Peter Pomerantsev: "Whenever new technology appears, it leads to hellish lies and propaganda"
British writer and media expert on how media simulacra affect various audiences and why it is helpful to watch Ukrainian experience and mistakes in combating them
"Sitting in that smokey room, I had the sense that reality was somehow malleable, that I was with the Prosperos who could project any existence they wanted onto post-Soviet Russia," is how Pomerantsev recalled a brainstorming session at Moscow's Ostankino TV Centre in his book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, where Russian producers would decide how to depict the political agenda, who to attack and who to make the enemy of the week. Subsequently, these media simulacra surged across the Russian border, trying to make everyone think that "your government is just as bad as ours", that believing in something and fighting for it is ridiculous, because "we all know there will be no real politics".
The reaction to all kinds of similar media simulacra in Ukraine is particularly interesting: on the one hand, we have an audience that loves television and has a low level of media literacy, on the other hand – journalistic skills that have never been honed in a competitive environment. Instead, they enjoyed a relative freedom from liability for errors or distortions in reporting information. The Ukrainian Week spoke to Peter Pomerantsev about how these media simulacra affect various audiences and why it is helpful to systematise Ukrainian experience and mistakes in combating them.
People started actively talking about "information warfare" two years ago. At what stage is it at now, and how has the perception and understanding of it changed over this time?
There's no such thing as "information warfare". There is weaponised use of information in order to instil fear. Or to try and whip up Antimaidan protests in Kharkiv. But it's usually part of a single operation – a sequence of actions alongside economic measures, special forces and so on. Very often, the whole point of such information is to provoke a response. Many Ukrainian journalists try to play the role of information warriors, though this should be done by the security services in cooperation with spin-doctors and political strategists.
Is there any systematic discussion on the use of information as a weapon and possible countermeasures within, say, the EU or NATO?
They discuss it a lot, but don't know what to do about it. After all, what is information warfare? The use of information as a weapon. It's not about the message, ideology or even communication, but the need to disconcert people and sow fear among them. Tactically, it is used as part of a larger operation. For example, cyber and information attacks in addition to economic sanctions. Like Russia did against Estonia and the Chinese do against Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbouring countries. Several countries are thinking about this sort of military development strategy. They want to go up in the world and destabilise the American hegemony, but never start an official conflict, as they would be sure to lose. Their task is to put spokes in America's wheels or have more influence in their "near abroad" without causing conflict.
In this sense, NATO is absolutely helpless – it works well in places where there are tanks, official warfare and nuclear weapons. But when I ask NATO officials about these strange, non-physical attacks, they say that there's nothing they can do, although they, of course, deal with cyber-attacks in a fashion. It doesn't fit into their work and their idea of security. The EU, in turn, says that it's a security issue, so not its job either.
In the end, each country is left to its own devices. And this is a huge conceptual problem. There's absolutely no understanding on how to deal with "soft power" attacks. In Russia, the Presidential Administration decides everything, so it's very easy for them to use various tools. They can link all departments of the state into one. Whereas in the West, this is very difficult, because everything is done in separate blocks and it is unclear whether the military should be dealing with information issues. In other words, the big problem is institutional.
Recently, Latvia, the Netherlands, the UK and some other countries asked us experts to put together a recommendatory plan on how best to support independent Russian media. But I don't think that any of these recommendations will be taken on in the near future. The main thing that we suggested was to create a Russian news agency, a content factory that would produce specific types of programmes. But, as the project needs to be financed, countries would have to combine their funds. And that won't happen. Given that each group of officials must prove that their money has been properly spent, no one wants to pool their money and lose control like this. The difficulties are caused by bureaucratic logic. So far, I see no real will to join forces. There will be some support for various projects, but everyone will most likely continue to operate separately.
At the same time, it would be undesirable for these countries – you mentioned "information warfare" and so on – to see Russia as an enemy. Now, it's rather a partner with which cooperation has been temporarily suspended. The vision of Russia as a geostrategic enemy is not yet the official policy of any large country. For now, everyone is very mad at Russia, but it has the chance to become a partner once again. It seems that efforts are being directed towards normalising relations, not worsening them.
How effective is creating relatively unbiased Russian-language content as a response? After all, Russian speakers already have access to a wide variety of sources, but the issue is that they only trust what is made by Russia...
