Book Review: ‘This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality’ by Peter Pomerantsev (Faber & Faber, 2019)

Review by Daniel Espinosa

Since democratic governments traditionally deny taking part in information warfare, their propagandists first ascribe its practice to authoritarian governments and, when needed, present their own propaganda as an unavoidable response to their aggression. In other words, when democratic governments engage in propaganda, it’s always “counterpropaganda”.  

The abrupt and rather artificial popularization of the concept of fake news, in late 2016, is a good example of this strategy. The term was used to warn citizens of the Western world about alleged foreign disinformation techniques being deployed against them. As part of a psychological operation itself, the seemingly novel fake newsphenomenon was narrowly defined to suit the information warfare needs of the American and European establishments.

At the same time, the term fake news hinders any meaningful understanding of propaganda, which values information –whether it’s true or false– for the effect it can cause on its victims. 

Peter Pomerantsev’s This is Not Propaganda gives momentum to the fake news narrative by obscuring the century-old history of modern propaganda and information warfare –with all of its depth and richness– to draw a superficial image of its practice and techniques, always presenting it as something they do. This seems to be the central thesis behind Pomerantsev’s This is Not Propaganda: today, because of the rise of social media, anyone with an internet connection can engage in propaganda and information warfare with astonishing results. 

Although the author closes his preface by mentioning Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, throughout his book he leaves out one of his basic teachings: the fact that propaganda is not the work of inspired manipulators, improvising covert methods to direct the behavior of the masses, but instead a highly scientific endeavor in which the propagandists must strictly follow a well-stablished doctrine and a set of systematically researched techniques. 

This is knowledge that Pomerantsev isn´t sharing with his readers in his concise and entertaining book. In recent years, the author –a young but already widely celebrated scholar in the field of information manipulation– became a senior fellow at prestigious research centers belonging to Johns Hopkins University and the London School of Economics. Before that, he worked as a TV producer both in Russia and the UK. As his profile at the John Hopkins University Agora Institute’s website explains, Pomerantsev is frequently asked to hold seminars at NATO, the EU, the UK FCO, the German foreign office, and the U. S. State Department, where he offers advice in matters of policy. 

In the first chapter of This is Not Propaganda, “Cities of Trolls”, we are presented with ‘P’, a young man from the Philippines, who brags about “getting a president elected” single- handedly. In an interview conducted in a mall in the city of Manila, ‘P’ tells Pomerantsev about the happiness he feels when able “to control other people” (p. 15). “He began his online career at the age of fifteen”, Pomerantsev explains. After a few years setting up and managing various Facebook pages about anything and everything, the young man amassed 15 million followers and decided to turn to politics: “What if you could shape the whole conversation through social media?”, the author asks, putting himself inside ‘P’s mind. 

But “shaping the whole conversation” is what teams of professional propagandists have been doing for more than a hundred years, through any and all kinds of media, for authoritarian and democratic governments alike. Pomerantsev not only paints the whole thing as a new and revolutionary practice –since almost no historical background is offered–, but also takes it outside of the realm of well-funded government propaganda agencies, presenting it as something any astute teenager can improvise with the help of an internet connection.  

In that sense, This is Not Propaganda is not a book intended for specialized audiences, as any serious student or scholar of propaganda would laugh in disbelief when Pomerantsev explains how the anonymous ‘P’ got Rodrigo Duterte elected, in May 2016, by creating tens of social media accounts centered on denouncing drug-related crimes, thus making it “a hot topic” and putting Duterte –known for being a hardliner on the subject– ahead in the polls (p. 17).  

“Now (P) sees any number of PR people taking credit for Duterte, and it riles him”, the author explains. 

Pomerantsev precedes every chapter with a short memoir, consisting of real-life anecdotes about KGB officers persecuting his parents in 1970’s Ukraine. They emigrated to the West when he was a small child. There’s little we can point out regarding their lives under Soviet watch but, after getting to the United Kingdom, both of the author’s parents were swiftly recruited by the Anglo-American propaganda apparatus, and specifically by the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, the BBC Russian Service, and other state-subordinated media (p. 82). Far from regarding their jobs as involving propaganda, a term Pomerantsev dislikes (p. 9), the memoir segments of the book present them as freedom of speech heroes.

This sort of whitewashing is another fundamental feature of the sarcastically titled This is Not Propaganda. Throughout its chapters, Pomerantsev travels around the world interviewing an assortment of “freedom fighters”, but even a superficial analysis of their identities exposes some of them as working in the service of Anglo-American foreign policy. Sdrja Popovic, presented as a promoter of “people-powered revolutions”, is a good example. As Pomerantsev interviews him in his office in New Belgrade, Popovic coincidentally receives a phone call warning him about the imminent release of a newspaper article claiming he’s a CIA operative organizing revolutions in the Middle East (p. 49). 

That’s how the author tries to anticipate and dispel any suspicions about his interviewee since a cursory Wikipedia search would tell his readers about Popovic’s business ties to Stratfor, an American private intelligence firm. A deeper look into that information, released by WikiLeaks in November 2013, explains how, according to Stratfor, Popovic’s CANVAS organization could provide the firm contacts with “troublemakers around the world”. Another leaked email explains how CANVAS’ “strongest allies are Freedom House and the Albert Einstein Institute, and, through them, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State”. As if that wasn’t enough, one of Popovic’s colleagues in CANVAS, the same Stratfor email also explain, once stated that Otpor –the NGO where CANVAS originated– “did receive CIA funding”. 

Despite writing This is Not Propaganda many years after the release of those secret Stratfor emails by WikiLeaks, Pomerantsev omits them and instead explains how the upcoming press article tying Popovic to the Western intelligence apparatus responds to the fact that “…conspiracy theories sell” (p. 49).  

The title of a chapter related to Maidan, “The Most Amazing Information Warfare Blitzkrieg in History”, is a direct quote taken from NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, who denounced any dissident views surrounding the Maidan coup d’etat (2014), as “Russian disinformation” (p.  86). 

But regarding our side as democratic and morally superior, while painting the enemy in darker colors, would be far from new. What Pomerantsev adds to this rhetoric is the idea that today, thanks to social media, anyone –like “Tetyana”, an anonymous Ukrainian activist– can fabricate a revolution by pressing a few keys (p. 91). “Sitting in her father’s apartment, in her pajamas –Pomerantsev explains–, she had her hand over a keyboard, knowing that if she pressed one key, she might send very real people to a very real death, and if she pressed another the revolution and all that she, her friends and thousands of others had fought for, might be lost”.

That’s exactly how This is Not Propaganda takes information warfare and psychological coercion out of the hands of powerful and well-funded state bureaucracies –hiding their traditional propagandistic role–, and into the hands of teenage boys and girls sitting in their parents’ houses, but armed with internet connections. The result is a narrative where Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube –open to anyone, but out of reach for corporate news gatekeepers– need to be heavily “regulated” (very often a euphemism for censorship), otherwise “the future of democracy is at stake”. 

In conclusion, it would be fair to say that we can see the consequences of the discourse of This is Not Propaganda –probably written thinking of policy-makers as its main target– in the widespread internet censorship being carried out over recent years by Western “liberal” governments, with the UK at the helm.