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For six long months Ole Wæver has been confronted with his misinterpretations of the war in Ukraine. Last Sunday it just got too much for the top political scientist. He responded with a 45-tweet monologue.
One specific video has been circulating Twitter for the past six months. It is a clip from the Danish TV’s show Deadline where professor in international politics Ole Wæver apparently, without a hint of hesitation, rejects the idea that sanctions against Russia will have any effect, that any arms assistance to Ukraine is almost irrelevant, and that a Ukrainian victory is just wishful thinking.
The video clip is not the political scientist’s finest hour. In fact, since February it has been like a recurring headache for him. Everytime the video surfaces on social media, a wave of speculative and degrading comments follows: Some write that he must be on Putin’s payroll, others list the other times he allegedly made a massive blunder, while others still ask why the media still continue to use him as a source of expertise.
»I hadn’t been on Twitter for days because I had Covid-19. When I logged in, there was a mountain of tweets from people who believe that we as a society suffer from taxpayer-paid experts who don’t know shit, and who ask why on earth I have not already been fired,« says Wæver.
A sudden upsurge came after a journalist at the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen Søren K. Villemoes shared the video with the text: »Why did so many believe that the Russians were invincible?«
(Born 1960) is Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science of the University of Copenhagen and has written a number of books on international security policy.
In 2019, Wæver made headlines when two international researchers wrote that his concept of ‘securitization’ was racist. He subsequently accused the two researchers of distorting his research by selection.
He received the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize in 2012.
Member of the Royal Danish Academy Of Sciences And Letters.
This comment had Wæver back at the keyboard again. In a staggering 45-tweet thread, he talks of researcher bashing, the rush to show indignation on social media, and the relationship between experts and media. On top of acknowledging, of course, that he was wrong about several things back in February. But at the same time he labels Villemoes’ tweet as internet trolling, and an attempt to read the researcher into a pro-Russian framework. He says Villemoes is on the hunt for incriminating mistakes.
»Villemoes’ original question is legitimate. He could easily have written an article about it in the Weekendavisen based on relevant experts. But that was not what he did. He took a 55-second edited cut, which is already an interpretation without reservations, and shared it with a sharp question. It’s like laughing and pointing at someone. Anyone who sees the video clip will think I am an idiot,« Wæver says.
Søren K. Villemoes disagrees strongly with Ole Wæver’s interpretation. He finds it »intellectually weak« that the researcher is so touchy over a legitimate question about why so many researchers’ predictions were wrong.
»It is thin-skinned, and a bit lax, intellectually. It is part of a normal debate whether you were right or were wrong,« says Søren K. Villemoes.
Ole Wæver believes that Villemoes »is a seasoned Twitter user,« who knows very well what he will set in motion on social media. But Wæver acknowledges that it, in principle, can be unintentional.
»I can’t take this upon me. It’s not my responsibility what some idiots write to him. This is not something I either encourage or endorse. But this should not stop us from having a public debate,« Villemoes replies.
According to Wæver, the social media storm was not unintended. There are two strong narratives that feed the comment threads on social media, research-critical politicians and the general public. One is Ukraine-specific, the other is a critique of the social sciences and the whole idea of expertise.
At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, there were a number of left-wing intellectuals who, according to Wæver, argued against helping Ukraine because it would simply prolong the agony.
»I am lumped in with that group, even though my message on the TV broadcast is quite the opposite. I the show Deadline i said that we had to prepare ourselves for a long-term confrontation with Russia with sanctions and counter-sanctions. The second narrative is that the experts keep on making mistakes, and that they remain experts, even though we cannot be trusted. This video becomes an example of how researchers make mistakes within their own area of expertise.«
Ole Wæver emphasises several times that he is not a military expert. He is a professor of international politics with a specialty within the field of security policy. On the Deadline show, he is interviewed on how the »European security architecture is changing, and how the war in Ukraine influences and shapes the new architecture.«
This combination of video and social media is particularly toxic.
Ole Wæver, Professor of International Politics
He says that the war has fostered a strong NATO partnership, which also includes previously neutral countries like Sweden and Finland. He describes NATO’s historical expansion towards the east, and says that the war is the beginning of a long, deep-frozen period between the East and the West.
»Everything was said under the presumption that Russia wins the war, and that they started a bit gently. But this may be wrong,« he also says during the 20-minute interview.
In the video clip, however, there are none of these reservations. Here Wæver says that sanctions will not break Russia. That arms assistance will probably not work, and that it is wishful thinking that Ukraine will win the war. Claims that have turned out to be clearly wrong since the 27 February interview. Wæver acknowledges this, and points out that he would like to be corrected and is open to criticism.
But isn’t that exactly what Villemoes does?
