered heavy losses, it means that the enemy attack was successful and that your side suffered heavy losses."

    That rule may be true if it happens once, but not if it is repeated pattern. Since mid April the UAF has reported that the Russians attacked Sievierodonetsk and were repulsed. If that meant that the Russian attack were successful, why did the Russians have to keep doing it for more than two months, and still do? Having successes for two months and still not having taken the city? Not likely.

    And if they lose Sievierodonetsk, the Ukrainians can always retreat across the river Donets and fire down on the Russians from the high ground of Lushyansk.

    1. I wouldn't jump to any conclusion from a battle that's being fought right now. But you are right that my "second law" was poorly explained. The idea is that when the enemy can afford to attack, it means they have superior forces available (they say the attacker must have a 4:1 ratio of forces). Then, the attack may fail, but the enemy doesn't lose superiority. It happens: think of the Battle of the Crater, when the Union managed to be soundly beaten by the confederates despite their numerical superiority. I modified my text a little, to explain this point better. And thanks for the comment.