To Unreality—and Beyond
In this essay, author and Russia watcher Peter Pomerantsev argues that the “propaganda of unreality” is not a new phenomenon—it’s been part of the political landscape and process for decades. What’s new is that the principles of resistance to manipulation we’ve employed successfully in the past don’t actually work against today’s style of unreality, which he refers to as “the futureless now.” But there is hope, Peter explains, and novel approaches we can take to address the propaganda of unreality and reinvigorate the democratic information space as we move further into the 21st century.
The Presidential Candidate wears a flamboyant suit and he says things so outrageous, so detached from any factuality, that the audience is enthralled. The way he pushes through the usual dull discourse of electoral politics into a space where all is both uncertain and exciting! “Did he really say that?” they think, as they wait, agog, for his next taboo-breaking bombshell. And he, in turn, can sense almost physically when their attention is most taut —and so he pulls them first one way, then another. His speeches edge toward stream of consciousness, where you can never tell whether he means it or not, whether he is joking or deadly serious. He promises to make this humbled superpower great again; that the country’s neighbors will pay for his policies; that there is a vast global conspiracy holding back the country’s currency; that “our” soldiers will be washing their boots clean in distant oceans; that, if elected, he will get rid of unemployment in a few months; that everyone will have new cars and televisions; that he will empower vigilante gangs to clean up the lawless zones on the country’s borders…
This is not the USA in 2016, or Duterte’s Philippines, or Bolsonaros’ Brazil, or Salvini’s Italy. This is Russia, 1993, and the Candidate in question is Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Zhirinovsky leads the “Liberal Democratic Party,” a party that made a mockery of those words, as it was neither liberal nor democratic but imperialist, redistributive, and anti-Western.
When Donald Trump triumphed in the 2016 election, I and other Russians and Russia watchers I know found ourselves experiencing more than a touch of déjà vu. So much of the rhetoric and narrative tactics suddenly emerging in America (as well as in the Philippines, Europe, Latin America, and Turkey) I had already seen brewing in Russia in previous decades. The deliberate fuck-off to factual discourse; the wild relativity that claims all facts are subjective or indeed impossible to ever know; the nebulous nostalgia; the replacement of ideology with seemingly infinite layers of conspiracy theories, where you never have the sense that you can reach any reliable version of reality; the flooding of the information space with so much bullshit you can’t tell truth from fiction — it was all hauntingly familiar. As I argue in my new book, it is no coincidence that the future — or rather the futureless present — arrived first in Russia. This approach to exerting mass influence is one that controls people not through insisting on a single truth they should adhere to but that says, instead, that truth is unknowable; it’s an approach that doesn’t insist on an alternative reality but on a morass of competing unrealities; that is born out of the end of the collapse of ideological competition and universalist narratives of a rational future in the aftermath of the Cold War; that is a process felt more keenly in Russia but now engulfing the thing once known as the West. In the words of one of Putin’s early spin doctors, Gleb Pavlovsky:
“The Cold War split global civilization into two alternative forms, both of which promised people a better future. The Soviet Union undoubtedly lost. But then there appeared a strange Western utopia with no alternative. This utopia was ruled over by economic technocrats who could do no wrong. Then that collapsed….
I think that Russia was the first to go this way, and the West is now catching up in this regard.”
I offer here an outline of the main constituent elements of this “propaganda of unreality” and a brief look at why old principles of resistance to manipulation don’t work against it. Finally, I explore approaches to dealing with it and reinvigorating the democratic information space for the 21st century.
The Great Fuck-Off to Facts
During the end of the Cold War, as censorship collapsed along with the Berlin Wall, it seemed as though the truth—having long been suppressed by dictators in their fear of it—would set everybody free. But the paradigm shifted, with cataclysmic results. We now have access to more information and evidence than ever, but facts seem to have lost their power. There is nothing new in politicians lying, but showing that they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not now seems both novel and central to their performances.
When Vladimir Putin appeared on international television during his army’s annexation of Crimea and stated, with a smirk, that there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea (while everyone knew there were), and later, just as casually, admitted that they had been there all along, he wasn’t so much lying in the sense of trying to replace one reality with another as saying that facts simply don’t matter. Similarly, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, is famous for having no discernible notion of what truth or facts are, yet this has not in any way been a barrier to his success. Presented with situations where it would be simpler to tell the truth — “I misspoke when I said the hurricane might hit Alabama” — he alters a weather map with a Sharpie marker and dares anyone to call him out.
