Audio of this conversation is available via your favorite podcast service.
In the spring I teach a course called Tech, Media and Democracy that is a partnership of faculty at NYU, Cornell Tech, CUNY’s Queens College, The New School and Columbia Journalism School. We host a range of expert speakers on issues at the intersection of those topics, and graduate students in journalism, information science, computer science, media studies and design collaborate to produce prototypes and investigations of key issues.
A couple of weeks ago, we hosted Peter Pomerantzev, an author and researcher who is concerned with propaganda, polarization and how we come to understand the world around us. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center at Columbia and one of the faculty on the course, led the discussion, which ranges from topics including the information component of the war in Ukraine to the tension between democracy and authoritarianism to the role of journalism and technology in shaping public discourse.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.
Peter, good evening. Great to see you. Tell us what you are doing at the, is it Washington International Airport, that you’re at tonight?
No, I’m not, I’m far closer than that. I’m at the Baltimore International Airport. I’ve just taught my class at Hopkins, and now… I was very lucky. I found a 9:00 PM flight that’s going to take me to London. Then hopefully I’ll make the flight to Warsaw, then I jump in a car and drive across the border into Ukraine onto a night train in Lviv. And Wednesday morning I will be in Kyiv in time for a conference about strategic communications, propaganda, and all the sorts of things we’ll be talking about today.
You make it over there quite a bit. So since the invasion last year, you say that you’ve been going on a very regular basis?
Yeah, I go once, sometimes even twice a month, many times a month. And I’ve got some really strong sleeping pills that my doctor has given me and without that I’d be a broken man.
So tell us a bit about, because I really want to hear about, what you’re going to be discussing in terms of STRATCOM, and propaganda, but tell us a little bit about your impressions from really being in constant communication there, and also maybe incorporate a little bit about your own personal background, and how you are tied to the region, and what your perspectives have been on the past year, because I think we get obviously a very extruded version of it if we are just consuming it through US media, which I think is less engaged than European media.
Well, that’s interesting. I mean I actually think that… well, I’ll do that question last. So I was born in Kyiv to two parents who are Jewish Ukrainian, and in the Soviet Union you defined your ethnicity in your passport. So whether you were Jewish, Ukrainian, or something, that was in your passport, and most of my family is Jewish, even have a couple of people who define themselves as Ukrainian. But, born there, and then we immigrated, or where we were exiled in 1978 when I was nine months old. So I only really had time to throw up over the Soviet Union, and then my parents were out of there, and I ended up growing up in London because my dad got a job at the BBC World Service. So I’m accidentally British and now have been in America like one and a half years.
Actually most of my family’s here. So it’s not that huge a move for me, because most Soviet Jews who left the Soviet Union ended up in America or Israel. But my background, professionally speaking, is that after university, I spent nine years in Moscow working in TV. I actually went to film school in Moscow as well, and I thought I’d be a great arty film director. And then, like most people who go to film school, ended up making reality shows, and docs about kids with five heads and this sort of stuff that you do when you work on TV.
But that gave me a chance to look at the Russian media system from the inside. And I saw the birth of this is new type of authoritarianism, which was really reinventing propaganda. And now it’s all over the world. You see it everywhere, from Hungary to Brazil, to India. But Russia was a pioneer, and I got to describe it in my first book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. And that was kind of a moment where I twigged where I’m actually not very good TV producer, I was actually quite crap at it, but I was an okay writer. And actually what I was fascinated by intellectually was, the connection between media and democracy essentially, and information democracy and why… the question that haunted me as I was making TV shows and documentaries and all sort of things like, why is this any good for society, what impact is it having into changing anything? Am I just getting ratings in a system?
I wasn’t making political stuff at all. It was very far from that. But even the entertainment stuff I was making was really bad. But I came back to Britain, still working on TV. So constantly as I worked in the industry going, okay, what does this mean for society? And then it’s quite a natural side step, almost, to see myself from the side and move into academia, and to ask those questions in academia, and then ask the next question, which is the question that I sort of have started asking myself since 2014, which is, okay, how do we create journalism in the broader sense of the world, media and communications that is good for democracy? And when is a documentary good for democracy? When is a reality show good for democracy? When is the way we frame news agendas good for democracy? How do we start researching that?
