MIRROR: Mr Pomerantsev, you've got the corona virus – how are you?
Pomerantsev: I am tired but very grateful that the fever has subsided. Now I'm starting to think about how I can help in the crisis. The corona crisis is also a disinformation crisis, a crystallization of everything I write about in my book and what I research at the London School of Economics. The questions are: Can journalism provide more empathy and responsibility in this situation? And which forms of journalism, on the other hand, really fuel panic and despair?
MIRROR: Facebook and Twitter claim to have successfully cleared their platforms of propaganda and misinformation about the virus – is that your impression?
Pomerantsev: It seems like they are filtering out the disinformation that could put people's lives at risk: for example, wrong medical advice. But ultimately we have no idea whether they actually filter this disinformation – or rather promote it. And unlike other areas, there may even be agreement on fake news in the health sector. Nobody wants that. It's not about censorship.
MIRROR: How is the Corona debate different from other debates?
Pomerantsev: Corona is the ultimate empty meaning, a faceless fear that every opinion warrior tries to use for his own benefit. Extremists use them to attack minorities and migrants. States use them to attack each other. Fraudsters use them to sell fake masks and so on. And then there are the usual rumors floating around on social media, with messages like “my sister is a nurse saying this and that”. Some of them could be real, but many could also be launched specifically. Many of the most insidious disinformation campaigns happen today in closed, encrypted groups, such as WhatsApp, where it's impossible to track.
MIRROR: With social distance, the role of digital tools and platforms grows. Do you see this as an opportunity for more regulation?
Pomerantsev: Massive regulation will come anyway, in Europe in any case and in Great Britain too. But I fear that this regulation will not be implemented very intelligently. Regulation must focus on the algorithms: how they promote certain content; how our own data is used to target us. But regulation often only targets individual parts of the content generated by users, rather than the entire system.
MIRROR: Which political forces shape the current climate of distrust and disinformation?
Pomerantsev: Both democratic and authoritarian forces have found that old school censorship or intellectual hegemony can hardly be enforced in a system of excessive information. It is much more promising to spread uncertainty and distrust. and then claim to be the strong man who can lead people through this dark, confusing world. Whether Trump or Erdogan, Aleksandar Vucic or Putin – their propaganda conjures up a world of endless dark conspiracies in which the truth is unfathomable and in which you, the little man, cannot change anything. Conspiracy theories undermine the sense of democratic action. They make people passive. To fight conspiracy thinking, you have to make people feel that they have influence.
MIRROR: Tell us a little bit about your new book – the title “This is not propaganda” is fascinating. Propaganda that denies its own nature?
Pomerantsev: It is an allusion to the “This is not a pipe”, the famous painting by surrealist René Magritte. His pictures show a world in which words and meanings and pictures have lost their connection. It is similar in the world that I describe in my book: a world in which the meaning of such basic terms as 'democracy', 'Europe', 'freedom', 'the people' is questioned. In the book I show how they lost their meaning, how they are actively redesigned and the competition for meaning rages.
MIRROR: Are living democracy and an open society still possible without regulating social media?
Pomerantsev: There is no open society without a transparent flow of information.
MIRROR: Would Europe be in better shape and better coordinated politically, a force that regulates anti-democratic propaganda?
Pomerantsev: Regulation is the one thing that the EU does well. The regulatory framework defined by Europe will be very important. What I hope for is that democracies agree on basic principles for a liberal-democratic Internet that stands in a robust contrast to the rapidly developing Chinese and Russian models. What makes the responsible citizen online? What is the democratic version of internet security – do we need cyber-nato? And what is a democratic public space on the Internet? Should we have online spaces for public and political debates to provide public services that are not used commercially?
MIRROR: Which political decisions would be necessary?
Pomerantsev: First, a public oversight of the algorithms so that we can see exactly how the information is organized online, why algorithms show people part of the content rather than another, and whether these algorithms are in line with democratic values. But we also need public support for content production that can ignore the commercial logic of the Internet. We are caught in a polarization spiral.
MIRROR: In what way?
Pomerantsev: As traditional media, especially print media, struggle to survive, they find themselves in an online advertising market that favors the scandalous, personality-driven, polarizing content that populist politicians offer. The digital advertising market is deeply opaque. He makes no distinction between publications that have a charitable mandate and editorial standards, on the one hand, and partisan or deliberately misleading websites and social media sites, on the other. This market is driven by the algorithmic architecture of the Internet and social media, which focuses on highly emotional material. In this environment, it becomes profitable for news organizations and individual users to adopt increasingly extreme and polarizing positions – an algorithmic logic that in turn encourages populist politicians to do just that. This in turn creates content that the mainstream media think it describes and so the spiral continues.
MIRROR: What follows from this?
Pomerantsev: To break through this, you need media that do not have to interfere in this game. This is only possible with public support from states or the EU. We should ask ourselves what the pan-European, public service media of the future will look like.
MIRROR: There has been a lot of discussion about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – what is your opinion on this case?
Pomerantsev: Even the sneakiest, most misogynistic, anti-Semitic villains have rights.