Saturday, June 8, 2019

Book Review: 'This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality' by Peter Pomerantsev

This Is Not Propaganda is an alternate history of the present, a different view of the world. There is some irony in this, because it is all about how nothing is what it seems. The reason is the information revolution, and specifically social media. All sides and all factions make their biggest efforts misinforming others, while calling their own to glory. Some win by simply sowing confusion in general, and no topic is too trivial to abuse. The book is a survey of this disease all over the world, employed by politicians, religions and haters.

The result is so much noise that lying is not just routine but acceptable, and “no amount of proof leads to accountability” says Peter Pomerantsev in his most revealing statement. He cites Donald Trump as the poster child for getting away with absolutely anything, lying continually, backtracking, doubling down and going his own way despite laws, tradition, the Constitution, or morality. But Trump is just the tip of the iceberg in this telling.

Pomerantsev escaped the USSR as a child. His parents were persecuted for reading the wrong publications and fled to the west via a tiny program that allowed some Jewish emigration to boost the USSR’s chances in trade negotiations. He grew up in Germany and England where his father could continue the good fight, legitimately and openly, on BBC overseas radio services.

The bulk of the book reveals the extent of the noise in attempts to manipulate the populous. He cites the stated strategy in Russia towards other nations: “The population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon. So, the state doesn’t switch on its self-defense mechanisms.” This comes from the actual manual, published in 2011, Information-Psychological War Operations. It is one of the bases of Russia’s massive and ubiquitous intervention machine. It fills the internet with lies in numerous countries, in countless forums, employing thousands to publish drivel continuously. The result is the locals can’t trust anything they see, and lose faith in their institutions, their leaders and their countries. That is precisely the goal.

It’s not just Russia, either. The whole world is onto this game and pushes for everyone to employ it. “On parts of Reddit and 4Chan,” Pomerantsev says, “anonymous administrators provide crash courses in mass persuasion that in the Cold War would have been the provenance of secret services and their civilian psy-ops.” Misinforamtion and disinformation have been democratized to do-it-yourself universality.

On the inside, the process is called advanced meme warfare and Successful Guerrilla PR. While it once applied to launching new products, today it is ideologies that are the leading users. The signal-to-noise ratio has gone negative on a global scale.

Pomerantsev also tackles the problem of people all over the world being converted to Islamic fundamentalism. It is of course a conscious, organized and aggressive campaign. It employs the same tactics: find a topic that resonates because of all the confusion, exploit that weakness to get a foot in the door, and convert the lead to a sale.

There are people on the other side as well. Pomerantsev cites a Muslim school chum who went through the whole process and now tries to salvage lives. He has become a globally respected expert is Islamic teachings and teachers worldwide, and calls a lie a lie when he sees it.  And he sees it all the time. He tells converts that “ISIS is to Islam what adultery is to marriage.” Sometimes that works.

The book weaves the present ocean of lies and manipulation with his parents’ voyage of escape from Soviet-controlled Ukraine to careers in the west, speaking to those left behind. These are Peter Pomerantsev’s credentials. He has leveraged them, followed in his parents’ footsteps in the media, and has made himself an expert in global media manipulation, amply demonstrated in this book.

One large weakness in This Is Not Propaganda is the credit. Pomerantsev gives credit to all kinds of claimants. One firm took credit for the Brexit referendum “victory” by claiming to have offered so many vague promises that there was something for everyone. The truth is, only 24% of eligible Britons voted Leave. There are similar claims for one man vaulting Putin to power because the data said Russians wanted a superspy as leader. Corruption played no part in this telling. Then there is Trump and the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal. It is not only inaccurate but silly to say these single efforts turned the tide of history. Correlation does not imply causation, as we keep forgetting. Things aren’t as simple as claiming to have changed millions of minds with Big Data. Were it that straightforward, every company in the world be using it to sell product, since that’s where the theory and the methodology originated.

He even wrongly claims China won minds all over southeast Asia into thinking all those tiny rock islands in the South China Sea have always belonged to China. That the war of ideas is more powerful than the wars of soldiers. That the direct result was that China never had to fire a shot in their takeover. The simple truth is none of the countries involved was willing to declare war on China to get their rock back. In taking over the islands, China turned them into military ports and landing strips, imposing an overwhelming military presence and advantage for itself. It was naked aggression. It changed no hearts and no minds in the process.

Then, the conclusion doesn’t go nearly far enough (It is a tribute to his parents). From his own description, what has happened is that we have all come full circle. Before there was mass communication, knowledge was scarce, and proof even moreso. Today, lies rule. Anyone can say anything and it doesn’t matter, be they world leaders or teenage trolls. The result is the same: we know little and can trust less of what we choose to believe of it all. For all of information technology and the global village, as truth seekers we are no farther ahead.

Welcome back to the Dark Ages, Facebook edition.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

Order it on Amazon today.
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