So the last few years at the LSC, and now at Hopkins, I’ve been trialing really small boutique experiments, and trying to understand that, put journalists and sociologists together, trying to work out how you overcome polarization if that’s something you want to overcome. How do you reach audiences who might be impervious to the fact, who might be under the sway of conspiracy theories, and other malign effects? The war has kind of actually, in many ways, sort of turbocharged my activity into reality. So since the war started, I’ve set up one and a half NGOs. One of them looks at war crimes in Ukraine, but really thinks about the connection between truth and holding power accountable the truth. So we research war crimes, we do stories around war crimes, and then we connect journalists or lawyers to start building cases.
And what we’re trying to do, in a very experimental way, is really try to think about how do we make the truth part of a process of justice and how do we make justice a part of establishing truths? So that’s one thing I’ve been doing. Another thing that I’m thinking about a lot, and I can talk about naming in very general terms, just thinking about how do we engage Russian audiences? There’s lots of initiatives around there. I’ve been doing a lot of sociology, a lot of polling, a lot of innovative polling, because it’s hard to research in a dictatorship, but really thinking how are we going to start engaging the Russian population, and what does it mean to engage a population in time of war? Is it really about converting them, or persuading them, that Putin has done a bad thing, that they’re complicit in the war crimes of their country? Or, what is actually the role of communication in the time of war? Does it change, and should we be doing something else?
I mean, that’s a great point to pick up on, which is that big question, and the question that you tackle at Agora as well, which is how do we actually do things that move the dial on schisms in society? So, let’s just stick with Russia and Ukraine for a moment. Have you seen, I think there’s a lot to talk about in terms of modern propaganda, and what the perceptions of that conflict are from the outside, who is winning the information war, for want of a better phrase? But just in terms of that question that you asked, about what can we do to engage Russian audiences, or any audiences that need some kind of persuasion or rooting back in reality, do you have any thoughts about, is that possible, do you think, with Russia at the moment? What’s your understanding of how things are there? There’s not a lot of independent media that’s actually allowed at the moment in Russia. But obviously there are populations who are constantly looking for, and interested in finding, other sources of information.
So, yeah. According to the polling that I’ve seen, there’s around 60% of people who are unsatisfied with the media, but only 17% of them follow the current independent media. So I don’t think that’s purely question of censorship. I think a little bit like in America, they perceive the independent media as being elitist, as being too politicized, as not having their back, as not being interested in them, and preaching to them. That’s something we found on studies across the world, doing a lot of research in Hungary, doing a lot of research in the US, now.
There’s also the question of not just the supply but the demand. People don’t necessarily feel that the independent media they’re being given, is the one that they want, that even though, well, everything depends what people… let’s say around 40% of Russians want something outside of the state media diet that they’re given. Neither are they drawn to the independent stuff. So it’s not purely a case of censorship, but the censorship might, I’m sure, plays a role as well. So I suppose the question then becomes how do you reach this 40%? How do you reach the 40% who are maybe not the kind of classic liberal audience, but who are unsatisfied with the dictatorial diet? What interests are there? When do they feel that they’re being listened to, that their concerns are being addressed? And then you get into very difficult choices because we want to scream at them, “You’re committing war crimes in Mariupol”, that might not be what they’re ready to hear.
So if you ever want to get to, “Can you please face the reality of what you’re doing in Mariupol?”… Mariupol is a town that’s bombed to smithereens by Moscow, maybe start somewhere else. And that’s a very kind of audience-first approach, which I think in a context, that Russia reaches an intensity. But really is, I think, what a lot of people are finding when we think about America. I mean, our mutual friend Jeff Jarvis, for all my differences with him, I think on this, we’re completely aligned: that if you want stop talking about the audience being bad or wrong or stupid or zombified, think about how you’re going to reach them. So no, the polling shows that you can reach them. Sadly, it won’t be with lectures on the virtues of liberal democracy. It’ll probably be about something else. Something that they really care about, might well be a consumer price shows about how the quality of sausages is going down, and then going, well, you realize the quality of sausages is going down ’cause you’ve started a bloody war. But you probably start with sausages. You don’t start with Mariupol, however much you may want to.
