December 2019 – January 2020

Arts & Letters

Agents of chaos: Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This Is Not Propaganda’

By Amanda Lohrey

The Russian expat journalist wonders if democracy can survive the internet, as social media is used to promote feelings over facts

Propaganda has always been with us. In the era once known as late capitalism it was monopolised by state instrumentalities in the Eastern Bloc countries and corporations in the West that owned the mass media and funded right-wing think tanks (they still do). The workings of the latter were documented in Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) and in a later and even more comprehensive work by Chomsky’s friend and colleague, the Australian social psychologist Alex Carey: Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (1995).

With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the more extreme predations of neoliberalism, the game changed. The grand narratives with their reassuring certainties – progress (the West) and triumph of the workers (the East) – began to disintegrate, culminating in the outrage and cynicism provoked by the global financial crisis of 2008, and the manifest failure of governments to address issues of retributive justice and inequality. Meanwhile the rapid and protean development of social media has created new pathways for influencing minds. The old propaganda was top-down and often obvious; now online it’s camouflaged by rogue operators who deploy a plethora of fake identities to generate multiple realities that proliferate with viral malignancy. It’s a sinister trend that former Russian and now British journalist Peter Pomerantsev first addressed in his 2014 book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible and now explores further in This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (Faber).

Pomerantsev’s point of departure is the Soviet Union post Glasnost. The son of dissident parents, he left Russia almost a decade ago because he was exhausted by living in a political culture of “flagrant lies and paranoid conspiracies”, one in which Vladimir Putin’s grand strategy was to promote a manufactured nostalgia, to restore the Russian empire and take “Russia off its knees”. Sound familiar? It’s Pomerantsev’s belief that the West is following Russia along the same path:

Suddenly the Russia I had known seemed to be all around me: a radical relativism which implies truth is unknowable, the future dissolving into nasty nostalgias, conspiracy replacing ideology, facts equating to fibs, conversations collapsing into mutual accusations that every argument is information warfare … and just this sense that everything under one’s feet is constantly moving, inherently unstable, liquid.

Early in This Is Not Propaganda Pomerantsev conducts a brazenly candid interview with Russian spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky, the founder of the Postfactum news agency and the Foundation for Effective Politics, who masterminded the campaign to prop up Yeltsin. When in the 1990s so-called democratic capitalism morphed into the anarchic plunder of the Russian oligarchs, the foundation put its energies into the rise of a new strong man, Putin.

Pavlovsky’s primary skill was in using social media to micromanage hundreds of interest groups online as a way of building a new constituency. Because the great ideas are dead, he tells Pomerantsev, the postmodern propagandist must build a new “fairy tale”. First you begin by reducing facts to feelings – chiefly outrage and resentment – and in the second stage you draw on these feelings to construct a central unifying emotion, one “powerful enough to unite all of them [groups] yet vague enough to mean something to everyone”. Smear your opponents with fake online sites and street posters, conjure the phantoms of imaginary enemies (metropolitan “elites”, for example), use actors posing as opposition activists and, for the especially credulous, hire astrologers to make fake predictions.

Pavlovsky sees the West now making the same strategic use of social media. Public relations companies with veiled ties to governments run so-called cyber militia to conduct information wars; online troll farms and bot herders (hackers who infiltrate accounts) are paid to construct fake Twitter accounts and create thousands of fake personas on social media in order to disseminate false information. The latter, writes Pomerantsev, are mostly poorly paid operators trying to scratch a living in “the slums of the net”: in effect, a cyber sweatshop. In addition there are the “sock puppets” who embed false accounts within online communities of protesters so as to manipulate them from the inside. Pomerantsev cites the 2017 case in Mexico City where sock puppets gave people protesting against gas prices fake directions and drove them towards the batons of the police, and then spread false stories about protester violence and looting. From Ukraine to the Philippines to Mexico to Ecuador the aim of these operators is the same: “to separate people from their own reality”. So what, we might ask, is really happening in Hong Kong, and how can we tell?

Perhaps the best known of these rogue operators is the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St Petersburg, which contrived to influence the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Pomerantsev describes this as Russia’s “next-generation warfare … a shift from direct annihilation of the opponent to its inner decay”, and an example of how a weakened state might contrive to fight back other than through an expensive arms race it cannot hope to win. In the West there is the infamous case of Cambridge Analytica, also implicated in the Trump campaign, where big data was siphoned off sites like Facebook and used to generate misleading messages online to hundreds of micro-groups. It subsequently transpired that Cambridge Analytica had somehow gained access to the data of 87 million Facebook users without consent and in the process gathered an average of 5000 “data points” on every American voter online, information then used to target voters with messages tailored to their specific interests and prejudices.

Cambridge Analytica has since been discredited but the chief technology officer of the Brexit “Vote Leave” campaign, Thomas Borwick, followed a similar strategy. Following the first principle of “pop-up populism” – redefine identity politics and come up with new definitions of “us” and “them” – Borwick nominates one of his most successful strategies as the targeting of animal rights groups in the United Kingdom. These were bombarded with material – including lurid images – that focused on the cruelty of bullfighting in Spain in such a way as to suggest this was the fault of the European Union, a classic instance of fake fact used to provoke an emotion of outrage and pre-empt any reflection on the bigger picture.

