Adventures in the war against reality: a veteran expert reports from the frontline

Written by Naja Bentzen,

EPRS Book talk - ' This is not propaganda, adventures in the war against reality 'How should democracies respond to disinformation, without compromising freedom of expression? This question preoccupied policy-makers in and beyond Europe in the previous policy cycle and will continue to dominate the debate in Brussels in the new legislature.

Against this backdrop, the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) invited Peter Pomerantsev – a renowned, seasoned expert on information disruption; Director of the Arena Initiative; Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics; and Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University – to speak about disinformation at the EPRS Reading Room on Thursday, 23 January 2020. Pomerantsev’s first book, ‘Nothing is true and everything is possible‘, was published in 2014, at the beginning of the Parliament’s 8th legislature. His most recent work, ‘This is not propaganda – adventures in the war against reality‘, was published in 2019, just ahead of the new legislature.

This first EPRS event on disinformation of the 9th legislature was an excellent opportunity to take stock of the EU’s response to online disinformation so far and at the same time to hear about Pomerantsev’s new book. Philipp Schulmeister, Head of the European Parliament’s Public Opinion Monitoring Unit, opened the event with a reminder that the war against reality, the undermining of trust in facts and in democracy itself – concerns the future of democracy and thus of the European Parliament itself.

EPRS Book talk - ' This is not propaganda, adventures in the war against reality 'Monika Nogaj, Head of the EPRS External Policies Unit who moderated the event, asked Pomerantsev to elaborate on the seemingly surrealist title of the new book ‘This is not propaganda’. Indeed, Pomerantsev explained that the title is a reference to Magritte’s painting ‘This is not a pipe’. The surrealist gap between word and meaning seems to have returned: in a world of ‘influence campaigns on steroids’, the words ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of expression’ are increasingly used in a way that is detached from their meaning.

Pomerantsev explained that the attempt to manipulate reality and make truth unknowable (which he experienced himself when he was working in Russia as a reality TV producer in 2001-2010 and captivatingly analysed in ‘Nothing is true and everything is possible’), has now spread to the rest of the world. In ‘This is not propaganda’, Pomerantsev analyses the different manifestations of emotional influence, disinformation and coercion in the rest of the world: the Philippines, Mexico and the Balkans. These frontlines involve technological and ideological players, as well as a change in culture: when nostalgia is more important than the future, when emotions trump facts – partly because they bring more revenue for online platforms – real information becomes secondary.

Building a bridge between the hotspots in Pomerantsev’s book and the political reality in Brussels, Naja Bentzen of EPRS pointed out that the awareness of disinformation in Brussels has increased significantly since Pomerantsev’s first book was published, coinciding with Russia’s hybrid war and information attacks against Ukraine in the wake of the pro-democratic and pro-EU Maidan revolution. The US Presidential elections and the Brexit referendum in 2016 increased the sense of urgency in Brussels, further exacerbated by the 2018 revelations that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising purposes. The EU’s response to disinformation has evolved accordingly. The first key milestone, the establishment of the East StratCom Task Force in 2015, consistently supported by the European Parliament, was followed by the launch of the EU’s European approach to online disinformation, which included a Code of Practice signed by the major online platforms in 2018. The European Commission’s final response to the behaviour of online platforms ahead of the European elections in May 2019 is expected this spring.

EPRS Book talk – ‘ This is not propaganda, adventures in the war against reality ‘

Against this backdrop, Pomerantsev elaborated on his expectations for the EU’s final response, on the likely ‘Brussels effect‘. Although Pomerantsev indicated that we cannot trust platforms to regulate themselves, banning microtargeting, as some suggest should be part of the response, is hardly feasible or practical, as we cannot sufficiently define the terms. Instead of focusing on content, Pomerantsev suggests focusing on behaviour and, more generally, increasing transparency. In addition, he proposes that a non-commercial public service internet, that rewards collaboration instead of attention-seeking behaviour, should be created.

The phrase ‘knowledge is power’ can mean very different things. In authoritarian systems, ‘knowledge is power’ means controlling access to information and suppressing public debate. For the tech industry, ‘knowledge is power’ can mean controlling access to our data and monetising the public debate. In an open democracy, we multiply power by sharing knowledge; this is the key mission of the European Parliamentary Research Service.

Pomerantsev’s first book was a source of inspiration in the debate in Brussels during the previous legislature. In sharing his knowledge and reports (with a spellbound audience), Pomerantsev has already enlightened the disinformation-related debate in the new policy cycle: empowering his audience of experts from EU institutions, as well as Members of the European Parliament such as Markéta Gregorová (Pirates, Czechia) and Ivars Ijabs (Renew, Latvia), to empower others to survive the war against reality.

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