Weaponization of Metaphors in Russian Propaganda: Sexual Violence, as State Sovereignty Violation
Kiril Avramov and Ellery Cushman
Words are very potent weapons. Their emotional and cognitive load is skillfully incorporated into compelling metaphors that are aptly absorbed into a larger and powerful “weaponized meta-narratives” geared for so-called “cognitive attacks”, as an integral part of larger influence operations. These in turn are swiftly utilized by modern propaganda machines in the course of the ongoing political warfare standoff between Russia and the collective West. In essence, these linguistic and logical constructs become indispensable tools in the arsenal of contemporary psychological warfare, with its relentless pursuit of achieving perceptional, cognitive and behavioral modifications of adversarial, peripheral targets. In this regard, metaphors are incorporated and “vertically integrated”, and thus fed into “weaponized meta-narratives.” These metanarratives exhibit a rather high utility value when it comes to the business of “winning hearts and minds” of targeted domestic and foreign population segments. Or to be more precise, the business of “chilling hearts and frightening minds”, as is the case of present Russian and pro-Russian state propaganda. For centuries, Russian leadership has fallen back on the “perpetual victimhood” narrative of Russian history to warrant an aggressive foreign policy in the so-called Russian “Near Abroad”. President Putin continuously keeps Russian citizens mobilized by maintaining existential crises on the state’s borders. Today’s state media and propaganda apparatus has developed a particularly effective strategy that employs potent atrocity-type propaganda that focuses on rather well-known core ideas of protecting the purity of femininity, and readapts them as a metaphor for defending the integrity of Russian borders. This new metaphor is applicable for internal and external consumption, as both have been deemed by Kremlin as inherently belonging to the Russian sphere of influence that is ensured by military and soft-power capabilities.
New Take on an Old Trick
Atrocity propaganda might be centuries-old tool with a proven track record of success within the psychological warfare toolkit, but it currently undergoes a period of thriving “renaissance” in the framework of Russian disinformation campaigns against the West. This renaissance includes crafting and planting weaponized meta-narratives that, in turn, contain incorporated weaponized metaphors as well. In order to illustrate this mechanics, it would be best to scrutinize several well and lesser-known cases, as examples of this dynamic. Take the well-publicized example of the so-called “Lisa case” that gained public traction and elevated global media publicity several years ago. The story of Lisa F., a 13 year-old Russian-German girl living in Berlin, went viral in January 2016. She had allegedly been kidnapped for a day and raped by three Muslim men who had migrated from the Middle East. Russian media pounced on the story, highlighting Germany’s impunity for sexual predators coming in droves from the Middle East. Although proven false, the story of Lisa has been repeated, mutated, and purposefully distorted in order to serve the Kremlin’s ideological needs. Ultimately, the initial Lisa F. story evolved into multiple stories that follow the same narrative trajectory: a young girl walking alone in broad daylight, attacked by a group of Middle Eastern migrants, the police and the media in Europe do not care, and the girl and her family are left without justice. In essence, the individual’s body and integrity were brutally violated by the “ultimate Other”, “the foreign invader”, who represents the total antipode to all accepted norms and values. The fact that the violation was executed in front of the passive and “impotent” bystanders who simply observe without reaction or reprisal represents the weakness that results from interaction with this enemy. In other words, they refuse shelter and protection to the victim, and thus are framed as “weak” and “effeminate” - the very essence of what Kremlin’s propaganda wants us to perceive, as stereotypical “Gayrope”. This depicts Europe as a continent incapable of defending itself, being constantly violated by “foreign invaders,” and that is ultimately doomed to inevitable decay due its “abandonment” of the Kremlin’s version of “traditional values”. Thus, this violation was made possible by the European and generally Western insistence on the practice of representative governance, tolerance, and multiculturalism, instead of “managed democracy” guided by a decisive strongman. One might wonder, as to why such rumors and fake reports gain such wide public attention, and why they tend to successfully achieve perceptional, cognitional and behavioral altering. Certainly, one of the contributing factors is connected to the emotional charge of this type of atrocity reporting. Usually, a highly negative combination of primal feelings, such as fear, disgust, anger and rage, constitute a perfect stimuli that produces response “triggers” to this propagated atrocity reporting.
