Review: ‘This Is Not Propaganda’ by Peter Pomerantsev

Too much information is a bad thing

A boy inspects a billboard showing Vladimir Putin and a t-shirt that reads: "I'm a friend of Putin" at Victory Park / Getty Images

I really wanted to like Peter Pomerantsev's new book, This Is Not Propaganda. His columns in the LRB, the Guardian, and the American Interest (where I was once a staff writer) are almost always incisive and absorbing. And his first book, Nothing Is True and Everything is Possible, established him as a clearheaded capturer of the mind-fogging milieu of Putin Era Russia. So it was a relief to find his sophomore effort is not a failure by any standard. And its thesis, that "the [muddy, surreal, fact-immune] future arrived first in Russia" but is now expanding around the world, has the signal advantage of being correct.

At the beginning of each section, Pomerantsev communes to artful effect with his Ukrainian Soviet dissident father Igor, once taken by the KGB and, uh, enhancedly interrogated for reading and distributing the wrong books. Now, he shows, the nefarious forces of the world are using the opposite of the KGB's tactic for the same purposes: Instead of censoring and banning access to everything except the officially approved information, it floods the world with so many confusing, countervailing, false, and provocative claims that trying to get a hold on the truth becomes exhausting, if not impossible.

The Russian misinformationscape Pomerantsev described in his first book was, he had thought, "a sideshow, a curio pickled in its own agonies." But now, after moving back to the West, "the Russia I had known seemed all around me: a radical relativism that implies truth is unknowable, the future dissolving into nasty nostalgia, conspiracy replacing ideology, facts equated to fibs, conversation collapsing into mutual accusations that every argument is just information warfare, and the sense that everything under one's feet is constantly moving, inherently unstable, liquid."

This book, then, is solid and the things it says are true. But it doesn't get to its thesis until page 171 (of 203). Until then, Pomerantsev roves around poking at the question of what will happen to the globalized world when it gets too much of what open-society liberals fought for: the free flow of information. His diagnosis is that the information overabundance creates a muddle of so much fact and bunk and confounding nonsense that it might be more effective at keeping people from ascertaining the truth than censorious secret police of yesteryear could have dreamed.

Where the old model of censorship left the citizen without access to informational running water, the new regimes install plumbing everywhere. But the pressure in the pipes is way too high, and they spew factual sewage from every valve and joint. Everything is left covered in s—t.

Which raises the most glaring omission from this book. Pomerantsev never gives us so much as a working definition of "propaganda," nor does he explore what made the world so ripe for the trollish exploitation and information overload he chronicles so vividly. "Every time you post or tweet, or just repost or retweet, you become a little propaganda machine. In this new information flux, everyone has to find their own boundaries," he writes, meditating on one Ukrainian activist's dilemma. He also touches on the idea that the abuse of language, not just the Internet, is one of the things most responsible for muddying everything up. But he barely pulls that Orwellian thread.

Orwell, writing on the moralizing character of Dickens, was willing to concede that all art is propaganda. It's a question of degree, and it's up to the consumer to view things skeptically enough to understand this. Pomerantsev often takes for granted that there's a meaningful distinction between propaganda and non-propaganda, and that not every political tactic is a "political technology" (as the dark-artists of Putinist PR might term it). Perhaps he's right—it sure would have been a rich vein to explore in this book.

The book is self-consciously global. It jumps dizzyingly from Manila to London to Aleppo like a spy novel. But while deep reporting from around the world is rarely a bad thing, here it is a distraction to get so many pages on the frozen conflict in Donbass or the Syrian civil war and relatively few on how the lack of clear information enables them. Pomerantsev is crazy smart, and the best passages come when he has the confidence to just think out loud—not when he takes too much time to colorfully fill out pages with the story of a Serbian dissident-trainer teaching his Milosevic-toppling playbook to Egyptians in the Arab Spring, or of a Syrian cameraman trying desperately to give the world a narrative of White Helmet medics being murdered by Assad. He's better on Russia, America, and England than elsewhere because despite a deep general knowledge of geopolitical events, those are the places he knows best.

Similarly, his discussions of the actual tools of PsyOps and cyber-manipulation can be fascinating, and Pomerantsev does give us characters who wield them. But his book is weakest when his voice is quietest, such as when he cites Freedom House or quotes a Mexican troll to credentialize his claims. In general, he's far too credulous of the expert industrial complex and the QUANGOsphere and the people who use Putin-esque tactics to counter Putin-esque powers. If he wants to equate Donald Trump to Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin, he should just say that Trump sets off his anti-authoritarian spideysense and that he trusts his own two eyes, rather than try to appeal to citation like it's a technical matter.

Samuel Johnson once proffered what may be the most brutal burn of a book ever: "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good." This Is Not Propaganda does not have this problem. The more impressionistic and analytic—the more original—Pomerantsev is in a given section, the better the book is for it. But when he leans on outside authority and narrative, it isn't so good.

Ultimately, Pomerantsev doesn't take a stance on whether truth actually has power or only that it should. That's a shame, because there's a lot of propaganda and disinformation out there, and we need smart people who understand how and why bulls—t artists operate so successfully now. Pomerantsev is just such a person, but he seems to have lost his confidence here. After reading his broad, timely, competent, and charming book, I still don't really know what he thinks.