This is not Propaganda


“Faced with wildly conflicting versions of reality, people selected the one that suited them.”

Peter Pomerantsev’s This is Not Propaganda is a book about our times for our times. It addresses the central catch-22 of our information age; namely whether central censorship (with the risk of top down propaganda) or decentralised free range information (with the risk democracy-destabilising fake news) is the lesser evil – or, more concerning, if both routes end up in the same place where nothing is real and everything is possible.

This is Not Propaganda is a book about liberty vs tyranny, censorship vs freedom of speech and the past vs the future in times when truth has become malleable rather than absolute and in places where it is almost impossible to tell the bad guys from the good guys.

And that, is really the point. Nothing is simple or clear cut any more. There are no absolute solutions for messy human problems (although – as he points out, based on research in China, reading can help! People who have been voracious readers from a young age are more propaganda and fake-news resistant.). The best way forward, therefore is more individual responsibility (what a novel idea!) rather than more outsourcing of ethics to a government, a media house, a social network, a religious leader – or even a fact checker (after all, who can fact-checks the fact checkers other than us, ourselves?). As the author explains, all forms of populism have in common an in-group united against The Other. Only by thinking as an individual, and seeing ideological opponents as individual human beings too can members of a society free themselves from perpetuating populist cycles.

I highly recommend this book specifically because the author does not take a side. He refuses to take on the responsibility of making up his mind on behalf of the reader. He presents the views, he tells the stories and he leaves us, his readers to make up our own minds about what is true and what is good. We have to take responsibility for what we read, what we share and what we believe. Ultimately, we have to define reality for ourselves. That is the only way out of the dis and mis information catch 22.

After all, like it or not, the free flow of information across the world wide web is a mirror and a magnifying glass of billions of individual human choices made by men and women like you and I, revealing us – biases, base desires and all – for who we are. If we don’t like what we see reflected back at us – be it populism, hatred or online mobbing – and we don’t take responsibility to change that reflection, but rather go along with lowest common denominator – who will?

On apathy:

“The problem we are facing today is less oppression, more lack of identity, apathy, division, no trust… there are more tools to change things than before, but there is less will to do so.”

On  group-think

“It’s not the case that the online account changes someone’s mind; it’s that en mass they create an ersatz normality. Over decades there have been many studies showing how people modify their behaviour to fit in with what they think is the majority point of view.”

On entitlement (or expectations vs reality) and populism

“But if the need for facts is predicated on a vision of a concrete future that you are trying to achieve, then, when that future disappears, what is the point of facts? Why would you want them if they tell you that your children will be poorer than you? That all versions of the future are uncompromising? And why should you trust the purveyors of facts – the media and academics, think tanks, statesmen? And so, the politician who makes a big show of rejecting facts, who validates the pleasure of spouting nonsense, who indulges in full anarchic liberation from coherence, from glum reality becomes attractive.”

“Restorative nostalgia has taken hold from Moscow to  Budapest to Washington DC. The last things desired by those who purvey these phantom, fabricated pasts are facts.”

On postalgia

“The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia. The twenty-first century is not characterised by the search for newness, but by the proliferation of nostalgias.”

On free will

” …he had called on people to stop repeating official language and rituals: It was the repetition of things you didn’t believe which broke you”

On “censorship through noise”

” [totalitarian] states have moved from “an ideology of information scarcity to one of information abundance”

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