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  • Dan Connors

This is not propaganda- book review

This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality

Lies, especially lies meant to change public opinion, have always been with us. In the old days before the internet, authoritarian governments took over newspapers, radio, and television stations to broadcast their version of reality. Sometimes a simple paper flyer was left at people's doorsteps in a vain hope that they would be read and believed. There has always been a huge market for lies in the service of politicians and their parties.

Today, with 24/7 access to news feeds and information networks all over the world, the propaganda game has gone into overdrive and the stakes couldn't be any larger. Where in the past half-truths and censorship were enough, now full-blown lies and conspiracy theories are out there in the open to scare the crap out of people and make them angry. Shadowy groups are now trolling internet message feeds and discussions, planting whatever stories they want to make their side look good and the other side look bad. It doesn't seem to matter anymore whether the claims are true, just that they grab eyeballs and are remotely believable.

Peter Pomerantsev is a television producer and writer who spent time in both Moscow and London, and he delivers a first-hand and very personal look into the business of fake news and persuasion. The author contacted and visited some of the people on the front lines in the information war, and it makes me wonder if the US should spend more of its $600 billion defense budget here than on the latest fighter jets.

The book starts with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and how he went from an anti-war drug campaign to become an authoritarian president comfortable with wielding troll power over his enemies. Maria Ressa, just featured on 60 minutes this month, is the voice of this chapter as a crusading journalist who has been threatened with death by fake bot accounts, and harassed and arrested because of her stories on Duterte. Somehow the Philippines became linked with troll farms in Russia, and the book details a fascinating behind the scenes story of one of them from a person who worked there and then went to the press about what happened there.

Pomerantsev interviews pro-democracy activists in Serbia and Mexico, skinheads in Germany, and old colleagues in London to present this familiar and depressing story of manipulation and deception. His chapter, "The Greatest Information Blitzkrieg in History" details the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and how much of the war was fought online using stories and video that masked and distorted what was actually happening. The story of Aleppo, a city in Syria that was bombed with hundreds of thousands of casualties, is detailed in sad detail. Even with compelling video of the atrocities there, no one was able to intervene, partially because of disinformation campaigns. The book finishes in China, where the government controls most information getting into the country, and how dissidents are still being treated terribly while their treatment is invisible.

There are so many parallels between what this book details and what we've noticed here in the US. Vladimir Putin arrived on the scene in 2000 and has been at the forefront of the information war there and now around the globe. Other authoritarians have followed his lead in Hungary, Brazil, Turkey and around the globe to win hearts and minds.

There is a new belief in politics today of radical relativism. Facts don't matter today, partially because many have lost hope and facing the unpleasantness of that reality is too much. So they gleefully deny reality in the hopes that some savior can rescue them from what is. Conspiracies replace ideology, thoughts of the future turn backwards instead to nostalgia about the past, and media is now used to confuse, dismay, divide and delay rational thought so that in the middle of the chaos strong leaders can emerge and claim virtual godhood.

Pomerantsev doesn't go there, but a lot of this could be fixed by the big tech companies like Facebook, You Tube, and Twitter. Fake accounts make up a significant portion of profiles today, and most of them churn out garbage. These companies make money by keeping us engaged on their platforms, even if we do it gobbling up destructive lies. I'm no tech genius, but there has to be an easier way to catch these creeps before they amass millions of fans. The public needs to put more pressure on them. And based on what this book says, we need to be constantly on guard for the agendas of those who want to spread chaos and mischief so that they get what they want from us- money, power, and obedience.

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