Peter Pomerantsev on Disinformation in the Modern Age
28 November, 2019

Disinformation, propaganda, and ‘fake news’ – these are some of the biggest topics today – especially in Ukraine, where Russian disinformation has inspired Ukrainians to create organizations like StopFake to combat it. Author Peter Pomerantsev’s new book "This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality" dives deep into the world of propaganda, looking at techniques used across the world, from the Philippines to Russia. Hromadske was able to sit down with Pomerantsev to discuss the book, as well as take a look at the common threads linking ISIS, the far-right, and modern populist movements.

I know your first book was about Russia. But then you spent a lot of time in Ukraine, and of course, for a book concentrating on propaganda and disinformation, it is the place to do that research. However, you start your book not in Ukraine, but you travel to the Philippines, you travel to other countries, and when I was reading this book as a Ukrainian I thought that ‘wow, there are places where things are worse!” Is that really the case? And what’s the most important takeaway now?

So in the Philippines, they would tell me ‘At least it’s not as bad as in Russia and Ukraine’, and they saw, you know – in terms of trying to understand what happened in the Philippines, they looked at Russia and Ukraine a lot actually, to try and make sense of what was going on there. So I think everybody sees, not just, you know, that hell is somewhere else. What was interesting in the book was trying to understand whether the phenomenon that I’d seen in Russia – whether they were similar across the world.

READ MORE: How a Russian Troll Factory Tried to Influence The Ukrainian Agenda

And they are! It’s surprising how similar the propaganda crisis, or the crisis in dealing with propaganda is everywhere, and Russia was one of the first places to figure this out, for reasons that I explore in the book. But really here are kind of three of four key kind of themes – one of them is technical, which is that nowadays censorship doesn’t happen through trying to squeeze information, but by overloading people with so much disinformation or bots, trolls, and fake news that they can’t see truth from fiction anymore. They can’t talk to each other, and they can’t trust each other. And the really important thing about that is that that – you know, the excuse to do that sort of propaganda, propaganda through noise – is freedom of expression. I’ve heard this over over and over from propagandists across the world, “This is just freedom of expression.” And even when it’s used to harass, or bully, or intimidate, or alienate critics, or dissidents, or journalists, they don’t really have an argument against it. Because you know, the argument for pro-democracy activists have always been “We need more freedom of expression.” And here the routine goes “What can we do?” You can’t prove that it’s the government behind these campaigns, most of the time. These are just ‘concerned citizens’ who don’t agree with your position. 

But when you were talking to some people, there were some evidence that those who were organizing these trolls – that they are connected. So we have reason to say that these are not just concerned citizens. How do you work with that?

Sure, but proving these connections, even between Prigozhin and the Kremlin is very difficult. That’s you know, a clear case. In other countries, the connection is even more loose. It could be PR companies with an off-the-books operation that does this sort of work. Finding the paper trail is very hard, secondly: what are they doing wrong? If it’s not death threats – which is then hate speech – they’re just saying, you know, “You’re terrible, you’re terrible, we don’t believe you or trust you, you’re biased.” And that’s still speech, that’s still political speech. That’s not death threats. When it goes over into death threats, then it’s something else – but in American you’d have to prove that the death threats were actually going to be acted upon before they become illegal. 

But where does Russia come in? Because you’ve said that there’s something you’ve seen, where-ever this technology is used all over the world. What did Russia invent in this case?

Actually when we talk about all the early studies about censorship through noise and trolls farms, the first one was actually made in Russia. Citizen Lab, a Canadian outfit, analyzed Russia and sort of like, in 2010, 2011 and said “Oh wow, is this something we’re going to be seeing in other places?”

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So Russia was quite an innovator in that sense. But no, I think on an even deeper level, a propaganda that is not based on ideological principles, are not trying to convince people of anything, but just trying to confuse them, so cynicism, that was something that was pioneered in Russia to a huge amount in the 90s and early 2000s – which was what my first book was about, this whole sense that nothing is true, and this sort of wild relativism. Russia was really the first one to really co-opt that approach and also this kind of attitude where the facts don’t matter. That we see so much in Trump today, or in Duterte, that sort of thing that we saw in Russia in the early 90s with Zhirinovsky, who in many ways is a prototype for all these politicians. 

You interviewed a journalist who made this investigation being an insider in a troll factory. What I understood you were interested that she was disappointed in the results in the reaction of her findings. That she uncovered this world of trolls, but neither society nor Western authorities reacted. 

Yeah, so this is Lyudmila Savchuk, who’s an incredibly brave journalist who went inside the troll factory and really provided a lot of our evidence about how they worked. Yeah, I mean I interviewed her when her story was already well-known. Really I was writing about what she experienced after that, that she thought she’d do this investigative journalism, show the truth to people, and there would be so much public outrage that these places would shut down. Plus there would be legal measures. And instead she found that people just shrugged, said “Yeah, this is just normal, this is just what happens, this is the reality we live in,” and just accepted it. Which she thought was just terrible. And then secondly, even when the Russian troll factory operation in America was discovered, the Americans took very little legal action. And I talked to lawyers in Washington – why didn’t you put sanctions on people who work in the troll factory? They’re like “We can’t sanction people for freedom of speech.” What they could do is get them for using false documents, like little legal problems, you know, opening fake bank accounts, which they’d done in America. You could get them for that, but you couldn’t really get them on freedom of speech issues. There isn’t even kind of a regulatory framework to approach these things. 

