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From Facebook to Vote Leave: how we entered into a war against reality

How information is weaponised in our divided age.

In 2001, a year out of university, Peter Pomerantsev moved to Moscow. Working as a TV producer, he saw first-hand how public opinion was exposed to a “fog of disinformation”, how “spectacle had pushed out sense”. After returning to the UK in 2010, Pomerantsev wrote a series of articles, and then a book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (2014), that captured brilliantly what was so distinctive about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He depicted a place where the lines between reality and performance were constantly blurring and “a radical relativism which implies truth is unknowable” reigned.

At the time, Pomerantsev considered Russia “a sideshow, a curio”. But in the last few years, the rest of the world has caught up with it. Everywhere, rumours and recriminations fly back and forth online, boosted by bots and trolls. Pomerantsev sees old friends regurgitating conspiracy theories and “internet undercurrents pulling whole families apart”. He has come to recognise an uncertainty familiar from his days in Moscow: “the sense that everything under one’s feet is constantly moving, inherently unstable, liquid”. As he puts it in his new book, “the future arrived first in Russia”.

This is Not Propaganda offers a tour of this new “war against reality”, as well as a reckoning with its consequences. Pomerantsev travels to China, Mexico, Ukraine and the Philippines; he writes about Brexit, the Syrian war and Islamic extremism. Each of these subjects affords him a view of how information is being contested today: how it’s used by different sides to coax and confuse, energise and silence.

As in his previous work, Pomerantsev tells his story through a series of miniature profiles. Some of Pomerantsev’s most interesting encounters are with the people who feel, with varying degrees of hubris, as if they have cracked the codes enabling them to shape opinion. In Manila, he meets “P”, an excitable man in his early twenties who worked on social media for Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential campaign. His chief contribution was to set up innocuous-looking Facebook groups, each dedicated to local events in different Philippine towns. Then the administrators working for P started posting local crime stories and spuriously linking them to drugs – the issue at the heart of Duterte’s campaign. P is intoxicated by the power his work gives him. “There’s a happiness to me if I’m able to control the people,” he says. “It’s like becoming a god in the digital side.”

The conversations with Thomas Borwick, the chief technology officer for Vote Leave, is more sober. He believes that the trick to a successful campaign lies less in a powerful overarching cause than in crafting different messages for different constituencies, focusing on the issues that matter to each of them: for example, Vote Leave tried to win over animal rights enthusiasts by highlighting the Spanish farmers subsidised by the EU who raise bulls for bullfighting. Borwick estimates that a country of 20 million people requires between 70 and 80 types of targeted message on social media. Pomerantsev sees an irony in this: like other so-called populist causes that employ microtargeting, he suggests, Brexit is not “a sign of ‘the people’ coming together in a great groundswell of unity, but a consequence of ‘the people’ being more fractured than ever”.

There is something more hopeful about the Mexican activist Alberto Escorcia, who obsessively studies social media to identify how it can be used to “summon up” protests. On Escorcia’s computer screen, Pomerantsev sees a graphic that represents the conversation online between Mexican protesters during huge demonstrations in 2014: “a vibrating ball of dots with lines in between, with new lines joining in between the dots all the time, the whole thing quivering, growing, thickening”. But once pro-government bots and trolls hit back, protesters started engaging with them rather than each other, and “the thick lattice became thinner and the ball started to break apart”. It’s an arresting metaphor for the internet’s utopian promise of bringing people together, and the ease with which that can be undone.

However broad Pomerantsev’s scope, he inevitably comes back, again and again, to Russia, a pioneer of “information war” at home and abroad. He gives an account of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the notorious St Petersburg “troll farm” accused of meddling in the US election, based on the experience of Lyudmilla Savchuk, an undercover journalist who worked there. While Savchuk’s junior colleagues were tasked with attacking opposition figures on social media, her job was more sophisticated: she created a Mystic Meg-like character called “Cantadora” whose blog offered horoscopes and relationship advice. But she had to work in political arguments, so a column recounting a dream would then interpret it as a critique of US foreign policy. Pomerantsev shows, too, how disinformation techniques have been co-opted by the Kremlin’s opponents. In eastern Ukraine, he meets Babar, a gangster turned web designer, who tried to wage a “one-man information war” against the Moscow-backed separatists in his town by making up stories about menacing fascists coming to the area to fight them.

While Pomerantsev is skilled at describing these different methods of persuasion and disruption, he can sometimes take their power for granted. But he is interested less in the effectiveness of any single campaign or tactic than their cumulative impact: when the mass of conflicting information becomes too overwhelming, people are left uncertain of who or what they can trust.

Pomerantsev is perceptive on the key role that conspiracy theories play in this. Twenty-first-century authoritarian regimes such as Russia, he argues, have replaced ideology: by insisting that the world is full of conspiracies, they suggest that no political alternative can be as appealing as it seems, that something sinister must be lurking behind it. This instils a feeling of powerlessness: “For if you are living in a world where shadowy forces control everything, then what possible chance do you have of turning it around? In the murk it becomes best to rely on a strong hand to guide you.”

This is Not Propaganda never settles for long but flits from country to country and  subject to subject, which draws out unex-pected connections. The hyperactivity evokes the phenomenon it is describing: information spilling uncontrollably across countries and continents. Such information abundance once promised to have a liberating effect, of course, and the betrayal of that hope sends Pomerantsev back to two people who really did put faith in it: his Ukrainian parents, Igor and Lina. In fragments that appear between each chapter, providing some of the finest writing in the book, he tells their story.

Igor, a dissident poet, was arrested and interrogated by the KGB for distributing “harmful literature” by authors such as Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn. So in 1977, a couple of months after Peter was born, the family left Ukraine. They eventually made their way to London, where Igor got a job at the BBC World Service’s Russia section and became convinced that radio’s unifying effect could “fuse the soul of mankind”. Pomerantsev has a delightful description of visiting Bush House, the World Service headquarters, as a child: “From one floor to the next I travelled from Greece to the Middle East, up in the lift to Poland. Sometimes I would find myself lost in Latin America, stranded in Africa, with only the gloomy London light in the windows a constant.”

In his parents’ ideals, Pomerantsev seems to find the certainties that elude him in the present. They offer a way to think about the future, he suggests, but what that future might entail is unclear. Near the end of the book, he finds himself at a meeting of the parliamentary committee on disinformation and “fake news”, which he sat on as an expert adviser, as it writes up its recommendations. He watches MPs quibble over each phrase in the report. Pomerantsev, who has seemed so plaintive in the book, so thrown by the direction the world has taken, is reassured by this “slow, legalistic, evidence-scraping work”. But what struck me about the scene is its futility. It captures our institutions’ inability to keep up with the challenges Pomerantsev describes: the chances of MPs taking meaningful action feel terribly remote.

As for the form such action could take, Pomerantsev is vague. What he wants is more transparency: a way for internet users to know whether the information they’re seeing has been created by a troll, a bot, or “news” websites “which look independent but are covertly run from one source”. He dreams of “an online life where any person would be able to understand how the information meteorology around them is being shaped”, where tech companies would be required to take on board public input.

That’s an appealing picture of the future, obviously, but without any concrete proposals it sounds fanciful. One finishes the book seeing things a little more clearly than before but, like Pomerantsev himself, still adrift. 

 

This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality
Peter Pomerantsev
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 21 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con