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This Is Not Propaganda
Adventures in the War Against Reality
Read by Matthew Waterson
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We live in a world of influence operations run amok, where dark ads, psyops, hacks, bots, soft facts, ISIS, Putin, trolls, and Trump seek to shape our very reality. In this surreal atmosphere created to disorient us and undermine our sense of truth, we’ve lost not only our grip on peace and democracy — but our very notion of what those words even mean.
Peter Pomerantsev takes us to the front lines of the disinformation age, where he meets Twitter revolutionaries and pop-up populists, “behavioral change” salesmen, Jihadi fanboys, Identitarians, truth cops, and many others. Forty years after his dissident parents were pursued by the KGB, Pomerantsev finds the Kremlin re-emerging as a great propaganda power. His research takes him back to Russia — but the answers he finds there are not what he expected.
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He came out of the sea and was arrested on the beach. Two men in suits standing over his clothes as he returned from his swim. They ordered him to get dressed quickly, pull his trousers over his wet trunks. On the drive, the trunks were still wet, shrinking and turning cold, leaving a damp patch on his trousers and the back seat. He had to keep them on during the interrogation. There he was, trying to keep up a dignified façade, but the dank trunks made him squirm. It struck him they had done it on purpose. They were well-versed in this sort of thing, these mid-ranking KGB men, masters of the small-time humiliation, the micro mind game.
He wondered why they had arrested him here, in Odessa, and not where he lived, in Kiev. Then he realized that they had wanted a few days by the seaside. In between interrogations, they would take him to the beach to go swimming themselves. One would sit with him while the other would bathe. One time an artist took out an easel and began to paint the three of them. The colonel and major grew nervous. They were KGB, and weren’t meant to have their images recorded during an operation. “Go have a look at what he’s drawing,” they ordered their prisoner. He went over and had a look. Now it was his turn to mess with them a little. “He’s not drawn a good likeness of me, but you’re coming out very true to life.”
He had been detained for “proliferating copies of harmful literature to friends and acquaintances”—books censored for telling the truth about the Soviet Gulag (Solzhenitsyn) or for being written by exiles (Nabokov). His case was reported in the Chronicle of Current Events. The Chronicle was how Soviet dissidents documented suppressed facts about political arrests, interrogations, searches, trials, beatings, and abuses in prison. Information was gathered by word of mouth, or smuggled out of labor camps in tiny self-made polyethylene capsules, which were swallowed and then shat out, typed up, photographed in dark rooms, then passed, person to person, hidden in the pages of books and diplomatic pouches until it could reach the West, handed to human rights groups, broadcast on the BBC World Service, Voice of America, Radio Liberty.
The Chronicle was known for its restrained style. This is how it reported his arrest:
“He was questioned by KGB Colonel V.P. Men’shikov and KGB Major V.N. Mel’gunov. He rejected all charges as baseless and unproven. He refused to give evidence about his friends and acquaintances. For all six days of the interrogation, they were housed in the Hotel New Moscow.”
When the colonel would leave, the major would pull out a book of chess puzzles and work on them, chewing the end of a pencil. At first their prisoner wondered if this was some clever mind game. Then he realized the major was just killing time.
After six days, he was permitted to go home to Kiev but the investigation continued. While he was on the way home after work at the library, a black car pulled up and he was taken for more interrogations.
During that time life went on. His fiancée conceived. They married. At the back of the reception hall lurked a KGB photographer.
He moved in with his wife’s family, in a flat opposite the Goloseevsky Park, where his father-in-law had put up palaces of cages for his dozens of canaries, an aviary of throbbing feathers darting against the backdrop of the park. Every time the doorbell rang, he would start, afraid that it was the KGB, and begin to burn any private letters and manuscripts that could possibly be used against him. The canaries beat their wings in a panic-stricken flutter. He rose at dawn, gently turned the Spidola radio to ON, pushed the dial to shortwave, wiggled and waved the antenna to dispel the fog of jamming, climbed on chairs and tables to get the best reception, steering the dial in an acoustic slalom between transmissions of East German pop and Soviet military bands, pressed his ear tight to the speaker and, through the hiss and crackle, made his way to the magical words: “This is London,” “This is Washington.” He was listening for news about arrests. He read the futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov’s 1921 essay “Radio of the Future,” in which Khlebnikov predicts that “radio will forge the unbroken chain of the global soul and fuse mankind.”
The net closed around his circle. Grisha was taken to the woods and roughed up. Olga was accused of being a prostitute and locked up in a VD clinic with actual prostitutes to make the point. Geli was taken to remand prison and refused treatment for so long that he died.