Right. And tell me about… I was reading, actually on Justin’s excellent Tech Policy Press earlier this week, Josh Trucker wrote a piece, another NYU professor, about on balance, how the information war has progressed in the past years, and said that there is an assumption in the West that everything we see suggests that Ukraine has really done an incredible job of keeping people very much focused on it, and supporting it. But that’s a very Ameri-centric view. When you step outside that, it’s not clear that Russia is necessarily suffering in the rest of the world, and this, if you like, is an open question. What do you think about that? Have you been thinking about sort of what the optics are at the moment, and what the stakes are in terms of those optics?
I haven’t been super focused on that, because there’s a lot of people doing that. And now this war has been so hectic, I’ve really been thinking about where I can add the most value, myself. But there are a lot of people doing that, and I talk to them a lot. And in this trip to Kyiv, I think most of the discussion will be about that. So I actually still think, would frame it in terms of progress. I still think Russia’s… can we swear?
Russia fucked up. Russia fucked up. So even, you know, you are going to say, you have to understand where they were starting from. In Latin America, again, I don’t like this idea Latin America, in certain countries in Latin America, support for Russia was super high. In certain countries in Africa, and the Middle East, support for Russia was super high. It has… actually in places where it was always super high because of historical reasons, for example, friendship with the Soviet Union, because of Russia’s investment in those regions, because they’re probably quite justified, anti post-colonial and anti-western sentiments for all, Russia should have a huge advantage.
So even though things there probably still look awful, where people are on the fence, or they’re debating where they are, or it’s a bit mixed, I actually think even there, there’s some progress in the right direction. For example, not a lot of countries actually in Africa and the Middle East, have very transactional relationship with Russia, think this stuff that’s going on in Europe is moral or existential. They just see a bunch of Europeans fighting each other. But they did have an image of Russia as a security guarantor. Yeah, Russia is going to provide weapons. Russia’s going to provide the mercenaries, energy, and they saw Russia as a useful kind of hedge between America and China.
Russia’s disasters on the battlefield have not gone unnoticed. The fact that Russia is pulling out troops out of Syria, and from other places has not gone unnoticed. So I mean, Russia has done an amazing job, especially in the Syrian conflict, in showing that it is this hard man of the world, that will turn up and sort out your problems. If you’re a dictator in trouble, it’s like, it’s not the A team, it’s like the dictator team, call the DT, and Putin will turn up with some troll farms and some mercenaries and some nuclear deals and some cash bailouts. They’ve been cultivating that image really, really, really successfully over the last 20 years. Suddenly they’re like, “Okay, you start stupid wars, you’ve clearly haven’t worked this out. You’ve clearly lost in the battlefield. What’s going on?” So again, India, another country that’s classically seen Russia as an ally, definitely wants to stay out of any Western imbroglios, definitely doesn’t trust the US.
It’s interesting looking at Poland. So it’s evenly matched, it’s like 17% Indians are pro-Russian because of geopolitics, ’cause they’ve always seen Russia as a partner, 17%, don’t quote me on these numbers, they’re rounded, and 17% like Ukraine because of the story, because they sympathize with the Ukraine, and the rest are in the middle. So you’ve got… and in a lot of the places, Russia was at a really, really strong point. So even there I think there’s some question marks. I don’t think it’s one in those areas, but it’s definitely not losing because they were always winning. I mean, those were their allies and their partners and their friends. Friends of convenience, often. I wouldn’t romanticize the relationship, but for a lot of African dictatorships, for a lot of Latin American regimes, Russia was a useful partner.
So, when we talk about propaganda, we set up a spreadsheet just logging all of the various changes to communications, infrastructure rules, censorship, et cetera, that started track tracking from the day of the invasion. And I think we’ve got about 500 lines or something of it so far. And we saw things, I think, in the first few months of the war that we hadn’t seen before. For instance, the European Union saying, we are going to take RT off all of our transponders. If you have a European Union transponder, you can’t carry this kind of thing. So reflecting on some of that activity, what have we learned, because part of modern warfare is obviously the information war, it moves during every conflict. You have very online populations on both sides of the divide here. So is there anything that we’ve learned from the official reaction to it from the journalism it’s produced, and from the activities of the propagandists?
It’s always evolving, and it’s evolving with the tech, and I often say the best way to look is, do all the marketing companies do it? And you’ll see, this takes to it a little bit later. It’s one technology they’re exploiting. So that’s probably sort of evolving in line with that. I’d actually point in a different direction, this time. I mean, all those things that we’ve been studying since 2016, which is, what’s happening on Twitter? What’s happening on… oh god, I spent so much of my time Discord at one point, I was really into Discord researching it. You know what Discord is, it’s a gaming site, and we spent so much time looking at the technology of tech, how do we regulate it? That all now feels like, the sort of like, the little cartoons before the feature presentation in the movie theater.