You can see this difference in the approach to lying, and to the language of factuality, in how disinformation campaigns have changed since the Cold War. Back before the fall of communism the USSR’s international propaganda arm, Radio Moscow, claimed that it was broadcasting the “scientific” truth of Communism to the world. Radio Moscow’s lies tried very hard to look like facts. When, in the 1980s, Radio Moscow broadcast dezinformatsiya claiming that the CIA had invented AIDS as a weapon against Africa, the lies were carefully maintained and curated over many years. The lies featured scientists in East Germany who had supposedly found the evidence, overcoming obstacles to reveal the suppressed truth. When Ronald Reagan challenged the Soviet campaign in meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader was dutifully insulted and appalled: How dare Reagan claim the USSR was lying!
Today Putin and Trump revel in their lies. And Russian propaganda, unlike its Soviet precursor, doesn’t give a hoot if its dezinformatsiya is called out. Today the Russian media and government officials push similar stories to Operation Infektion: that American factories were pumping out the Zika virus in East Ukraine to poison ethnic Russians; that the US is harvesting Russian DNA to create biogenetic weapons;1 that the US is encircling Russia with secret biological warfare labs. But these claims are just thrown online or spewed out on TV shows, with little effort to make them look real. Instead of claiming that Russia represents “scientific truth,” Kremlin propaganda heads argue that such enlightenment values are a con.2 In the words of Dmitry Kiselev, head of Sputnik News and one of the Kremlin’s top TV attack dogs, “objectivity is a myth that is proposed and imposed on us.”3 With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder the Russians don’t make dezinformatsiya like they used to.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by this great fuck-off to facts. After all, facts are not always the most pleasant things: they can be reminders of our place and our limitations, our failures and, ultimately, our mortality. There is a sort of adolescent joy in throwing off their weight, of giving a great “up yours!” to glum reality. The very pleasure of having a Putin or a Trump in the big chair is a release from the constraints that high office imposes.
But while facts can be unpleasant, they are undeniably useful. You especially need them if you are constructing something in the real world. There are no post-truth moments if you are building a bridge, for example. Facts are necessary to show what you are building, how it will work, and why it won’t collapse. In politics, facts are necessary to show you are pursuing some rational idea of progress: Here are our aims, here is how we prove we are achieving them, this is how they will improve your lives. The need for facts is predicated on the notion of an evidence-based future.
In the Cold War, both sides engaged in what had begun as a debate about which supposedly rational system — democratic capitalism or communism — would deliver a rosier future. The only way to prove you were moving toward achieving this future was to provide evidence. Communism, for all its many perversities and cruelties, was meant to be the ultimate scientific Enlightenment project. Those who lived under it knew it was a sham, but it aspired to a paradigm of Soviet success based on Marxist–Leninist theory whose objective laws of historical development were meant to play out as the theory maintained. Thus, it was possible to call the USSR out both by exposing how it lied and by broadcasting accurate information, confronting its leaders with facts about the failures of the system.
After the Cold War, only one political idea and one vision of the future had valence: globalization centered on the idea of “freedom” — free markets, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and other political freedoms. In democracies, political parties still had to prove that they could foster these freedoms more effectively than their rivals, though this was more a technocratic process than a battle of rival ideas.
We can posit many moments when that vision of the future crumpled. The invasion of Iraq — “Operation Iraqi Freedom” — undermined the idea that political freedom was a historical inevitability. The financial crash of 2008 shattered the certainty that free markets would deliver freedom from want; the dream that the European Union’s carefully tended market was sheltered from vast economic shocks collapsed, too. And the Arab Spring came and went, taking with it the certainty that free speech would inevitably oust tyranny.
With those shocks, the last of the old, Cold War–framed notions of a universal future fell away for many. And if there is no future for your facts to prove you are achieving or improving, then what is the appeal of them? Why would you want facts if they tell you that your children will be poorer than you? That all versions of the future are dim and unpromising? Why should you trust the purveyors of these unhappy facts: the media, academics, think tanks, and statesmen?
