- Disinformation Disorientation
If one word defines our contemporary information environment, it is disorientation. Our exposure to information continues to grow, and with it, our confusion. Peter Pomerantsev uses his family's story as a backdrop to trace how the digital information age has overturned assumptions that more information and digital connectivity will empower citizens and give them an edge over repressive forces. He begins with his family's flight from the Soviet Union to England in the late 1970s, a time when information abundance was seen as an empowering force. He then moves through his experiences watching the post-truth era first take hold in Russia and then push outward into the democratic world.
The vignettes in this book show with disturbing clarity how a range of actors manipulate the online information space to distort reality, spread extremism, undermine democratic institutions, empower authoritarians, and upend free societies. Brave journalists and activists such as Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Srdja Popoviæ from Serbia tell the tale, but so do figures such as the Austrian ethnonationalist Martin Sellner, the psychological-manipulation expert and founder of Cambridge Analytica's parent company Nigel Oakes, and the Russian internet strategist Igor Ashmanov. We also hear from those who have been on both sides of the information war: Lyudmila Savchuk infiltrated and then exposed the "troll farm" of Russia's Internet Research Agency; Rashad Ali, who was once a revolutionary extremist with Hizb ut-Tahrir, now works as a [End Page 203] counterradicalization expert. Pomerantsev's stories underscore that this problem is not confined to the online space—this distorted reality carries over into the physical world, dislocating identity and sowing confusion at the individual, political, and societal levels.
Today, democratic policy makers around the world are wrestling with concerns about disinformation, online radicalization, and hate speech. But discussions of these problems are too often reductionist, framing the issue of information manipulation as a tactical one driven by conspiracy theories, false content, or divisive narratives. Pomerantsev refreshingly acknowledges the depth and complexity of the challenge. As he explains, "It is not that one online account changes someone's mind; it's that en masse they create an ersatz normality" (p. 58). The contest for the digital information space is strategic, not tactical—and requires new frameworks both to understand it and to address the challenges to democracy that come with it.
Reviewing the evolution of the information space from Soviet times to the present, Pomerantsev explains how today's information operations are different from those of the past. The core difference, he argues, is that ideology is no longer a guiding force. Rather, information war itself has become the goal, with ideology just a tactical and flexible instrument employed in battle. This means that the idea of truth itself has become a target. Pomerantsev recounts his father's time working for the BBC World Service after fleeing Soviet Ukraine, when he used impartial information to pierce the veil of the Iron Curtain. While Russia at that time attacked the idea that the BBC was impartial, today they attack "the very idea that there is such a thing as impartiality" (p. 121). When winning the battle of ideas is no longer the objective, and truth is an object of attack, disorientation becomes the defining characteristic of the information environment.
The role of data in today's information ecosystem has also changed the nature of the challenge. During the Cold War, "extreme individualism" was often equated with citizen empowerment. Today's media environment, however, not only facilitates wholly new and unlimited forms of self-expression, but that expression is now translated into data. As the amount of data about us grows exponentially, it is being collected and fed into a digital information ecosystem that silos and invisibly shapes our information reality. Pomerantsev argues that "this is the potential nightmare of the new media: the idea that our data might know more about us than we do, and that this is then being used to influence us without our knowledge" (p. 183). This will become even...