It’s interesting to witness somebody backtracking from a long-held opinion without actually admitting it. This thought came to mind when reading an article by Peter Pomerantsev in this week’s New Statesman reviewing David Patrikarakos’ book War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. For some time now, Pomerantsev has been propagandizing (I use the word advisedly) the idea that Russia is waging ‘information war’ against the West. This was the primary theme of a report he wrote with Michael Weiss called The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, as well as of a report he co-authored with Ed Lucas, Winning the Information War: Techniques and Counter-Strategies to Russian Propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe. In his New Statesman article, however, he takes a somewhat different stance.
Pomerantsev comments that he has been researching what he calls ‘foreign (dis)information operations during the German election.’ He remarks that his research showed that,
The campaigns came from all sorts of places. The German-language arm of Kremlin state broadcaster Sputnik was blatantly biased towards the anti-immigrant, far-right Alternative für Deutschland party. Pro-AfD (and most likely German) automated Twitter accounts would avidly retweet Sputnik stories
Contained within this statement is an interesting admission – Twitter accounts promoting the AfD weren’t Russian, it seems; they were ‘most likely German.’ The fact that they may have posted links to Sputnik doesn’t constitute ‘Russian interference’ in the German election. But it turns out that it wasn’t just Germans who were interesting in affecting the outcome of the German election and in promoting the AfD. Pomerantsev continues:
There were also US and European alt-right activists who congregated on the message board 4chan, and more obscure sites such as Discord, to create “meme factories”, partnering with German far-right movements to hijack Twitter hashtags.
So, it turns out that the foreign forces trying to influence German politics were a) American, and b) European. Given the large number of headlines we have seen in the press about ‘Russian interference’ in the German election, this is quite interesting. What we have is not a situation in which everybody in the world is minding their own business apart from the Russians, but one in which people from all over the place are getting involved and trying to influence people in other countries. Pomerantsev thus notes that in his book David Patrikarakos argues that, ‘No longer can we talk of one nation battling another through propaganda: the field is now swarming with individual actors, each a little propaganda state in their own right.’ Pomerantsev concludes:
By the end of our research it was clear that one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of ‘foreign’ information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space. Instead, one has transnational, ever-shifting networks of toxic speech and disinformation, including both state and non-state actors. These can operate for financial, ideological or simply personal reasons, allying and mutually reinforcing one another to pursue quite different agendas.
Coming from Pomerantsev, this is quite remarkable. After spending the past few years trying to convince us that the problem is information operations conducted by the Russian state against the West, he’s now telling us that, ‘one can’t really talk, as one could during the Cold War, of ‘foreign’ information operations launched against a coherent domestic news space.’ That’s very different.
Pomerantsev doesn’t like what’s going on. The anarchy of the digital information space means that there are lots of ideas out there that he disagrees with, as well as a lot of false information. Something must be done, he seems to be saying. At the same time, Pomerantsev suggests that this messy situation is in some way new, or at least that that is what Patrikarakos claims in his book. But is it really? Non-state actors have been spreading revolutionary messages, trying to discredit their own and other countries, propagating dubious ideas, and distributing downright falsehood for a very long time indeed. If Pomerantsev had been writing 100 or 200 years ago, he’d have no doubt been complaining about how it was far too easy for dodgy states and non-state actors to wage ‘information war’ by means of the printed word, how the declining cost of printing was allowing all and sundry to publish dangerous tracts which undermined Western democracy and subverted our security, and the like. In my opinion, all this talk of ‘hybrid war’ and so on as something new, is so much nonsense. Digital media have made it easier to spread messages faster and wider, but in essence nobody is doing anything different from they’ve done heretofore.
The world is a messy place. Pomerantsev is right about that. That said, I don’t think that messy is bad; diversity of opinions, including that of outsiders, and a clash of narratives and perspectives, is probably healthy. I also have sufficient confidence in the strength of our Western societies not to think that we need to be afraid of people propagating views we dislike on Twitter. Moreover, if what’s really going on is that every man and his dog from every country in the world is piling into political debates, then that’s far removed from the idea that the real problem is ‘Russian information warfare’. It would be good if Pomerantsev admitted it.