And so the politician who makes a show of rejecting facts, who validates the pleasures of spouting nonsense, who indulges in a full-on, anarchic liberation from coherence, from glum reality, becomes impossibly attractive. That enough Americans could vote for someone like Donald Trump, a man with so little regard for making sense, whose many contradictory messages never add up to any very stable meaning, was partly possible because enough voters weren’t invested in any larger evidence-based future. Indeed, in his very incoherence lies the pleasure. All the madness you feel? You can now let it out and it’s OK. The joy of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit and nonsense, the joy of pure emotion — most often anger — without any ultimate destination.
Given this collapse of future-based narratives, it’s no coincidence that so many of the new breed of political actors are also nostalgists. Vladimir Putin’s Internet troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets he will “Make America Great Again”; Turkish and Hungarian media dream of restoring the phantoms of ancient greatness.
“The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia. The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for newness, but by the proliferation of nostalgias,” wrote the Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, who saw nostalgia as a way of escaping the strictures of rationally ordered time. She contrasted two types. The first, which is healthy, she called reflective nostalgia: It looks at discrete, often ironic stories from the past and tries to tease out the difference between the past and present to formulate the future. The second, harmful type she called restorative nostalgia. This strives to rebuild lost homelands with “paranoiac determination,” thinks of itself as “truth and tradition,” obsesses over grand symbols and “relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding . . . Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters.”4
Technology, argues Boym, encourages nostalgia. The new media, with its myriad screens and streams of information makes reality so fragmented it becomes ungraspable, pushing us toward — or allowing us to flee — into virtual realities and fantasies. “Nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere,” she says.
This is part of the paradox of the new media. It was meant to take us further into the future; instead, it has brought us back to the past. The very structure of social media scrambles time, place, and proportion. Terror attacks sit next to cat videos, the latest jokes surface next to old family photos. The result is a sort of flattening, as if past and present are losing their relative perspective.
Conspiracy theories have long been used to maintain power. The Soviet leadership saw capitalist and counter-revolutionary conspiracies everywhere; the Nazis saw Jewish ones. But those conspiracies ultimately existed to buttress ideologies, whether class warfare for Communists or race for Nazis. With today’s regimes, which offer no single ideology, the idea that one lives in a world full of conspiracies becomes the worldview itself. Conspiracy has no ideology to support: Instead, it replaces it. In Russia this is captured in the catchphrase of the country’s most important current affairs presenter: “A coincidence? I don’t think so!” says Dmitry Kiselev, as he twirls between tall tales that dip into history, literature, oil prices, and color revolutions, all of which return to the theme of how the world has it in for Russia.
As a worldview conspiracy thinking grants those who subscribe to it certain pleasures: if all the world is a conspiracy, then your own failures are no longer all your fault. The fact that you achieved less than you hoped for, that your life is a mess is all the fault of the conspiracy. The system is rigged.
More importantly, conspiracy is a way to maintain control. In a world where even the most authoritarian regimes struggle to impose censorship, it is more efficient to persuade audiences that behind every seemingly benign motivation is a nefarious hidden hand. Surrounding people with so much cynicism that they lose faith in the possibility of an alternative is a tactic the renowned Russian media analyst Vasily Gatov calls “white jamming.”
The ultimate effect of this endless pile-up of conspiracies is that you, the little person, can never change anything. For if you are living in a world where shadowy forces control everything, then what possible chance do you have of turning it around? You begin to feel that you need a strong hand to guide you through this murky swamp. Hence “Trump is our last chance to save America.” And only Putin can “raise Russia from its knees.”
Censorship Through Noise
The sense of disorientation and lack of trust brought about by white jamming with conspiracy theories is further augmented by the sheer volume of information produced online. Decades ago it was perfectly reasonable to hope that the democratization of information production would break the false realities imposed by propagandists, that more information would mean more informed debate and a greater sense of shared reality. It’s true that modern propagandists struggle to impose the forms of censorship that were deployed during the Cold War. But they have adapted. “We observe the tactical move by states from an ideology of information scarcity to one of information abundance,” writes the law professor Tim Wu, “which sees speech itself as a censorial weapon.”5
More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful. But it also has given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent through the use of troll farms as well as “coordinated authentic campaigns” to intimidate and drown out critics. More information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but we seem less capable of deliberation than ever in the face of concerted (and cheap) efforts to spread so much disinformation that it becomes hard to agree on any shared reality. More information was also meant to foster mutual understanding across borders, but it has also made possible new and more subtle forms of conflict and subversion.
