Nothing is true and everything is possible. That was my one-line attempt to sum up the politics and propaganda that enveloped Russia at the start of the 21st century. It was a world where politicians no longer cared whether they were caught lying; where old ideologies were dead and conspiracy thinking had become the new way to explain the world; where all the old political categories (socialist and liberal, conservative and communist) seemed utterly meaningless and it was unclear what political parties stood for; where warped nostalgia and vague emotive calls to “Raise Russia From Its Knees” had taken over from any rational idea of the future.
In 2010, I came back to the UK because, in the words of my naive self, I wanted to live in a world where words had meaning. Sure the west was its own sort of mess, but politicians in Washington and Westminster still pretended to respect facts, sneered at conspiracy theories, tried to sound rational.
Then came the revolutionary year of 2016 and ever since then I’ve had the distinct deja vu that the same pathologies of public opinion I saw in Putinist Russia are now prevalent here. This is even reflected in one’s personal life. Conspiracy theories had become so all-encompassing in noughties Russia that I found myself inching gently into conversations, feeling my way through to gently check whether my discussant thought all democracies were just run by cabals.
Unlike the Soviet Union, the Putin regime was less obsessed with total ideological control and more on sowing polarisation within society, between what the Kremlin called the “Putin majority” (what they claimed were the “ordinary people”) and everybody else, to undermine trust and a shared reality to the point where no coherent opposition could ever coalesce.
As I write this from LA, I now find myself inching into conversations with similar caution – is my dinner party companion going to turn out to be a believer that Obama was a secret Muslim who wasn’t born in the USA?
Just as in Russia the temptation is to just tune out, to stop engaging with one another. When any political conversation risks leading to hyperpartisan hysteria, when the other side are categorised as traitors or fifth columnists, it’s safer to talk about gardening instead.
As we slip and stumble towards elections on both sides of the Atlantic, I can see the threat of the same mistakes that made 2016 so destructively polarising. We are in a race with a bunch of spin doctors whose techniques we now know, but are doing too little to counter. By we, I mean those who want to rescue a deliberative democracy where words have meaning, factuality is respected and communication across divides is possible.
There are a few things we need to do urgently.
First, make the internet interpretable and transparent. Part of the problem with the Brexit vote was that though it claims to represent “the people’s will”, because we don’t know which highly targeted online messages were used to motivate people, we don’t know why they voted. Was it sovereignty? Immigration? Animal rights? The digital head of Vote Leave once told me you need about 70 discrete social media messages to different audiences in a population of 20 million. He claimed animal rights was the most successful online ad he ran in Brexit referendum in order to get people out to vote. The EU, he argued, was nasty to animals (by supporting bullfighting and so on).
The lack of transparency on the internet means we’ve lost any shared public space for debate. This also allows deceptive actors such as the Kremlin to plant their covert campaigns throughout the west. Make it instantly possible to see which ads are being targeted at whom and we can start to have a field where interaction is at least possible.
It will be up to a new generation of civic actors to ensure that interaction happens. It needs to be someone’s daily job to heal the polarisation that is the aim of today’s predictable but effective propagandists. To do so, we need to embrace some of the technology they use – but turn it for good. We too need to analyse online audiences, but instead of then dividing them further, we need to find what bridges can be built between them. This used to be the job of those who work in post-conflict resolution. Now, every dinner party in England could do with such healing.
This is part of the BBC’s job too, but it is caught in a trap where it relies on having talking heads from political parties that are meant to be stand-ins for segments of public opinion. What happens when parties aren’t representative of anything coherent any more?
And this gets to the nub of the problem. What I saw in Russia decades ago was a world where all the old ideologies and political categories had collapsed. There were no ideas of progress left.
With the future gone AWOL, politicians indulged in nostalgia, politics became about pure performance and there was a fun release in saying: “I don’t care about the facts”, farting at glum reality. Now, the same sense of a futureless present has arrived for enough people in the UK and America.
But we can regenerate a future-looking conversation, one where facts become necessary again, through, for instance, online projects that bring different groups together and get them to discuss practical solutions. We can do it by moving away from television coverage that bumps politicians against each other in a reality show style format, but instead force them to collaborate on policy solutions. Call it “constructive news” or “solutions-aimed” journalism if you will, but it has to be the underlying philosophy of how we approach things.
If we don’t, the danger isn’t so much that the UK or the US will end up like Russia. But instead, in an information environment where deliberative democracy becomes impossible, bully-boy strong men leaders will grow ever stronger. They will claim that only they can guide people though the murk, while we become ever more irrelevant and ultimately fodder for the Putins of this world.
• Peter Pomerantsev is the author of This Is Not Propaganda. He appears at 1pm on Sunday 22 September at the How the Light Gets In festival at Kenwood House, north-west London. The Observer is the media sponsor