I don’t know if everybody understands that metaphor. When you go to the movies used to have all these ads and then maybe in little cartoon and then the feature presentation, and now Russia took a feature presentation which is much bigger, and in the sense that, yes, there’s Russian stuff on Facebook saying that an atrocity didn’t take place on the stage, like they did in Syria. But much more than that, they’re saying, “Oh yeah, we’re doing this and we’re going to get away with it.”
Well you can put everything on your Google archive, and we will get away with it. What they’re kind of saying is like, and in a much more kind of Bolshy way is, “Oh we’re going to do it and it doesn’t matter. We’re here to overturn the connection between information”… And I hate to sound like, the world order, but definitely information justice. We have more evidence and documentation than ever before of war crimes. We already had this in Syria, we have even more than in Syria, now. The more we have, the less it seems to matter in some strange way. That’s the tension we’re in. Let’s say we collect all this evidence. Let’s say we have all these tribunals, and it doesn’t matter because it’s a world where Russia and China get to set the rules and it just doesn’t matter.
That’s what they’re going for. I hope they fail, but they sort of upped the stakes from troll farms on Facebook. They’re really sort of going to the end of their logic. I mean, one of the many wars that are happening, and there’s many wars happening in Ukraine at the same time, there’s a colonial war, Russia’s rebellion against the world order. There’s so many conflicts happening at the same time. But one of them is about, and the one that I suppose I’m really fascinated by, is the one between can evidence and truth mean anything? And we could think of that war as its own war. It just had a huge war around COVID. COVID was already this huge kind of battle between, do truth and evidence matter when it’s peoples’ health at stake? And we found out that sometimes people will take evidence-free decisions even when the health is at stake. Yeah, it’s quite incredible really.
And Russia’s taking it even further. So maybe we should write this book Justin, Emily, everyone else, the War Against Reality, but not the way I did it, which was a series of tactical skirmishes. But maybe there’s a grand narrative here that we’re missing, this escalation of just saying, fuck the facts. And again, Russia is just taking it to a new level.
I think that’s a really interesting point. I’ve been reading some of the Dominion depositions today, which is the lawsuit against Fox News brought by-
Part of the story. I saw that connection as well, when I was like, “Okay, this is part of the same dynamic.”
What really matters… oh no, maybe I should write this.
So it’s very good. It’s like workshopping books during class. But I think it’s because… I’ve been thinking about it as almost like the end of shame. But you’re right, it’s not actually about the end of shame, it’s something much bigger than that, which is, if you can perpetrate these things and get away with them, so if you can sit in Rupert Murdoch’s position and the deposition papers that came out today showed that he, as the head of Fox News, knew full well that what was going on on his channel in terms of saying there was voter fraud was not true, and there was no ambiguity about it. And there’s a wonderful idea or horrible phrase that he uses where he says, “It’s not the blue, it’s not the red, it’s the green.” So in other words, it just means money. So it’s not really a political thing, it’s an apolitical thing in that-
He said that?
He said it. Yeah, you just couldn’t make it up as a Succession script-writer.
I’m going to say… no. It’s such an amazing-
It’s such an amazing phrase. “It’s not the blue, it’s not the red, it’s the green.” So in that world, and we are talking about the role of journalism in democracy, one of the things that haunts me, teaching journalists is, what difference can we make? What are we doing here? What’s the role, not just of journalists, we’ve also got, technologists and sociologists in this class are all thinking, is there any point when you get these really significant, as you say, main presentation features? And the point of them is to essentially say your existence as a professional who stands against these things, doesn’t matter. What is it that we can and should be doing?
I mean that’s exactly the crisis that kind of threw me into the sort of like this sewer between policy and academia where I now dwell, and out of, I still write books, I still write articles but, and you said I don’t believe in editing. So to really try to make sense of what the hell are we doing? Yeah, I mean so many fundamental questions are being challenged. I think what we’ve got to do is throw out some bad metaphors that we lived by, that were mythical, the marketplace of ideas. The truth will save us, or truth can speak, you know, we can speak truth to power.
We had our own cliches that we worked in, and that what we just had as assumptions, which blatantly were never really corroborated and were never thought through, and we just live with them. You are often asked journalists what they’re doing. Well, yeah, I find the truth and that’s good, and that changes things. Right, does it? I mean it is, to misquote a boring German philosopher, “The structural disintegration of the public sphere” that we’re talking about. So it’ll take the whole thing.
There is a technological bit to it. How do we create environments, online environments? So that’s what we’re talking about now, where facts matter, and what is civic discourse, and what is democratic discourse, this weird spongy thing that we have already thought about too much, where we now realize it’s just key, it’s the key force, if I’m going to use a Star Wars metaphor, that sort of informs democracy, but very hard to define. You kind of know, you know when it’s gone. If suddenly you have these communities which are unable to function or non-communities. So how do you create online environments that are geared towards making that better? And we can talk about many examples, Taiwan and whatever, but then how do we then create a technological economy of that, because it’s not profitable to do these things. So these that are funded and that’s a huge part of it. How do we build these environments?
Obviously people like Eli Pariser, Ethan Zuckerman, are the great gurus of that. What worries me is that all the gurus are in America, but the actual regulation that might help create that is going to be Europe and there’s no gurus there. So I could have cross pollinating a bit here, right? So that’s those guys. But for us, and there’s a regulatory piece. So one of the big things actually that I’m going to be speaking on in Kyiv and that I’m just starting now, which is a controversial line, which is, what is the legal culpability of Russian propagandists on this conflict? How do we delineate between freedom of expression, however abhorrent it is, and I’m very much in the, you can pretty much say whatever you want side of things, and targeted, coordinated information operations, which aid and abet crimes. How do we find that line? How do we find a language around that, yeah?
And I think the Russian provinces are a good place to stat, but we saw it in Myanmar, we saw it in Mexico, with the narcos. We go on and on and on. This integration of information operations into military operations, into political repressions, is specifically created, calculated, to commit crimes, and how do we start parsing that apart? So there’s a big regulatory piece to think about there. There’s a regulatory piece to think about regulating the online space. So there’s a regulatory piece reimagining that. There’s a technology piece and then that’s what I suppose I was a little very interested in, which is the content piece. Because however much you regulate the space, however much you regulate it, however much you technologize it, it is going to be about people and content they create, and will be kind of creepy if it wasn’t.
In very different situations, how does a journalist or a communicator or whatever this weird profession is that we’re still in, how do you get up in the morning thinking What I’m doing, is having some sort of effect beyond clicks and ratings. So with the war, we’re doing in Ukraine, or The Reckoning Project, my friend, Janine di Giovanni, and you may have seen, we’ve had a lot of materials out this last week, in the Atlantic and other places, I mean that’s about collecting journalism of justice, putting lawyers and journalists together, which was very controversial when I raised the idea with the head of Google News who was a veteran AP/BBC guy. He was very nice but he was like, this goes against his sense of journalistic ethics. As far as he was concerned, journalists and lawyers should never talk to each other.
They’re different professions, they’re competing professions. If lawyers were to come and ask for material from journalists, they would ask for a subpoena, like go in, “We’re not giving you any material”. We’re doing the opposite. We want to give lawyers the material. We see ourselves in one single community, evidence-gathering and establishing the truth and fighting for the truth. And it’s not just journalists. Journalists, teachers, first responders, whoever’s getting to the evidence first, how do they get that to the justice system? And then, how do they reinforce the justice system by explaining to the public these stories.
So look, that’s a big shift away from what journalism may have thought it was doing before. What I’ve been thinking about a lot previously and my US research is still focused on this, is how do you reach audiences that are not on your side? So I do think there’s a bad tendency, both market driven but also often from donors, which confuses me why they do this, but I don’t know, they just seem to, which is when we create media or when we fund media, it’s like find your audience and it kind of milked them, you know? You found your little slice of the pie. Now it’s up to you to extract as much as you can from it, which almost always means polarizing in some way. It almost always means creating an identity that might be quite guarded and quite closed to a certain extent for them in defining their enemies. That’s just how you build these things, sadly.
