Peter Pomerantsev: This Is Not Propaganda

Transcribed by Rey Smith

Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle civic series. On September 10th, 2019, Soviet-born British journalist, author and TV producer Peter Pomerantsev came to our Forum stage to talk about the rise and transformation of information warfare. Peter presented his book, This is Not Propaganda, and invited us behind enemy lines into the multinational information war and offered a perspective on how to navigate reality and our sense of truth. To listen to an exclusive interview between Peter Pomerantsev and chief correspondent Steve Scher, check out Town Hall’s original podcast, In The Moment. And now Peter Pomerantsev and his new book, This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.

Peter Pomerantsev: I have to confess: I have no sense of what time it is. I flew in yesterday from London. My body clock says it’s around 4:00 AM. I should be either dancing somewhere very drunk or I should be asleep. I don’t understand why it’s bright outside. I’m just really confused about what’s going on. So bear with me; if I kind of just phase out into the middle distance it’s not cause of you guys, you’re all great. It is just because of my flights. So that was like the posh introduction to me. That’s the one that I kind of put on my CV’s, like, I run a think tank at the London School of Economics. I can kind of do government work of different sorts, not propaganda. But that’s really not who I am at all.

The reason that I’m here is because between 2000 and 2010, right after university, I went to Russia and I worked in TV production, I made entertainment shows. So I helped bring the reality show to Russia. I helped basically take all the horrible trash of our Western culture and use it to destroy the culture of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. And it was a lot of fun working in Russia. I mean, Michael mentioned this now, one of the shows that the company I worked for made—I didn’t make it myself—was The Apprentice. They brought The Apprentice. Have you heard this show? Yeah. The political [inaudible], we wish we hadn’t brought. Brought The Apprentice to Russia. And it was very interesting cause you get Western producers over, like the guys who invented the format. The music was great. The show was made beautifully. They found an actual oligarchic, not like your kind of guy you had here who’s sort of a pseudo businessman. They had a really famous, genuine businessman play the Donald Trump role. Everything was perfect and the show completely flopped. And they realize it flopped because in Russia, this is not how you make money. You don’t make money by being this kind of brilliant business mind who comes up with great ideas and these challenges. You make money in Russia by shooting people, by being close to the government, by putting them in jail. And if you’re kind of a genuine Apprentice star in Russia, you get sent to the Gulag like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Other forms of reality shows work very well in Russia actually. Shows like Survivor, you know, when you take people and you dump them on an island and they have to survive, Russians love that. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, the Gulag, we get it.’ Hardships, survival; that was a runaway success.

So my first book was about Russia and TV there. And it was trying to analyze a new type of political model, which I found very disconcerting. And it was one where—taking its main kind of constituent parts—where politicians didn’t try to convince you of the truth anymore. They kind of reveled in the fact that they didn’t care whether they were telling the truth and the audiences didn’t care whether they were lying. And that’s different cause usually even when politicians lie, in Russia anyway, they used to try to sound very prim and proper and sound factual. Their lies were an attempt to replace one reality with another. But here suddenly you had Putin and, really starting from the 1990’s, politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky reveling in the fact that they were talking utter poppycock. And it was also political, cultural; there’s no idea of the future anymore, where nostalgia dominated everything, where ideology was somehow very liquid with social roles. We’re constantly in flux, with the idea of the people constantly being created and recreated, and with conspiracy theories that kind of replaced ideology as a way of explaining the world. And that was what my first book was about and it’s called Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible where I tried to capture the essence of this new type of politics in one phrase. And at the end of the book I come back to Britain and around sort of— you know, 2010, 11, 12, it was a slow transition back—and I come back at the end of the book, very naively kind of saying, ‘Oh, the West is terrible in so many ways, but at least, you know, we live in a world where politicians are serious and they’re still ideologies and this looking at Heron sense of political debates and discourse. And it’s not just this endless game where no one cares about the truth anymore.

A couple of years later, 2016 happens. Brexit and Britain, Donald Trump here. And I just found myself looking around with this incredible sense of deja vu. I’m going, ‘Oh my God, the Russia that I knew, all the political culture—obviously Russia is a different country—but some of the under soil of the political culture is now expressing itself in the West as well. And I talked to my Russian friends, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, we ran away from Russia to get away from Putin and now we see so many of the same pathologies in propaganda and public opinion manifest themselves here.’ And just kind of try to work out why that was that I decided to write my next book. That’s what inspired me. I wanted to understand why had the future arrived first in Russia. Was it happening everywhere and what do we do about it?

And trying to answer that question took me on a journey around the world; the new book is not explicitly Russia focused, though Russia kind of stalks it. I went to the Philippines, to Mexico, to America where I go anyway, all around Europe, to China, trying to find what has changed, what’s happened, why are we all suddenly living in this world where nothing is true and everything is possible. And it ended up taking me also into the past because, in a way, to understand what’s going on in the present in the field of information, in the field of propaganda— which I’m saying here very broadly now is just the formation of public opinion— it’s worth understanding what has changed since the 20th century, since the Cold War. And my book actually starts not in the present, but in the past in the year 1976, where a man looking a little bit like myself went for a swim in the Black Sea, off the coast of the city of Odessa, which is in present day Ukraine.

“He came out of the sea and was arrested on the beach, two men in suits standing over his clothes as he returned from a swim. They ordered him to get dressed quickly, put his trousers over his wet trunks. On the drive, the trunks were still wet, shrinking and turning cold, leaving a damp patch on his trousers in the backseat. He had to keep them on during the interrogation. There he was trying to keep up a dignified facade, but the dank trunks made him squirm. It struck him. They had done it on purpose. They were well versed in this sort of thing. These mid-ranking KGB men, masters of the small-time humiliation, the micro mind game. He had been detained for proliferating copies of harmful literature to friends and acquaintances, books censored for telling the truth about the Soviet Gulag or for being written by exiles.

When the Colonel would leave, the major who was interrogating him would pull out a book of chess puzzles and work on them, chewing the end of a pencil. At first their prisoner wondered if this was some clever mind game. Then he realized the major was just killing time. After six days, he was permitted to go home to Kiev, but the investigation continued. While he was on the way home after work at the library, a black car pulled up and he was taken for more interrogations. During that time, life went on. His fiance conceived. They married. At the back of the reception hall lurked a KGB photographer. At down he would rise gently, gently turn the Spatola radio to 1, push the dial to shortwave, wiggle and wave the antenna to dispel the fog of jamming, climbed on chairs and tables to get the best reception, steering the dial in acoustic slalom between transitions, transmissions of East German pop and Soviet military bands, pressed his ear tight to the speaker and through the hiss and crackle made his way to the magical world.

