Shortly after the 2016 US Election, a journalist named Sarah Kendzior urged Americans to immediately write down their memories, their beliefs, their values, and what they know to be real and true, because those things were about to get very squishy for us. She wanted us to have a snapshot of our pre-Trump reality, a reference point to look back to, an anchor to moor us as we began to drift further out into a sea of craziness and disinformation. She said this based on her own extensive studies of authoritarian governments.
More than five years later, her prescience appears to have been spot on. “Fake news” – a term originally coined by the mainstream press to describe fictional clickbait articles (often created overseas) – was quickly rebranded by 2016 candidate Trump to describe the mainstream media themselves. Fact-checking of President Trump’s bold-faced lies was met with doubling down rather than the traditional responses of shame and contrition. Amid this nonstop deflection and distraction, many Americans eventually came to have a harder and harder time teasing out the truth in a given situation.
Distortions have always existed in the press – if nothing else, in the editorial decisions about what is “news” and what is not worthy of coverage. But the news has now fragmented into completely different realities (some of them by definition false realities), and each American is living their lives, and basing their choices, on which of those realities they have chosen. By November 5, 2020, for example, CNN, NPR, NBC, and even Fox News had acknowledged the election of Joe Biden. But on right-wing media upstarts NewsMax and OANN, Trump still appeared poised to win the election three weeks later, and conservatives abandoned Fox News by the hundreds of thousands to plant their flags in these more appealing oases of information. On January 6, some Americans watched a frightening banana-republic-style attempt to overturn a legitimate democratic election. Other Americans saw the same events – and continue to see them – as courageous attempts by noble-hearted patriots to prevent the results of a banana-republic-style “rigged election” from being carried through to their corrupt fruition.
It is in this new Through-the-Looking-Glass environment that I have been reading the works of Peter Pomerantsev, a British journalist who was born in Ukraine – then still a part of the USSR – as his dissident father was repeatedly being brought in for interrogation by the KGB. Pomerantsev’s two books provide astoundingly valuable insights into America’s current situation.
In “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia,” written in 2014, Pomerantsev provides colorful, engaging, and at times deeply amusing vignettes into the evolution of post-Soviet Russia from a land of fresh optimistic idealism, to a place of opportunistic lawlessness that created overnight winners and losers, to a kleptocratic authoritarian regime that keeps an impenetrable hold on power using a shrewd development in propaganda. Pomerantsev’s unique perspective as a now-Westerner inside Russia allows a powerful understanding of this metamorphosis.
The unstructured fluidity in early post-Soviet Russia, asserts Pomerantsev, allowed previously state-owned assets – media, oil production, etc. – to be grabbed up by those with the wits, money, or brute thuggishness to do so. Millionaires and power brokers were created overnight. Organized crime began to flourish, as Russian mafia found easy cash in blackmailing and extorting new business owners. This corruption eventually became a part of the Russian system itself – for all practical purposes, a coequal branch of government – as Putin took power and threatened imprisonment to any wealthy oligarch who refused to give him a cut of their often-ill-gotten earnings.
Pomerantsev looks into the lives of a variety of Russians: billionaire media moguls, bar-cruising prostitutes, city historians, reality show stars, political activists, a pre-teen boy turned national celebrity by his morbid obesity, a falsely imprisoned businesswoman, a nationalist Christian biker gang, a supermodel driven to suicide by a self-actualization cult, a lavishly partying millionaire playboy, and a small-time Mafioso/wannabe movie producer. Tying all of them together is a new Russian culture of delirium, a hazy yet psychedelically vivid combination of Zef-esque lifestyle, Cirque de Soleil surrealism, reality show drama, political theater, performance art, and tabloid sensationalism.
This culture is no accident. It is the result of a rather ingenious advance in propaganda developed by long-time friend of Vladimir Putin, Vladislov Surkov – a development that coincidentally and symbiotically emerged alongside the cultural fragmentation caused by the internet and social media. With a background in metallurgy, fine art and public relations, Surkov came up with the idea of an entertaining, never-boring politics that is both highly emotional and thoroughly disorienting and disempowering. Rather than the clumsy, ham-fisted propaganda of past authoritarians, where the powerful suppress all dissent and project their own worldview as the only acceptable line of thought, Surkov’s propaganda embraces a diversity of dissenting voices – and even supports them.