Everyone prepared for the worst. His mother-in-law taught him a secret code based on sausages: “If I bring sausages sliced right to left, it means we’ve been able to get out news of your arrest to the West, and it’s been broadcast on the radio. If I slice them left to right, it means we failed.”
“It sounds like something out of an old joke or a bad film but it’s nevertheless true,” he would write later. “When the KGB comes at dawn, and you mumble drowsily, ‘who’s there?’ they often shout, ‘telegram!’ You proceed in semi-sleep, trying not to wake up too much so you can still go back to a snug dream. ‘One moment,’ you moan, pull on the nearest trousers, dig out some change to pay the messenger, open the door. And the most painful part is not that they have come for you, or that they got you up so early, but that you, like some small boy, fell for the lie about a telegram. You squeeze in your hot palm the suddenly sweaty change, holding back tears of humiliation.”
At 8 a.m. on September 30, 1977, in between interrogations, their child was born. My grandmother wanted me to be called Pinhas after her grandfather. My parents wanted Theodore. I ended up named Piotr. One of the first of several renegotiations of my name.
FORTY YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE MY PARENTS WERE PURSUED BY THE KGB over the simple right to read, write, and listen to what they chose and say what they wanted. Today, the world they hoped for, where censorship would fall like the Berlin Wall, can seem much closer: we live in what some academics call an era of “information abundance.” But the assumptions that underlay the struggles for rights and freedoms in the twentieth century—between citizens armed with truth and information, and regimes with their censors and secret police—have been turned upside down. We now have more information than ever before—but it hasn’t brought only the benefits we expected.
More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful. But 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. We live in a world of influence operations run amok, where the means of manipulation have gone forth and multiplied, a world of dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, fake news, deep fakes, brainwashing, trolls, ISIS, Putin, Trump.
Forty years after my father’s interrogations by the KGB, I find myself following the palest of imprints of my parents’ journey, though with none of their courage, risk-taking, or certainty. As I write this—and given the economic turbulence this might not be the case when you read it—I’m working on a program in an institute at a London university that looks at the newer breeds of influence campaigns, what might casually be referred to as “propaganda”: a term so fraught and fractured in its interpretation—defined by some as deception, and by others as the neutral activity of propagation—that I avoid using it.
I should add that I’m not an academic and this is not in an academic work (although I quote some academics extensively). I am a lapsed television producer, and though I continue to write articles and sometimes present radio programs, I now often find myself looking at my own media world askance, at what it’s wrought and how it can be fixed. I meet Twitter revolutionaries and pop-up populists, trolls, and elves, “behavioral change” salesmen and Infowar charlatans, Jihadi fan-boys, Identitarians, truth cops, and bot herders. Then I bring all I have learned back to the squat, hexagonal, concrete tower where my office has its temporary home, take all the lessons I’ve learned and shape them into sensible “Conclusions and Recommendations” for neatly formatted PDF reports and PowerPoint presentations, which diagnose and then propose remedies to the flood of disinformation and deception, “fake news,” “information war,” and the “war on information.”
Remedies to heal what, however? The neat little bullet points of the reports I work on assume that there really is a coherent system they can amend, that a few technical recommendations to new information technologies can fix everything. Yet the problems go far deeper. When I present my findings to the representatives of the waning Liberal Democratic Order, the one formed in no little part out of the conflicts of the Cold War, I am struck by how lost-looking they seem. Politicians no longer know what their parties represent; bureaucrats no longer know where power is located; billionaires’ foundations advocate for an “open society” they can no longer quite define.
Big Words that once seemed swollen with meaning—democracy and freedom, “the people,” Europe, and the West—have been so thoroughly left behind by life that they seem like empty husks, the last warmth and light draining out of them, or like computer files I have forgotten the password to and cannot access. The very language we use to describe ourselves—“left” and “right,” “liberal” and “conservative”—has been rendered almost meaningless. And it’s not just conflicts or elections that are affected. I see people I have known my whole life slip away from me on social media, reposting conspiracies from sources I have never heard of, some sort of internet undercurrent pulling whole families apart, as if we never really knew each other, as if the algorithms know more about us than we do, as if we are becoming subsets of our own data, which is rearranging our relations and identities with its own logic, or in the cause of someone else’s interests we can’t even see. The grand vessels of old media—books, television, newspapers, and radio—that had contained and controlled identity and meaning, who we were and how we talked with one another, how we explained the world to our children, talked about our past, defined war and peace, news and opinion, satire and seriousness, right and left, right and wrong, true, false, real, unreal—these vessels have cracked and burst, breaking up the old architecture of what relates to whom, who speaks to whom and how, magnifying, shrinking, distorting all proportions, sending us in disorientating spirals where words lose shared meanings. I hear the same phrases in Odessa, Manila, Mexico City, New Jersey: “There’s so much information, disinformation, so much of everything I don’t know what’s true anymore.” Often, I hear the phrase, “I feel the world is moving beneath my feet.” I catch myself thinking, “I feel that everything that I thought solid is now unsteady, liquid.”
