An Embarrassment of Riches

Review – This Is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev

We live in a golden age not of fact, but of fiction. The possibilities of new media have led to an embarrassment of riches. Where once there was a lack of information, there is now overabundance, with half of the world’s population possessing access to the internet, and the sum of human knowledge accessible from a device most in the rich world carry in their pockets, and replace for an almost trivial sum when its screen gets scratched.

Overabundance presents a new problem. Rather than lacking information, its oversupply leads to a corresponding fall in value. Confirmation bias benefits, but so too do those with more direct ambitions: to undermine conventional interpretations of events, to sow discord and disagreement, or to depreciate trust in institutions, people and ideas of truth itself.

As chemical weapons attacks in Syria are not only denied but the subject of successful propaganda campaigns; as ’state-sponsored’ trolling unmasks protesters in Bahrain; as Turkish columnists, ‘who are members of the ruling party[,] incite mob attacks on anyone who dares criticise President Erdoğan’ – the variety and efficacy of authoritarian efforts in information becomes clear.

The intellectual disorder and chaos of modern information has meant a boon for some. But for others, it has shaken their faith. Peter Pomeranstev, working in the London School of Economics on the state of the digital society and the future of mass information, found himself – and those in receipt of his advice – lost and adrift.

‘The neat little bullet points of my reports assume that there really is a coherent system that can be amended, that a few technical recommendations applied to new information technologies can fix everything’, he writes. ‘Yet the problems go far deeper.’

Pomerantsev’s narrative begins and is woven together with the story of his parents in the old Soviet Union. He writes about the intimidation they suffered by authority for desiring freedom of thought and of action, and the mind-games played by the authorities under whose power so many helplessly lived.

The KGB would, when taking people in at the break of day, call them to the door with the cry of ‘telegram!’ And worse than apprehension was the hot shame of falling for the ploy.

Similar games are still played by authoritarian states, though the playground is larger and harder to discern.

Pomerantsev’s parents eventually left the Soviet Union, but their son spent a decade as a television producer in Russia at the start of this century, and saw and participated in the whirling change which enveloped that country.

Pomeranstev’s first book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, published in 2014, provided an entertaining and prophetic assessment of the chaotic shifting of identity in Russia that supported the country’s consolidating authoritarianism. His assessment of Russia’s almost theatrically orchestrated domestic politics gave way to convincing analysis of the effect this had on Russia’s neighbours and the world of information at large.

Now, Pomerantsev’s focus is global, including disinformation in the Philippines, the rise of populism in the United States, Great Britain and across Europe, and the ways terror groups bend their old aims to new methods.

Much has been written on each of these subjects. On Russia’s information warfare, many have taken up Pomerantsev’s thread, so successful was his work – long before the words ‘meddling’ and ‘Russian’ became virtual twins after all that happened in 2016.

But little has been written with the same weary despair he now advances, and evinces. Others have diagnosed similar problems, and bemoaned them with the evident assumption that any shift from what is considered normality can be mitigated, or that navigation away from dangerous waters is possible.

Pomerantsev writes more effectively than any other about the hopelessness this new state of affairs inspires.

He sees it not only among those whose business it is to study these things, or those who, by dint of their occupation and status, desire privileged access to the shaping of information and resent its slipping from their grasp.

Instead, Pomeranstev notes the despair of those whose voices ought to be magnified by the democratisation of information, but who instead are buried under its deluge, set upon by more canny forces, and left wondering whether the things they were promised about the hopefulness of the modern world were ever true.

Pomeranstev lands on the story of Khaled Khatib, a Syrian activist who sought to document the destruction of Aleppo as it was attacked, besieged and finally conquered by forces fighting on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

When Khatib first began documenting the bomb blasts, people in the throes of agony and grief would cry out to him ‘Aren’t you ashamed to film us? Do you like to see our tears?’

Khatib would reassure them of his intentions, and say that what he did – no matter how painful – he did to help.

After Aleppo fell in spite of muted global outcry – and as Syria’s opposition has been slowly defeated, and abandoned by its allies, its fighters and supporters traduced as jihadists worthy of slaughter – Khatib’s mission seemed less certain, its ambition less sure.

‘Increasingly people just sighed when they saw Khaled’s camera’, Pomerantsev writes. ‘What was the point of filming?’

A version of this piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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