Dark Days Are Coming: On Peter Pomerantsev’s “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality”

WHILE READING Peter Pomerantsev’s new book, I kept experiencing the strange feeling that Marx and Engels were whispering in my ear:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. […] Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Marx and Engels wrote these words from the Communist Manifesto in the middle of the 19th century, a time that, from our perspective, seems as firm and solid as a steel beam. Were they to be magically transported to the 21st century, one can imagine the dizzy, bewildered pair yelling, “Stop the world, I want to get off!” What was once solid has by now not just melted, but evaporated.
Beginning with his first book, the fascinating Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, and now with This Is Not Propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev has established himself as one of the most insightful guides to the increasingly toxic environment of our digital age, in which truth and facts stand little chance against state-sponsored troll factories, cyber-militias, bots, and cyborgs. Everyone should be required to read this book before sharing the next Facebook post, checking Twitter, or commenting on Reddit.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War were heralded as the dawn of a new era of human freedom. The birth of the internet accelerated the free flow of information. The notion took hold that oppression, at least in the Western world, had been consigned to the dustbin of history. But the euphoria didn’t last long.
“More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful,” Pomerantsev writes,
[b]ut it also has given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent. More information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but we seem less capable of deliberation than ever. More information was supposed to mean mutual understanding across borders, but it has also made possible new and more subtle forms of conflict and subversion.
For anyone with a decent knowledge of history, none of this should have been a surprise. New technologies have often been accompanied by utopian notions of a cloudless future just over the horizon. As Pomerantsev notes, in 1921 the brilliant Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov embraced the radio as a wonder tool that “will forge the unbroken chain of the global soul and fuse mankind.” One could find similar paeans to the telegraph, the railroad, the jet age.
Instead of setting us free, the era of so-called “information abundance” has left us overwhelmed, adrift, and unsure just what to believe. While researching his book, Pomerantsev kept meeting people who said things like, “There’s so much information, disinformation, so much of everything I don’t know what’s true anymore,” and, “I feel the world is moving beneath my feet. […] I feel that everything that I thought solid is now unsteady, liquid.”
In this new world, censorial limits on information have given way to “censorship through noise” and “white jamming,” a tactic associated with the Russian media analyst Vasily Gatov that involves surrounding people with so much conflicting and confusing information — information intended to play to their fears and cynicism — that they are left feeling helpless and apathetic and convinced the only solution to their problems is a strongman, be it Putin, Duterte, Bolsonaro, or Trump.
Living in Russia in the early 2000s, Pomerantsev witnessed the birth of the new world of information warfare out of the ruins of the Soviet Union. Russia was the birthplace of what he calls “pop-up populism,” pseudo and forever mutating notions of what, and whom, constitutes the “people,” all artfully curated by media and political strategists to meet specific goals. This amorphous mass is assembled around some notion of the enemy — in the Russian case, first oligarchs, then metropolitan liberals, and, most recently, the West. None of this need be coherent. What matters is connecting with people on a profoundly emotional level. And, in what is among the most disturbing aspects of the book, thanks to social media, our deepest emotions are not merely online and for sale, but they can be manipulated in extremely precise ways without our knowing it.
Pomerantsev reports on the disturbing realities of our new “liquid” world with visits to a number of countries. He meets with several brave and smart digital activists trying to resist the use of technology for evil, from Maria Ressa, head of the news website Rappler, in the Philippines, to Lyudmila Savchuk, a journalist responsible for exposing the work of the Internet Research Agency, a large troll farm in Russia, to Srdja Popovic, the Serbian co-creator of CANVAS (the Center for Applied Non-Violent Movements), which helped hone the tactics used in the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine.
Their stories inspire and give hope — until we read how so often their revelations of corruption, lies, and thuggery operating in the shadows of the web are met with indifference or their methods are studied by corrupt regimes and used against them.
This Is Not Propaganda is not without its flaws. Based on essays first published in Granta, the Guardian, and elsewhere, it sometimes suffers, like so many books with similar origins, from repetition, and the parts are not as well integrated as they could be. And while Pomerantsev is masterful in his descriptions of the new digital landscape in all its bizarre, and usually horrifying, manifestations, his comments on ways to improve it can come across as perfunctory and not altogether convincing.
There is also the matter of his family’s personal story. Pomerantsev juxtaposes the main text with a brief, secondary narrative — highlighted in italics — about the lives of his parents, Igor and Lina. Meant to cast a bright light on the differences between our own times and the system of information scarcity that had characterized the Soviet Union, where Pomerantsev was born, these sections are interesting on their own, and one could imagine a book about Igor and Lina and their experiences, but seem out of place, as if they’ve been shoehorned in where they don’t quite belong.
Among the individuals Pomerantsev met on his travels was Alberto Escorcia. Alberto is one of the book’s heroes, a Mexican activist who, like Ressa, Savchuk, and Popovic, is trying to use the latest technology to save rather than subvert democracy. He describes life on the internet as “a great battle between love, interconnectedness, on the one side, and fear, hate, disjointedness on the other.” A century ago, Henry Adams famously wrote that “[p]olitics, as a practice, […] has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” The new “disinformation architecture,” to quote Pomerantsev, that now dominates the world has made the job of organizing our hatreds that much easier and that much more effective. “Dark days are coming,” Alberto tells Pomerantsev at one of their meetings. Dark days indeed.
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Douglas Smith’s books include Former People and Rasputin. His latest book is The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin (2019).
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