8 November 2019

Free Exchange: Peter Pomerantsev on the war against reality

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With the support of the Atlas Network, CapX is publishing a new series of essays and podcasts on the theme of Illiberalism in Europe, looking at the different threats to liberal economies and societies across the continent, from populism to protectionism, fake news and corruption.

This week we were delighted to welcome Peter Pomerantsev to CapX Towers. Peter is one of the world’s leading writers on propaganda and fake news, and has even given evidence to the US Congress on Russian disinformation. He also boasts a fascinating and varied CV, including many years working as a TV producer in Putin’s Russia – an experience he documented in gripping style in his first book Nothing Is Real and Everything is Possible.

Peter sat down with CapX Editor John Ashmore to discuss his latest book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, in which he travels the world finding out how despots and demagogues are twisting the truth – and how we can start to fight back.

Peter Pomeranstev on…The Russification of the West

The agony of my friends who were in journalism in Russia was that they’d find the evidence against Putin or his various cronies and people would not care, or if anything the politicians would say ‘Hey, we don’t care about the facts, you know, we don’t even care if you catch us lying’. And they openly contradict themselves all the time, and it didn’t matter

I see quite a lot of the sort of rhetorical and propaganda tricks that I saw in Russia appearing here in the West.

on…China and the end of democracy

China has latched on to a way of harnessing the latent authoritarian power of the internet…it’s not so far away from the Silicon Valley dream of a purely tech-driven technocratic society where democracy is just sort of useless and slow and flawed.

China are promising is kind of efficiency and comfort and pleasure along with authoritarian control. And something I worry about a lot nowadays is whether we can still express the pleasure of democracy – we can explain the importance of rights in an abstract way, but what if their system is more pleasurable?

on…government censorship

You don’t try to censor people if you’re a government, whether in Russia or China or America, you flood the information space with so much information, people don’t know what’s truth and false anymore.

media pluralism has kind of tipped into hyper polarisation where societies can’t talk to each other to themselves anymore.

on….social media

Social media is a giant reality show, it rewards being nasty and as extreme as possible and hateful rhetoric and sort of self scandalisation. You get attention through through doing ridiculous things, which in another media context will just make you look stupid. But now it’s like, oh, no, you want to do that.

on…regulating the internet 

We face a different form of censorship today, which is about our lack of understanding and our lack of control over how our information space is designed.

We do need more freedom of expression. Freedom expression is not just the freedom to say things, it’s the freedom to receive information. So I think we do need radically more aggressive regulation to create a transparent internet.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX