This Is Not Propaganda: The decline and fall of ‘Laughtivism’

Previous part: Part II — the virtual political reality.

As the new methods of control take hold, old tactics of fighting against oppressive regimes through peaceful protest are falling by the wayside and, in some cases, adopted by those in power. In the twilight of Eastern European Communist and post-Communist dictatorships, protest movements enraged the authorities by staging humourous stunts — the so called ‘non-violent direct action campaigns’. This was effective in the circumstances as the authorities had no idea how to react. They were afraid to be seen to commit unprovoked violence and yet could not allow the rules to be broken.

Otpor! attracted over 70,000 supporters at its peak.

The student group, ‘Otpor!’ (its leader, Srdja Popovic, is the current rector of St Andrews University), excelled at such tactics whilst helping bring down the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia. With Milosevic dispatched into the Hague, Popovic went far and wide to democratise the world with his organisation CANVAS — helping out in the ‘colour revolutions’ in Europe and the Arab spring. He stresses that the ‘humourous stunts’ are only part of the strategy: they supplement an alternative vision, a sense of what the fight is for.

Srdja Popovic in his CANVAS office.

Popovic describes his task in similar terms to Pavlovsky: to build a broad, diverse coalition united against one enemy — in this case the oppressive regime — around ‘the lowest common denominator’, meaning around a broad set of things they can agree on. Whilst belief in what Popovic calls ‘waves of democratisation’, was strong, this was no problem. The alternative vision was there: greater personal freedom, integration into the international community and an end to authoritarianism. However, since then things have changed. Regimes have learned to keep control whilst still allowing people personal freedom. They have learned to appeal to diverse groups, to be ‘all things to all men’ and this leaves a protest group precious little space in which to operate: whatever ‘alternative vision’ they adopt, the regime can claim to already represent it.

In Serbia itself, as Pomerantsev describes, the regime of the current leader, Aleksandar Vučić, exploits these tactics. ‘If Vučić has a finger in all the alternatives, which one do they [the protesters] adopt? Pro-European? Vučić has Brussels in his pocket. Pro-free market? Vučić has incentivised business to stick with him. Anti-business? Perhaps, but that can end up slipping into resentful nationalism, which Vučić [who began his political career on the far Right] is fine with too’.

Regimes around the world learned to successfully counter the power of popular peaceful protest. They now demonise protesters, accuse them of being enemy agents trying to stage a peaceful take-over, pointing to the fall of Milosevic and to the colour revolutions as past examples. The accusations of working for the CIA are sticking more and more. Unlike before, when protesters are beaten up now, few object: who wants to be seen to side with the ‘enemy’ in an ‘information war’?

Popovic asks in one of his articles: suppose you were the authorities, how would you deal with a peaceful, funny protest? Well, the answer in, say, Russia would be: ridicule it on social media, summon the organisers to court on trumped-up charges and allege a foreign conspiracy behind it all. If that fails, employ agents provocateurs to turn the protests violent: alternatively just wait for one group of the protesters to do something offensive (Pussy Riot). If the protests are in the regions, outsource the responsibility for dealing with the protests to the regional governors so that any fallout is on them — when young women get charged for twerking in front of war memorials you can then avoid the consequences. In Britain, you could play class politics, present protesters as privileged, out of touch metropolitan liberals who do not understand ‘the people’. You wait for them to do something violent (the tuition fees protests), stupid (Victoria Bateman) or tacky (Madeleina Kay) and smear the whole movement by association. The last Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was frequently attacked for being ‘a protester and not a politician’ — indicating the general view of protests as ‘not being serious’.

The concept of information war destroys the power of laughtivism, makes it look just like another tactic of ‘the enemy’. What works against ‘old style’ authoritarians who rule through fear, through denial of individual freedom — most of the CANVAS success stories can be assigned to that bracket — will not work against the new, insidious, ‘men of the people’. When the protesters can be, somehow, presented as ‘entitled liberals on another silly publicity stunt’, Popovic’s answer is ‘be funnier, understand your audience’, but in a polarised society such as today’s Britain I am not sure this is possible: different groups of people no longer even laugh at the same things.

The information war.

But what is meant by ‘information war’ exactly?

If I were to show this whole piece to a Putin or a Trump supporter, if I had somehow got them to read ‘This is not propaganda’, they would shrug their shoulders and say “so what? People like you have manipulated public opinion for decades. You do it to push through peaceful regime change abroad and to control public opinion at home. You do it to promote the EU and ‘the Liberal Order’. Don’t complain when the boot is on the other foot.”

