Peter Pomerantsev. Photo: VoA
Voice of America’s Ani Chkhikvadze spoke with Peter Pomerantsev, journalist, analyst and author of “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.”
Your book was recently translated in the Georgian language, and is now available to the Georgian public. In the book you talk about disinformation, the image of Putin and how that plays on personal and political level in Russia. How was Putin’s image built?
Putin, well, he is sort of a TV hero. When he was first made Prime Minister, he was no one. The first thing he did when he came to power was to seize control of TV stations. It was very much like a TV project, where his image was constructed to be different things to different people. The female vote was incredibly important. Compared to drunken Yeltsin, he was a young guy who could walk a straight line, and it was a big advantage. Actually, the female vote was huge to get him into power, compared to the old Luzhkov. A lot of the disinformation was about how old they were, how physically impaired they were, and he was a strong guy. Then he played to the army vote: one of the first things he does at that point is dress up as an army guy and go down to the front in Chechnya. And then for the West he dressed up in suits. He acted like a gangster. Though, I am not sure it is entirely fair to call him a gangster, he is something much worse, and he is a KGB operative. Gangsters have far more honor. But he certainly acts like one, because he has always known that was somebody people in Russia respect. So he walks like a gangster and talks like a gangster, and he sits like a gangster. He was quite adapted to playing all these different roles.
Who was in charge of Putin’s image? They often talk about Surkov.
The Putin regime is the coming together of two groups: the Siloviky and the Smisloviky, people who work on image, ideas, PR, and the KGB operatives. It is their coming together in a very potent mix which is what this regime is all about. PR people were already very important in Russia in the 1990s. It was a new industry, many talented people went into it, and one of them was Surkov, who was a wannabe theater director who became a PR guy, ended up working for Putin on his election campaign and then kind of became in charge of television and political parties. But there would have been a lot of other people as well.
To move to the Russian disinformation: what do you think, what is the main message of the Russian propaganda?
It is not about messages, it is instrumentalized. Information has to have an effect. It is not about winning arguments. It is about scaring people, building loyalty, undermining, causing divisions. The information does not have any ideological or intellectual value, it is meant to do something. It can pick up and use an ideology, so they can use Neo-Fascist, they can use Eurasianist when they need to, but it is always seen as a tool. It is not seen as something worth in itself.
Does Russian disinformation strategy differ in the post-Soviet space from the strategy in the West?
A lot of the ideas have been pioneered in the post-Soviet space. So, in a way, a lot of these things were experimented on in Ukraine and Georgia and other places, whether it is cyber-attacks, or trying to psychologically undermine a leader... A lot of that was pioneered in that space. We have to remember, I am sure Georgians do, that Putin did not turn imperialist recently. Russia was doing imperialist adventures in the early 1990s. You already had the war in Transnistria, the war in Abkhazia. Because this is what they do, it is what they think is normal. So they have been doing this continuously, it is just that in the 1990s they did not have the means or energy for it. The big difference is that in the post-Soviet space (I hate that term but okay, if we use it with caveats) they can play on very deep emotional bonds. I was quite shocked when I was in Georgia recently. I was up in the mountains at a skiing resort, and they had Russian TV on all the time, state Russian TV. I was like, “hold on, you guys were invaded recently by these guys.” And they were like “oh, we do not watch the news, but we like the shows.” And I think that until that is broken, I do not think that will ever mature and it is very unclear how you break that.
How does the Russian disinformation differ from Soviet propaganda?
The whole situation is different. Instead of a command and control system where everything was decided by 2-3 people and commands were very clear, now we have a network system, a little freelancing, hackers who are engaged in a short-term activity, and a lot of stuff done by proxies. So it is very hard to connect it back to a centralized core. You have different actors in and around the Kremlin, arranging their own information wars, and their own personal interests. You have a lot of improvisation, it is improvisational rather than a strict command and control state. In the Cold War, back then, you could fact-check what the Soviets were doing. You could talk about their conspiracies and tell the media about it. The State department can still do that here and they can persuade the Washington Post and the New York Times, but that will not help but a little bit. The media landscapes change so much that the solutions we have to look for have to be very, very different. The world has changed, really.
