This Is Not Propaganda: The virtual political reality
In Ukraine, Pomerantsev describes a war fought primarily for social media. The actual reality, the actual fighting is merely a source of raw visual material towards a grand online narrative of the conflict. Soldiers make battlefield decisions with social media in mind, deciding to attack or sit back based on whether this will give them or their opponents good propaganda footage. Around them, civilians interpret reality according to their existing bias. Old women crowded around shell craters insist the shells flew in from physically impossible directions — because it fits their narrative that the Ukrainians, not the separatists are the ones shelling them. The real, actual war (with its real, actual deaths) is only an element in the grand informational conflict — one that is, at the moment, in both sides’ interest to continue.
Oppressive regimes zealously guard their image online. China has long policed social media with ‘real-life’ punishments for those upsetting the official narratives. With the advent of AI, detection of even anonymous accounts is easier. Russia is a long way behind, but there have been sporadic trials there as well. In the West, governments do not mete out punishments for online activities that damage their image, but state organisations do — witness the NHS cracking down on its employees’ online whistleblowing.
Hordes of trolls are deployed to protect and strengthen ‘their’ narratives. The already mentioned ‘Internet Research Agency’ in St Petersburg, according to twitter, generated 9 million tweets through 3800 fake accounts in 2013–18, but they are merely the best known offenders. From astroturf groups in the Phillipines to trolling operations in Mexico, dozens of different interest groups beaver away in comments sections of articles (see if you can find them in the comments here), in social media groups, on social media accounts of opponents. They push their line and attack anyone who challenges it with pre-prepared soundbites, accusations, emotive attacks or abuse. They are helped out by bots, automated accounts that ‘amplify’ social media content — for instance on twitter this is done by copying or retweeting the key messages, or making certain hashtags trend.
As this analysis of twitter suggests, the bots help ‘manufacture consensus’ by showing some content to be more popular than it initially is. Them and the trolls plant the seeds, create the situation in which enough people are galvanised into action and start doing their jobs for them, spreading and amplifying the messages and the narratives, copying the framing and the loaded terminology, often working hard at creating new propaganda content of their own which the bots can them amplify. The aim is to saturate the information space with your messaging, to create what Pomerantsev describes as ‘an ersatz normality’. He cites the work of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann of people tending to base their opinions on, or at least adjust them towards, what they perceive to be ‘the dominant idea’, on their view of what ‘the majority believes’. Another analysis — by Walter Quattrociocchi — shows that when two ‘dominant ideas’ clash on social media, the discourse quickly becomes polarised. Either way, once propaganda narratives acquire a critical mass of people who believe in them, there is a snowball effect creating even larger groups of faithful converts.
As the political activist Alberto Escorcia in Mexico puts all too well, ‘people are once again separated from their own reality’. It is not hard to envisage a time in which the real world — with its natural resources, wealth and endless possibilities — is the preserve of a rich elite. A critical majority of other people would be lured into a virtual reality, conforming to predefined narratives and fighting each other in non-existent battles over issues that are unimportant or totally fake. The elite would live it large in gated communities and tropical islands, avoiding taxes and standing in the way of progressive, egalitarian change whilst most of the rest of the people are pre-occupied in following the narratives devised for them, mainly online, of conflicts, such as the one in Donbass.