Fighting fake news could be ever harder than the Cold Warby Sameer Rahim / September 2, 2019 / Leave a comment
Peter Pomerantsev has truth-telling in his blood. His father was a dissident who moved to the UK and then worked for the World Service. Born in Soviet Kiev in 1977, Pomerantsev himself returned to Russia as an adult, in the hope that journalism would thrive in a nation recently freed from communism. But he was soon disillusioned by the fake reality peddled by the TV station he worked at. In 2010, he returned to the UK and wrote a gripping memoir about his experiences, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.
But his return didn’t go as planned. “Despite all my efforts to escape Russia,” he writes here, “it had followed me.” Putin had unleashed his internet trolls on the world, and their tactics were enthusiastically taken up and refined by disreputable politicians keen to win elections (and referendums). Pomerantsev’s wide-ranging new book is a series of loosely connected dispatches from the frontline of the war on truth.
In the Philippines, he talks to Maria Ressa, recently ranked as a Prospect world thinker. Ressa dislikes her country’s strongman president Rodrigo Duterte but, ironically, her news website Rappler was one of the first places he got a platform. There is a lesson here, reinforced by examples from Mexico to Ukraine. An open internet, which had promised better fact-checking and a platform for marginalised voices, instead gave us “alternative facts” and voices that had been silenced for good reason. In some ways, the Cold War is easier to analyse. As Serbian online activist Srdja Popovic tells the author, “the problem we are facing today is less oppression, more lack of identity, apathy, division, no trust.”
What can be done? Although the author doesn’t explicitly argue for it, China’s model of a tightly controlled internet could, with liberal adjustments, be a model. But that would mean putting back in the bottle a genie having great fun playing tricks on us.
This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality by Peter Pomerantsev (Faber & Faber, £14.99)
Peter Pomerantsev is appearing at the Prospect Book Club on 21st October