Sunday 2 February 2020

Book review: This Is NOT Propaganda / Peter Pomerantsev

This odd book addresses one of the key sources of political angst today: fake news / post-truth / soft facts, “the war against reality” etc etc, by someone who’s apparently an expert, Peter Pomerantsev. He’s required reading in the Foreign Office, I’m told.

I say he addresses the issue, but that’s not quite right: he tees it up. He gives detailed accounts of troll factories in Russia (where, we’re told, it all started), and chilling examples of professional and often deeply malicious fake-news merchants at work across the globe; in the Philippines, Bahrain, Turkey, Venezuela, Serbia, Mexico, Estonia, Ukraine (a particularly long section of the book - “The Most Amazing Information Warfare Blitzkrieg In History”), ISIS recruiting, Aleppo and the “White Helmets” … oh, and of course Cambridge Analytica and another rollcall of countries where they’ve been active. (Just a leetle bit on the USA and UK, and likewise a very small amount on China – which seems like a bit of a cop-out. Still, we ain’t seen nothing like the Philippines or Ukraine, that’s for sure.)

This, he says, is the future: and “the future arrived first in Russia”, for reasons he expounds. His parents, incidentally, were Russian dissidents who suffered for their devotion to the truth (the absolute truth?) before being deported / allowed to leave. (See, we never quite know what’s what, do we … and then his father started working for the BBC World Service, during the Cold War era …)  But basically, he’s trying to warn, to horrify, to shock-and-awe us:  "part memoir, part investigation, part cry for help", says the Grauniad.  He’s apparently much in demand all over the world for his talks on these topics.

It’s all very odd because some of the practitioners of these dark arts, he seems to approve of! – or at least, the causes they are promoting. Fighting fire with fire?  Does he have any remedies? There’s a chapter near the end called “Conclusions and Recommendations” but that turns out to be fake, too – he doesn’t have any. Which is pretty unusual for a published book: publishers tend to insist on more than just a litany of woes.

This, then, is a book for anyone who doesn’t feel sufficiently perturbed by what’s going on. Personally I feel it’s a huge worry, not least for people like myself who have a high, conservative regard for absolute, objective truth (“Realism” in philosophical parlance), whilst recognizing the importance of differing perspectives.  I take that to be, broadly, a Right-leaning position. Funnily enough, though, my reading of the many angst-ridden post-election leftist tracts around at the moment suggests many on the Left feel the horror even more acutely - which, up to a point, does them credit.  Maybe they’d be less concerned if they’d won the election?  Perhaps fake news is a convenient excuse for any political failure these days. And perhaps the Left is even more prone to fret because of their self-defined “rationality” (vs conservative / nationalist emotionalism) and their confidence that, logic being on their side, it can only be disinformation etc that deprives them of electoral success.   Plus the usual leftist willingness to believe any evil of their opponents.

Or maybe it’s all just fine provided that our fake-news peddlers prevail against theirs.  As indicated above, there is a hint that Pomerantsev sometimes feels that way.

Three more disparate thoughts:

1. It’s a shockingly badly written book – a real pain to read, but the content was sufficiently riveting to drag me through. Nothing, incidentally, to do with English not being his native language, because it is. It’s stylistic. Aren’t there editors? 

2. While 21st century methods (particularly the near-universal social meejah) are revolutionary, the underlying truth-dodging, fact-swerving techniques are not. Proselytistng religions deploy them all the time, and always have - as Pomerantsev's chapter on ISIS and counter-ISIS makes clear.  Nietzsche tells us that, although the Will to Truth may be strong (as scientists would profess), the Will to Power is stronger. 

3. If you want something beautifully written that explores the same subject matter, Hilary Mantel is your woman. Although we’ve only had parts 1 and 2 of Wolf Hall, one of the key themes (as I read it) is how facts and events become distorted in the public register, often as soon as they have happened: some kind of spin – purposeful or otherwise – takes hold straight away. (There’s a lovely example, insignificant in terms of the formal plot and therefore significant for its being in the story, of something Cromwell does on his travels. By the time he returns home, just a day or so later, he finds a distorted version of what transpired is already current within his household.) 

When is Mantel going to give us Volume 3?  She’s been hatching it for an unconscionable amount of time!  Quite soon, apparently: and then we can get back to considering these troubling issues in a calm and literate fashion.  Unless we're lefties, of course, or living in Ukraine.


UPDATE:  further to the blame-it-on-fake-news theme, there's this out today:
Almost a quarter of Labour members – 23% – appear to hold what they see as an inherently biased media (both print and broadcast) most responsible for the party’s defeat – or as one put it: “Tory funded MSM lies and misleading articles and campaigns along with daily lies and propaganda on Tory owned main TV channels starting with the BBC!”.


BlokeInBrum said...

The problem nowadays is not lack of information, it is discerning between facts and spin.
The authorities have caught on pretty quickly that they need to flood social media with their take on events in order to 'control the narrative'.
This article was quite informative of some of the things that are going on;
You can see all sorts of media manipulation going on today. You have in the past noticed the lack of reporting on events in France with regards to the riots.
One of the things I regret is the fall of the BBC as an impartial and accurate reporter of the truth. They had a great reputation at one time of dispassionately telling the facts as they were, to the point where many foreigners would watch it over their own dishonest media. Sadly it's not possible to watch it any more without taking what they say without a big pinch of salt.
Off topic, is Italy going to win the Wooden Spoon again? What can be done about the state of Italian rugby!

Anonymous said...

'The will to truth is strong, the will to power is stronger.'
A very profound statement.

dearieme said...

5th March for volume three of the trilogy.

Nick Drew said...

BiB - yes indeed: for example, that recent murderous knifeman episode on and around London Bridge. I was there a day or two later and there was a positive shrine with a forest of carefully-printed banners with an emollient, entirely vacuous hashtag, #LoveLondon or some such, on a strange light green-yellow background

from what we know abut how the Home Office operates in these circumstances, that was obviously the "official unofficial reponse". And why the strange colourway? My supposition is that during an election campaign - as it was, at the time - red, blue, yellow, purple and, errr, bold-green were already associated with banners of political parties. Assuming black is out, and white is too aenemic, that leaves brown and, well, light green-yellow ...

We'll get to the Beeb (again) later, I think ... (and the 6 Nations)

Nick Drew said...

M - you are right. Nietzsche is like that.

Anonymous said...

On the Beeb and fake news (more accurately suppressio veri and suggestio falsi), note the paucity of Gilets Jaunes coverage - were that in Hungary it'd be all over the news.

AWC said...

Have you noticed Barnier is referred by BBC as Monsieur but the German woman is referred to a Mrs not Frau Van der Leyden.

Is this another careful manipulation of identity -- good french --- can't hint at German rule!!!!! Good old BBC and lefties!!!

Jan said...

I've taken to watching RT and Aljazeera as well as the BBC/ITV/Sky to get a mix of news and more of a balance of outlook. The lack of world news in the British media during the whole Brexit saga was very poor. I have to say RT covered the "gilets jaune" a lot at that time when there was virtually nothing about it on the British broadcast media.

Nick Drew said...

Fair enough, Jan - but given the post, nobody will be particularly surprised at RT being hot on gilets jaunes ...