The Kremlin was one of the first organizations to figure this out. Writing back in 2010, Ron Diebert and Rafal Rohozinski of Citizen Lab were already observing how the Kremlin was using online noise, rather than censorship, to impose control:
In RUNET, control strategies tend to be more subtle and sophisticated and designed to shape and affect when and how information is received by users, rather than denying access outright.
The key characteristic of third-generation controls is that the focus is less on denying access than successfully competing with potential threats through effective counterinformation campaigns that overwhelm, discredit, or demoralize opponents….
These techniques include employing ‘‘Internet Brigades’’ to engage, confuse, or discredit individuals or sources. Such action can include the posting of prepackaged propaganda, kompromat, and disinformation through mass blogging and participation in Internet polls, or harassment of individual users, including the posting of personal information.
The future of cyberspace controls, we argue, can be found in RUNET.6
From Cold War to Information War
The most infamous of these influence campaigns has been the Russian attempt to use a mix of covert social media campaigns, hacks, and leaks to influence the political climate in the US, exacerbating social divides to help Donald Trump win the 2016 Presidential election. This campaign has brought a significant increase in the amount of attention paid to Russian theories of “information war,” theories that treat information not as a tool for communication and argument, but as a weaponized way to dismay, hamper, and subvert an enemy. The deployment of “information weapons,” suggests a Russian manual for civil servants and state security service personnel that “acts like an invisible radiation” upon its targets: “The population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon. So, the state doesn’t switch on its self-defense mechanisms.”7
The directors of Russia’s international broadcasters, RT and Sputnik, frame their own activity in the context of information war; they even receive military medals for their services to the government8. There are also many think tank reports on the “Kremlin’s Firehose of Falsehood,” the “Digital Maginot Line.” I myself have written about the “Weaponization of Information” and “How to Win the Information War,” analyzing the Kremlin’s use of media in neighboring countries.
But if one digs deeper into how the idea of information war is used in Russia, it quickly stops being merely a case of psy-op tactics, but a worldview that expresses the underlying ideological breakdowns and narrative strategies that lie behind the “propaganda of unreality” discussed here. In many ways “Information War” has come to replace “Cold War” as a way to explain how the modern world works.
The idea of information war as a way to understand history has long obsessed a certain type of Russian geopolitical analyst looking to explain the failure of the Soviet Union. Secret service agents turned academics assert that the Soviet Empire collapsed9 not because of its poor economic policies, human rights violations, and lies, but because of “information viruses” planted by Western security services via the Trojan-horse ideas of freedom of speech (Operation Glasnost) and economic reform (Operation Perestroika). Alleged secret agents in the Soviet establishment who posed as so-called modernizers, allied with a US-dictated fifth column of anti-Soviet dissidents, oversaw the dissemination of these “viruses.”
For a long time, such theories were not mainstream. But as the Kremlin searched for ways to explain uprisings against dictators and the growth of discontent at home, which erupted in hundreds of thousands of people protesting Vladimir Putin’s rule in 2011 and 2012, this pervasive information war philosophy increasingly was amplified by TV talking heads and spin doctors. According to this argument, the West currently wages information war against Russia with the conniving use of the BBC and human rights NGOs, fact-checking organizations, and anti-corruption investigations. Russian attacks on international NGOs and the closure of civil society within the country can be understood within this framework.
One of the most outspoken public promoters of the information war framing is Igor Ashmanov10, a frequent guest on TV talk shows and radio. But Ashmanov is no crusty spook. He is one of the fathers of the Russian Internet, the former head of the country’s second-largest search engine. When I once visited his high-tech office in Moscow, complete with piles of fresh fruit, dates, and nuts on the table, I could just as easily have been in Palo Alto or Berlin. Ashmanov, in his sports clothes and wire-rimmed glasses, would fit in at any tech gathering.