Words. This is London. This is Washington. He was listening for news about arrests, broadcast from the Western radio station. The net closed around his circle. Grisha was taken to the woods and roughed up. Olga was accused of being a prostitute and locked up in a VD clinic with actual prostitutes to make the point. Geli was taken to remand prison and refused treatment for so long that he died. Everyone prepared for the worst. His mother-in-law taught him a secret code based on sausages. ‘If I bring sausages sliced right to left, it means we’ve been able to get out news of your arrest to the West and it’s been broadcast on the radio. If I slice them to the right, it means we failed. ‘It sounds like something out of an old joke or a bad film, but it’s nevertheless true,’ he would write later. ‘When the KGB comes at dawn and you mumble drowsily, ‘Who’s there?’ They often shout ‘Telegram!’ You proceed in semi-sleep, trying not to wake up too much so you can still go back to a snug dream. ‘One moment,’ you moan, put on the nearest trousers, dig out some change to pay the messenger, open the door. And the most painful part is not that they’ve come for you, they’ve got you up so early, but that you—like some small boy—fell for the lie about a telegram. You squeezing your hot palm, the suddenly sweaty change, holding back tears of humiliation.’

At 8 am on September the 30th, 1977, in between interrogations, their child was born. My grandmother wanted me to be called Pinhas after her grandfather. My parents wanted Theodore. I ended up being named Piotr, one of the first of several renegotiations of my name.

40 years have passed since my parents were pursued by the KGB over the simple right to read, write and listen to what they chose and say what they wanted. Today, the world they hoped for, where censorship would fall like the Berlin Wall, can seem much closer: we live in what some academics call an era of ‘information abundance.’ But the assumptions that underlay the struggles for rights and freedoms in the 20th century—between citizens armed with truth and information, and regimes with their sensors and secret police—have been turned upside down. We now have more information than ever before, but it hasn’t brought only the benefits we expected. More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful. But it also has given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent. More information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but we seem less capable of deliberation than ever. More information was supposed to mean mutual understanding across borders, but it’s also made possible new and more subtle forms of conflict and subversion. We live in a world of influence operations run amok, where the means of manipulation have gone forth and multiplied.”

So excuse the long reading there. I just wanted to give you a flavor of the book because from now on I’ll talk in ways which are a little bit more abstract, but it is a book of stories. It is a book of my parents’ story and other stories of people today who tried to fight the new ways of manipulation. But it’s also a book where I try to understand what’s the difference between the Cold War and the war today, the propaganda wars of the Cold War and the ones today. And the first one that’s changed is a very simple one, that’s a technological one. So my father and dissidents like him were fighting against censorship. They were fighting against the system where books weren’t allowed to be published, where they had to listen to foreign radio stations through a fog of jamming. Today that’s not really the case anymore. And you would think that that would mean that those who advocate for democracy will have won, but instead the powerful have found new ways of abusing, essentially, the principles of freedom of expression. The first story that I look at it in the book are all about this, how authoritarian forces or near authoritarian forces or just democratic forces—but those that are against any kind of genuine, deliberative, common debates—have learned to flood the internet, especially, with so much disinformation that people can’t tell the difference between what is true and false anymore.

And even more so: I traveled to Manila, to the Philippines, in the book, and I follow the story of journalists and opposition politicians to the current president, who’s a proto-Trumpian figure called Duterte. And the Philippines, in the Cold War, had its own secret police who would oppress people very much like the KGB did. Today, it’s very different. Today, opposition voices are attacked with armies of cyber militias and trolls who are most probably connected to the government, but it’s incredibly hard to prove that they are. And when opposition people and journalists try to protest against this, then the government turns round and says, ‘You always wanted freedom of expression, well here you are. These are concerned citizens attacking you. What can we do about it?’ And it’s as if the ground has been taken away from the democratic opposition; they don’t have these arguments anymore. And something else very interesting I think has changed with the introduction of the internet into this game, which has got to do with freedom of expression: so my father was a writer when he was arrested and he wrote very purposefully in this very kind of impressionistic prose, this sort of orgy of self expression, which was deeply tied to democratic ideals. Autocratic regimes crushed the individual, and so the rebellious thing was to listen to jazz or to, in my father’s case, try to imitate reading Faulkner. His first novella was called Reading Faulkner, where he tries to kind of imitate his hero. In his first novella, Reading Faulkner, written when he was 27, Igor—that’s my dad’s name—played on motifs from his own life when his fictional narrator, a young writer, discovers his fictional father’s impersonal, official writing and compares it with his own. So this is sort of the language of the Soviet union that he’s trying to reject. ‘This country has thrown off the chains of capitalist slavery. Bourgeois culture was always far from the people. Now it has revealed its true face, the face of the mates oven to the monopolistic capital. Welcome the socialist, sudden! Let the darkness be gone.’ And my father would write things like, ‘Just a minute ago, you’re walking down the street, breathing in air and breathing out words. Now you have burst through to the page. Now we’ll pour out like wild berries you’ve been carrying inside your jacket. Is there any joy greater than writing in the first person?’ So in the 70’s when my father—this was a revolutionary way of writing, as a celebration of freedom in an authoritarian country.

Today you can express yourself all you want on social media. You can go on Facebook or go and VKontakte in Russia and pour out your soul. The whole social media model is based around this. But instead of empowering you, the more of yourself you leave on social media, the more governments or other propagandistic forces can analyze you and find targeted messages in order to manipulate you. And that’s a massive change, again, to the association of freedom of expression and political empowerment. The more you speak, in a weird way, the more manipulable you are. And one of the first countries to grasp this was actually Putin’s Russia. There’s a great study from 2010 by Citizen Lab who are Canadian academic group and they started going, ‘Oh, we see something very weird happening on the Russian internet. They’re not trying to censor people, they’re just trying to flood the zone of disinformation and with very targeted messaging cause they know exactly which audiences they’re going for.’ But that’s kind of the technical thing. And I’m not a technological determinist. I think there’s something else that has changed from the 20th century.