And I’m very excited by the idea of media or a journalist who gets up in the morning, going, “Okay, how do I start connecting this audience and this audience? How do I tell the story of, let’s say, reconstruction”, which is, well ’cause I’m not in US history at the moment, two audiences that are reticent about the way it’s been told so far, or have very strong cultural or historical or a judicial barriers against listening to the story.
How do I do that? How do I tell the story so they will listen to me? So that’s what I’ve always been very excited by, and by that challenge, and that in a way that’s a very old mission. We shouldn’t think that we haven’t been here before. We had very similar crises at the start of the 20th century, and they were eventually overcome after two world wars, a Holocaust, and many other crises, but they were overcome.
So when you say give up, the things that go to the regulatory space, design space, innovation and media space, which makes me not despair. And also the historical record, though glum in a own way, we’ve been here before. We were here with the advent of radio, where you had the same euphoria with the advent of radio as you had with the advent of the internet, very quickly that’s replaced with horror as Stalin and Hitler weaponized the radio, very similar paranoia about the power of propaganda as zombifying people, very, very similar sort of pathologies as we have now. And at the end of the day, the democratic side of things finds a way to respond through many means.
With regards to your work with the justice, truth dynamic, how do you identify who in society contains truth? And there’s a follow-up to this. When the truth or justice is antithetical to the ideological, institutional and/or power holding majority, how can you effectively share this truth in order to impact, or make change in the momentum, which is, to say, going back to, I think, your point about we might have to just not do journalism as we’ve done in the past, which has tended to reflect and embody some of the institutional truths. That’s all questions about identity is that things is a really good one.
So you are asking, how do you make sure that the justice is for everyone and not just for the people already advanced by the systems? Is that what you’re asking?
Well if I was asking, we can elucidate, but I think from reading, it’s like, how do you decide who holds the truth, though people have different perspectives on this, and what happens when that truth is opposed to the power-holding majority? So you might look at America and say there is one truth about how America came into being, which pretty much overrides the rights of a minority. And then if you are part of that minority, you see pretty much everything reflected in the media as being not true, or certainly not reflective of your experience. And I do think that’s what we’re grappling with a lot at the moment, aren’t we, in terms of who gets to say what is true?
I think that’s a fantastic question and I think it’s almost like, let’s take that question and think about the two branches that one could take that in. So, Sean Hannity says that. Yeah, Sean Hannity, and I’ve watched a lot of Sean Hannity, says there is no such thing as objective truth. CBS is really biased. He’ll actually use very, very good stats showing how much more CBS sort of grilled Trump, than they grilled Obama. Yeah? So he’ll use some truth. There’s truth in how that everyone’s biased. All that’s left is hardcore feeling. And in this world of darkness, lying, obfuscation, Draconian knowledge captured by power, he doesn’t quote Foucault, but he really explains Foucault very well. There are no rules, there’s just emotion. And of course polar Donald Trump to lead us, through this dark, evil, biased world. It’s exactly the same message that you hear on Kremlin TV, Dmitry Kiselyov, again, war, again, any hope forever being… obviously if they will raise perfectly legitimate criticisms occasionally of western media, the BBC or CNN and say, haha, look, that slide lies.
It’s a world of darkness and lies, only Putin, only force. Truth is a myth. Justice is a myth. Only the strong hand of a strong leader can lead us through a war of all against all. So you can take that idea, and take it that way, or you can take it the other way saying yes, obviously truth is an emergent thing. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth, but we have certain ideas about how we might agree with what evidence is. And so when a new truth emerges and can sort of tentatively agree that we respect it, we don’t dehumanize the other side who are bringing their ideas forward, et cetera, et cetera. I’m from the humanities. I went to film school before I studied English lit. I’m not a social scientist having the idea for me that there would be a rock solid truth that is owed by someone, usually by somebody in the social science department, is for me, fairly horrific.
So what we’re really talking about are four environments. I work with some up at called the Agora, which is some sort of reference to a very, very imperfect Greek ideal of a space where you talk to each other and listen sense to each other. So we’re talking about communities, environments, where truths can emerge, where people have access to it, and access to a voice, and all these ideals of this wooly notion of a public sphere. So we talked about Dr. Fauci, just before this, as well. It sounds like it can well be that, well there is a chance that the virus may have, I don’t know, Emily was saying this, I don’t know, Emily was saying, there’s a chance… wait, wait, wait. Emily was saying, I only say, but there is a chance that maybe the virus did emerge from a lab. I mean fine, these are all things that in a respectful public sphere you can debate and talk about it. It doesn’t become some sort of… that actually you chop people’s heads off.