“The fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Iraq. We’ve lived through many information wars,”11 Ashmanov said in one of his many interviews. He’s also told Russian lawmakers that Google, Facebook, and Twitter are ideological weapons aimed at Russia, and that profit is only a secondary mandate for them. He explained that American secret service operations, such as Google, need to be economically self-sufficient. In other words, they need to pay their own way, so they have a business attached.12
Ashmanov’s big idea is “information sovereignty” where government controls what information reaches the population, something that China is well on the way to achieving and which the West, he claims, tries to disguise with talk about freedom of speech. Information sovereignty can’t be achieved, he argues, without an ideology to defend your rationale for letting some streams of information through and others not.13
“If your ideology is imported, as with liberalism, then you are always playing to foreign rules, which are always being changed by someone else. You can always be called guilty, breaking the rules of democracy. Ideology should be created inside a country, like operational systems, rockets, insulin, and grain. Supported and defended by information sovereignty.”14
Information, in this worldview, precedes essence. First, you have an information warfare goal and then you create an ideology to fit it. Whether the ideology is right or wrong is irrelevant; it just needs to serve a tactical function. Instead of clashing ideologies leading to a Cold War, here Information War necessitates the creation of ideologies. America, this argument goes, has cynically used democracy as an information weapon to undermine other countries while ignoring much worse behavior in allies. So, Russia needs an ideology to act as a defense.
Indeed, it’s not hard to find many instances where America acted, to put it mildly, hypocritically when it came to support for freedom and human rights, supporting their promotion in adversaries and ignoring their violation in allies. In the sly words of diplomats, values and interests don’t always align. Which is to say, double standards are alive and well. But as long as America kept up the façade of believing an ideology when promoting its image abroad, it would — sometimes — have to do something about it.
As Rosemary Foot relates,15 you can trace the roots of the American freedom narrative that was so important in the Cold War back to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, which called for freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from fear and want, as the basis for a democratic world. As early as 1949, the “Negro question” had been highlighted by the US Embassy in Moscow as a “principal Soviet propaganda theme” that had to be battled at home for the sake of US foreign policy. During the civil rights movement, the US Justice Department could argue that desegregation was important, as it would help promote America’s international image as a bastion of freedom.
In the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, American support for coups in Chile, and US intervention in the Dominican Republic, Congress held hearings on human rights abuses in those countries. The resulting report established a human rights bureau within the State Department, meant to bring rhetoric about freedom and human rights closer to actual policy.
Even the USSR’s utopian declarations could, on occasion, act as the tiniest of checks on small parts of its behavior: “Obey your own laws” was the clarion call of the dissident movement to the regime. In 1977, for example, the most famous Soviet dissident, the physicist Andrei Sakharov, wrote a letter in support of other political prisoners to US President Jimmy Carter and had it published in the New York Times:
“Dear Mr Carter, it’s very important to defend those who suffer because of their nonviolent struggle, for openness, for justice, for destroyed rights… our and your duty is to fight for them. I think a great deal depends on this struggle — trust between the people, trust in high promises and the final result — international security.”16
Sakharov provided a list of names he wanted Carter to raise with his Soviet counterparts. These weren’t empty appeals. Ever since the Soviet Union had signed the Helsinki Accords promising to respect “human rights” and “fundamental freedoms” in 1975, American leaders would raise the issue of political prisoners at summits. Sometimes they even managed to get someone released. At the very least, it embarrassed the Soviet Union and made the Americans look superior.
These tiny victories for ideology were minor achievements in the grand scale of the horrors of the Cold War, but the replacement of ideology with the Information War replaces hypocrisy not with something better but with a world where there are no a priori higher values. In this worldview, all information becomes, as it is for military thinkers, merely a means to undermine an enemy—a tool to disrupt, delay, confuse, subvert. There is no room for values or ideas.
But that raises a tricky question. In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, the cognitive linguist George Lakoff connects winning and losing in politics to framing issues in a way conducive to one’s aims. Defining the argument means winning it. If you tell someone not to think of an elephant, they will end up thinking of an elephant. “When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame… when you are arguing against the other side, do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame—and it won’t be the frame you want.”
When Western journalists and analysts, myself included, call the Kremlin out for its information war, do we risk reinforcing its frame, its desire to view everything through this chosen lens? If all information is seen as part of a war, out go any dreams of a global information space where ideas flow freely, bolstering deliberative democracy. Instead, the best future one can hope for is an “information peace” in which each side respects the other’s information sovereignty: the favored concept of the likes of Ashmanov in Moscow (and of Beijing) and, essentially, a cover for censorship.
But to ignore the Kremlin’s influence operations in the hopes of minimizing the information war framing would be foolish. The disabling of Estonia with a mix of information and hacking in 2007 had foreshadowed what that might be like. This leaves us with a paradox. It is necessary to recognize and reveal the way the Kremlin uses information with a military mindset to confuse, dismay, divide, and delay. In doing so, there is a risk of reinforcing the Kremlin’s worldview in the very act of responding to it.
