Peter Pomerantsev discusses how his role at LSE informed his latest book This is Not Propaganda, and why his interviews with those at the frontier of the information war led to a deeper understanding of his own family history.
Peter Pomerantsev arrived in Russia at the age of 24 in 2001 to begin a career in journalism after living in the UK for most of his life, finding his parent’s country reeling from the political and economic shocks that followed the collapse of Communism a decade earlier.
Working as a film-maker for various Russian broadcasters, he was exposed to the media’s disturbing role in the creation of Putin’s authoritarian plutocracy, recounting his experiences in the award-winning 2015 book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.
Four years on Pomerantsev returns to the information war, as the tactics pioneered by Russia have spread across the world. The book, This is Not Propaganda, is part journalism, part academic thesis and part memoir, taking Pomerantsev on a journey to Estonia, Mexico, China and others, and ultimately leading him to a reappraisal of his own family’s legacy.
Pomerantsev feels his journalism has benefited from the insights gained teaching and researching at LSE as a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs. He says: “Although I’m not an academic, having one leg in this world has given me a lot of space to think. When you work in journalism you’re constantly chasing stories, ratings and prizes. You very rarely stand back to think about the system you’re working in or about the effect of what you’re doing.”
One of the central themes of This Is Not Propaganda is how an abundance of digital information has created a new reality, shifting opinions and changing behaviour. This information, usually created and supported by states, does not necessarily promote a particular ideology, rather a world view that allows audiences to project their own beliefs. The book details how the strategy pioneered by Russia is now used by many other authoritarian regimes to further their international agendas and shore-up domestic support.
Pomerantsev says: “Present day authoritarians censor by creating so much information it swamps people, so they can’t tell truth from fiction. They say ‘this is just freedom of speech, and you wanted freedom of speech, well I’m giving it to you.’
“Authoritarians also learnt to be very flexible and not have stable ideologies. That’s really something we saw in Russia in the early 2000’s which you now see in China and places like the Balkans. This kind of post-ideological flexibility seems to be something of a prerequisite for survival now.”
The selection of Boris Johnson by Conservative party members to become the party's leader and the UK’s prime minister demonstrates how ‘post-ideological flexibility’ in a world drowning in information has also entered the mainstream of stable western democracies.
Pomerantsev says: “With Johnson nobody can work out what he believes in and that’s his advantage. People say that the Conservatives have no ideas any more, but they’ve worked out you don’t need ideas. Detailed policies that add up to a coherent ideology limit you to a smaller part of the population; they get in the way if you want to reach a larger part of the population.”
Britain may be shielded from the damage sustained by developing democracies due to its robust institutions like the independent judiciary and civil service. And although events that seemed impossible only a few years ago are coming to pass, Pomerantsev feels that Britain’s democracy will endure.
“How bad things do things need to be before we remember that’s why we need an independent media, that’s why we need independent courts, which are under attack even in the UK. The type of agenda that certain populist nationalists are pushing for is one that wants destroy independent institutions.
“It’s bizarre to see this happening in the UK, a country that is proud of its checks and balances and independent institutions, but ultimately Britain will be fine because its institutions are too strong. But what’s happening here affects how democracies are viewed; if you’re Ukraine or Mexico, sort of hovering between authoritarianism and democracy, you don’t have a model.”
While the book handles such expansive themes, each idea is explored through the personal stories and the impact the media has on people’s lives. Pomerantsev says: “I tried to make the book, at its centre, about human beings who are defined by propaganda, who live through it, try to fight it and are destroyed by it.”
“In the process, I met the new generation of dissidents doing positive things who, like my parents, are fighting today’s war.”
He found that many of the interviews had a connection to Pomerantsev’s personal history; his parents were dissidents who were pursued by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s state security agency, which he recounts in the books most powerful sections.
“The thing that people are most interested in in the book is the story about my parents. I think it tells you there’s a lot to be said about keeping things emotional, finding the human angle to everything you are studying.
“I was aware of the myth of my parents as dissidents but there is so much I didn’t know. It was a real privilege to be able to go much deeper into their lives.
“It would be the same for anyone because you think you know your parent's story, but you don’t really know what happened. I think everyone should interview their parents.”