Metaphor, as a “Cognitive Munition”
We argue that these reported alleged cases of sexual violence and related rumors have allowed the Kremlin to employ a useful metaphor that creates a conceptual connection between territorial sovereignty and bodily harm. Namely, the violation of the physical body of a singular Russian woman is equated to the violation of the national and territorial integrity of “Mother Russia” entirely. Thus, the purpose this serves for Russian leadership should be clear: to equate these attacks of young women to an attack by outsiders on the Russian heartland. The intent being multipurpose: as it simultaneously ensures that citizens are in a constant state of fear and mobilization, it also sustains demand for strong reaction from a “strong hand”. Also, such approach allows for arousing different reactions from targeted auditoria. As men are provoked to act in patriotic defense, of both their country and their women, the state is warning Russian women that they are constantly under threat of attack, both in territory and physically. The key being that the state is their only mechanism for protection. Thus, it acts to protect the purity and innocence of Russian women, while preserving the purity and sovereignty of Russian territory.
Inner Wiring of the “Cognitive Munition”
According to rumor theory, all successful and relatable rumors have a protagonist, antagonist, and plot. In this particular case, the victim is a young school-aged Russian girl living in another European country, typically Germany, Sweden, Finland, or Ukraine. She is often walking home from school in the middle of the day. She is innocent and is attacked by a group of dangerous migrants that her country let in unimpeded. Most significantly, these attacks often happen on or before a religious or well-known holiday. In one instance, the attack occurred in Shchastya, Ukrainian for “happiness,” a town that has been subjected to some of the worst fighting of the war in occupied eastern Ukraine. In this instance, the attacker was not a Muslim man, but a “fascist” Ukrainian soldier. The identity of the attacker is less important than the message it sends. Whether a Muslim migrant or a Ukrainian soldier, the attacker represents the outside forces that seek to penetrate and violate “inherently” Russian territory. The detail of the reaction of society and law enforcement is nearly as important as the discussion of the attack itself. In every version of the story, bystanders did nothing, the media refused to cover the story, and the police failed to arrest a known attacker. The overall, intentionally projected notion being to demonstrate that the threat is omnipresent, and that no one but the Russian state can protect innocent civilians from danger. This has two separate but related implications, namely that Russians living outside the country’s territorial borders continue to feel protected and connected to the state, while also giving the Kremlin ‘legitimate’ reason to tighten restrictions and controls within its own borders under the guise of protection.
Defusing the “Cognitive Munition”
Transmediated rumors containing atrocity reporting are a powerful and enduring “cognitive munition” in the arsenal of past and contemporary psychological warfare. They tend to persist and generally achieve their intended purpose - to change perceptions, attitudes, and reactions of the targeted populations. They are potent and harmful, especially when they are correlated with a primal national myth or specific cultural schemata that is deeply embedded within a particular linguistic or cultural community. If unchecked, they usually pass “under the radar” of public scrutiny and are easily dismissed as harmless and even eccentric, until the results become apparent to policy makers and practitioners alike (i.e. when it is a bit too late). Their potency derives from their ability to create and fuel cyclical “public panics”, which in turn mobilize certain segments of society. Their reaction then is to pressure their respective elites into rushed, and therefore externally conditioned, course of future action. Thus, this provoked pressure opens a new window of opportunity to gain leverage over the speed and context of rational decision-making by conditioning the elites by an adversarial third party. Ideally, that is precisely what the planners of an efficient influence operation would desire as an end effect to their work. Provided their utility, the story of Lisa F and all its variants as “weaponized metaphors” are cases in point.
Defusing and neutralizing the degrading effect of these “devices” is certainly no easy task, since this would mean testing the targeted population’s cognitive resilience in broader global perspective. Challenges come from several directions that include, but are not limited to, the nature of the rumor’s proliferation, its speed of transmission, and state of social environment it was planted in. To increase the complexity, we can add the levels of mass information awareness and political polarization, and even the level of overall social anxiety. Certainly, the list goes on further. However, several key takeaways from scrutinizing the power of “weaponized metaphors” within the specific context of Russian and pro-Russian propaganda include the fact that, if unchecked, disengaged and not properly deconstructed, these can quickly and unexpectedly gain serious traction and “hit” multiple targets in the West and the developing world simultaneously. They also do have serious and lasting harm effects in societies seriously affected by highly polarizing and divisive political, economic, social and religious issues. These constitute the perfect preconditions for graphic “alternative reports” to proliferate and test the overall mass cognitive “immunity” and resilience. Last but not least, the deployment of these “cognitive munitions” in the current “hot” stage of political warfare confrontation between Russia and the West should serve as a stark reminder that multiple “defusing” initiatives should be actively developed and implemented, aiming at raising the cognitive protection levels at military and civilian institutions alike.