Politically adversarial groups are funded, encouraged, and their extremes magnified. On issue after issue – racism, the environment, worker’s rights – the stunningly cynical goal is to play different sides against each other, emotionally amplifying conspiracy theories, controversies, and extremists, while also culturally magnifying beliefs in the supernatural, cultism, rage, the spectacle of the absurd and the grotesque and the breathtakingly beautiful, until such a sense of disequilibrium is created amongst the population that the formation of any critical masse of unified dissent becomes impossible, because nobody can get a firm grasp on what is true. The goal is not a victory for any “side” or the ability of any particular ideology to prevail. Rather, the goal is simply the unending and energy-consuming distraction and confusion of conflict itself. The blizzard of lies, fabrications and “fake news” serve not to convince, but merely to sap the stamina of anyone motivated enough to seek out a definitive truth. Politics, culture, and life in general become a crazy hall of mirrors where each individual sees a different distortion, and reality is fluid, shifting, watery, elusive, continuously bombarded by new waves of disinformation and emotion.
The effect of this on many Russians has been a wry cynicism, a knowing skepticism, a smirking disbelief in any news story, and even a sullen dislike of the government behind it all. As Russia’s state media export, RT (formerly Russia Today), beckons in its slogan, “Question More.” But despite all the distrust and negative feelings held by many Russians, any resulting dissent is potently dulled by a paralyzing apathy brought on by the overwhelming task of convincing more than a couple people of anything amid the ceaseless swirl of competing ideas, conspiracies, controversies, and “news.” When everyone is urged to “question more,” there will always be a shaky detail that can eventually be unearthed to destroy the credibility of an entire narrative and send things back to square one.
If reading any of this feels a bit familiar in 2021 America, that is no accident either. Putin began exporting this approach to social manipulation in earnest during the 2016 Election, and the boisterous, grievance-driven Presidency of an erratic, constantly gaslighting reality TV star could not have been a better vehicle to give it fertile ground. We are currently in the midst of a major shift in how America operates. While some may console themselves that the bogeyman is gone now that a reasonable human being is President, such self-reassurance is like a survivor treading water in the ocean who feels relief at a shark that was successfully driven off. The problem wasn’t that shark, or even the twenty others circling unseen below the surface. The problem is that we are adrift in dangerous waters, and until that issue is addressed, the sharks will keep coming.
Pomerantsev closes his first book with a brief look at how Russia’s wealthy have chosen to preserve their riches through purchases of such concrete items as real estate in stable countries like the UK and United States, away from the greedy claws of the lawless government of Russia.
This ending is a good segue into Pomerantsev’s next book, 2019’s “This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.” This book expands on the ideas in “Nothing is True” to look at how the use of social media, real-world actions, and astroturf campaigns – sometimes coordinated using tactics similar to Putin’s/Surkov’s – have recently enabled right-wing strong men to come into power in country after country worldwide: Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Donald Trump in the United States. In a sea of uncertainty and confusion, a strong leader with clear, simple answers seems to provide welcome comfort to some.
The strategic magnification of select ideas and stories by bots, cyborgs (bots accompanied by real people paid to follow up with a human touch on any one-on-one responses) and anonymous internet trolls has resulted in a new means of dealing with undesirable truths and ideologies. Activists and journalists are finding themselves individually targeted with threats of murder, rape, or other violence – not by an oppressive government, but by their fellow citizens inspired by manipulation on social media and elsewhere. Even friends and family begin spouting hostile content that has been amplified to them by bots. More disturbing still are the people who carry things one step further into the real world, harassing these dissidents and reporters with frightening phone calls, knocks at the door, and even escalations to actual violence.
Pomerantsev talks with some of the individuals who create these types of campaigns, as well as those on the receiving end. The most fascinating part is Pomerantsev’s synthesizing of disparate events to uncover patterns that are invaluable to understand – how an online campaign against an individual evolves, how the use of bots can effectively turn activists away from their crucial interconnectedness and collapse otherwise potent social and political movements, how something as benign as an online group formed around a shared interest in yoga can ultimately be used to install a brutal dictator. In the end, understanding these dynamics is the key to combating them.
Both of Pomerantsev’s books profoundly illuminate the new social, cultural, interpersonal, political, technological, and media waters that we find ourselves in today. The old paradigms of left vs right, or even powerful vs oppressed, no longer apply in the way that they once did, and Pomerantsev provides a useful nautical map to reorient ourselves and remind us of our moorings as we slip further out to sea. I highly recommend reading both books, in order.
– rob rünt
Photo of Bolsonaro taken by: Palácio do Planalto
Photo of Putin from: http://www.kremlin.ru
Photo of Trump by: Gage Skidmore
Photo of Erdogan from: the official website of the President of Ukraine