Overall, as somebody from England, which has actually got a much more calcified process of access to the public sphere, America is deeply, deeply messed up. But I kind of love the debate you guys are having here. It’s such a… as long as people are bursting for their right to speak, and tell their story and tell their American story. And yeah it can well be, there’s time to split up the American story into many stories, and to dilute some of these mythical sort of pressure points in American history that do feel a tiny bit, kind of like [inaudible 00:33:20] to me sometimes, you understand sort of obsession with the founding fathers, seems terribly like Marx and Lenin, and that’s a very healthy thing, breaking up those myths and bringing in new perspectives. And as long as that’s being done, and I think it largely is in the US frankly, with a desire to find more facts to more truths and deeper meanings, rather than just to say, oh well then nothing matters, all that matters is violence.
Is there a way of doing this proactively? So in other words, is there a way of making these interventions proactively, because we are in a very reactive field. This is something, I think, that particularly when it comes to disinformation. I know you and I have had this conversation separately, Peter, about the hunting of propaganda in some ways is always counterproductive. So what are the chances that we can actually make interventions before it comes to this? Or is it just that we are working into dynamic and difficult field for that?
I think too many data researchers who say they can spot things emerging early, which is interesting, like a bubble forming or sort of a community forming that’s becoming more and more extreme or alternative. So there are data people who say they can see this emerging very early. I’m not a sort of data guy that way. All our evidence, all our research shows that, take some American conspiracy theories. So we lose to conspiracy theories in Eastern Europe. Conspiracy theories, conspiracy mindsets, are very popular among parts of the populations that have a very deep lack of sense of agency.
This probably isn’t huge news to anybody who’s in this session. Often that’s accompanied by being civic deserts. So the lack of local communities, lack of media, but really on a much more fundamental level, really just feeling that you’ve been left behind. But also that you don’t have any way of influencing society for many reasons. Eastern Europe, there are many historical reasons, but we know historically that that is where people become very susceptible to a type of communication. Let’s not called it propaganda, but let’s call it communication, which will then create a false community for them, a false sense of us, where they can project their sense of agency and strength often through a [inaudible 00:35:36], and through maybe seeing other groups at fault for their feelings, and also towards other groups they can feel superior to.
So I’m sure we’d be able to track that and see it develop. Again, I don’t think any of this is hard, Emily, to track and spot and anticipate. It really isn’t. It’s very human stuff. And then you know, just go to these places so they can go, oh my god, these people feel really abandoned, and there’s going to be some political snake oil salesman, that’s going to turn up soon. The problem isn’t so much working it out. The problem is who’s job is it to fix it, and what is the motivation? “Cause there is a zero financial motivation to do this. Actually the financial motivation is exactly the opposite. And that’s why I really worry about the US. I see brilliant people thinking about it. I see brilliant people in universities defining it. It really isn’t that hard to preempt, to spot the problems before they emerge.
Whose job is it? There’s nobody. And what all we have is foundations doing funding where I see small really worthy tiny media, they’re going to compete with… what was it when you just quoted Murdoch, he’s an obvious villain in this, so the question for me again is like whose job is it and who’s going to pay for it? And in Europe you have this idea of, this should be the job of what you see public service media. So they will have to transform hugely to deal with this, as well.
Talking about other parts of the world, the technological landscape saying in this gander, you also mentioned protestors opposition in China, but the past seven or eight years as China’s changed technologically so much, how has that sort of changed the protest media landscape? I guess we have such a difference now in terms of surveillance technologies, et cetera? And I guess a related question, which is, could you speak a bit more about success you’ve seen in Taiwan encountering mis- or disinformation?
Yeah, I mean, I think they’re studying in Taiwan it’s existential to resist these sorts of experiments in authoritarian information operations. So they do a lot there. But again, what I’d say is the most interesting thing in Taiwan is their attempts to build resilient spaces. I think now almost the story of Audrey Tang in Taiwan it’s almost become a parable that probably should be now debunked in some way because it’s become almost too well known. Yes, the Taiwanese had all these groups looking for Chinese disinformation online and countering it and doing all that stuff. But what was… and that was great and that showed how sort of activists could respond to a state challenge, which was very interesting. But what was much more to me was that Taiwan, was these attempts to build, to use technical good and create online spaces, which were specifically designed for debating policy issues in a way that reached consensus and stuff. So it’s not just a defensive bit, it’s also creating online environments that are helpful for democratic processes.