How can we fight against the disinformation and propaganda?
Well, there are two things, and I think we get them very confused. One is political warfare that Russia wages. Russia uses non-kinetic political warfare to attack other countries, undermine them, and get whatever it thinks it wants. We cannot really judge whether it is efficient because we do not really know what they want. If you want to respond to that, then you can use other non-kinetic tools. By non-kinetic I mean non-physical, not tanks. And there is a hell of a lot we can do. I think our weakest thing is in the information space, because we do not really do government propaganda the same way. When we do it, it is usually a disaster. We cannot weaponize the things that Russia weaponizes. We can crush them with sanctions and many other things. As to political warfare: if the West chooses to respond and so far, it has a little bit, but not a lot, it can do many things. I think information is the worst space for it to work in. That is the Russian strength. You would never take on the enemy with the weapon he feels comfortable with. We can destroy the Russian media system tomorrow if we wanted to, but no one does it. We can destroy their media tomorrow if somebody had the willpower. So this is a question of willpower, I do not think tweets will do it. The second thing is our domestic issues with democracy; trust towards the information, where Russia is unnoticeable, but in most countries a kind of a fringe player. Those issues we have to address as a society first, but we tend to get these two things confused, these are two slightly different things and they have to be thought of in different ways.
As far as I know, you were following the German elections and the impact of Russia’s disinformation actions there, what did you see?
In Germany, we have been monitoring the elections. What Russia has done is that they have capitalized on the fragmentation of the German media. There is a part of the German public who now lives in an alternative media reality, outside of the mainstream media, where they have their own German versions of the Breitbart, etc., and the Kremlin has implanted itself in that world. The stories they do, their bot-like accounts that push the right wing parties are also the ones who push the Kremlin media. It is impossible to say whom these automated accounts belong to, we do not know it. They have integrated themselves in this world, which means when they do need to push a message, they can push it. If you go on to alternative social media platforms, like Gab, which is like twitter without the rules, you will find whole discussion boards with far right, racists, sputnik, “we do not trust the elections,” they live in that world. Just like they live in the alt-right world here. It does not really matter that they do not have that many viewers, but they live inside of it, because in today’s world ratings are much less important than ecology. So they have implanted themselves in a network ecology. They can push their agendas in there, they can do favors, and they can return favors. They have a very good relationship; it is almost like public diplomacy, but with fascists.
Then there is the Russian language minority, which is huge, three to four million. We have been tracking the social media sites that are these huge groups from Odnoklassniki, which was a mixture of Russian news, anti-immigration, German far-right groups who share Russian stories. We noticed very strange behavior of people pushing stories very regularly in social media groups and Russian news. You will go mad looking for the hidden hand. The problem is that there is an ecology where this now has become normal, and there is an echo chamber where this is widespread. The Kremlin is very much embedded in it. So, the things to address in Germany are these very disturbing trends where whole blocks of society now live in an alternative universe, where the Kremlin can push its messages any time it wants. Those are the things to consider.
I think we look a lot of the time at these fun James Bond like operations, like “oh my god, they released the twitter trolls.” And, we found some Russian trolls. That is fun, they are great stories, they make great journalism, but they are really not necessarily that important. What is much more important is this long term formation and embedding within a very unhealthy ecosystem. You are only going to treat that by fixing from the German media, which is showing a lot of tendencies that we saw in American media and is also very complacent the way American media was. Those are the long term things to address, they are kind of not very sexy I am afraid. They actually involve real media thinking as opposed to sexy stories about hacks and leaks. Hacks and leaks can be very damaging, they can be incredibly effective, they are great stories, and they are definitely something that we need to think about how to deal with. But in a way they worry me less than these long term trends.
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