So for my father, he was a Soviet dissident fighting the Soviet Union, but he saw himself connected with other freedom movements throughout the world. He was greatly inspired by the Prague Spring, the 1968 rebellion in Czechoslovakia against Soviet rule. And in 1989, these civic groups rise up and you have this incredible scene of—across the world, not just in Eastern Europe and South America and South Africa and South Asia—of people marching through the streets, of people power overturning authoritarian rule. That’s a very powerful story to tell. There’s this association of people out on the streets and an idea of history, that democracy will win out, that our democratization is inevitable, what Obama talks about, the right arc of history. And in the book I talk to a lot of people who lead these kind of bottom up movements. And one of the guys I talk to is a Srdja Popovic who was one of the leaders of the revolution against Milosevic in 1999 in Yugoslavia and has really become a guru of nonviolent, people-powered revolutions. He trains activists across the world, in Eastern Europe before the Color revolutions in the Middle East before the Arab Spring. And when I met him in Belgrade—cause he’s Serb—he was in this very strange moment where all the stories that he told or the practices that he’d taught people were being co-opted by the other side. In various ways the Russian government and other authoritarian regimes were organizing their own forms of people-powered protest. And this stone year 2006 to 2007, Russia was already using a mix of social media attacks, propaganda attacks, and sort of igniting street protests. But this time, not in supportive democracy but in the opposite, and in support of authoritarian regimes. In Ukraine in 2015 after the Great Revolution of Dignity in Kiev, again, the Kremlin and proxy forces organized parody protests in East Ukraine. They even call it the Russian Spring to echo the Prague Spring of ‘68. And it was as if they were taking the language of people-powered protests and saying, ‘Actually, there is no inevitable association between protests out in the streets, civic movements and democracy. They can mean they’re opposite.’ They’re kind of parodying the whole language of people protests and, through that, making it null and void.

There are other ways that the work of great storytelling of protest movements was breaking down. The first thing that [inaudible] tells protest movements is that you have to develop an idea of the future that’s different to the regimes. That was very easy with the Soviet Union or with Milosevic. They were authoritarian, the protests leaders were freedom-loving, they had terrible state-sponsored arts while these guys had jazz or rock music. But that’s completely changed now. So a much cleverer type of authoritarian regime—whether in Russia, whether in Serbia, whether in China—has learned not to hold onto one ideology. They don’t create, they don’t allow themselves to be one thing that can be opposed. The Putin regime can be nationalist one moment and then incredibly globalist the next. I can celebrate Russian imperialism and then its own multiculturalism. It’s constantly moving about and constantly transforming. It’s co-opted the cultural language of the West, reality shows as I was helping them do, I suppose, and rock music and rap. So you can’t really oppose them as you could easily before. And instead of having one ideology that you could build a protest movement against, they use conspiracy. And that’s what really unites the Putin approach, the Chinese approach, and I suppose Trump as well. Conspiracies have replaced ideology. They’re not conspiracies that buttress an idea of history. The communists and the Nazis obviously indulged in conspiracy theories, but they were there to support a bigger theory, one about class warfare or about antisemitism.

Now, the propagandists, these regimes create conspiracy, the aim of which is to give the audience and the public the sense that the truth is unknowable, that you’ll never get to the truth and very subtly communicate the message that ‘Look, if you can’t get to the truth, if you live in a world of endless, hidden hands where everyone is always manipulating everyone else, you can’t change anything. So your struggles, your protests, they’re pointless.’ And at the same time—as this story that was implicit in what the freedom fighters of the 20th century was striving for—this association of people out on the streets of a certain type of music with a certain type of progress has been sort of eaten away at an even more fundamental level. This is probably the most important thing that I discovered in the writing of my book.

In the 20th century, there was, at the end of the day, a competition between two versions of a future-oriented history to enlightenment projects essentially. The communist’s one was built in its own weird way on supposedly scientific socialist principles. Democratic capitalism was imbued with an enlightenment logic. And for both of those, facts were incredibly important in order to prove that you were getting somewhere, that you are achieving this future that you’d promise. So when my father would sit there listening for reports from the West, there was a real value to finding out the truth. The communists were actually petrified of the truth coming out. I mean, you’ve all seen the Chernobyl series, you know how they felt truth could undermine them because they were trying to create their own alternative truth, it was meant to feel factual. It’s very interesting going back and looking at the way the Soviet regime would react when it was called out lying by the West. There was a propaganda campaign at the Soviets theater in the 20th century, in 1980 actually, trying to try to show that the CIA developed AIDS as a weapon against the Afro American population. And when Reagan called Gorbachev out on this, Gorbachev was appalled, like, ‘How dare you say the Soviet Union is lying.’ Today when Putin says to the whole world, ‘There are no Russian soldiers in Crimea,’—when everyone knows there are—and kind of smirks and a couple of weeks later goes, ‘Well, actually there were,’ and rewards everybody there with metals, he’s not lying. He’s saying, ‘I don’t care about facts. I don’t care about the truth.’ And your current president seems to almost revel in this kind of anarchic  liberation from glum reality.

And what’s really changed is that at one point in the 21st century, the value and the coherence of any idea of the future fell away for a lot of people. So in Russia—I think this happened early—in Russia, this happened in 1989 when communism was discredited or even earlier. And then by ‘93, the idea of democratic reforms leading to a rational future collapsed, essentially, with a disastrous period which brought much death and misery. In the West I think this happened later, probably after 2008, the great crash, we could point to the war in Iraq as an undermining of the idea that democracy was inevitable. I think there’s lots of different moments, but enough of an idea of the future falls away and if there’s no idea of the future anymore than then why would you need facts? Facts are not particularly pleasant. They tell me that I’m jet lagged, that one might be overweight. At the end of the day facts tell you you’re going to die. They’re just useful if you’re trying to prove something. But if you’re not trying to prove any coherent idea of the future, which is where we’ve all arrived to now, then why would facts be necessary? And instead you’re gonna celebrate the politician, whether a Putin or a Trump, who celebrates the release from facts. That’s sort of almost libidinal energy that’s released there.

And Russia simply arrived at this place that we are in now much, much earlier. So, ready in the 1990’s, Russian propagandists and Russian politicians are thinking about: how do they create a new type of politics which can negotiate this new unreality. And that’s why I feel that I’d seen something in Russia in the late 90’s and early two 2000’s and see it now arise here, and I think that’s why Russia has become very good at playing the propaganda games of the 21st century. It’s a waning power that doesn’t manage to put itself on the cover of every magazine and has played these new fluctuating lines very, very well. I don’t think there’s anything mystical about the fact that the future arrived first in Russia. It just got their first, actually, paradoxically by losing the Cold War. It managed to arrive at our current state much earlier. And in the book there’s really one kind of interview that really brings this out for me, where I interview a guy called Gleb Pavlovsky who was a Russian spin doctor with a very interesting personal story, who managed Yeltsin’s campaigns in ‘96 and then Putin’s campaigns in 1999, so one of the guys who kind of created the politics that I saw when I lived there.

