For centuries information was scarce. The math was simple: The higher up the societal food chain you were, the better the information you had. And it could be explosive. Information made Microsoft and it brought down Richard Nixon. It helped us navigate the globe and it feeds the Facebook algorithm. But what happens to society when information ceases to be scarce? This is the question Peter Pomerantsev explores in his finely written and deeply intelligent This is Not Propaganda.
Pomerantsev, a writer who also lectures on online propaganda at the London School of Economics, is well placed to provide an answer. Early on in the book he sets out the information dilemma facing us. More information, he argues, was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful, but it’s also given them new ways to crush dissent. More information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but it has led to more confrontation and enabled “new and more subtle forms of conflict and subversion.” For Pomerantsev the logical endpoint is both depressing and dangerous: “a world of dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, fake news, deep fakes, brainwashing, trolls, ISIS, Putin, Trump.”
The book’s landscape is, accordingly, one of “Twitter revolutionaries and pop-up populists, trolls, info-war charlatans” and “behavioral change” visionaries, and the reader is taken on a picaresque gallop through it. We meet, among others, a social media manipulator in Manila who helped get Rodrigo Duterte elected, a troll in St. Petersburg who peddled fake realities for the Russian state, and a Serbian expert on non-violent—and vertiginously humorous—protest.
Pomerantsev’s thesis is simple: In an age of information abundance, the belief that the best ideas will triumph has been discredited. Malign actors ensure that bad information now pushes out the good. Politicians lie not furtively but with pride; falsehoods are rewarded with virality; and anger and hysteria are the highways to attention. In the meantime, we wall ourselves up in echo chambers, busily constructing our own realities. This is dangerous because if there is no shared, evidence-based reality upon which we can all agree, then the very idea of democracy falls apart.
The book begins in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, with its “gusts of rotting fish and popcorn smells, sewage, and deep-fry oil.” Here, Pomerantsev meets “P,” who has been “controlling” people online since he was 15. P started out small—and personal; getting people to share stories of their love life on forums he created. Eventually, he wound up in politics after agreeing to work for Rodrigo Duterte, an outsider in the presidential elections “who looked to social media as a new, cheap route to victory.”
Duterte, who had been a regional mayor, didn’t have much going for him except claims of being good at busting drug crime—so P went to work. First, he created a series of Facebook groups in different cities, ensuring they were in the local dialect (of which there are hundreds in the Philippines). Six months and hundreds of thousands of members later he began instructing his group administrators to post one local crime story per day, at peak times. He then made sure these crimes were connected to drugs: “‘They say the killer was a drug dealer,’ or ‘This one was a victim of a pusher,” they would post. After a month they increased it to two stories per day; a month later, three per day.” Drug crime became a hot topic and Duterte won. Three years later it is clear that the Philippines lost.
From Manila the narrative eventually moves on to Mexico City and Alberto Escorcia, an activist who sees the “Internet in metaphysical terms” as a “war between love and fear.” Escorcia fights “against routine police beatings, drug-related shootings, stuffed ballot boxes and rigged deals.” In this fight, data has become almost divine. Escorcia started by examining Google searches in the periods leading up to protests and found that “interest in certain topics—gas prices, police shootings—would start to be visible online months before they became articulated reasons for protest.” He began to realize that he could anticipate the issues that would unite people in advance.
Each wave of protests contained clusters of words “that made the lattice of communication between protestors thicker.” By knowing in advance which subjects brought people together, and which words strengthened the interconnections, Escorcia realized that ultimately he could “summon up” protests. He worked the information—and it paid off.
Pomerantsev then returns to London to meet with Nigel Oakes, founder of Strategic Communication Laboratories, out of which the company Cambridge Analytica eventually emerged. Oakes is a former advertising executive who became convinced that traditional ad campaigns and influence operations were ineffective. He believed that they succeeded only in changing attitudes, when the key to influencing people was to change behavior. And the way to do this was of course data.
Cambridge Analytica, the “global election management” firm, was started with this belief. In its heyday it claimed to have gathered 5,000 data points on every American voter online: “what you liked and what you shared on social media; how and where you shopped; who your friends were.” With an understanding of users’ deepest drives and desires, it could then change voting behavior, which seems like mere boasting until one considers the results. Cambridge Analytica worked on the presidential campaign of Donald Trump as well as successful campaigns for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (twice); and many others across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. Oakes was right, and the lesson is clear: If you know how to use the information you can do almost anything, perhaps even help make someone the most powerful person on earth.
As successful as P and Escorcia and Cambridge Analytica were they are just individuals or private companies. What happens when information is weaponized by nation states? Unsurprisingly, the answer lies in Russia. The Kremlin understands, better than any other player in the information battle what happens when torrents of information pour into our lives 24/7 from our phones and TVs and laptops. We shut down. Log off.
Which is the point. The Kremlin desires to sow confusion and stifle dissent not by denying people information but by bombarding them with it. And if the information we are besieged by largely consists of nonsense and lies then all the better. A model of this tactic remains the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine by separatist militia armed with a Russian-supplied missile in July 2014. I was in Ukraine at the time and within minutes the online narratives began. It was the Ukrainians that had shot down the plane; no, it was the Americans; ah, it was the Ukrainians and the Americans; actually, it was Dutch intelligence (the plane had taken off from the Netherlands). The point of each of these contradictory and self-evidently ludicrous narratives was not to convince. Rather it was to swamp Twitter, Facebook and our other primary sources of online knowledge with so much information that anyone curious to find out about a plane shot down would turn off in disgust. Log off; shut down.
Thus does mistrust turn to outright disgust and then apathy. If everything we can hope to know is in the end unreliable why bother to find out anything out at all? Why not just sit back and watch X-Factor, or Vladimir Putin?
We now have access to more information than ever but facts are losing their power. Politicians have always lied but now they take pride in it. When Trump is caught lying all he does is double down and lie some more. When Russian soldiers without insignia marched into Crimea and seized it from Ukraine Vladimir Putin went on national TV and, with a smirk, announced that there were in fact no Russian soldiers there, knowing of course that everyone knew he was lying. Months later he just as casually admitted that they were Russian soldiers all along. He wasn’t lying in the traditional sense; he was doing something far worse: He was saying that facts just don’t matter.
Yet Pomerantsev decries the idea of censoring the web. To lie is after all, not illegal—and nor should it be. This logic, he argues, rolls back the gains made by those who fought for freedom of expression—he tells the story of his dissident parents, who, as artists and journalists, faced repeated persecution from the Soviet authorities. He concedes that regulation does have a role but is often inadequate or wrong—a panicked response from governments still unable to properly understand the Internet.
What is needed is transparency. We are all in the dark about the precise nature of, say, Facebook’s algorithm, which presents information to us in ways we cannot understand and for reasons we cannot discern, and which Pomerantsev correctly observes is therefore a form of censorship in itself. Break open the Facebook algorithm, he says, and let us know who exactly is trying to influence us. He understands the need to retain online anonymity and to allow even those who disagree a voice. It’s the fraud he won’t accept. Simply put: We don’t have the right to force Auntie Doris from Minnesota to take down her erroneous post on Barack Obama, but we do have a right to know if Auntie Doris from Minnesota is really Uncle Sergei from Minsk.
Information, given form through data, has changed everything from politics to societal mores. But most of all it has forced us to reconsider, and reconfigure, our relationship with reality. And it is here the reader finally understands the scale of what we are facing. If we do now live in a world where nothing is true and everything is possible, then the fight is not digital or political but ontological, and, therefore, existential.