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!”.