“‘I first invented the idea of the Putin majority,’ one of the first spin doctors, Gleb Pavlovsky, told me when I still lived in Moscow, ‘and then it appeared! The communist ideocracy was sluggish, but it was an ideological entity, nonetheless,’ he said, gently advising me to ask more precise questions. ‘Even up to the end, people could at least argue over the positives and negatives of communism. Now’—now he’s talking about his own career in the 90’s—’a vacuum arose requiring a new language. We were an absolutely blank canvas. We had, in a sense, to reinvent the principles of the political system as best as possible.

The vision of a pretty future of freedom had fallen apart in the devastations of the early 1990’s. Instead the landscape was dotted with new micro movements making up their own terminology as they went along; National Bolsheviks; Liberal Democrats who are actually conspiratorial nationalists; Communists were Orthodox monarchists with social programs. When he polled the country, Pavlovsky found Russians believed in contradictions that didn’t fit into any old conceptions of left the rights. Most believed in a strong state as long as it didn’t involve itself in their personal lives. Soviet demographic categories like ‘workers,’ ‘collective farmers,’ ‘intelligentsia’ were useless to win elections. Pavlovsky experimented with a different approach to assembling an electorate. Instead of focusing on ideological argument, he targeted different, often conflicting, social groups and began to collect them like a Russian doll. It didn’t matter what their opinions were; he just needed to gather enough of them. ‘You collect them for a short period,’ he told me, ‘literally for a moment, but so they all vote together for one person. To do this, you need to build a fairytale that will be common to all of them.’ That fairy tale couldn’t be a political ideology: the great idea that had powered collective notions of progress were dead. The disparate groups needed to be unified around a central emotion, a feeling powerful enough to unite them, yet vague enough to mean anything to anyone.”

And then I’ll go into what he did in 1999: “For the 2000 presidential election Pavlovsky pulled together everyone who felt they had lost out during the Yeltsin years, what he calls the ‘left behind,’ and imbued them with the sense that this was their last chance to be winners. These were disparate segments of society that in Soviet times would have been on different sides of the barricades—teachers, secret service types, academics, soldiers—whom Pavlovsky would bundle together under the idea of the ‘Putin majority.’”

When Pavlovsky looks at the West today, he sees it going through the same changes Russia underwent in the 1990’s: a delayed reaction to a similar crisis. As he told me, ‘The Cold War splits global civilization into two alternative forms, both of which promised people a better future.’ He told me when I interviewed him, ‘The Soviet Union undoubtedly lost, but then there appeared a strange Western utopia with no alternative. This utopia was ruled over by economic technocrats who could do no wrong then that collapse. In this identity and ideological flux, political campaigners in the West have ended up adopting strategies strikingly similar to Pavlovsky’s. They’re enhanced by social media and big data. So in the book I talk a little bit about the Trump election, which was modeled in very similar ways. And, of course, Brexit, which really was kind of a post-echo of Pavlovsky’s tactics in the 1990’s. I think we look at the idea of populism in the wrong way actually. Populism, the way spin doctors talk about it, is a strategy. It’s a way of creating political campaigns in a post-ideological time and in a time when the old social categories have broken down. I interviewed the digital head of the campaign that won the Brexit referendum and it was incredible; he hadn’t heard about Pavlovsky. He discovered the same recipes for success because weirdly the culture had become quite similar. There was no one ideology to Brexit, that wouldn’t have won it. Quite the opposite. He had to do a social media segmentation, find completely different audiences, motivated by completely different things some were motivated by immigration. That’s the easy ones, the nationalists, fine, but that’s only 15% of your vote. We’ve got to get everyone else.

The most successful campaign he did: people who really care about animal rights. He managed to do targeted online campaigns during the Brexit referendum saying the EU is horrible towards animals because it sponsors bullfighting and that was his most successful ad to get people out to vote. There is nothing in common between white nationalists in England and people who like animals. These are different segments, but he managed to unite them all around this vague idea of taking back control, which can mean anything to anyone. And with a vague enemy, the EU, which was the source of everybody’s ills. It’s very similar when you look at the Trump campaign where part of the appeal was white nationalists, but it was also housewives in New Jersey who were targeted with a completely different set of messaging. And obviously there’s a lot of crossover between the Trump campaign and the Brexit campaign in terms of the spin doctors involved, in terms of the companies involved who kind of drove this approach.

So I think all these conflicts crystallized into one thing. And that’s this strange term that I now hear a lot in the U.S as well: information warfare. Which worries me a lot. I’ll explain to you why. So information warfare, which is a big part of the current thinking of the Russian government, is not merely a collection of social media tricks to interfere with other people’s democracies. It’s kind of a worldview that’s replaced the Cold War and that’s replaced ideology. And essentially it’s a worldview that says there is no idea of history. There is no idea of the future. There are no real ideas or ideologies. There is just endless manipulation. And what we think of as historical processes are just accidents of competing manipulative forces. So this started off actually among philosophers connected to the security services in Russia in the 1990’s and early 2000’s and they started to talk about the end of the Cold War, not the way my father or most of you probably think about it—as a battle of values, of a democracy against authoritarianism—they thought about it in a very different way, that actually the West had planted information viruses in the Soviet Union, like Perestroika and Glasnost and freedom of expression. But these were just masks for the real aim of overturning Russia. And they saw the whole of history—the Arab Spring, Yugoslavia—not as a battle of ideas, but as a battle of information warfare. Now first the Kremlin ignored these people, but as the Kremlin needed its own excuses to explain away very big mass protests in Russia, the revolution in Ukraine, they adopted this information warfare language. And they now explain what goes on in the world, as information warfare. It’s a deeply conspiracist worldview. Now, one of the consequences of Russia’s now very well-documented social media operations in the U.S election is that I see this information warfare language being echoed here.

I did a quick test on the MIT word tools, a word tools tool that allows you to measure how different words are being used in the media here. And I think the term ‘information warfare’ went up by 300% after 2016. And that’s a very worrying development for me because by framing what’s going on in the world as information warfare, we start to look at it just like the Russians do and just like the Chinese do. And that puts us in a situation where we start to be very paranoid of the information around us, but—fine, that we can get over—but it starts to put in place policies, which are just the ones that Russia wants. It’s happening in Europe now. Essentially their forms of censorship is a new German law and a new French law basically saying that we have to censor the internet, partly as a consequence of the Russian operations.