Can democracy survive the internet? Not all of Pomerantsev’s case studies are sinister, and social media can also work against established regimes of abuse. Pomerantsev tells the stories of Lyudmila Savchuk, a Russian journalist who infiltrated the Russian IRA troll farm and exposed its workings, and the Serbian activist Srđa Popović, who runs CANVAS (the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Actions and Strategies) and trains protest movements around the world from Zimbabwe to Iran to Belarus. And the young British Muslim, Rashad Ali, who reacted against his own early involvement in a radical group by creating the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which monitors online extremist groups and offers advice to technology companies and governments on how to tackle the problem. ISD also aims to connect with online audiences in an effort at “counter-speech”. Then there’s the Mexican activist Alberto Escorcia, who works from his living room in Mexico City to coordinate genuine protest groups throughout the country. “I see the internet in metaphysical terms,” Escorcia tells Pomerantsev, “a war between love and fear. Which I can calculate through the algorithms.” These are the activists on social media that German pollster Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann describes as the new avant-garde. All very well, but as the Turkish analyst Zeynep Tufekci points out in her book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (2017), while social media can mobilise crowds with uncommon speed there is a crucial difference between signalling protest and the capacity to bring about a result, with Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring providing cases in point.

Pomerantsev adds his voice to the many who are critical of social media companies such as Facebook. So-called fake news, he writes, is an inevitable outcome of the way these platforms are designed. Meanwhile government regulation is minimal and urgently in need of large-scale international cooperation. In 2019 a UK parliamentary committee on disinformation came to the conclusion that when it comes to managing contemporary social media, “our existing legal framework is no longer fit for purpose”.

Clearly the dilemmas here are complex, including the fact that the very knowledge of internet fakery can in itself lead to an attitude of disabling cynicism towards all politics. In an ironic perversion of the first principle of the popular mindfulness movement – be fully present in the moment – an absorption in social media can lead to an immersion in what Pomerantsev describes as a “futureless present” in which, more and more, we live in an online dimension of the real that “scrambles time, place and proportion: terror attacks sit next to cat videos; the latest jokes surface next to old family photos. And the result is a sort of flattening, as if past and present are losing their relative perspective.” To which we might add: the failure of governments to address global warming and a presentiment of End Times doesn’t help.

In this world of constant flux and facile distortion, what counts in politics is who is more genuine, more authentic – in Pomerantsev’s words, “more emotional, more subjective, more heroic”. Who succeeds in embodying the best “fairy tale”? All of which has given rise to a reactionary nativism: Make America Great Again and Boris Johnson as the new Churchill (history repeating itself as farce). And so too we get Putin, Orban, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi, ISIS… the list is long of leaders and groups who appeal to an imagined past because they are unable or unwilling to solve the problems of the present: “chaos agents [who] behave according to rules they make up for themselves as they go along”. And below them an army of trolls beavering away in the murkiest regions of the net.

In terms of contemporary cultural analysis, along with the likes of Tufecki and Angela Nagle (Kill All Normies, Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, 2017), Pomerantsev is ahead of the game. But it’s possible to over-emphasise the effects of social media at the cost of overlooking the need for structural and institutional reform. We need to remind ourselves that if the US had compulsory voting and an independent electoral commission, not only would Donald Trump not have got elected, he would not even have come close. If Hillary Clinton’s campaign had made greater use of old-style grassroots campaigning and relied less on her social media boffins, wedded to the Obama model and dismissive of her on-the-ground Democrat lieutenants, she might have won. In the UK, the mainstay of the Brexit vote was voters over 55, presumably not addicted to their Twitter accounts.

Having said that, it’s worth reading Pomerantsev, not least because he has a rare feel for the poetics of the political arena, its smoke and mirrors aspect. Often while reading him I was reminded of another of his countrymen, the great Russian absurdist Nikolai Gogol. In Gogol’s story “The Nose”, the nose of a minor government official in St Petersburg detaches itself and, taking on an identity of its own, thinks it’s a man of importance. The craziness of this satire, its malignant silliness, now reads like an early preview of the derangement of signs in our contemporary politics: Trump’s orange make-up beneath a MAGA baseball cap; the carefully dishevelled hair of Boris Johnson as an emblem of authenticity; the stripped to the waist and muscled-up torso of Putin as a promise of Russian might resurgent. Politics as bad theatre. In his incomparable analysis of the often terrifying dynamism of modern capitalism (All That Is Solid Melts into Air, 1982) Marshall Berman describes a type of modern man who responds to vanishing certainties by throwing himself into parodies of the past: “he needs history because that’s where all the costumes are kept”. Meanwhile, in Gogol’s short story “Nevsky Prospekt”, “the devil himself is abroad, kindling the street-lamps with one purpose only: to show everything in a false light”.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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