Tag Archives: Peter Pomerantsev

Backtracking on Russian information warfare

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.

The hunters become the hunted

There are times when you think that the media in the English-speaking world can’t possible get any worse; that’s it’s finally plumbed the depths; that the ignorance and hysteria have become so great that it’s got to turn around soon. And then you read something which just makes you shake your head in despair, and ask. ‘Don’t these guys check anything? Don’t they know anything? Or do they just not care?’ We’re told to be endlessly on our guard about ‘fake news’ and disinformation flooding the internet from troll factories in St Petersburg and the editorial offices of RT, but are they really worse than the Daily Mail? Here’s today’s Mail on Sunday front page:


Continue reading The hunters become the hunted

Russian world-views

A couple of years ago I was pretty unkind about a report about Russia published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). This report was the product of a workshop CSIS had held on the subject. I wasn’t invited to the workshop, nor was I to another one which CSIS held recently, also on the subject of Russia. But I have been sent a copy of the report, entitled Russian World-Views: Domestic Power Play and Foreign Behaviour. You can read it online here.  It’s better than the last one, but I still have a few issues with it.

The report is a summary of the views expressed at the most recent workshop by four anonymous experts from Europe and North America (though, based on what they wrote, I’m pretty sure who some of them are). Because of this one shouldn’t read this document as representing CSIS’s official opinion, nor as that of the Government of Canada. It’s just what a bunch of people told CSIS. Still, it’s interesting in the sense that it gives one a flavour of the type of analysis that government officials receive.

Continue reading Russian world-views

Another shot in the propaganda war

In recent weeks, fear of ‘Russian propaganda’, ‘disinformation’, and ‘information warfare’ has reached somewhat hysterical proportions, as seen most clearly in the case of alleged links between Russian hackers and US presidential candidate Donald Trump. Yesterday, British information warriors Edward Lucas and Peter Pomerantsev joined in with a report published by the Center for European Policy Analysis entitled Winning the Information War: Techniques and Counter-strategies to Russian Propaganda in Central and Eastern Europe.

The report is pretty much standard Lucas/Pomerantsev fare: Russia, they write, ‘regards the post-1989 settlement of Europe as both deplorable and temporary. It sees democracies and open societies as a threat, because they may “infect” Russia with their ideas. It aims to undermine a rules-based multilateral security order in Europe that it regards as unfair and unsustainable.’ To this end Russia is using disinformation against the West, ‘overtly – through foreign-language television … and covertly, using notionally independent journalists, experts and commentators’. Moscow’s aim, say Lucas and Pomerantsev, is ‘not to convince or persuade, but rather to undermine. Instead of agitating audiences into action, it seeks to keep them hooked and distracted, passive and paranoid.’

The authors make a number of policy recommendations designed to counter this ‘Russian propaganda’. I don’t have space to go through all of them, so I will focus here on three which struck me as particularly disturbing.

First, Lucas and Pomerantsev propose what looks rather like censorship. ‘A strong regulator is key to ensuring broadcasters maintain journalistic standards’, they write. The authors praise a three-month ban imposed by the Lithuanian government on the TV channel RTR Planeta, adding that, ‘a strong case exists to create an international commission under the auspices of the Council of Europe that would evaluate channels for hate speech, disinformation and other faults.’ What these ‘other faults’ are is not defined, but in the case of RTR Planeta they included offences such as encouraging ‘discord and a military climate’ and inciting tension ‘against the EU and NATO states.’

Second, Lucas and Pomarentsev suggest the creation of what they call a ‘working group on historical and psychological trauma’ designed to counter the Russian narrative about Nazi collaborators in the Second World War. They explain that many in Ukraine and the Baltic states do not regard those who fought alongside the Germans as ‘fascists’. Lucas and Pomerantsev speak positively of the efforts of the Ukrainian government to reframe commemorations of the war to reflect ‘these mixed memories’, saying that such efforts ‘show how to use historical themes for a positive effect, helping heal divisions and move on from past traumas’. In essence, they are suggesting that governments promote the idea of a moral equivalence between those who fought against the Nazis and those who fought alongside them. Lucas and Pomerantsev clearly feel that the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany provides Russia with a historical propaganda tool, and that we should deprive Russia of that tool by rewriting history. This is a mistaken approach. They would be far better off resisting the sort of historical revisionism they propose and instead pressuring the Ukrainian government to stop directly and indirectly promoting collaborationist symbols. Were that to happen, it would become that much harder for Russians to complain of a fascist revival in Eastern Europe.

A third proposal in this report is perhaps even more bizarre. Citing efforts to deradicalize Islamic militants, Lucas and Pomerantsev write that, ‘Similar initiatives should be undertaken with radicalized, pro-Kremlin supporters, those on the far left and the far right, and Russian speakers.’ Are they suggesting anti-brainwashing programs for people who watch RT or read Russia Insider? I really don’t know what to make of this.

There is, of course, much more in this report, but most of it isn’t any better than this. Lucas and Pomerantsev seem to share the misperception by many politicians that it isn’t their policies which are wrong, it is just the way that they are communicated to the public. Clamp down on your opponent’s propaganda and improve your own, and all will be well. This approach may be emotionally satisfying, but it ignores the deeper reasons why people choose to disbelieve you and believe somebody else. At one point, Lucas and Pomerantsev mention a Russian-language Estonian TV channel which ‘focuses on town-hall and talk-show type programming to help disenfranchised audiences feel understood’. Perhaps if the Russian-speakers weren’t disenfranchised in the first place, this wouldn’t be necessary.