So this is the classic mistake that we make when we try to think about how to grapple with all the issues that I’ve been talking about. We start to repeat the language of the aggressor and then to impose the policies that he wants, cause there’s nothing more that Russia and the Kremlin would want than having an excuse to impose censorship themselves. They even have an idea of information sovereignty where essentially the great victories of the Cold War, of 1989, of the things people like my father fought for, are washed back again. So that, I hope, very elegantly gets me onto the question of solutions. Cause I do broach the question of solutions in the book and I’ll go through them very quickly because really I want your feedback as well because I’m lying if I think I know how to solve all of this, but I’ve created a think tank at the LSE to think about it. So I should probably say something.

I do think regulation can play a role, but I think it has to be very, very clever. I think if we look at what’s actually wrong with the Russian campaigns—both domestically, the campaigns that I talked about in the Philippines with these cyber militias, and also abroad to damage America’s precious and, it turns out, very fragile democracy—the problem isn’t content so much as behavior. It’s deceptive behaviors: it’s that we don’t understand that a campaign is organic or if it’s artificial online. That if something is a bot or a real person. That’s the problem that people in the Philippines face who are fighting Duterte and what journalists and analysts face here and trying to understand how the information environments around this is being shaped. We live in a world where we don’t understand how the information, whether it’s created, and so I do think regulation plays a role and I think it has to be about transparency. I think we have to understand, be able to see how the information environment is created. I think that will also mean public oversights of algorithms so they stop being a black box. It also means more transparency and accountability for the material that the tech companies take down. It has to be completely different fields, and that’s the sort of regulation that I think all democracies can get behind and that’s still very much in the spirit of 1989 and of democratic logic, which was always to demand more information. We’re not asking for censorship. We’re asking for more information about the information environment. And that’s the sort of regulatory logic that governments like Duterte’s or Putin’s or Xi Jinping’s loath cause they need to keep their own populations in the dark. But that’s the role of regulation, which is always going to be small in the information space.

Much more important is how to compete in this world. I think that there’s one thing that I found as I went around the world: there is no ideological consistency to all these different political campaigns, but they do have one aim, and that’s polarization. They mean to strengthen polarization, to set people against each other, and to break down that deliberative space in which democracy is enacted. And I think we’re going to need some sort of actor that gets up in the morning every morning and thinks about how do they bring different groups together. If the propaganda today is targeted with different messages at different groups, each of them becoming more and more calcified in their little fragmented echo chambers—which is a bad time because they’re not really echo chambers, but okay, let’s call them that—then it has to be someone’s job in the morning to get up and to bring them together. So we’re doing a lot of experimental projects like that at the LSE. In a way, we’re using the same analytical tools as the Russians or the guys who created Brexit. We’re also trying to understand audiences, try to understand what motivates them, but we’re doing it in a transparent way and then we’re creating content that hopes to generate a common discussion between them. I don’t think media can do this, cause sadly media have ended up playing into the polarization. Public service media is too slow and a little bit too clunky to deal with it, even though it has the right ethos. So I think we’re going to have to need a new type of civic actor to deal with this. And what kind of discussion do we want to generate as we try to create this new, this new public sphere?

As I tried to bring home in my very brief overview of the book, what’s gone missing is a discussion about the future. We have to learn how to foster and generate that discussion. I’m not a huge political philosopher, but I am a recovering journalist and there’s a way for us to cover politics that doesn’t play into the polarization, that doesn’t play into a politics of performance where facts really don’t matter anyway. You’re approaching election here and you’re making the same mistakes as you did in the last one, it’s depressing to watch. We’re about to have an election in the UK and we’re doing it again there. We have to get away from the reality show elements of how we conduct journalism. We have to chain and foster discussions which force politicians to talk about practical [inaudible], practical policies that they wish to enact in the future and then find ways to track those promises and to hold them to account. That’s a very different way of conducting journalism, but those are the boring things that I have to deal with in my everyday life. What I’m really interested in, I suppose, is how can the arts and creative nonfiction—which is what I’m really interested in when I’m not working—react to this situation? So my father is a leitmotif in this book. I sort of follow his personal journey throughout the book as I contrast it with all the propaganda out there. And the reason I do that—it’s not because I’m not that much of a fan of my dad, like every other son it’s a difficult relationship—but because he was a writer and an artist and what he was always doing in the 70’s, in the 80’s and 90’s— he’s alive at the end of the book and flourishing—is trying to reinvent language even as the propagandistic eating language up. Even as I read language about human rights, about democracy, the great stories we told ourselves around protest movements fall apart. And most importantly, as the idea of self expression becomes pretty much debased, he’s always trying to reinvent the way he writes in order to stay ahead and be able to encounter reality with the new language. And this book actually is a very small and pitiful attempt to do that in narrative nonfiction. And in a couple of ways: firstly, I do think it’s going to be hard to return to objective notions of talking about reality, that kind of big history and big narratives—they’re probably gone. But what I think we can do as writers is trying to disclose all our biases, present a subjectivity which makes a dialogue with the reader and with another author possible.

I come back to that over and over in the book. It’s a slightly postmodern book where I’m constantly thinking about the situation I’m doing an interview with, and I show how the interview is made and I show the way we create a reality and a narrative. But by opening that up, I’m not trying to say there is no reality, quite the opposite. I’m hoping to invite the reader and other authors into a dialogue where we can have that genuine interaction, which has gone missing. And the other way I tried to do it is: it’s very hard to write about reality at a time when all the forms of narrative have really been taken up by various forms of manipulation and influence. So even something as personal as the diary now is misused as a way to manipulate you if you write it online. So I think what I try to do in the book is collide different genres. There are bits of the book which are family memoir and that sort of narrative. There are bits which are academic studies. There are bits which are just critical analysis of media. And by colliding these different genres, I’m hoping that reality kind of appears in the bits between them. You’ll have to tell me whether it works, but it’s a very conscious experiment. And I’ll probably end there because I have to give you a time to ask me questions cause I keep on talking about the need for engagement and deliberation and I’m completely dominating things in this pretty authoritarian way. I hope that made sense. You’re my guinea pigs; this is the first time I’ve talked about the book in a public setting in this kind of sustained way. So also feedback: how do I do this better in San Francisco in two day’s time? Cause everyone knows Seattle is where the clever people live.

Audience Member 1: Your story about how they manipulated people with both fighting in Europe is fascinating, and the left tends to be very fond of purity tests: that you have to believe everything we’re talking about, not just some of it. And recently the United States, the mooch, Anthony Scaramucci who served for 10 days in the Trump administration started attacking Trump. And people were saying, ‘Well, why did it take you so long?’ So the question I want to ask you is, if we have to get more sophisticated at tailoring our arguments to a broader audience, how do we resist this idea of purity tests to be able to enlarge the tent?

