The First Ca­su­alty

India Today - - UPFRONT - Prasanto K. Roy is a pol­icy con­sul­tant and tech­nol­ogy writer By Prasanto K. Roy

The al­leys of Manila’s slums filled up with corpses. Bikers would shoot peo­ple and ride off. No one re­ally knows how many died in the Philip­pines’ bru­tal war on drugs since its vig­i­lante pres­i­dent, Ro­drigo Duterte, was elected in June 2016. Rights or­gan­i­sa­tions es­ti­mate 12,000; some politi­cians say 20,000.

One politi­cian who pushed back against the ex­tra-ju­di­cial killings found her­self on trial, with on­line mobs bay­ing for her blood. An arch­bishop con­demned the killings, and the on­line mobs turned on him too. Next it was the me­dia’s turn: the ‘pressti­tutes’ who dared to ac­cuse the pres­i­dent of mur­der.

Free­dom of speech ver­sus cen­sor­ship was a clearer con­flict in the 20th cen­tury, the for­mer of­ten tri­umph­ing. But what if those in power to­day were to use in­for­ma­tion over­flow to drown dis­senters, let fake news build on­line mobs and crush dis­sent, while al­ways leav­ing enough anonymity for de­ni­a­bil­ity?

That is what this su­perbly re­searched book is about. More in­for­ma­tion was sup­posed to mean more free­dom to stand up to the pow­er­ful, but it has also given those in power new ways to si­lence dis­sent, of­ten via proxy mobs and trolls. There is so much in­for­ma­tion, fake news and for­warded videos, that you don’t know what’s true any more.

The Soviet-born au­thor, Peter Pomer­ant­sev, fre­quently dips into fam­ily mem­oirs for con­trast. His father was in­ter­ro­gated re­peat­edly by the KGB, of­ten sim­ply for own­ing books. Then, the Soviet regime cen­sored and sti­fled in­for­ma­tion. To­day, the Krem­lin has adapted to the in­ter­net age. Troll farms in Rus­sia wield in­or­di­nate power over peo­ple near and far, in­clud­ing over US voters (as the 2016 elec­tion showed).

In his 2014 book, Noth­ing Is True

and Ev­ery­thing Is Pos­si­ble, Pomer­ant­sev, to­day a vis­it­ing fel­low at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, said that the ca­pac­ity to bend pub­lic per­cep­tion was a key part of Putin’s rule in Rus­sia. This 2019 se­quel shows the post-truth era at our doorstep: in democ­ra­cies world­wide.

Mex­i­can blog­ger Al­berto Es­cor­cia finds words that will get peo­ple talk­ing to each other on­line; he can ‘sum­mon up’ protests. In Bel­grade, dig­i­tal re­sis­tance guru Srdja Popovic can find com­mon fac­tors to unite sup­port­ers. Far-right move­ments find and use words such as Is­lam­i­fi­ca­tion, im­mi­grants, Mus­lim fer­til­ity.

Ob­ses­sively, the au­thor keeps turn­ing back to Rus­sia. Yet his in­sights span the 2019 world. ‘I see peo­ple I have known my whole life slip­ping away from me on so­cial me­dia, re­post­ing con­spir­a­cies from sources I have never heard of. In­ter­net un­der­cur­rents pull fam­i­lies apart…the al­go­rithms seem to know more about us than we do.’

In­dia ap­pears only once: In 2018, at a con­fer­ence in Rome, In­dian factcheck­ers told the au­thor about ef­forts to stop mur­der sprees by vig­i­lantes. Hindu na­tion­al­ists were spread­ing ru­mours on What­sApp about Mus­lims killing cows, eat­ing beef. Fa­nat­ics would then de­scend on the Mus­lims and lynch them.

Pomer­ant­sev ex­plores the wreck­age of lib­er­al­ism, search­ing for sparks of sense in ‘the dank cor­ners of the in­ter­net where trolls tor­ture their vic­tims’. He takes us from Soviet to mod­ern Rus­sia, from the Balkans to Latin Amer­ica and the EU, where we learn of the new meth­ods used to break re­sis­tance move­ments.

The sto­ries go back and forth, from dig­i­tal to real life and death. Take La Felina, who shared drug-vi­o­lence bul­letins on her Twit­ter han­dle, so cit­i­zens could be safe. Then a narco gang in Reynosa, Mex­ico, was in a shootout and one of their men was hit. To treat him, they kid­napped María del Rosario, a doc­tor. They checked her phone, and found La Felina’s ac­count. Dr del Rosario’s last two Twit­ter mes­sages had a photo of her look­ing into the cam­era, and then, ly­ing on the floor with her face blown off. They had live-tweeted her ex­e­cu­tion.

The world­wide war on re­al­ity is starkly out­lined in this deeply dis­turb­ing book. Pomer­ant­sev’s so­lu­tions are far less clear, though. That, per­haps, is an­other se­quel. ■

What if the pow­er­ful were to drown dis­senters in a sea of in­for­ma­tion, let fake news drive on­line mobs and crush dis­sent?

THIS IS NOT PRO­PA­GANDA Ad­ven­tures in the War Against Re­al­ity by Peter Pomer­ant­sev `314 (Kin­dle edi­tion)

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