I mean, China… I mean, my chapter on China was, I was there, just as Xi Jinping was going full dictator. He’d just changed the Constitution to make himself leader for much longer than was originally intended. And it was sort of really, really, there was a real fence that, oh wow, the semi-open period was over, and we’re entering something much darker indeed. China is, I’m no expert, but I watch from this point of view of propaganda and from… But also from their vision of how intermission is meant to work with society.
And I don’t know how many of you watched the Chinese, the CCP 100 years celebration. This is the Chinese Communist Party, had their celebration of 100 years of the Communist Party, and it was this huge show, very Soviet daresay. It was like mass scenes from Mao’s childhood and the Civil War and The Great Leap Forward, all mass scenes, all choreographed, depicting the ideals of amass society, I suppose. But what was very interesting was the end.
So they go through all these scenes of the Chinese Communist Party, spectacular set piece, on this huge stage with all the politburo watching and applauding, and they get to the future, and this huge number five descends from the roof of the theater. It’s a huge theater. And first I thought five, it must be the five-year plan. This was like a Soviet communist thing, yeah, every five years that the leaders of the communist party would say, “Here is the five-year plan.” And everyone lived by the 5-year economic plan. And it wasn’t. It was 5G. The 5G was coming down and it was sort of bathing the future of China in this beauty. People were almost like praying to it. And I was like, Xi Jinping, plus 5G, in the future.
They appear to have a vision of the future where centralization and mass control is enabled by online technology, but also kind of the two meet perfectly as in this data-driven society. You can only rule it by centralizing it. Maybe centralization didn’t work in the 20th century, because you don’t have enough data. But, now that we have all the data, it’s time to give it all onto the leadership because liberal democracy, look at America, it’s a mess. Look at their crazy elections, look at their crazy paralysis of Congress.
Humanity can’t deal with this amount of information. Humanity can’t process it. The only thing that can process it, is a centralized power that will design the ideal city for you. Yes, you will give up all your freedoms, but there won’t be any traffic jams, where the pollution will be minimal. We’ll use your data to find you the ideal job, the ideal wife, the ideal sexual position. I’m getting carried away. They didn’t do that. But that sort of thing. Give us your data and give us your freedom of choice and we will decide better. Now, obviously I’m caricaturing, but that’s kind of the idea.
I don’t know how many of you have been asked to read the Dewey-Lippmann debate from the 1920s in the US. It’s exactly the same debate all over again. In a world of an overabundance of information, democracy just cannot deal with it. Democracy was meant for small town halls. That was the idea that Walter Lippmann had, a great American columnist, and he would argue that 1920s, a lot like Xi Jinping is arguing now, it’s too chaotic. You’ve got to have an elite that make centralized decisions that can process the data, make sense of it, and the sun is set on your messy democracy. You may have kind of bluffed your way through the 20th century, but it’s over. My sense is there is a few people in Silicon Valley who feel the same way, but there does seem to an authoritarian strain in Silicon Valley, as well. Again, not all of them, there’s many others who aren’t.
There’s a very interesting cycle between libertarianism that doesn’t add into authoritarianism, which is very interesting, which I can barely grasp, but I kind of get it now. It’s the only freedom that matters is private property, who can attend private property, only the king. That’s how they seem to have got there. But weirdly, there is this blending between libertarian thinking and authoritarian thinking, which you would think would be antithetical. But sticking with… I’m not a political philosopher, but this is again, and this is what interests me about propaganda, about media. It is not just the case of tactics and technology. We do get into these big questions about what is freedom? Is democracy possible and sort of, what is the human? That at the end of the day, is the subject of my books. I use propaganda as a way to get to the question of when are we free? When do you know that your thoughts are your thoughts? When are you actually being manipulated and when not? And when can you make decisions and when can we make decisions as communities?
So Peter, we’ve kept you longer. I’m worried about you missing your plane at some point or-
No, it’s all right. It’s all right. I’ve got here really early. It’s important.
Even more worried about you missing your beer. Great to spend some time in the presence of a sweary British journalist, always makes me feel very, very much at home.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.