As It Happens

World leaders enact 'censorship through noise' in the digital era, says author

Peter Pomerantsev's new book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, explores how governments and leaders sew confusion through information — and disinformation — overload.

Peter Pomerantsev looks at bots, troll farms and fake news in his new book This Is Not Propaganda

U.K. journalist Peter Pomerantsev has authored a new book about censorship in the digital era called This Is Not Propaganda. (Renate Milena Findeis / CBC)
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In the 1970s, writer Igor Pomerantsev was arrested and exiled from Soviet-controlled Ukraine for distributing banned literature.

That was how the Soviet Union crushed dissent — through the blatant censorship of ideas and information.

Now his son Peter Pomerantsev is reporting on the front lines of what he calls the new war on the truth. But instead of limiting information, he says today's world leaders enact of a regime of "censorship through noise."

"The 20th century was an age of what academics call information scarcity, more or less, and authoritarian regimes especially would control their societies by constricting speech," Pomerantsev told As It Happens host Carol Off.

In today's increasingly global and connected world, that's becoming harder to do, he said. 

"But they've worked something else out," he said. "They've kind of realized that by using troll farms, by using bots, by just churning out avalanches of, you know, nonsense and intimidation, they can can achieve similar effects."

Pomerantsev's new book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, explores how governments and leaders create confusion through information — and disinformation — overload.

'The global playbook'

Modern propaganda is a lot harder to discern, Pomerantsev says, because we rarely know who created it and for what purpose.

"The global playbook is for regimes — actually, democratic regimes as much as non-democratic ones — to use different methods of drowning out their critics," he said. 

"They do this in different ways. They can just hire troll farms. Or they can incite online mobs. Or they can hire out cyber-militias through proxy business interests."

Peter Pomerantsev's new book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, explores how governments and leaders sew confusion through information — and disinformation — overload. (Faber & Faber)

People are fed an onslaught of information, misinformation and conspiracy theories until becomes almost impossible to separate fact from fiction, or trace an idea back to its source, he said. 

"Back in the Cold War, whether it was the Soviets or the [Ferdinand] Marcos regime in the Philippines, you know, it was pretty clear who were the agents of censorship and intimidation. It was the military police or the secret service," he said.

"Now, it's some sort of troll farm. You'll never prove that it's actually directly related to the government."

Canada at risk too 

And it's not limited to authoritarian regimes, he said. 

Elected populist leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump often muddy the waters with misinformation and undermine trust in critical voices. 

And, as we've seen with Russian trolls targeting western democracies, the propaganda is often global in scale.  

As Canadians head into a federal election, Pomerantsev says misinformation will be on the rise. (Peter Power/The Canadian Press)

Canada, he said, is not immune. With a federal election kicking into gear on Wednesday, misinformation from both foreign and domestic sources will likely be on the rise. 

"America is kind of a global leader," he said, "Which just shows this is not about under-developed countries or stupidity or cleverness. These are kind of systemic things."

And those who spread misinformation and fake news often do so under the guise of free speech — so any attempts to crack down will be met with cries of censorship. 

"That's really hard for pro-democracy activists because we've always fought for freedom of expression," he said. "Now we're kind of being hoisted by our own petard."

A more transparent internet 

But for Pomerantsev, misinformation is the nemesis of free expression.

"Freedom of expression is just not just the rights to speech; it's also the right to receive information. So I think that's where we have a lack now," he said. 

"We kind of live in a world [where] we don't understand how the information environment around us is being formed. We don't understand why algorithms or why Google or Facebook shows one piece of information, and not another. And, in a way, that's a form of censorship itself."

I think we need to radically make the internet much, much more transparent.- Peter Pomerantsev, author 

The answer, he said, isn't to fight that form censorship with more censorship. Trying to limit the flow of misinformation online — or even trying to fact check it in real time — is like an endless game of whack-a-mole.

"I think we need to radically make the internet much, much more transparent so that we do have oversight of algorithms and how they choose information, so we do understand about every piece of content we see online. Who is behind it. Why? Is it organic? Is it a campaign?" he said.

"That brings us back to a language of rights. That's the rights of the user online to understand how and why what they see is there, and how they're being influenced and how their own data is being used to influence them."

But it's not a solution he sees being implemented any time soon.

"Authoritarians are still very uncomfortable with transparency. So there is a way of fighting back, of taking the language of freedom expression back —  but that's something that has to be done with a fair amount of coherence and craft by democracies, which we're not quite there yet," he said. 

"The political elites who would have to enact that regulation, they're very reluctant to do it because they're all using these techniques. I mean, whether in very, very aggressive ways by Canadian alt-right or Trump in America, but actually everyone uses them to a certain extent.

"And, you know, political elites tend to be very reluctant to saw off the twig that they're precariously sitting on."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. 

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