On Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, Peter Pomerantsev joined in conversation with Dr. Svet Derderyan on Russian efforts to amplify disinformation and undermine democracy. Here are the Claire’s key takeaways from the program.
- The internet era has resulted in “information abundance” to borrow a phrase from Peter Pomerantsev’s latest book, “This is Not Propaganda.” However, illiberal, autocratic regimes have exploited this situation and flooded adversaries and opposition with disinformation.
- Pomerantsev was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and his family immigrated to the UK when he was very young. Years later he went to Russia as an adult to study film. This was in the early Putin years and what he noticed was a new form of propaganda emerging. Unlike during the Soviet era, when propaganda celebrated the Soviet system, the new effort attempts to eradicate the notion of truth. The new message is that all truth is at best unknowable but more likely corrupt. Everything is manipulation and conspiracy. There is no idea of a future. Everything was nostalgia.
- Pomerantsev elaborated on the concept of “disinformation.” Today’s disinformation campaigns exploit the vacuum resulting from the loss of traditional gatekeepers that existed prior to the proliferation of social media. However, he stressed that there was nothing new about disinformation, citing the famous example of the Trojan Horse. It has always been a part of statecraft. What is new is the scalability unimaginable prior to now. Hundreds of thousands of fake accounts cause tremendous distortion.
- Russia may have been a pioneer, but other states have quickly caught on. These efforts transpire in a grey zone short of actual hostilities making them difficult to respond to. These efforts can also have knock-on effects that amplify the initial disinformation effort but still make punishing the perpetrator problematic. He provided the example of Russia taking Estonia off-line, which in turn resulted in riots around traditional ethnic cleavages.
- Large, mature Democracies are especially vulnerable to these attacks due in part to a reluctance to take disinformation campaigns seriously as threats. States in possession of large militaries in countries such as the United States often derive a false sense of invulnerability.
- The power of perception was another important point Pomerantsev made. In the Putin era, 75 percent of the effort is information, 25 percent is repression–this ratio was the opposite during the Soviet era. For example, Putin does not have to put all the oligarchs in jail, or even most of them, he only has to put one in jail. This provides the perception of strength.
- Given this formidable challenge, moderator Svet Derderyan asked Pomerantsev what was to be done. Some suggestions include algorithmic accountability which entails transparency around how these platforms operate. One person = one voice online. “E” courts to adjudicate disputes.