PP: Wow, that’s almost like a religious question, isn’t it? Should I take several questions or one by one? What’s the format here? One, wow, that’s different. In Britain we’re allowed to take several and then ignore the tough ones. Damn, this is a real democracy. Purity tests, hmm. I’m more interested in voices which are kind of faltered. You know, my book is full of faulty voices. Gleb Pavlovsky, the guy who helped create Putin was actually a dissident in the 70’s, but he was broken. And really historic might be the story of somebody who was broken by the KGB in the 70’s and has ended up having this warped relationship with the Kremlin ever since. But that makes him fascinating. Purity is something that one one expects from saints and saintly leaders. It’s horrible. I would be very suspicious of anybody pure. I definitely want the mooch. I’d rather have the mooch—purity scares me. So I don’t know. I think America is a little bit special, one of his lovely euphemisms, and the cliche—and you tell me if it’s true—the cliche has always been, it’s because it’s such a young country—it’s kind of young, young, old now, so that there’s younger countries on the block—but it’s a young country where people didn’t have much history. So therefore identity and your kind of political identity became sacrosanct because that really was who you could explain you are. I wonder whether that can be problematic as well. Democracy works when you have a messy discourse. What’s happened now is that we’re all kind of screaming from our little echo pulpits to ourselves. There’s a whole theory and philosophy that truth and reality emerges in discourse. In terms of, ‘I have the truth, no I have the truth,’ it actually merges in the moment of communication. And when different realities collide, there’s some linguistic theories about that as well. But fine. So yeah, I take the mooch over the purest actually. But yeah, I’m not sure purity is going to help us here. Our values are really important. Cynicism is destructive. Isn’t that kind of like that guy who’s doing conversion therapy and just turned out he was gay and when I hit purity I just feel bad. Okay. What’s going on here?

Audience Member 2: I have a question.

PP: Oh wow. It’s like two sides. God.

Audience Member 2: They’re on the left and I’m on the right.

PP: Right, and I’m trying to create dialogue.

Audience Member 2: Anyway, I just wanted to ask, what does history teach us about how other civilizations and other cultures and time have effectively dealt with these situations?

PP: So, history teaches us that when—I’m not a technological determinant, but I do think media does recreate our reality to a great extent—so history teaches us that when there’s a media revolution, like the print revolution or the radio revolution or the TV revolution, the first people who seize hold of it in a really potent way are the forces of anger, viciousness and destruction. So the print revolution—before it gives birth to the Enlightenment—helps catalyze the wars of religion, 30 years of warfare in Europe. Radios really first seized upon by totalitarian dictatorships. TV’s first great genius is Senator McCarthy. So history teaches a lot of bad things and then it takes a while for—I’m going to use this absolutist language now—the forces of good to get their heads around how to use this and how to mitigate those damages and history teaches us that it can get incredibly messy and let’s just hope that it doesn’t this time. So the experience of history is pretty negative. And I’m an optimist.

Audience Member 3: I work at a school that has a large Eastern European population and it’s actually interesting how many of those kids are steeped in conspiracy theories and they watch Alex Jones and they are convinced that everything they see on mainstream media is a liberal conspiracy. And what is the best way to reach them without buying into their beliefs that everything that goes against their opinion is some left wing conspiracy to kind of change their mind? To kind of see that the world is more complex than their conspiracy theory outlooks?

PP: So that’s such an interesting question. That’s one of the things that we really want to research at Arena, which is a think tank around at the LSE. I think we do have to understand their motivations much more. I think you’ll find that a certain percentage are kind of lost, while others are just super curious, while others, especially coming from Eastern Europe where you are legitimately allowed not to trust the media. I’ve kind of taken those cultural precepts and moved them here. So you could find completely different ways of working. I think you’d have to break apart that bundle, stop thinking about them as one homogenous clump, and start building dialogue with each one separately. I think it’s very interesting looking at the motivation for regimes like Russia’s, like [inaudible] and Serbia and now yours here to make conspiracy that main idiom really. I mentioned it in my little ramble of a talk, but I think the aim is to give people the sense that they can’t change anything. Sean Hannity, who’s a very familiar person to anybody Russian, gives this conspiracist’s fugue. They’re quite beautiful actually, in a way. I have to watch a lot of Fox News for my work, so I kind of forced myself to enjoy it. And at the end, it’s like ‘And only Trump, only a strong man can lead us through this dark, dark world.’ I mean, that’s the point. You have no agency, you need a Trump. Only Putin can take Russia off its knees, various Russian TV doesn’t, these days, doesn’t show this beautiful successful Russia. It shows a Russia beset by evil conspiracies and crime because that gives you the sense that we need a strong hand and a Putin strong hand to guide us. So actually the real cure for that I think is imbuing people with the sense that they have agency, that they can change anything. So again, I think you have to deal with the effects of the conspiracy propaganda when it’s used for that very specific reason and deal with the effects of it. You can’t really deal with the content. It’s so hard to do that. You know, once somebody got into their heads that PBS is run by the lizard people, it’s going to be hard.

Left and right doesn’t really exist anymore. So this is very chaotic, you know, what are you doing? Just populism.

Audience Member 4: Yeah. Thank you for your talk. I’ve seen some people propose using education—especially starting young in primary and high school—of teaching people how to engage with media, how to tell apart conspiracy websites from legitimate media and fight against propaganda. So what’s your take on that idea and on that specific technique or more broadly, is there any country that you know that is doing a good job fighting against propaganda?

