Book review: Peter Pomerantsev's 'This Is Not Propaganda' is quietly frightening. By Steve Bloomfield

This Is Not Propaganda is an exploration of the wreckage of liberal democracy and a search for the signs of its revival. What can save us? Reading, for a start. In Beijing, Pomeranstev meets Angela Wu, who researches emerging technology and cultural change at New York University. She travelled across China interviewing readers of a blogging site called Bullog, which was home to opposition voices. Its readers came from a range of backgrounds, but one thing many of them had in common, Wu discovered, was that they had been voracious readers from a young age…

In May 2014, at the height of the civil war in Ukraine, a fire broke out in Odessa’s Palace of All Trade Unions. Dozens of people died and within hours a new battle had begun over who was to blame, as Russia’s army of information warriors spread stories and images online and through state-owned media that pinned the responsibility on Ukraine’s revolutionaries.

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“War used to be about capturing territory and planting flags,” observes Peter Pomerantsev in his beautifully written, carefully reported and quietly frightening new book. But what was happening in Ukraine was an early example of something different – the information battle was becoming just as important, some times more so, than the actual fighting.

In Odessa, a group of citizens launched their own investigation, which established the truth. Not that it made a difference – hardly anyone was interested. “Everyone lives in their own reality, everyone has their own truth,” said Tatyana Gerasimova, one of the organisers of the investigation. As Pomerantsev puts it: “Faced with wildly conflicting versions of reality, people selected the one that suited them.” Part memoir, part investigation, part cry for help, This Is Not Propaganda tours the world and delves into archives, telling the stories of the new information wars, interwoven with passages about Pomerantsev’s parents’ lives. Igor and Lina were Soviet dissidents, harassed by the KGB and eventually deported, for “the simple right to read, to write, to listen to what they chose and to say what they wanted”….

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