To Unreality and Beyond: A To-Do List
As policy makers, journalists, and experts in democracies struggle to deal with this “propaganda of unreality,” the worldview of “information war” and the war on information, we need to admit that the formulas for guaranteeing a democratic information space in the 21st century seem incapable of coping in this new environment. In particular we need to ask three questions.
Is the metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas” still relevant?
An era of “information abundance” where it has become so easy to churn out vast amounts of “disinformation,” has undermined the simplistic metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas,” where the “best information” is meant to necessarily win out through rational choice made by users. The origin of the phrase, from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in a 1919 Supreme Court Case, ran as follows: “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” In an age where the production of “fallacious information” has become so easy, this “market” is all too easy to rig.
On a more insidious level, the logic of a propaganda that targets people with unique messaging based on the data they leave online calls into question the idea that the more one can express oneself, the freer one is. On social media you can express yourself to your heart’s content, but your online speech is then transmuted into data, sold to data brokers and on to political forces that will use your speech to target you with customized messages without you ever knowing or understanding when how or why you are being influenced.
Does market-driven media pluralism automatically lead to better debate and deliberation?
The idea that the advertising market would guarantee healthy media pluralism was always tenuous since media is often fiscally captured by oligarchic interests. Even today, Turkey, Serbia and Hungary still have what on the surface looks like pluralist ad-supported media, but in actuality is a market that has been manipulated to favor the government. In other words, if you want ads from government or government allied companies, or if you want your business to win government contracts, then your media better follow the government line.
An even more fundamental challenge to the ideal of pluralism is the polarization and fracture of the modern media space. As both Yochai Benkler and Kathleen Hall Jamieson have shown, the purposeful breaking apart of shared reality into “echo chambers” of rival realities began with the development of the (usually radically right wing) US talk radio and cable news scene in the final decades of the 20th century. But the Internet and social media have taken this fracturing process to another level. Even in democracies with traditionally less polarized media spaces, such as Germany, experts now speak of an online “alternativuniversum” that has grown as far-right parties have broken through politically.
It is telling that manipulative government online campaigns no longer aim for ideological dominance but instead play on polarization, augmenting pluralism until deliberative debate becomes impossible and trust is eaten away. Domestically, the Kremlin’s aim has been to preserve a small pocket of government-approved liberal media while stirring up hate toward it outside of Moscow. In the US, Kremlin campaigns tapped into social media groups on different sides of the ideological divides, looking to increase discord and polarization.
Are the values of public service–spirited media accepted by all?
Accuracy. Fairness. Balance. Impartiality. Objectivity. This set of journalistic values, usually trumpeted by public service–spirited media, has always sought to be sacrosanct and above the fray of partisanship. A media organization like the BBC might be criticized for not being accurate or balanced or fair or impartial enough, but all agreed that these were the virtues that ought to the aspired to. This position presupposed that deliberation was necessary for democracy, that a common conversation around a shared reality was something to aspire to.
Today everyone from Russian government propagandists to Newt Gingrich insist that such values simply don’t exist. “Objectivity is a myth imposed upon us” says Dmitry Kiselev, the current affairs show host and head of the Kremlin’s international propaganda network Rossiya Sevodnya. Meanwhile, Gingrich insists that crime statistics are not objective numbers but if people feel they are up, even if they are actually down, then that subjective sense is as legitimate a ‘fact’ as any other17.
Apart from challenging the enlightenment values they were founded on, public service–spirited media outlets face another challenge. Traditionally, an organization such as the BBC or CBS achieved balance by inviting representatives of different sides of a debate. But what happens when the parties stop representing people or positions in any stable way or when viewers no longer feel a connection to them? What do you do when newspaper columnists are no longer the standard bearers of any popular sets of opinions? When the clear ideological sides that they are meant to “balance” crumble? During the Cold War, “impartial” meant a balance between left-wing and right-wing opinions. In the 1990s and 2000s, things got more complicated, as there was no clear left or right any more. In the late 2010s, audiences have fractured even more, seeing the world through the distinct values and causes that define them. Both in the UK and the US it has become unclear, for example, what “conservative” parties stand for. Under Donald Trump the Republicans have abandoned any adherence to being the party dedicated to fiscal prudence and respect for political institutions and norms.
How are public service–spirited media outlets meant to achieve a shared reality rooted in democracy when the mere possibility of an objective forum is rejected, and when society has fractured to the point where it’s unclear who represents what?
