Russian Disinformation and Putin’s “Postmodern Dictatorship”

2020-03-03

Political Capital co-organized a public event entitled “Russian Disinformation and Putin’s “Postmodern Dictatorship” with the British Embassy. The event was held on 25 February in Budapest. The renowned British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and author of best-sellers ‘Nothing is true and everything is possible’; and ‘This is not propaganda’, was hosted by Péter Krekó executive director and Dorka Takácsy analyst from Political Capital. You can watch the video recording of the discussion here.

The event was opened by the speeches of Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Hungary Iain Lindsay and Peter Krekó. In his foreword, Ambassador Lindsay expressed delight about the successful organization of the discussion and congratulated Peter Pomerantsev on having his book “Nothing is true and everything is possible” translated to Hungarian. While the topic at hand was Russian disinformation, the ambassador quickly reassured everyone that the United Kingdom does not have a quarrel with Russia, however, patterns of Russian aggression are concerning when it comes to comparing such patterns to the rule-based system of modern world politics. For that reason, according to Iain Lindsay, the United Kingdom and their allies will actively send clear messages to and defend the established rules against the uncivilized activities of Russia, for example spreading disinformation, the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine and the recent Salisbury incident. The ambassador noted that what Russia is trying to achieve is well-known, but they are not going to succeed, as the plan is to increasingly ‘detect, disrupt, dilute and expose’ Russian disinformation, while still hoping for a fruitful partnership with the government of Russia in the future.

Peter Krekó confirmed that the United Kingdom is exceptionally critical with Russia as well as dedicated to enforcing sanctions against the country, but at the same time he showed scepticism towards lifting sanctions and going back to ’business as usual’ with a cooperative Russia, stating it would probably be a bad decision to make such gestures.

Peter Pomerantsev explained the changes in the work of propaganda outlets: while earlier it was about convincing people, nowadays it is about seeding doubt. Yet, the strategy of spreading uncertainty is not a novel idea – for instance, the tobacco industry in the ‘60s used it to discredit the connection between smoking and cancer – it just became dominant again, and Russia was the first to weaponize it in modern times, even internationally.

Vladislav Surkov’s dismissal from the Kremlin is probably not going to bring serious changes to the Russian political theatre according to Pomerantsev. Even though he had a crucial role in building the current system and earning fame for making a theatre out of politics by staging various groups and political forces as the Kremlin’s interests dictated, there are others likely filling in the void he left. A lot of spin doctors nowadays would like to fit Surkov’s style, and Pomerantsev suggests that there is a good chance for seeing no visible shifts in Russian strategy even in the post-Surkov era.

According to Pomerantsev, Russia excels at disinformation because there has always been a Russian tradition to put ‘mask on mask on mask’. The way the Kremlin is creating uncertainty is by ‘infiltrating’ everything, by letting people know that they influence everything, so that people will eventually lose hope. It is sometimes purposefully very easy to find Russian secret services behind some activities. Being revealed might be half the point, because if everything is a Kremlin operation, it makes people simply give up. If they have the feeling of living in a world of unfathomable conspiracies where the truth is never known, where everything is a hidden hand behind another hidden hand, people feel powerless and it suggests to citizens that the system is unchangeable and democracy is not worth fighting for. Old-school propaganda was about mobilising people, making them sacrifice themselves, and now that changed.

Furthermore, the writer pinpointed societies and characteristics that make people and nations increasingly susceptible to disinformation and propaganda. Societies that generally have low trust and are polarized have higher vulnerability. Contrary to the popular belief, it has little to do with education. Disinformation is the most effective when it echoes what people want to hear in the first place, which explains why algorithms are a massive threat to polarized and low-trust societies: they can be a useful tool in exploiting their fears and maximizing the chance that disinformation is seen as credible.

Pomerantsev highlighted that the word ‘polarization’ is hard to define because it means different things to different people. Polarization is based on several types of micro-level factors: the biases of audiences, their cognitive patterns, the level of their trust in political institutions or the media. Cultural traumas can be used by politicians and media to influence the opinion of citizens or to change their behaviour. For example, in Ukraine there were a lot of traumatic periods in the country’s history and these periods remained undiscussed. These traumatic events can be used as a tool to polarize society and generate conflicts among social groups.

Peter Pomerantsev pointed to the highly problematic nature of social media, where the hunt for clicks, like and shares effectively makes polarization worse. In the last decade, the transparency or democratic regulation of online platforms was a main problem in national parliaments, international political institutions and decision-makers. But how to regulate social media platforms without taking too much control over them? One of the main problems with the regulation of disinformation is to define misinformation as a legal category. Pomerantsev said that regulations against social media content – should it be a conspiracy theory or disinformation – might be an unrealizable and undemocratic process. International institutions should rather target, and take action against the behaviour (for example spreading deceptive campaigns to masses) and the actors. Citizens have a democratic right to know who is trying to influence them and how, and the result of regulation should create more transparent social media platforms that are more accountable and could empower citizens.

This summary was written by the interns of Political Capital: Márk Gomilkó, Attila Varga, and Ferenc Somogyi.

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