This book explores the wreckage, searches for sparks of sense that can be salvaged from it, rising from the dank corners of the internet where trolls torture their victims, passing through the tussles over the stories that make sense of our societies, and ultimately trying to understand how we define ourselves.
Chapter One takes us from the Philippines to the Gulf of Finland, where we will learn how to break people with new information instruments, in ways subtler than the old ones used by the KGB.
Chapter Two moves from the Western Balkans to Latin America and the European Union, where we will learn how to break resistance movements with new information tactics, in ways subtler than in the twentieth century.
Chapter Three explores how one country can destroy another almost without touching it, blurring the contrast between war and peace, “domestic” and “international”—and how the most dangerous element may be the idea of “information war” itself.
Chapter Four explores how the demand for a factual politics relies on a certain idea of progress and the future, and how the collapse of that idea made mass murder and abuse more possible.
In Chapter Five, I argue that in this flux, politics becomes a struggle over the construction of identity. Everyone from religious extremists to the populists who want to create new versions of “the people”—even in Britain, a country where identity always seemed so fixed—now wants to use the new information system to redefine you.
In Chapter Six, I look for the future—in China and in Chernivtsi.
Throughout the book, I travel, sometimes, but not only, through space. The physical and political maps delineating continents, countries, and oceans, the maps I grew up with, can be less important than the new maps of information flows. These network maps are generated by data scientists. They call the process “surfacing.” You take a key word, a message, a narrative, and cast it into the ever-expanding pool of the world’s data. The data scientist then “surfaces” the people, media outlets, social media accounts, bots, trolls, and cyborgs pushing or interacting with those key words, narratives, and messages.
These network maps, which look like fields of pin-mold or telescope photographs of distant galaxies, show how outdated our geographic definitions have become, revealing unexpected constellations where anyone from anywhere can influence everyone everywhere. A “rooted cosmopolitan” sitting at home in Scotland guides activists away from police during protests in the Middle East. ISIS supporters disguise campaigns for the Islamic state as iPhone ads.
Russia, with its social media squadrons, haunts these maps. Not because it is the force that can still move earth and heaven as it could in the Cold War, but because the Kremlin’s rulers are particularly adept at gaming elements of this new age, or at the very least are good at getting everyone to talk about how good they are, which could be the most important trick of all. As I will explain, this is not entirely accidental: precisely because they had lost the Cold War, Russian spin doctors and media manipulators managed to adapt to the new world quicker than anyone in the entity once known as the “West.” Between 2001 and 2010, I lived in Moscow, where I saw close up the same tactics of control and the same pathologies in public opinion that have since sprouted everywhere.
But as this book travels through information flows, across networks and countries, it also looks back in time, to the story of my parents, to the Cold War. This is not a family memoir as such; I am concerned only with how my family’s story intersects with my subject. This is in part to see how the ideals of the past have fallen apart in the present, and what, if anything, can still be gleaned from them. When all is swirling, I find myself instinctively looking back, searching for a connection to the past to find a way to think about the future.
But as I researched and wrote these sections of family history, I was struck by something else—the extent to which our private thoughts, creative impulses, and senses of self are shaped by information forces greater than ourselves. If there is one thing I’ve been impressed with while browsing the shelves of the library of my university, it is that one has to look beyond just news and politics to also consider poetry, schools, and the language of bureaucracy and leisure to understand the formation of attitudes. This process is sometimes more evident in my family, because the dramas and ruptures of our lives make it easier to see where those information forces, like vast weather systems, begin and end.
CITIES OF TROLLS
Freedom of speech versus censorship was one of the clearer confrontations of the twentieth century. After the Cold War, freedom of speech appeared to have emerged victorious in many places. But what if the powerful can now use “information abundance” to find new ways of stifling you, flipping the meaning of freedom of speech on its head to crush dissent, while always leaving enough anonymity to be able to claim deniability?