Small Steps Out of Unreality
In order to move beyond the current ideological and technological crisis of unreality, we need to rethink the ingredients and dynamics that help guarantee an information environment where deliberative debate, trust, and common decision-making are possible.
The role of regulation
There is an understandable squeamishness around introducing regulation focused on speech and the production of content. Freedom of expression groups and First Amendment absolutists argue that we already have regulation around areas such as defamation, child pornography, and incitement to violence, and that it is authoritarian to impose regulation to address “disinformation” or “fake news,” which are not illegal, though they may be unethical. The right to freedom of expression is also the right to lie; disinformation is part of the robust cacophony of democracy.
The raft of fake-news laws being enacted by governments from Singapore to France represent a slippery slope to censorship. The latest such proposal is the UK’s White Paper on Online Harms which cites instances of Russian “interference” as one of the reasons to create regulations to censor what the UK government call “legal but harmful” speech: content that is not illegal, but somehow dangerous. By framing information as something inherently harmful that needs to be restricted, the white paper, as well as similar initiatives in France and Germany, slip into the Kremlin’s framing, helping to normalize the argument for “sovereign” internets and signalling a retreat from the ideals of 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. No wonder freedom of expression organizations are appalled by such policies. And no wonder the Kremlin loves to quote them when it imposes censorship at home.
In America such legislation is less likely to pass due to the First Amendment, but in constantly using the rhetoric of “information war”, “meddling” and “interference,” the belief that information flowing freely across borders is a good thing risks being reversed. By launching its information operations, the Kremlin is putting in place a logic that pushes the West into reversing the gains of the Cold War, particularly in the area of ending censorship and improving freedom of expression. The growth of information operations increases the sense that we can’t trust anything we see online, strengthening a view that manipulation is all around us and leading to policies that do damage to the very democratic values that information operations were created to subvert.
However, while regulating content on the Internet puts legislators on a direct collision course with freedom of expression principles, there is another way to approach regulation: Focus not on content per se but on the right of the citizen to understand how the information environment around them is being shaped. At the moment we have no way of understanding whether what one sees online is organic or part of a campaign, a human or a bot; who has created certain pieces of content and to what end; why an algorithm shows us one piece of content over another; which bits of our own data are being used to target us with certain messages. This lack of transparency is in itself a form of censorship, barring the citizen from engaging with their information environment as an equal. In turn it makes genuine interaction and debate impossible as we don’t have access to enough information to be able to understand and respond to the information environment around us.
Implementing a regulatory approach that focuses on behavior and mechanisms of information production means redesigning user interfaces to make these mechanisms of information production interpretable. It requires public oversight of algorithms, easily searchable databases of commercial and issue based ads and campaigns (with information about who they were created by and targeted at), the ability to research how different forces try to game algorithms, and so on. It is by no means a blanket ban on anonymity, which is often important for safety reasons, but accounts should state that they are avatars rather than deceiving people into thinking they are something or someone they are not.
Critically, such a regulatory approach is in line with democratic logic and freedom of expression. It demands the right to more information, not censorship. It is also an approach that authoritarian regimes will loathe. The last thing a Putin wants is for people at home or abroad to know that his cyber militias are the driving force behind covert online campaigns in rural America or Siberia, or how the Kremlin games algorithms to push its content and bullies Russian Internet companies into surrendering control of users’ data.
Such transparency-focused regulation will help even out imbalances of power over knowledge and communication, opening up the possibility for genuine interaction and building trust. It will not in and of itself be a cure, but at least it will embolden competition with the agents of unreality.
From partisanship to smoothing polarization
Echo chambers. Filter bubbles. Fracture. Division. Hyper-partisanship. Polarization. We have a plethora of metaphors and buzzwords, none perfect, for describing the breakdown of a shared reality where the communication and deliberation necessary for democracy become difficult, if not impossible. But we all recognize that moment when someone suddenly starts spouting surreal conspiracy theories, and you realize that they are living in a universe parallel to yours. You remember that moment when you accidentally blunder into a Facebook community you’d never visited and notice that their level of trust in democracy has reached the point where they don’t believe anything the “lamestream media” says any more… and when you try to engage you are just accused of being biased yourself.
