"Quotable: Peter Pomerantsev’s dark analysis of a “post-fact” world," publicdiplomacycouncil.org
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Sunday, August 28th 2016
“I remember facts seemed to be terribly important during the Cold War,” wrote Legatum Institute senior fellow Peter Pomerantsev in a dark July 20, 2016, article, “Why We’re Post-Fact,” in Granta: The Magazine of New Writing. “Both Soviet Communists and Western Democratic Capitalists relied on facts to prove their ideology was right. The Communists especially cooked the books – but in the end they lost because they couldn’t make their case any longer. When they were caught lying they acted outraged. It was important to be seen as accurate.”
That was then. Now is now. Pomerantsev senses changes in basic thinking and how they bear on Public Diplomacy and strategic communication. Practitioners need to be aware, for instance, of the “equaling out of truth and falsehood,” “disinformation cascades, “techno-fantasies,” and “digital wildfires.” Here are some highlights of his article:
- As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin went on TV and, with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. He wasn’t lying so much as saying the truth doesn’t matter. And when Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate – then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free.
- . . . the information age allows lies to spread in what techies call ‘digital wildfires’. By the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more have been created, and the sheer volume of ‘disinformation cascades’ make unreality unstoppable. All that matters is that the lie is clickable, and what determines that is how it feeds into people’s existing prejudices. Algorithms developed by companies such as Google and Facebook are based around your previous searches and clicks, so with every search and every click you find your own biases confirmed. Social media, now the primary news source for most Americans, leads us into echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not.
- Technology might have more subtle influences on our relationship with the truth, too. The new media, with its myriad screens and streams, makes reality so fragmented it becomes ungraspable, pushing us towards, or allowing us to flee, into virtual realities and fantasies. Fragmentation, combined with the disorientations of globalization, leaves people yearning for a more secure past, breeding nostalgia. ‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new-ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’.
- ‘There is no such thing as objective reporting,’ claim the heads of Putin’s propaganda networks Dmitry Kiselev and Margarita Simonyan, when asked to explain the editorial principles which allow for conspiracy theories to be presented as being equally valid to evidence-based research. The Kremlin’s international channel, RT, claims to be giving an ‘alternative’ point of view, but in practice this means making the editor of a fringe right-wing magazine as credible a talking head as a University academic, making a lie as worthy of broadcast as a fact. Donald Trump plays a similar game when he invokes wild rumors as reasonable, alternative opinions, couching stories that Obama is a Muslim, or that rival Ted Cruz carries a secret Canadian passport, with the caveat: ‘A lot of people are saying . . .’
- This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism, which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else.
- To make matters worse, by saying that all knowledge is (oppressive) power, postmodernism took away the ground on which one could argue against power.
- As I try to make sense of the world I grew up and live in – a world framed in my case by Russia, the EU, UK and the US – I don’t need to go quite so far back to find a time when facts mattered. I remember facts seemed to be terribly important during the Cold War. Both Soviet Communists and Western Democratic Capitalists relied on facts to prove their ideology was right. The Communists especially cooked the books – but in the end they lost because they couldn’t make their case any longer. When they were caught lying they acted outraged. It was important to be seen as accurate.
- Then came the 1990s. There was no more progress to be striven for, nothing to prove. Facts became separated from political stories. There was a happiness to this: it was a time of hedonism and Еcstasy, a light-headedness where we could ignore the facts of our bank accounts and take on as much debt as we liked. Without facts and ideas the new masters of politics became spin doctors and political technologists.
- But for all their cynicism, the spin doctors and political technologists were, at this point, still trying to pull off an illusion of the truth. Their stories were meant to be coherent, even if they were low on facts. When reality caught up – the audience caught on to the illusion in Moscow and the stories about Iraq broke down and the stock market crashed – one reaction has been to double down, to deny that facts matter at all, to make a fetish out of not caring about them. This has many benefits for rulers – and is a relief for voters.
- Putin doesn’t need to have a more convincing story, he just has to make it clear that everybody lies, undermine the moral superiority of his enemies and convince his people there is no alternative to him. ‘When Putin lies brazenly he wants the West to point out that he lies’ says the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, ‘so he can point back and say, “but you lie too”’. And if everyone is lying then anything goes, whether it’s in your personal life or in invading foreign countries.