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Pomerantsev: Russia uses disinformation in a truly militarized way

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Voice of America’s Ani Chkhikvadze spoke with Peter Pomerantsev, journalist and researcher, about the threat of disinformation in a rapidly developing information space.

What threat does disinformation pose to democracy and countries like Georgia? And what importance does free media have in combatting the disinformation?

The situation with the disinformation and the way we fight propaganda is really difficult at the moment. We have always had a formula for battling disinformation and politicians who lie, and that formula was freedom of speech, public service broadcasting and free market, pluralistic media, but in weak democracies like Georgia, that idea has been completely hacked.

You can have a public service media, but a new generation of hybrid authoritarian regimes or weak democracies have learned how to put their own people on the boards of public service media. As a result, public service media has turned into state media. Pluralistic media – the idea that you have lots and lots of different media to balance each other out by the invisible hand of the market, has also been hacked. Go to a country in the Balkans, or in Hungary and probably the Caucasus as well, and it looks as if they have pluralistic media, but actually, market incentives for owners who advertise their businesses is to play nice with the government. Governments create systems where it looks like there is a pluralistic media, that there is an advertising market, but it is completely rigged in favor of the government. If you want the government’s business – and governments are often the biggest business-givers – then you play nice or you lose your advertising.

[Authoritarian regimes] use troll farms to drown out opposition by spreading lies, smear campaign or by just creating noise – spreading large amounts of information.

And then, the Russians have really changed the idea of freedom of speech with their troll factory. The whole idea was that authoritarian regimes would always censor their opponents. And they still do. But now they use troll farms to drown out opposition by spreading lies, smear campaign or by just creating noise – spreading large amounts of information. And when you say: hold on, this is oppressing freedom, they say: but well, this is freedom of speech and you are for freedom of speech. It is a really big problem.

We live in an age of information abundance and all kind of intellectual formulas that we have come up to battle disinformation in the 20th century, have been rendered meaningless. I think countries in the front lines of these are what I would call weak hybrid democracies: Serbia, Georgia, Mexico –countries where businesses are far too close to government. It is kind of a free market, but not really, where there is an abundance of information, but it is of very poor quality. So I think Georgia is in a classic situation that a lot of countries are in. And we do not have an answer yet.

If someone, an average person asked you to explain what Russian disinformation was, what would you say? 

The Russian disinformation comes from a very special secret service and a very militarized mindset. The point is not the ideas that are there, it is not something that you can debate or defeat and it does not even matter if they are lies. They think about it in a very instrumental way. It is designed to confuse, delay, distract and divide. So, the content can be anything and the mistake a lot of people make is to try to debate the content, but the people, creating it, are not thinking about it. That is why Moscow can jump to any ideology it wants to jump on. It does not care. It is using it in a truly militarized way. And until one realizes that and tries to understand the effect they are trying to cause, one can really fall into a trap. It is very important to understand that.

[Russian disinformation] is designed to confuse, delay, distract and divide.

Can disinformation in countries like Georgia endanger democracy?

Yes, any country is vulnerable. If America is vulnerable why should Georgia not be; there are many more ways to influence Georgia than America. So, I would say Georgia is very high in the list of vulnerabilities.

You said messages do not matter, but if you were to generalize, what themes would you say the Russian disinformation is pushing in Georgia?

I think there are grand narratives. You should tell me, but I would assume it is the idea that you do not need the West, that you will never get there, that nobody is waiting for you there, which is partly true, and that you should just be with Russia. I do not know how that works in Georgia, but I would assume that it is kind of sowing apathy and sense of hopelessness.

You pointed out that we have not come up with new ways to fight disinformation, so is future dim? What is the outlook of how information will be delivered and consumed in the future? 

There are two crises. Firstly, there is Russia, as you have said, and then there is the overall problem of how to regulate information and how we define healthy information space in the 21st century? The EU is starting to take moves to regulate the internet but that will mean not just regulating content, but regulating algorithms, so that they start skewing towards more accurate information. That will mean defining the difference between legitimate influence and illegitimate manipulation. Yes, it is okay for a country to try to convince the population of another country over its case, but it is not okay to do it through the use of thousands of fake accounts. There also have to be ways for enforcing that. I think we are catching up, the regulations will catch up.

It is okay for a country to try to convince the population of another country over its case, but it is not okay to do it through the use of thousands of fake accounts.

Do you see this, regulation of the internet, as a good path?

There are good regulations and there are bad regulations. That is going to happen, and that is one step. The other one that everyone keeps talking about is media literacy, which I do not have a lot of faith in. I think, the real way we are going to deal with this, is not by regulation – which is always going to be minimum, nor by media literacy – which is very long term, but by competition. At this moment, it is largely bad guys who are competing, it is this really dirty political campaigns, and nasty, hostile entities, like ISIS [using disinformation]. They grabbed the new information age with both hands. [To fight it,] we will have to reinvent what public broadcasting or public media means in a digital age. Journalism will have to redefine what it does as well.

And lastly, what roles do Voice of America and Radio Free Europe have in this crisis of disinformation?

VOA and RFE work in different environments, but they both work in environments where there is an obvious lack of very basic reliable journalism. So, having just that backdrop – knowing that these are public service broadcasters which cannot be corrupted, are not dependent on market economy and are immune from a lot of these pathologies, is a positive thing. Having said that, American public service international media needs to be ramped up and needs to progress into the 21st century. And this will take political will and money. There is more that can be done, but we know that VOA and RFE are the shelter from some of the problems we talked about. We know it is a home for good people, and that is already very important. But that is a “program minimum” – there can be so much more.

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This material was prepared for Civil.ge by the Voice of America. In order to license this and other content free of charge, please contact Adam Gartner.

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