Whose job is it to reignite conversation and trust among alienated groups, who are driven apart every day by polarizing propaganda? Media often play into the polarization rather than smoothing it, either for political reasons, or because of an ad-tech system that rewards outrage and polarization: the more partisan the content, the more virally it spreads. The business model of the Internet fosters division. Meanwhile, the old public service principles of balance and impartiality have buckled under philosophical attack by a wild relativism that is pushed by everyone from Putin to Gingrich. This attack on balance comes also from the sense that the representatives of parties and media that were meant to channel different social groups are no longer avatars for the public but their own “elites” who have more in common with each other than anybody else.
What we need is a new mix of media and civic groups who get up every morning with the mission of creating content that engages with polarized groups, encouraging conversation between people currently in different realities. Such groups will have to be able to ignore the demands of the ad-tech system as it is currently constructed, and will need to dedicate themselves to a new set of success metrics: Instead of just looking at likes and shares, they will need to refocus on the quality of engagement. Does the content and fora they curate generate trust, spark non-toxic conversation, smooth polarization? At Arena, the initiative I run at the London School of Economics, we have been developing methodologies to do this. There is no technological “special sauce,” but there is a dedication to understanding audiences through a mix of focus groups, polling, and segmentation analysis. We want to understand the deeper reasons people are drawn into polarized groups and what they have in common beneath the propaganda surface. Then we work with public service–spirited media to create content and conversations that bridge those divides.
In this work, we draw on the experience of counter-extremist groups who have spent decades trying to engage those under the sway of far-right and religious movements, post-conflict reconciliation projects, and public diplomacy (the tradition of using media, events, and educational and cultural programs to listen to and engage with the people of another country, rather than the diplomats of another country). Today, I would argue, domestic polarization has become so extreme we need public diplomacy within countries!
None of these antecedents are quite the same as the challenge we face today in creating new ways to foster constructive engagement. For this to happen consistently and at scale, we need a new set of civil society actors who combine the values of accurate media with engagement skills and an understanding of how propagandists prey on polarization, inflaming divides. In essence, such civic groups would be in a race with propagandists, foreign or domestic, who are conducting rival research and operations in order to push people apart in non-transparent ways. Our civic groups would need to understand audiences, to work out why, for instance, certain people believe in conspiracy theories. Challengingly, they will need to conduct this research, create content, and foster dialogues in a transparent way. At the moment it is the shady PR firms and regimes such as Russia’s who think about audiences with rigor. The supporters of deliberative, democratic discourse need to get involved and show that new technology and research possibilities can be used for good and not ill. So far audience analysis has been used to divide people inside countries and to amplify anger between countries. But it can also be used to build engagement and to find commonalities across borders.
A global public sphere is technologically more feasible than ever. But it won’t happen by itself. As I write this, there are pro-democracy protests happening in Hong Kong, London, Tbilisi and Belgrade. Unlike the great waves of democratization in 1989, these do not feel like part of an inevitable progress of history that leads toward ever greater democracy across the world. The protesters have seemingly disparate and tactical demands. But can one penetrate deeper into their motivations and explore whether there is a commonality there? Is a new global, pro-democracy narrative just below the surface, waiting to be expressed?
Back to the Future
I began this essay by exploring how the “post-truth” moment is deeply connected to the loss of a rational future that makes an evidence-based discourse necessary. As I noted, nostalgia, rather than any specific ideology, is the common theme that unites post-truth politicians from the UK to Brazil, the US to South Asia.
The real antidote to the politics of unreality is to foster a grounded conversation about the future: not a top-down dictation of the future that was the favored mode of totalitarians, but a bottom-up, future oriented conversation. In practical terms, media needs to create content that forces politicians to talk about constructive and practical solutions to problems, and then develop technologies and methodologies to hold them to account going forward, testing their policies and promises. This would be in stark contrast to the current reality show — the verbal professional wrestling that we see on debate shows — that paved the way for politicians who replace sense with spectacle and reason with outrage, and that we see being repeated yet again in the run-up to the next US elections. We have a large evidence base, going back to Joseph Capella’s and Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s work in the 1990s18, that this sort of adversarial content sparks cynicism. A solutions-oriented approach could breed trust: We trust people when we are involved in a common project together. When citizens see politicians and media working with and for them, and moving toward a common goal, trust emerges. It is our job, as people working on the crossroads of technology and media, to create the arenas for such a conversation, and to redesign both the technology that our information is communicated through, and the creative content we produce, with that aim.
Peter Pomerantsev is the author of This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality and Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.