The First Casualty
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)