This is one of many levers. There are other factors too. People in Estonia and Latvia, for example, have a better quality of life than in Russia, so the argument that the latter is richer and better doesn't work on them. But it does for people in Donbas. They think they'll go back to Russia and it will pay them pensions and all the rest. Russia, of course, can play on the fact that Russian-speaking communities in the Baltic States don't feel like a part of society. For them, broadcasting is one of the mechanisms that can contribute to the consolidation of society. The Latvians and Estonians, of course, won't be able to make TV series as spectacular as the Russian ones – it all comes down to money. But the Russians have almost no programmes about real life: documentaries, reality shows, lifestyle TV. When, for example, Latvia shows local news from and about a particular region, the ratings are three to four times higher than usual. Meaning that if you make Russian-language programmes at a micro-level for people from, say, Narva, they'll be eagerly watched.
How, in your opinion, is the media space in Ukraine changing under the influence of propaganda and the need to resist it?
There isn't one. As I understand, the TV channels here are unprofitable. In that case, they're tools for oligarchs to sling mud at each other and spread disinformation. There are some small hubs, such as Hromadske, but they're too niche and need to expand. The idea of public broadcasting is a good one, but who knows what theend result will be.
Incidentally, one subdivision of information warfare is the war against information, or the use of information to wreak havoc. Here, journalists can play a very important role by defending truth and reality. This is their great responsibility – confusion only reinforces Russian positions.
For example, after the crisis in Odesa on May 2, 2014, journalists could have come together and organised their own public investigation. It was of great importance to establish the facts, so the city could move on. This is always very essential and beneficial for society. Even in Russia, where there's a generally bad situation, the idea of the truth remains – in business publications such as RBK or Vedomosti. They are oriented towards business, which really needs facts. At this critical time, Odesa needed facts to live with itself. Of course, this isn't a panacea – some people would still believe the rumours and think that Tymoshenko or Obama personally set the Odesa trade unions building on fire. Still, at the end of the day, consensus is extremely important in critical moments. It's not even an issue of morality, but survival. If Ukraine is to survive as a unified state, it needs a unified reality to conduct public discussion.
How possible is it to have a unified conceptual and factual framework when the internet and social networks exist?
It's very possible that VladislavSurkov (currently Vladimir Putin's personal advisor on issues of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ukraine – Ed.) is right: there will be no such thing as truth in the future and we will live in the 21stcentury of chaos. There will be only disorder and tactical victories. A lot of things will fall apart. I think this is one of the main points of tension in the world now. Not the war between the "Russian world" and European values – that's just Russian propaganda. But the juxtaposition of the cult of misinformation, cynicism and ideas of philosophical positivism with realism. This is being played out not only here, but also in Western universities, where postmodernists are saying that facts don't exist, only interpretations, while new realists urge us to agree on at least some common facts. We don't have the answer yet.
Intelligence agencies are taking notice, and both philosophers and media are thinking about this. But I wouldn't say that there's one common solution. That's exactly why Ukraine's know-how is very important. You're experimenting with these issues because your survival is at stake. Different experiences, especially negative, are very important. That's why, by the way, I don't really believe people that come over from the West and start lecturing the Ukrainians. Because right now, Ukraine knows better than anyone else what works and what doesn't.
Actually, whenever new technology appears, it always leads to hellish lies and propaganda. In principle, the horrors of the 20thcentury – Nazism and Communism – were born with new media: radio and cinema. With new propaganda came new wars. Only after them did people agree on a common truth. Maybe we should expect some big clashes too. The media plays a very negative role in this regard. We should prepare for the worst.
Representatives of Western armies have said that the Ukrainian experience of hybrid warfare could eventually prove useful to others. Can the same be said of experience gained in the media environment, which has also become part of the battlefield this war is fought on?
I think that Ukraine is at the forefront. The problem when there isn't a single reality, but there are loads of media outlets is starting to become evident even in more or less stable countries such as Britain. After all, there was always the good old BBC, which created a single common reality. All our newspapers, which are really bitchy, fought among themselves, but around this reality. There was one set of facts. Now this is falling apart, even in the UK, because, among others, Pakistani, Polish and Russian media realities are forming. The unity has collapsed. Not everyone watches the BBC any more. Therefore, it's an important issue in both England and Ukraine, although traditions are stronger in England.
I think a more active approach to information is necessary here. The same thing that was needed in Odesa: to build a community of truth and agree with each other. Not just the media, but news outlets, volunteers, politicians and everyone else working together to establish a framework for discussion and a framework for reality. To do this, you need to take a more active attitude towards the process.