PP: So yeah, media literacy is kind of the default thing that liberal governments like to do because it’s safe. It’s just like, ‘Yeah, we’ll, there’s some civics classes.’ I think education about critical thinking is part of civics is part of what we have to have in schools—it won’t cure this. There’s a certain arrogance in thinking, ‘Oh, they’re just stupid,’ when test after test after test shows that even very bright people in Belgian have confirmation bias, that we will seek out the information we want. I’ve seen many of my liberal American friends just post nonsense after nonsense about Trump, which just wasn’t true. And there’s a whole ecology on social media which is set up to feed this now, which I wouldn’t say is just as cynical as the pro-Trump one, but it’s pretty damn cynical as well. People who do this know what they’re doing. So sadly, I don’t think that works. But even more fundamentally, here’s the danger with that: so authoritarian regimes now love media literacy because their aim isn’t trying to convince you that the Kremlin is creating utopia. Their aim is to convince you not to trust anything. And weirdly, media literacy can be used to do that; don’t trust anything. Actually what we need is communication and being able to have constructive arguments again. That’s what we need. So I’d like us to train that. Maybe that’s something that we can train up and try to imbue people with a sense of discourse with the other side and discuss our practices. But just going around being a bit paranoid? I mean, you know who the best deconstructor of media is out there? Sean Hannity, he’s brilliant. He will—again, I have to watch a lot of this stuff—he will take apart every little bit in NBC and CBS over the last 10 years with precision. He’s got great researchers. All his arguments, by the way, are right. He’ll do numbers, quite accurate numbers about, ‘Oh look how little they criticized Obama and how much Trump, all good. At the end he doesn’t say, ‘Therefore we need better, more objective media there.’ At the end he says, ‘Objective media doesn’t exist. Only subjectivity exists. Only emotion exists and it’s Trump against the’—what’s that wonderful phrase of his—’the defeat Trump or left Soros conspiracy media monster,’ or something like that. But we know this, you know, it’s always the really skeptical people who end up believing crazy stuff. The people who don’t trust anything who end up on InfoWars. So there’s a dark side to media literacy and oddly one needs a little bit of trust in order to have a conversation with someone. It’s the right sort of trust, it’s not bad trust, but I think media literacy is important, it’s part of our education, but we’ve misdiagnosed the problems if we think it’s just people being stupid.

Audience Member 5: Before I pose my question, perhaps with a kudos for you. I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation. I think that it was at the same time a bit disheartening and also stimulating to think about what the topic of this evening’s presentation was. And I sincerely hope you do not mind the jet lag and come to Seattle again. I have made my 50 flights across the Atlantic and I don’t think I’ll ever make a hundred.

PP: Yeah. Thank you for all those nice words. I like this. Go on. Yeah. And now it comes the really tough question. He’s softened and now eh.

Audience Member 5: And now my question; I put it just in plain English. I am vexed and thoroughly puzzled by what’s going on around this Brexit in your adopted home country. In plain English, what do you think are the real driving forces, the root cause, not the people who were told they have a gray area in Spain and not this and that and not Boris Johnson saying [inaudible], running 50 million pounds each year, not paying into the European year budget we put into the NHS. What is behind that at the molecular level, your personal opinion?

PP: So I think the actual Brexit campaign shows a lot of the trends that we see across the world. But of course it’s much deeper than that. This is part of Britain’s 500-year-old schitzophrenic attitudes and relationship with Europe. Britain has—or England, let’s say, and put it that way—has always defined it’s identity as not European. Everybody has exceptionalism. The Danes, the Dutch—the Dutch are terrible—but the English exceptionalism is: we’re not European. That’s a very specific one. Holland, you can be exceptionist but also European. They’re not exclusionary. Well, in the English, exceptionalism is built about not being European. Okay, here’s my personal take, which nobody agrees with me. When there was this really massive immigration from the EU—it is the biggest immigration since viking times, it’s like 4 million people arrived in 10 years, it is genuinely huge—when all these people arrived from the EU, Latvians, Poles, the English looked at them and realize they were exactly the same as them. Before that, immigration into England had been from the former colonies and there’d been lots of tension, but it always reminded the English that they’d had a great empire. The difference actually helped the English feel important and special. And they looked at these Latvians and they’re white, they’re into football, their kind of atheist, they tell dirty jokes, they look the same, and English had a collective nervous breakdown. They’re like, ‘What do you mean we’re not different? Our whole idea is that we’re different to them,’ and Brexit was kind of a reaction to that. Brexit was a chance to express that, for enough people. When I tell this to English people, they don’t agree. I’m kind of half foreigner-ing; as you can tell from the book, my parents are sort of Russian Ukrainian, so I’m not really English even though I’m a kind of spy in England. Cultural spy, not a spy, god. It was a metaphor. Shit. I better call my handler, I’ve revealed myself. But that’s just my sense of it and it’s actually not in the books. I wanted the book to be universal, but I do write about it in a very big grant, an essay called Pop Up People, where I go into that in a lot more depth. Cause I covered one of the last elections in Britain and I kind of saw that come through several times. So that’s my personal theory, but it’s got to do with that. It’s about English exceptionalism and relationship to Europe, which look, that goes back to Henry the 8th or maybe Henry the 5th. So it’s the new iteration of a very old story. Oh yeah, left. Hi.

Audience Member 6: Thank you for sharing about your book today. Do you think that grassroots and anti-lobby political organizations in the U.S will ever have the resources to combat the efforts of political entities with greater informational resources? What are the small steps that could be taken in the short term? I work in marketing at a huge data firm. I feel like the resources that we have compared to the resources that people need and should have, in terms of inciting revolutionary information, is very compromised.

PP: There was a great moment of hope, wasn’t there, at the start? I mean, I don’t know enough about the situation in the U.S and I think some of it is very U.S specific. And you’d have to tell me; I’m just not enough of an expert on the specifics of lobbying in DC. But obviously when the internet appeared, it was this massive moment of hope for activists all over the world. And one of the guys I talked to in the book is called Alberto Scotia, who’s a leader of protest movements in Mexico. And he goes deeper than just organizing. He’s a guy who lives in data. He does everything through data. And what he tried to do is—the way Google could spot flu epidemics developing by the way people were searching for certain things, and stop the flu epidemic—he did the same thing with demands for revolutionary change in Mexico. He had a methodology of looking at Google searches and geography. Now there’s lots of things that he was looking at, which could tell what people’s latent desires were. And then he’d start protest movements, tapping into all those things. So it’s almost as if the internet would let him read the latent revolutionary reality. Now I’m speaking in Mexican language, latent revolutionary reality beneath the surface of what we see, that’s kind of his language. And then when the government realized this, they started getting into the troll farms, and the bots are ways to come between people and the social change desires that data can reveal. So that’s a fascinating competition. And what I liked about him was that he was ready to really embrace the possibilities of what social media gave you. Again, doing it very openly and transparently. So that’s kind of the battle that we’re in. I think now we understand that battle. We understand what the dynamics of the battle are and we can think about fighting it. But I think that’s where the new challenge is. So he hadn’t lost all hope. Looking at the Mexican election, he thought the current Mexican government had won—which was kind of a lefty government, lefty that’s done a deal with big business, sort of Mexican lefty—had managed to really capitalize on the protest movements. The protest movements hadn’t won themselves, but they’d caused enough movement for a political movement to go, ‘Okay, we’ll co-opt these ideas.’ He was now worried that those ideas would then be abused, but there had been progress. So he’d managed to do something, but this endless game of cat and mouse with the regimes, bots and trolls, and it is a war, in the way he described it, between reality and simulation. So now we’ve couched it in these matrix-like terms. But it’s going to be a battle. But I think they’re scared. They’re even scared in China and Russia, so they’re much more scared than when they owned all the media. So I don’t think we can just win power going, ‘Oh, we don’t have enough data.’ But yeah. So I’d stay positive cause there are small victories in the great avalanche of defeats.

