In 1944 T.S. Eliot, then director of Faber & Faber, notoriously turned down George Orwell’s Animal Farm for fear of offending the Soviet Union, our vital ally against Nazi Germany. Faber & Faber did not repeat the howler with Peter Pomerantsev’s This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War against Reality, a book which also has important things to say about oppression and tyranny. Currently a Senior Fellow at LSE, a Soviet-born Ukrainian, Pomerantsev has written an endearing and stimulating travelogue through the world of fake news and digital political control. Endearing because he runs this travelogue throughout the book in parallel with biographical sketches of his father’s life. Igor Pomerantsev’s courageous and creative struggle against communist oppression and lies, and their modern equivalent, those of Putin’s Russian Federation, make compelling reading. It is heartening to see such respect and admiration for a father from a son, when the bad father has become a biographical cliché.
Pomerantsev demonstrates how the communications revolution and social media have transformed political conflict, the struggle to gain and regain power. A 2013 Pentagon study, for example, described China’s theory of modern war as “twenty-first century warfare guided by a new and vital dimension: namely the belief that whose story wins may be more important than whose army wins”. We in Britain are now aware that during general elections and referendum campaigns political parties are able to disaggregate voters, into some eighty different group identities each targeted differently, but using unifying keywords which underpin a shared story being transmitted. States never stop projecting the story of them, the “non-people”, versus us “the people”, manufacturing a consensus around a simple theme such as Trump’s make America great again, Putin’s get Russia off its knees, and the Brexiteers’ take back control. Many people believe “the people” means themselves and suspend their critical judgement in favour of the reassurance of solidarity that belonging to “the people” brings.
The book contains some fascinating interviews and stories: the penetration by Lyudmilla Savchuk of the prolific Russian Internet Research Agency, a troll farm; the work of Srjda Popović who trains activists in counter-measure against the infrastructure of misinformation, and more generally on “how to overthrow dictators”. Then there is Maria Ressa, CEO of the news website Rappeler which reported President Duterte’s extra-judicial killings in the Philippines. As might be expected, Pomerantsev adds detail about Russia’s coordinated onslaught deploying both misinformation and covert militias, cyber and actual warfare on his country of birth, Ukraine. There is also a concise account of the massive April 2007 Russian cyberattack on Estonia which led temporarily to national paralysis. And you find out that for 348 roubles you can buy online Information and Psychological War operations: A Short Encyclopedia and Reference guide published by Hotline-Telecom, and learn how to disrupt a country.
This is Not Propaganda is stimulating reading, because Pomersantev throughout the book sometimes stops the storytelling to reflect and express his own puzzlement. How has it come to this? We readers share his sense that the Big Story, the full explanation, is beyond our reach. But Pomerantsev has some thoughtful suggestions. He draws a connection between Truth and Hope, a very Catholic linkage. Today’s Blitzkrieg on truth and the manufacture of false hopes around keywords create a vicious circle: if there is no hope what is the point of caring too much about whether something is true or not. Let us just reserve judgement, wallow in enforced relativism, or simply be entertained by the outrageousness of the falsehoods and claims made in the new “global theatre”. Robert Peston, the political correspondent of ITV News has already observed how Boris Johnson’s press conferences are “100 times more engaging” than Theresa May’s. But if there is no truth we are doomed to be manipulated into pursuing false hopes which lead to even greater disengagement and cynicism.
This is Not Propaganda an easy book to read. If you don’t know the difference between a bot, a cyborg and a troll factory – I didn’t – you will soon learn. If you didn’t know of Igor Pomerantsev’s remarkable life story you will be told it elegantly, with a touch of the romance of courageous resistance. Peter Pomerantsev illustrates that he has inherited his father’s creative gift for words – which is why he cares so much about them, though perhaps a ruthless edit on a few metaphors wouldn’t come amiss. Some are uniquely fresh and jump out at you. Others are contrived and clunky. But overall this is a learned book that does not bog you down in technical detail whilst moving from country to country.
So read these 256 pages and you will know who and what is attacking us, the contents of the Trump, Putin and Duterte playbook and how to sow division, discord and the seeds of institutional collapse. And you will meet some of the brave people who are making a good fist of combatting the partly new, often undetectable, and very dangerous form of oppression and manipulation of the public that is currently in operation globally today. Welcome to the 21st. century.
See TheArticle 04/09/2019