The old normal was rooted in a belief that the truth was out there if one did enough hard looking, while “ersatz reality” attempts to extend the notion of subjectivity into all realms of knowledge. In this new world, as we have seen, inconvenient facts are routinely dismissed as propaganda, fake news; nothing is but what is not. As the pattern of Pomerantsev’s own life proves, none of us is exempt from a singular point of view, and each of us is shaped by the place we fell to Earth; but crucially, pointedly, that does not make all versions of the world equally credible. At one point in this quest, Pomerantsev faces up to the still surprising reality that political “lies are not illegal”; however, as his important and timely book demonstrates, that does not begin to make them true.
In this sense, populism is not an ideology, but a political strategy, as others have observed. It is not a sign of the people coming together in a great groundswell of unity but a consequence of society being fractured and of politicians inventing a new version of “the people”. “All politics is about creating identity,” Pomerantsev was told by one spin-doctor in a bar in Mexico City. His book offers few solutions but at least enables us to see what is happening more clearly. Its very publication is a sign that the war for reality is not yet lost.
This is Not Propaganda never settles for long but flits from country to country and subject to subject, which draws out unex-pected connections. The hyperactivity evokes the phenomenon it is describing: information spilling uncontrollably across countries and continents. Such information abundance once promised to have a liberating effect, of course, and the betrayal of that hope sends Pomerantsev back to two people who really did put faith in it: his Ukrainian parents, Igor and Lina. In fragments that appear between each chapter, providing some of the finest writing in the book, he tells their story.
The book does not prescribe policy solutions, but that’s fine. Before we work out what we’re going to do, we need to understand the scale of the problem – which Pomerantsev sets out with the right mix of alarm and detail. Many of us in the west show arrogance and ignorance if we believe what happens elsewhere cannot happen here. Our democracy is stronger than that of the Philippines. Our media are more independent than Russia’s. Our institutions have existed longer than Estonia’s. There is a danger that this complacency may lead us to believe Facebook ads cannot influence our democracy, that politicians cannot manipulate our media, and that someone whose career has been one long information war of lies and half-truths, jokes and smears could never take power in our country.
This is Not Propaganda does not explore solutions to the problems posed by the weaponisation of social media by today’s populist authoritarians. But it does set out, eloquently and movingly, what is at stake. Pomerantsev is an accomplished storyteller and is adept at the use of visual imagery... This Is Not Propaganda is essential reading on this online battle between love and hate, and powerful testimony that in this crucial fight, social media platforms can no longer be allowed to sit on the fence.
As those who have read Pomerantsev’s earlier writings will expect, This Is Not Propaganda is both shocking and entertaining, as well as insightful. And yet, for all this, there is a sense that the things he is looking at are simply moving too fast to be usefully discussed in anything so slow as a book. At the time of writing, Ressa is on trial for libel; who knows where she will be in a week’s time. For all its qualities, This Is Not Propaganda feels akin to a nuanced essay on icebergs written from the tilting deck of the Titanic. It is worth reading, but you had better read it fast.
Freedom of speech, increasingly accepted of late as a general good, becomes problematic when coupled with deception, anonymity and the power of vast wealth to magnify some voices 1,000-fold over others. And for many spreaders of disinformation, getting a reader/viewer/voter actually to believe your untruths is not the only measure of success. Simply confusing them, encouraging them to doubt opposition truths, is just as good. Pomerantsev writes of ‘censorship through noise’. Truths and facts are inconvenient things anyway; much better to doubt everything equally.
Pomerantsev describes this book as part reportage, part intellectual adventure and part memoir, which is exactly what it is. It’s an engrossing combination and the reason it works is because he writes so engagingly, with conviction and creative oomph. Thrown into a polyglottal European School in Munich, part of the EU’s efforts to forge a distinct European identity, Pomerantsev is taught history and geography in French. It’s less a case of sink or swim than “simply sinking and having to survive by breathing underwater”. While Belgrade feels like “a haughty cliff slowly collapsing into the sea”, immediate post-Soviet Russia is a country whose stomach has been ripped out, “the intestines of its tragedies and traumas everywhere”.
Pomerantsev’s book is beautifully written. Sometimes it’s virtually travel writing. Belgrade is a glamorous city, where “tall women in tight dresses and even taller men prowl low-lit bars” beneath “ambitious columns stretching towards the moon”. “Only in the morning”, he continues, can you see that the tops of the columns are crumbling, and that whole city feels like “a haughty cliff collapsing into the sea”. Yet it is densely argued too, and its theses are strong.