»Yes, but this is just not the best platform to do it on. Social media are a completely new factor that function as a digital citation practice to put people down. I would like to do media interviews, but Twitter’s circulation and re-circulation is unproductive. This combination of video and social media is particularly toxic.«
Ole Wæver’s many tweets are in line with a new research project from the Danish School of Media and Journalism. Media researchers Kresten Roland and Jakob Dybro Johansen have reviewed 517 articles from Danish newspapers Jyllands-Posten, Berlingske Tidende and Politiken who use at least one expert source over a period of four weeks.
In 98 per cent of the articles, the researchers come up with assessments, presumptions, expectations or estimates. 86 per cent of the researchers are used to communicate other people’s research or to comment on current affairs, while the remaining 14 per cent communicate their own research.
According to Jakob Dybro Johansen, researchers are, to a greater extent than previously, used in a commenting role, where they analyse, present and assess current events.
This is clearly thin-skinned, and a bit lax, intellectually. It belongs to normal debate practice to be right or wrong.
Søren K. Villemoes, journalist at Weekendavisen
»It makes good sense to work with experts giving their assessments, but it also raises questions about the confidence you can have in this knowledge. Even though you make use of the most qualified researcher, it increases the risk that a prediction will not hold,« says Jakob Dybro Johansen.
»Journalism would probably be both dull and bland if you could never address relevant questions about the future. But this is a balancing act.«
Ole Wæver agrees that it is a balance.
»I’m not a military expert, and I have consistently refused to be interviewed in this role. But when I get a question about how the war will go, I turn towards the general research. That this has turned out to be wrong does give rise to self-criticism, and I am already in this process,« he says.
What frustrates Wæver is that the clip from the Deadline »feeds into an increasingly inane scepticism towards experts,« as he himself is not an expert in military developments, but speaks based on general perceptions in military research. You should take this debate and this criticism with military researchers, he says. Wæver will focus on his own fallacies within his own field, where he among other things was surprised that Russia opted for a total invasion.
»In the programme I should have said: ‘Based on what I have read from military experts, this is the case.« Had I done this, I would have avoided all this. It’s a delicate balance between being technically incomprehensible, and simplifying things so much that people at home will think ‘that is what my mum says’.«
According to Wæver, experts, media, and social media face a collective challenge. The experts are obliged to communicate their knowledge according to the Danish university legislation. The media, on the other hand, need expert knowledge to inform citizens. However social media, which according to Wæver are often fed by rage and indignation, make it less attractive to do interviews, because you are attacked and told you need to be fired for the slightest offence.
»I’m not taking umbrage over petty things, like people say I am. I can tolerate criticism, but it can take on a shape and a strength, where it means I am more likely to say no thanks to interviews next time.«
Media researcher Jakob Dybro Johansen is not sure whether criticism of incorrect predictions will make researchers more reluctant to grant interviews to media.
»It can have a negative affect on how we perceive researchers, but it does not have to be that way. It is important to declare how big the uncertainties are in a statement. Both journalists and researchers, you are obliged to provide correct information. But you also have to dare to take on relevant questions about the future, even though knowledge is not perfect,« he says.
Ole Wæver has several regrets when it comes to the Deadline interview. He should have emphasized that he was not a military expert, and that he was in this way basing his assessment on the dominant perceptions of his fellow researchers. He still thinks that his statements were not completely off target in terms of the knowledge they had at the time.
But the 45-tweet monologue on Ole Wæver’s Twitter profile may have inadvertently increased people’s focus on the statements from six months ago. On Monday, the Danish MP from Liberal Alliance Henrik Dahl followed up on the Twitter tirade with a featured comment on the news site Jyllands-Posten. He points out that if you want to restore confidence in the humanities and social sciences, then a bit of »humility on the part of Ole Wæver is needed.« The next day Ole Wæver was labelled a defeatist in an editorial on the Berlingske news site by debate editor Pierre Collignon.
I can take criticism. But the criticism can take on a shape and a strength, where it means that I am more likely to say ‘no thanks’ to interviews next time.
Ole Wæver, Professor of International Politics
Ole Wæver still believes that the sanctions against Russia have not worked if the purpose of them was for Russia to »abandon the path of war«. But he acknowledges that he was wrong about whether the arms deliveries would have an effect.
»This was clearly wrong. I’m happy to admit that I’m wrong. Firstly, there has been more Western aid before the outbreak of war than was known to the public. In addition, Russia has failed in its first major attack because of a series of mistakes, and because Ukraine is doing a really good job. This created a space where arms deliveries could have an effect, but this was not a reasonable assumption at the time.«
As to whether it is still wishful thinking that Ukraine is winning, he is more ambivalent:
»Clearly Ukraine has won more than what was in my original statement.«
What have you learned from this debate?
»Mostly self-criticism. I have become more aware of how to hedge yourself as an expert in the public sphere and in research communication. As social science researchers, we are asked to explain what is happening in the world, and I have to be more aware of how to hedge my statements,« he says.