Audience Member 7: Well, thank you for a very stimulating hour, whatever it was. My brain has been confronted by too much stuff for sure. But I was thinking a few—well actually I tried to grasp onto a few—one was your idea, you made a statement about co-optation. By the way, I’m wondering if your whole talk is like a big postmodern rift. I mean, riff riff, maybe rift, also a big riff.

PP: Yours was.

Audience Member 7: I just thought maybe you would comment on—well, very recently Robert Reich was here, just the other night in Town Hall, and he said that probably the best thing we can do now is to hope for maybe a general strike in the U.S. So my question is, could you speak about what’s happened in Hong Kong and the idea of—I really feel the need for a materialistic basis to some of what you’re talking about.

PP: As we speak here looking for hope, there are epic democratic pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Actually, bizarrely a successful series of protests in Russia, in Moscow, protests in Belgrade, in Balisi. The difference between then and let’s say 1989 or the Arab Spring is that then there was a sense that all these protests were actually part of a much, much larger story, and now they seemed disparate and broken up. What I would want to do now, if I had the resources—if only I ran a think tank at a university—would be to dive very deeply doing qualitative and data research into all these protests and trying to find what did they have in common? Cause I think the old language of pro-democracy movements, freedom of expression rights, that’s all been either co-opted or trashed or just left empty somehow. We need to go back to the ground and work out why on earth liberal democracy—cause that’s what I’m talking about—mattered so much. Cause it mattered in a burning way in the 70’s and 80’s to people across the world. And I think if we dig very deeply into those movements, we’ll actually find these interesting commonalities, because at the moment they don’t feel part of a greater story. They don’t feel part of an arc of history. They feel like disparate movements. And I think it’s there, I just think we have to start looking for it. And maybe we have to move away from some of the old language that we used. I mean, it’s hilarious. I interviewed this guy, this far-right activist, Martin Zellner, head of the identitarians, and he completely uses the language of Srdja Popovic, the Serbian, and of pro-democracy movements. So he says—and the El Paso shooter had this in his manifesto as well—’I want to get rid of intermarriages cause I want to protect ethnic diversity. I don’t want people all the same race,’ or, the El Paso shooter in his manifesto compared white people to red Indians. Martin Zellner, who inspired the El Paso shooter’s language to a certain extent, talks about how he’s defending women’s rights by trying to get rid of all Muslims from Europe. He loves Srdja Popovic’s guidebooks and manuals, How to Do Pro-Democracy Movements. He says that we’re living in a soft authoritarianism of multiculturalism, and he’s inspired by Prague ‘68 and he’s inspired by 1989 to bring on a white nationalist revolution. We can’t use that language anymore. We can’t, it’s gone. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t new things to fight for. Maybe we have to just question why on earth liberal democracy is worth it and what’s so great about it?

Audience Member 8: So I have a question, not about flooding of information from social media, but actually the opposite: the idea of social media actually preventing information from moving around. So basically something I’ve noticed a lot with social media is that it tends to have a very constrained space in which the ideas exist. They tend to be very close to what the current belief structures are. And basically if you have an idea that takes more than 10 minutes to explain, it can be very difficult to really actually get anyone to glom onto that idea. It tends to be more about things that are smaller, easier-to-think-about ideas that tend to be more connected to our society. There’s a lot of them, but that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily deep or useful. So I guess my question is what do you think we can do as a society in the future to move past this to ideas that may genuinely be able to help us as a society as opposed to merely the ones that exist close to us and our small iterative changes that exist inside the space of debate? My question is how can we get out of the fever swamp, I suppose?

PP: Nationalize the companies, that’s all. General strike! Let’s have a general strike in Silicon Valley. I certainly would give them public oversight. It’s funny, I mean, that’s one way. There’s lots of ways, but let’s just talk about the regulatory one at the moment. So the way social media especially has been designed encourages this. It rewards polarization. There’s decades of research into group polarization theory that when you’re on a polar or in a closed group, you’ll always take the most polarized position in order to get approval from the group, or likes and shares. It feeds narcissism. This is a system that was designed by people who were living in a culture of reality shows as they were designing this—I can’t even keep on coming back to reality shows, I feel so guilty—and kind of designed the social media as one massive reality show. Reality shows aren’t natural. If you go back to the early Apprentice, in Britain especially, and the early Big Brother, people were helping each other. They were communicating. And producers were like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to flop.’ And they drove people into conflict. Cause as Aristotle knows, that makes for great drama. I think we created this cultural norm around behavior, which I think people like Mark Zuckerberg just imbued, just sitting in their dorms, and then poured that into the way they structured social media. The way it’s structured, the cognitive and emotive structures that it encourages, are completely perverse. And they always use the excuse, ‘Oh, it’s just people being people.’ YouTube’s great excuse for showing you more and more extremist content is like, ‘Well that’s what people want.’ No, you’ve built an algorithm that reflects a very weird and warped idea of desire. And if we really want to change it, we can do the stuff that I’m doing at the LSE, which is creating better media, competing. But if we really want to change it, we have to go up to our elbows into the gore of the companies and really get them to change this. I think that might happen in Europe. So the new British regulation that’s coming in on the internet says this explicitly: ‘If the algorithms are encouraging extremist behavior, they need to be changed.’ How on earth this will work in practice is just a nightmare, but at least they’ve put it on the table. So hopefully that’s really the thing, that’s the big game changer. While we wait for that to happen, then the work we’re doing at the LSE I think is by far and away the most innovative in the field. There’s lots of little groups. There’s lots of little groups doing little things, but it has to be done at scale and probably the architecture has changed.

JP: Thank you for listening to our Town Hall Seattle civic series. I’m Jini Palmer. Our theme music comes from the Seattle artist David Bazan and Seattle’s own Barsuk Records. A special thanks to our audio engineer Jeff Larson. Check out our new season of Townhall Seattle’s original podcast, In The Moment. Each episode, a local Seattle correspondent interviews someone coming to Town Hall, they get you excited about upcoming events by giving you a behind-the-scenes look into a presenter’s content, personality and interests. If you like our civic series, listen to our arts and culture and science series as well. For more information, check out our calendar of events, or to support Town Hall go to our website at

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