THE DISINFORMATION ARCHITECTURE
Consider the Philippines. In 1977, as my parents were experiencing the pleasures of the KGB, the Philippines were ruled by Colonel Ferdinand Marcos, a US-backed military dictator, under whose regime, a quick search of the Amnesty International website informs me, 3,257 political prisoners were killed, thirty-five thousand tortured, and seventy thousand incarcerated. Marcos had a theatrical philosophy of the role torture could play in pacifying society. Instead of being merely “disappeared,” 77 percent of those killed were displayed at roadsides as warnings to others. Victims might have their brains removed, for example, and their empty skulls stuffed with their underpants. Or they could be cut into pieces so that one would pass body parts on the way to the market.1
Marcos’s regime fell in 1986 in the face of mass protests, America relinquishing its support, and parts of the army defecting. Millions came out on the streets. It was meant to be a new day: an end to corruption, an end to the abuse of human rights. Marcos was exiled and lived his last years in Hawaii.
Today, Manila greets you with sudden gusts of rotting fish and popcorn smells, sewage, and deep-fry oil, which leave you retching on the street. Actually, street is the wrong word. There are few in the sense of broad pavements where you can stroll. Instead, there are thin ledges that run along the rims of malls and skyscrapers, where you inch along beside the lava of traffic. Between the malls, the city drops into deep troughs of slums, where at night the homeless sleep wrapped in silver foil, their feet sticking out, flopped over in alleys between bars with midget boxing and karaoke parlors where you can hire troupes of girls, in dresses so tight they cling to their thighs like pincers, to sing Korean pop songs with you.
During the day you negotiate the spaces between mall, slum, and skyscraper along elevated networks of crowded narrow walkways suspended in midair that wind in between the multi-story motorways, where you duck your head to miss the buttresses of flyovers, flinch from the barrage of honks and sirens below, suddenly find yourself at eye level with an oncoming train or eye-to-eye with a woman eating Spam on one of the colossal advertising billboards. The billboards are everywhere, separating slum from skyscraper. Between 1898 and 1946, the Philippines was under US administration; US navy bases have been present ever since, and US military food items have become delicacies. On one poster a happy housewife feeds her handsome husband tuna chunks from a can; elsewhere a picture of a dripping, roasting ham sits over an actual steaming river where street kids swim; behind them an electric sign flashes Jesus Will Save You. This is a Catholic country: three hundred years of Spanish colonialism preceded America’s fifty (“We had three hundred years of the church and fifty years of Hollywood,” Filipinos joke). The malls have churches with guards to keep out the poor. A city of twenty-two million with almost no notion of common public space. The interiors of the malls are perfumed by overpowering air-conditioners: lavender in the cheaper ones with their fields of fast-food outlets; a lighter lemon scent for the more sophisticated. This makes them smell like toilets, so the smell of the latrine never leaves you, whether it’s sewage outside or the malls inside.
Soon you start noticing the selfies. Everyone is at it. The sweaty guy in greasy flip-flops riding the metal canister of a public bus; the Chinese girls waiting for their cocktails in the malls. The Philippines has the world’s highest use of selfies. It has the world’s highest per capita use of social media. It has the highest use of text messages. Some put it down to the importance of personal and family connections to get by in the face of ineffective government. The selfies aren’t necessarily narcissistic: you trust people whose faces you can see.
And with the rise of social media, the Philippines has become a capital for a new breed of digital era manipulation.
I meet with “P” in one of the oases of malls next to sky-blue windowed skyscrapers. He insists that I can’t use his name, but you can tell he’s torn, desperate for recognition for the campaigns he can’t take credit for. He’s in his early twenties, dressed like a member of a Korean boy band, and there’s almost no change in his always heightened emotions, whether he’s talking about getting a president elected or his Instagram account registered with a blue tick (which denotes status).
“There’s a happiness to me if I’m able to control the people. Maybe it’s a bad thing. It satisfies my ego, something deeper in me… it’s like becoming a god in the digital side,” he exclaims. But it doesn’t sound creepy, more like someone playing the role of the baddy in a musical farce.
He began his online career at the age of fifteen, creating an anonymous page that encouraged people to speak about their romantic experiences. “Tell me about your worst break up,” he would ask. “What was your hottest date?” He shows me one of the sites: it has more than three million members.
While still at school he created new groups, each one with a different profile: one dedicated to joy, another to mental strength. He was only sixteen when he began to be approached by corporations who would ask him to sneak in mentions of their products. He honed his technique. For a week we would get a community to talk about love, for example, whom they cared about the most. Then he would move the conversation to fear for your loved ones, fear of losing someone. Then he would slide in a product: take this medicine and it will help extend the lives of loved ones.
By the age of twenty, he claims he had fifteen million followers across all the platforms. The modest middle-class boy from the provinces could suddenly afford his own condo in a Manila skyscraper.
After advertising, his next challenge was politics. At that point political PR was all about getting journalists to write what you want. What if you could shape the whole conversation through social media?
