This review originally appeared in the RUSI Journal on 16 March 2020
The rise of fake news into the public consciousness in 2016 generated substantial academic interest in online misinformation. Peter Pomerantsev uses This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality to combine his own personal and family history with a journalistic critique of the problem. Pomerantsev was born in the Soviet Union, but grew up in England, and he views an array of historical and military concepts through an autobiographical lens. By blending stories from his past with a globe-trotting narrative, he creates a highly compelling narrative, suitable for newcomers to the subject matter, premised on the idea that the nature of warfare is changing. Pomerantsev argues that in the future, ‘whose story wins may be more important than whose army wins’ (p. 242).
Social media technology is at the centre of the book’s argument. Pomerantsev claims that it has led to the formation of massive virtual groups to which messages can quickly be disseminated and, if needed, quickly edited or deleted. This allows a persuasive narrative to be kept alive. Users self-sort into groups, making them ripe targets for both more legitimate activities – such as advertising – as well as for manipulation. Pomerantsev evaluates a variety of methods used to manipulate users online, most notably looking at the research of Strategic Communications Laboratories founder Nigel Oakes (pp. 229–36), the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. Oakes’s work on emerging media technologies indicates that the first step in targeting a specific group can be as simple as starting a Facebook group to lure in potential targets. In the case of Brexit, where Cambridge Analytica worked to convince voters to vote ‘leave’, they could identify online communities interested in animal rights and serve them adverts that made explicit arguments that leaving the EU would be better for animal welfare. If a community was instead engaged by arguments around sovereignty, it was served adverts on the anti-democratic nature of the EU (p. 240). The narrower or more niche the group, the more users are vulnerable to being targeted on that issue.
The posts that are used to keep these groups together do not need to be well-written or insightful; often, they can be a simple starting point for lengthy comment sections where users can simply discuss the issues. Without the need for high-level writing proficiency, trolls can participate in any discussion, anywhere. Trolls can be employed in ‘troll farms’ where people are employed to write comments or blogs online, designed to manipulate other users. They can work at every level, even leaving comments in provincial newspapers (pp. 35–36). Pomerantsev examines this behaviour in the 2016 Philippine presidential election, where now President Rodrigo Duterte first rose to prominence. The book points to the work done by The Rappler, ‘the Philippines’ first purely Internet-based news site’ (p. 23), which reported on Russian trolls that appeared to be supporting Duterte by spreading fake news. Pomerantsev notes how the availability of personal data was a crucial factor in the facilitation of these disinformation campaigns.
Pomerantsev shows that one well-timed Twitter post will not change someone’s mind. Rather, it is repeated exposure to content on social media that allows an immersed user to view niche ideas as mainstream. Pomerantsev connects this contemporary phenomenon to the works of German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who argued that people are ‘motivated by a fear of isolation’ (p. 81) and will modify their behaviour to ‘belong’. Drawing on her work, the book argues that social media is creating an ‘ersatz normality’ (p. 81). Social media now tells people what the dominant public opinion is, even if it is not reflected by reality. By manipulating social media or the internet, like China’s ‘great firewall’ (p. 241), actors can change what constitutes the in-group. Users do the rest themselves.
It is worth providing some historical context to the book’s discussion of how misinformation develops in an online age. In the pre-internet age, lies were complex and elaborate systems were put in place to make them appear authentic. For example, during the Cold War, Russia infamously faked academic papers and evidence to support a thesis that the CIA was creating HIV/AIDS as part of a biological weapons programme in the 1980s (p. 157). This carefully crafted act of deception contrasts sharply with the online world that Pomerantsev describes. Now, quantity has replaced quality. Lies are spilled online with little thought other than to attack information architecture. Users are algorithmically served content that digital companies think they will enjoy, which serves to immerse users deeper into a misinformation ecosystem. Actors can now put little thought into creating complex narratives as digital companies will do the leg work by finding users who are most susceptible to these stories. Such companies are rewarded with users who spend more time on their sites and are offered more advertisements.
Pomerantsev also explores the role of more direct, peer-to-peer information warfare, in which individuals are recruited online for specific causes. He examines the techniques of the Islamic State and how it was able to exploit social media to recruit thousands of people to join its digital caliphate. Pomerantsev surveys potential solutions to this issue, and while the book gives the impression that he has done a comprehensive job in seeking out solutions, its analysis is stymied by the fact that the problems are so new and fast-moving that solutions have not been optimised yet. Rashad Ali from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) appears to explain that the only way to reverse this process is for those fighting actors such as the Islamic State to simply repeat the same methods, in what the ISD call ‘counter-speech’ (p. 202). This involves slowly engaging the victims online and explaining the lies and misinformation used to manipulate them. The work is slow, and results can be unreliable – ‘if 5 per cent answer when he contacts them, that’s already a success’ (p. 206).
Pomerantsev goes on to explore how the Ukraine crisis was the site of ‘the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg’ (p. 114). This information warfare has real-world implications. On the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, both sides are prepared to lose militarily so that they can have more content for their information war. Pomerantsev witnesses first-hand how both the Russians and the Ukrainians were willing to let citizens suffer and die to secure more content. What was happening ‘on the ground’ was irrelevant if this end was achieved, and Pomerantsev points out that ‘it would be like a heavily scripted reality-TV show if it wasn’t for the very real deaths’ (p. 140). From this perspective, it can be observed that territorial losses are partially negated by the wider gains of having acquired a compelling narrative, rich with all kinds of multimedia content, used to drive home each side’s respective argument online.
It is fascinating that humour plays such a crucial role in information warfare: the ability to belittle and satirise an opposition movement can destroy the support it receives. The book provides a concise history of this type of satire-laden information warfare, tracing it back to the ‘laughtivism’ – ‘the use of humorous stunts in revolutionary campaigns’ (p. 60) – campaigning of Srdja Popović, whose group Otpor! used such methods in an attempt to ‘remove the aura of impenetrability’ (p. 60) around Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milošević in the mid-1990s.
Stoking fear online and peddling misinformation will continue to be successful within the current social media ecosystem, but evaluating a digital technology is challenging as the field moves so quickly. Elizabeth Warren, in her campaign as a 2020 US Presidential candidate, has put forward a plan to combat the spread of disinformation around elections with the introduction of criminal penalties for those found guilty. What Pomerantsev is wise to do is attack the underpinnings of these systems.
‘I believe in disinformation for the other side and media literacy for my side’, states information vigilante Babar Aliev (p. 126). In This is Not Propaganda, Pomerantsev has done his bit to expose readers to the media literacy they will need to navigate the internet, for now.