We also discussed earlier with you that there is some difference – thought Ukraine is at the forefront of all these balkanization of information movements, but it differs from the West because here there is an actual war, which luckily we don’t have elsewhere, in other countries or in the West. Yet, what main things do you see today in Ukraine as an opportunity to, not exactly answer Russian propaganda, but combat it? Can you explain to our audience what makes Ukraine as well unique, and how Ukraine can answer these problems of Russian propaganda?

The challenge in Ukraine, as everybody knows, is that there’s sort of this Russian propaganda that comes from the Kremlin, through Russian TV channels, and through social media. And that’s partly been dealt with, due to harsh but, I think probably justified, bans on Russian media. But then you just have a lot of powerful oligarchs in the country that might as well be proxies of the Kremlin. That’s what makes the situation here so hard. That’s something that’s that’s a systemic problem, and I don’t quite understand how that’s going to be dealt with. I know how I would deal with it, but I don’t see those kinds of mechanisms being available in Ukraine. So there’s that, and that’s kind of a deeper systemic problem. But what this last election has shown is that actually, it is possible to break through the polarization in the country that the Kremlin tried to take advantage of those, and then politicians here have tried to take advantage of, which is sort of splitting the country into two. There are ways around that. There are ways to find commonalities between different groups of people. How deep those commonalities go, we have to explore, and I don’t think political campaigns are going to be the ones that do this in the most socially beneficial way. That’s up to media and public service broadcasting to do. But it was refreshing, it shows that a lot of these kinds of crude divisions that we draw around Ukraine – they weren’t necessarily true.

READ MORE: Expert Explains: How To Spot A Propaganda Bot on Twitter

Journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev (L) speaks to Hromadske's Nataliya Gumenyuk on August 26, 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: hromadske

You were also looking a lot at the West, the dark forces, like the radicals, far-right, and others, organizations like ISIS, they became very good at creating the idea of majority, compared to other democratic forces – this is also connected to the way that some of the Russian spin doctors worked in the early 90s. So can you elaborate a little more on how they work and what answers are lacking?

So what was fascinating for me, was talking to Russian propagandists from the 90s, talking to propagandists in America – Latin America – who do mainstream elections, and talking to people who work to counter ISIS or are from the far-right – was how similar all the avant-garde of propaganda is. It’s usually the bad guys who do this best, because they’re good at sniffing out advantage. Instead of a top-down ideological diktat, they look at society, they see how social roles are broken down – social media allows them to target very small groups, in very targeted ways – one propagandist told me they’d made around 70 messages for a country of 20 million. You target them with completely different messages, but because you’ve targeted them with different messages, you can’t put them together into one ideology, so you unite them around a vague feeling: ‘Take back control’, ‘the Islamic State’, the feeling of a pristine Islamic state somewhere. ‘Make Russia great again’, ‘Make America great again’, vague feelings, this sort of vague, fluffy, amorphous, idea of the people, the many, the majority, the umma. What we call populism is the creation of the sense of a people for a very short term aim. And these coalitions always break apart very very quickly. So I kind of expect that from Trump, or the 5-Star in Italy. It was very interesting seeing how in the 1990s, Russian propagandists were thinking about this. But when I talk to the far-right, or what we think of as the far-right, that’s how they work as well. They will reach out to very very different campaigns. People from what’s known as the manosphere, so people who are against women, against feminism, feminists who are anti-Islam, because Islam doesn’t take into account the rights of women, people who want to build a ‘white Europe’, or Brexiteers who want to break apart Europe. So very different groups, and they find something very vague that unites all of them. A hatred of foreigners or Brussels, or the ‘elite’, or the ‘globalists’, or some sort of very vague enemy and a very vague sense of the people. And what’s interesting is these far-right campaigns break apart again. They come in for one rush, you know, to support the AfD in Germany during the European election, or to try to do a campaign against immigration or something. And then they break apart again. And this is actually the rhythm of all these creations of identity, in the modern world. They gather very quickly, and then they fall apart again.

We’re talking a lot about how Russia influences all that you just mentioned, maybe the public sphere, and all these new tools, and ISIS and Duterte. At the same time, there are some things that have been created in the UK, like Cambridge Analytica. You’ve been in a Parliamentary commission to look into that. Can you describe what you discovered when talking to these people? Who aren’t just people from dictatorships. 