He pitched his approach to several parties but the only candidate who would take P on was Rodrigo Duterte, an outsider who looked to social media as a new, cheap route to victory. One of Duterte’s main selling points as a candidate was fighting drug crime. He even boasted of driving in a motorcycle and shooting drug dealers when he was mayor of Davao City, in the deep south of the country.
At the time, P was already in college. He was attending lectures on the “little Albert” experiment from the 1920s, in which a toddler was exposed to frightening sounds whenever he saw a white rat and how this led to him being afraid of all furry animals.2 P says this inspired him to try something similar for Duterte.
First P created a series of Facebook groups in different cities. They were innocuous enough, just discussion boards of what was on in town. The trick was to put them in the local dialect, of which there are hundreds in the Philippines. After six months, each group had in the range of one hundred thousand members. Then his administrators would start posting one local crime story per day, every day, at the same time (peak traffic, early evening). The crime stories were real enough, but then P’s people would write comments that connected the crime to drugs: “They say the killer was a drug dealer” or “This one was a victim of a pusher.” After a month they dropped in two stories per day, a month later three per day.
Drug crime became a hot topic. Duterte pulled ahead in the polls. This is when, P says, he fell out with the other PR people in the team and quit to join another candidate. This one was running on economic competence rather than fear. P claims he managed to get his rating up by more than five points but it was too late to turn the tide. Duterte was elected president. Now he sees any number of PR people taking the credit for Duterte and it riles him.
The trouble with interviewing anyone who works in this world is that they always tend to amplify their impact. It comes with the profession. Did P create Duterte? Of course not. And there would have been many factors that drove the conversation about drug crime, not least Duterte himself. Nor was busting drug crime Duterte’s only selling point: I have talked to supporters of his attracted by the image of a provincial fighting the elites of “Imperial Manila” and the prim Catholic Church establishment. But P’s account does echo some academic studies.
In “Architects of Networked Disinformation,” Dr. Jonathan Corpus Ong of the University of Massachusetts spent twelve months with his colleague Jason Cabañes interviewing the protagonists of what he called Manila’s “disinformation architecture,” which was made use of by every party in the country.3
At the top were what Ong calls the “chief architects” of the system. They came from advertising and public relations firms, lived in sleek apartments in skyscrapers, and described their work in an almost mythical way, comparing themselves to TV characters from hit HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones and video games: “It’s game over when you’re caught,” they would tell Ong. They were proud they had had made it to the top of their profession from modest beginnings. “The disinformation architect,” concludes Ong, “denies responsibility or commitment to the broader public by narrating a personal project of self-empowerment instead.”
- "The truth was supposed to set us free. But Peter Pomerantsev's brilliant This Is Not Propaganda shows how the very idea of truth has been weaponized by dictators and other enemies of liberty. These techniques, first used against us in Russia, have spread around the globe like a toxic cloud. Taking us from the Philippines to Ukraine to MAGA-land, Pomerantsev is an unparalleled tour guide of our post-truth world-and what we all must learn to survive in it."—Garry Kasparov, chairman of the Renew DemocracyInitiative and author of Winter Is Coming
- "In this moving, unusual, and carefully reported book, Peter Pomerantsev reminds us that propaganda is not just a political tool: it can also shape individuals, their relationships with their children, their friendships, their marriages. Far more than just another take on today's chaotic information wars, this book argues that we will have to understand how propaganda seeks to shape our deepest thoughts and feelings before we can confront it."—Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag and Red Famine
- "Insightful. . . . Diagnoses our fact-distorting age with understanding and acuity."—New York Times
- "This is a gripping and unsettling account of life in grim post-Soviet Russia."—Washington Post on Nothing is True and Everything is Possible
- "It is hard to think of another work that better describes today's Russia; Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible may very well be the defining book about the Putin era."—Commentary Magazine on Nothing is True and Everything is Possible
- "Captivating...keen observations."—New York Times Book Review on Nothing is True and Everything is Possible
- "A patchwork tapestry that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief."—The Guardian on Nothing is True and Everything is Possible
- "[Pomerantsev] describes in detail how social media have been weaponized by the bad guys...The contrast between the tight regulation of information by repressive regimes in the 20th century, and the free-for-all of today's media environment, gives the book its disconcerting force."—Economist
- "Groundbreaking.... Every Democratic candidate should have a plan for how to counter disinformation and misinformation in American politics. Pomerantsev's book should be required reading for each of them."—CNN.com
- "Vivid and chilling reports from the frontlines of the disinformation wars."—Foreign Affairs
- On Sale
- Aug 6, 2019
- Hachette Audio