THIS IS NOT PROPAGANDA
Adventures in the War Against Reality
By Peter Pomerantsev
When it came out in 2014, Peter Pomerantsev’s acclaimed “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” revealed a safely distant Moscow where facts were expendable and spectacle had upstaged reality. How times have changed. In “This Is Not Propaganda,” the post-truth world is already at our doorstep, with Russia less an outlier than an outrider of the states that are putting disinformation to use.
Pomerantsev travels the globe from Mexico City to Beijing in pursuit of new forms of media manipulation that mutate as they move across borders and ideologies. In Belgrade, he talks to Srdja Popovic, a founder of the Milosevic-era protest group Otpor and now an international guru on nonviolent resistance. Popovic advises searching for a “lowest common denominator” to unite the interests of supporters. For Otpor, that binding message had been Serbia’s urgent need to join the West. But today, far-right websites like Infokrieg draw on Popovic’s formula when instructing their own followers to look for “lowest-common-denominator themes: mass migration, Islamification, identity, freedom, tradition.”
This weaponization of identity and information also serves the aims of authoritarian states. The former Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky tells Pomerantsev that the collapse of Soviet power left an ideological vacuum that he filled with a new language rooted in vague emotions. To get people to vote the way you want, Pavlovsky says, “you need to build a fairy tale that will be common to all of them.” Pomerantsev visits the site of one such fairy tale by following the activist Lyudmila Savchuk into the belly of the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. There, an army of online trolls sows confusion and disinformation by posting pro-Russia articles and comments on websites worldwide.
Indeed, all roads seem to lead back to Russia, including Pomerantsev’s own. After nearly a decade in Moscow, he returned to London in 2010 because he “wanted to live in a world where ‘words have meaning,’ where every fact was not dismissed with triumphant cynicism as ‘just P.R.’ or ‘information war.’” But with Brexit and Donald Trump’s election, the Russia he had known “seemed all around me: a radical relativism that implies truth is unknowable, the future dissolving into nasty nostalgia.” Trump’s promise to “make America great again” echoes Vladimir Putin’s pledge to restore Russia’s past greatness.
Running through this insightful though distractingly underedited book are reflections on the K.G.B.’s persecution of Pomerantsev’s own Soviet dissident parents and the family’s eventual emigration. In London, his father, the writer Igor Pomerantsev, took up jobs at the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe, whose shortwave signals he had caught in the Soviet Union. Pomerantsev writes wistfully of the ethos of accuracy and impartiality that these stations embodied during the Cold War. Yet even Igor began to chafe against the constraints of fact as he became “ever more enamored of the power of radio to create new worlds, blend past and present, here and there into something strange and new.”
Pomerantsev diagnoses our fact-distorting age with understanding and acuity, but his proposed remedies are altogether hazier. Nostalgic for the certainty of Soviet dissidents who believed there was “no middle between truth and lies,” he calls for the regeneration of “freedom, rights — all those big words that have been bled of their vitality.” The final pages briefly sketch out his vision of an online culture that would empower the public to shape the flow of information, and an ethically engaged journalism that would stick to the facts. But amid the countervailing flood of disinformation surveyed, it will take more than such reveries to turn the tide.