Well, Cambridge Analytica were an election management company, like a PR company basically. They actually work with quite a lot of nasty regimes, in order to political campaigns. They actually weren’t very successful. And their claim to fame was that they had worked in Trump’s campaign, and they had discovered something called they called psycho-graphics there, their secret magic sauce, that allowed them to analyze someone’s Facebook likes, and to see into their deepest subconscious, and get them to vote for Trump. I actually interviewed the guy who created the company, which was the parent company to Cambridge Analytica. He was a guy who spent twenty, thirty years, researching what is influence, what is behavioral change – not attitudinal change, but actually getting people to do something, whether its stop smoking, or to vote for Trump. And after decades of research, he’s developed a very complex methodology, which he thinks is as close as you can get to effective in this sphere, and people who work for him say that it's a good methodology. Nothing in influence is that scientific, but this is as close as you can get. But his method requires anthropological research of communities, not just sociology, but embedding people in communities, to ask questions which people don’t even realize are questions to really understand what motivates them, and what are the group dynamics. It’s a lot of pages, it’s very very slow, it’s very very expensive, and you know, most political campaigns don’t have the time or the money to do this sort of research. So, Cambridge Analytica said you can take these theories, and you can replicate that by analyzing Facebook likes. He thinks this is nonsense. He thinks they just took his ideas and just – they’re essentially propagandizing themselves. What they were very good is finding potential audiences that could vote for Trump. And you could do that through Facebook technology, through lookalike audiences. If you know what are the parameters of a Trump voter, you could find other voters around America, who might fit the same parameters. So that’s finding the audiences, that is very useful, that means you could get a few extra voters somewhere. But their big claim of being able to read society’s mind is probably hocus-pocus.

READ MORE: Ukraine Tests Technology to Block Propaganda Channels in Conflict Zone

If to be very short, what are you recommendations for governments, like ours, or governments in the West, who are talking a lot about freedom of the press and informational security, but also about big media, like public broadcasting or the role of journalism?

Regulation is coming, to the information space. There’s a way of making that regulation democratic, though. I think the regulation has to be not about censoring content, but about opening up the information space so we understand how the information around the environment around us is created. That means opening up the algorithms, so companies have to do reports that show why people see certain bits of information and not other bits of information. That means understanding anything you see online, why you see it, who’s behind it, whether it’s organic or amplified, whether it’s a bot or a real person. So that we could start to communicate with the informational environment around us as equals. And the dictators will hate that. Because they want to make the internet as muddy and as transparent as possible. They certainly don’t want to open up the algorithms of the Chinese internet. So I think there’s a way of staying within the principles of freedom of expression, which is also the right to receive information. But to completely change the environment we operate in. And maybe making some forms of covert activity illegal, because it’s not within those rules of transparency. For media, look, media basically has lost. If the media's mission was to be people’s defender vis a vis governments, a lot of people don’t feel they do that anymore, a lot of people don’t feel that media is useful. And media was also, or a certain amount of media, was meant to create a kind of common discourse in the country, so any public service media has that as part of its mission. And they’re really struggling to do that. So I think we’re going to have to create a new type of body – something between civil society and media, whose job it is to actually be useful to people, so people feel that they are being represented and helped by them, and to bring different groups together, so that we have a common public discourse. But I don’t know whose job that is. Could be your job. 

READ MORE: Peter Pomerantsev: The Mechanics of Russia's Information War

My final question about the book is also personal – it’s a bio, you’re telling the story of your family that had to move from Ukraine, from Kyiv, from Chernivtsi, to first the UK. Your father worked at the BBC in London, and later Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, but you’re also writing about yourself and finding your identity. While writing this book and thinking about that, it was interesting to me how all of a sudden you’ve been British, but not really British, when you were a kid, but now its very clear that you were kind of representative of this elite, in the UK, so what is your identity – have you found your identity, your Ukrainian identity, while writing this book?

My identity is in there only to talk about the greater themes. This is a family memoir, which I use as a device to explore themes about propaganda, and propaganda is, at the end of the day, about identity. It’s not about bots and trolls, the stuff you and I have been talking about is really the most superficial part of propaganda, the kind of like you know – sadly all the focus is on that. But really, propaganda on a deep level is about creating identities for a political use. So, the story that I tell that I myself, because all of my various – I’ve always either been an emigre, or immigrant, all my life. Emigration from somewhere or immigration to somewhere. I’ve always asked myself questions about identity. But now everybody is! That was always interesting for me, that I grew up with all these questions, but people had pretty stable identities, especially in England, which is always very stable. And now, the English are having a massive nervous breakdown. They don’t know who they are, they have all these questions about the ‘will of the people’, they have no idea who the people are, let alone what their will is. And now the English are going through these kinds of spasms of self-identity, and obviously that’s a period where propagandists work a lot because they reform and remold identity. And sadly, the way they do that is to create a sense of the people, and the non- people, the enemy. And the message of my book is that because I’ve always been questioning my identity, I’ve learned to treat identity quite lightly. I’m quite privileged, I can slip into my Ukrainian identity, my English identity, my Jewish identity, and I find that a very enriching experience. I don’t need another to hate. I think at the end of the day the real resistance to this – whether you call it populism, or political Islam does the same thing, or the far-right do the same thing, the real antidote to this ‘creating an Other that you hate’ is helping people to live with comfort with multiple identities. Hopefully the book helps to do that.  

READ MORE: I, Bot. Inside a Ukrainian Troll Factory

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Romeo Kokriatski

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