Censorship Through Noise

Peter Pomerantsev's This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality demonstrates that one variety of globalization is compatible with economic protectionism, cultural isolationism and an obsession with national sovereignty, Scott McLemee writes.

January 24, 2020
 
 

Only one thing is certain at this point about the outcome of the presidential election cycle now underway: whoever wins will have done so, in the eyes of some sizable portion of the American public, through fundamentally illegitimate means. With more than nine months of campaigning ahead, it's impossible to be specific about the accusations that will accumulate along the way. But they are sure to come from a menu that has grown familiar.

The options include voter fraud, voter suppression or some combination thereof; the hacking of voting rolls or machines; threats of (or provocations to) violence at polling stations; digitally manipulated or fabricated material injurious to the candidates, their families and/or their campaigns; and social media operations of all kinds, conducted by both intelligence agencies and private companies, domestic and otherwise, and carried out by human trolls and botnet armies. (Besides all the high tech involved, we must not underestimate that rickety old Rube Goldberg device known as the Electoral College, which could well overturn the popular vote for a third time in 20 years.)

A number of the charges may prove well-founded, and no candidate will be untouched by them. I make these statements not with confidence, but out of finding no way to imagine the reversal of a momentum that has been building for a while. Thinking of it in terms of a polarization within American society or politics is blinkered, though. One thing a reader takes away from Peter Pomerantsev's This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (published by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books) is that one variety of globalization is perfectly compatible with economic protectionism, cultural isolationism and an obsession with national sovereignty: the globalization of weaponized communications.

The author, a visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics, is the child of Soviet dissidents who left toward the end of the Brezhnev era. One layer of his text is memoir, drawing on a family legacy of stories about living with well-established systems of public manipulation and deception. "During Glasnost," Pomerantsev writes, "it seemed that the truth would set everybody free. Facts seemed possessed of power, dictators seemed so afraid of facts that they suppressed them. But something has gone drastically wrong: we have access to more information and evidence than ever, but facts seem to have lost their power."

Sheer inundation is part of it, as is the reality that the tools we use for storing and disseminating facts are equally suited to handling untruths. The effect is "censorship through noise," leading parts of the population to a skepticism tinged with indifference, or into reliance on particular channels of information. Our preferred tools and channels are simultaneously monitoring us and relaying the information to systems where they are, as Pomerantsev puts it, "added and stacked in different patterns according to various short-term purposes -- little writhing squiggles of impulses and habits that can be impelled to vibrate for a few seconds to get me to buy something or vote for someone. Social media, that little narcissism machine, the easiest way we have ever had to place ourselves on a pedestal of vanity, also is the mechanism that most efficiently breaks you up."

But atomization is not the end. The fragments are raw material for network maps, "which look like fields of pin-mold or telescope photographs of distant galaxies," extracting "a key word, a message, [or] a narrative" from "the ever-expanding pool of the world’s data" and "revealing unexpected constellations where anyone from anywhere can influence everyone everywhere." Or they are at least trying to exercise such influence, with geographical borders largely irrelevant.

People shape their culture, and vice versa. Pomerantsev writes after several rounds of mutual transformation between mass populations and information technology, and he can draw on a considerable body of published research as well as his own discussions with activists, technologists and former troll-farm employees. But there's one passage from early in the book that stands out as a cri de coeur:

"I see people I have known my whole life slip away from me on social media," he writes, "reposting conspiracies from sources I have never heard of, some sort of internet undercurrent pulling whole families apart, as if we never really knew each other, as if the algorithms know more about us than we do, as if we are becoming subsets of our own data, which is rearranging our relations and identities with its own logic, or in the cause of someone else’s interests we can’t even see. The grand vessels of old media -- books, television, newspapers and radio -- that had contained and controlled identity and meaning, who we were and how we talked with one another, how we explained the world to our children, talked about our past, defined war and peace, news and opinion, satire and seriousness, right and left, right and wrong, true, false, real, unreal -- these vessels have cracked and burst, breaking up the old architecture of what relates to whom, who speaks to whom and how, magnifying, shrinking, distorting all proportions, sending us in disorientating spirals where words lose shared meanings."

I hesitate to call this a common or universal experience, but many readers will recognize what it describes.

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