It is certainly true that the NSA and GCHQ have attempted to manipulate public opinion through the internet — this, in case anyone doubted it, was exposed in the Edward Snowden leaks. A report talks of, among other things, ‘uploading YouTube videos containing persuasive messages, establishing online aliases via Facebook and twitter accounts, blogs and forum memberships for conducting HUMINT (Human Intelligence) or encouraging discussion on specfic issues.’

It is also — clearly — true that the US expends considerable resources on achieving regime change abroad. It supports opposition movements and influences public opinion, which has contributed greatly to the so-called ‘third wave of democratisation’ which saw, in particular, the collapse of the Soviet Block. The European Union does not, to my knowledge, attempt active regime change, however it can and will promote itself and its values, often quite aggressively, to the detriment of those who, for instance, wish it to be broken up. In that sense, this is ‘information war’.

The first response to our hypothetical Putin/Trump supporter would be that their propaganda has a particular, pernicious framing: populists assume the ‘information war’ to not just exist: they assume it to be total. It is normal to assume bad faith on the part of some people; they assume it on the part of every critic. Indeed, there is no criticism that one can make that they would accept as genuine. In Russia, they openly talk about ‘internet sovereignity’ and ‘information peace’, achieved by restricting information flows from the West in the same way as China is currently doing. This is because, they say, ideals, values, ideologies are only a tool, a cynical tactic on the way to (world?) domination. ‘Freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are therefore just tactics through which the West supposedly hopes to subvert everyone else — and this is ‘proved’ by pointing out that many people in Western countries aren’t in fact very free.

Therefore, any organisation that promotes those values must be anti-Russian. So is pretty much any public protest or dissident journalist. No wonder Lyudmila Savchuk (see above) who infiltrated the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg and reported on their tactics was called a traitor: she supposedly sabotaged ‘the war effort’.

Pomerantsev describes how this has become a dilemma for Eastern European states. The more brazen and far-reaching the Russian mis-information campaign becomes, the greater the need for its neighbours to either call it out in stronger terms or respond in kind. Either action would reinforce Russia’s ‘total information war’ framing of events and further bind the (not insignificant in number) Russian minorities in Eastern Europe closer to Moscow. After all, if it is a war, one has to take sides.

Rodrigo Duterte is fighting an actual war: against ‘drugs’ and drug dealers through extra-judicial killings. However, journalists who point out his human rights violations and corruption are also attacked — even if they had, originally, been allies. Maria Ressa’s Rappler gave publicity to Duterte when he was still an obscure local mayor: once he was elected President she was the target of an online campaign of hate and a spate of made-up legal charges, carrying a total of decades in jail if convicted. Duterte refers to journalists as ‘spies,’ ‘vultures’ and ‘lowlifes.’ His wish, he has said, is to ‘kill journalism’ in the Philippines.

The Rappler journalist Maria Ressa. On the right, Ressa interviewing the Phillipine president Rodrigo Duterte

Supporters of Johnson and Trump have gone the other way: rather than claim ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ to be a sham, they constantly complain they do not get enough of it, that ‘losers’ are ‘not accepting the will of the people’ in criticising a democratically elected government. We are seeing this in the COVID-19 crisis, with factual criticism being attributed to ‘scoring political points’.

The obvious second response to the ‘you are just as bad’ argument would be to point out that not every information war is the same: some are more worth fighting than others. The situation is not black and white, there are shades of grey, and the ‘traditional’ propaganda, as for instance seen during the Cold War and practiced by the West now at least does not insult intelligence to the same extent as this new, populist kind that denies even the basic facts and sees conspiracies behind everything. Nor does the former destroy the accountability of those in power, give them carte blanche to avoid criticism, as much as the latter.

By going back to a fact-based discourse, by rejecting conspiracy theories, by recognising that pure coincidence is a fact of life and not always a tell-tale sign of an evil plot, we can begin to get out of the situation we are in. Those facts should tell us that the no government is the same, some are better and some are worse, but their actions are becoming obscured by the propaganda. Here is a list of things that the Trump administration is actually doing, summed up over two ten-day periods. None of them will make the headlines, however it is they — not the highly publicised Twitter vulgarity — that is the essence of the problem.

The key sleight of hand being played by every brand of populist I have encountered (in particular, the trolls supporting the India president Modi against, you’ve guessed it, minorities and the Left) is to say that unless you are yourself whiter than white, unless your own side are perfect, you cannot criticise. That way, for instance, a Modi supporter can switch the conversation to the wrongs the British Empire did to India in the past — whilst supporting the Tories, the party that still defends the imperial legacy. The best reply here is to quote Hillel: ‘if not me, who’? Victims of injustices need the perpetrators to be called out by as many people as possible.

Next: Part IV — The supposed death of objectivity.