Here are the remarks of the Ukrainian-British author and journalist, Peter Pomerantsev, one of the most important international analysts and critics of the contemporary authoritarian propaganda given over Skype at the international conference titled “E-Society: Facts checking and the influence of the new technologies in the society“. The conference took place on 31. January 2017 in Skopje. It was organized by the Metamorphosis – Foundation for Internet and Society, and the subject matter of the speech is “Fact checking versus fake news”
Hi there! Hello Macedonia! I’m very sorry that I can’t be with you today. Unfortunately, my family, have all got chicken pox, and I’m the only person standing among three children, and I have to look after them. But I have been asked to talk to you about the idea of journalism in an era of post-truth. Post-truth, as you, you know, many of you would probably know, is a is a new buzzword, it’s a new word included in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it seems to denote not simply lies, but actually (inaudible) a discourse, where facts don’t matter, where leaders like Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump, they don’t so much say untruth and try to convince you, it is the truth, but they say the facts don’t matter. They lie openly and celebrate the fact that they are lying. They don’t feel awkward when they are called out, they just, you know, deny they’ve ever said anything or double down it, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Now, I think in order to understand how to operate in this very strange new world is to look at the history of propaganda of journalism and, and, and see how we’ve got here. Not simply look at the symptom, but try to understand the causes behind the situation. So, let’s go back several decades, the Cold War. Now, during the Cold War, both sides, lied, I think, especially the Soviets were very famous for sort of telling big lies about their society. However, they did try to pretend that their lies were actually the truth. So, the Soviets would make up lots of false figures about how their economy was flourishing, everybody could see the opposite was true, but they were trying to at least, you know on paper at least, make it sound as if they were doing very well. That famous anecdote, about living in the Soviet Union: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”. I mean the key word there is “pretend”. Everybody was at least pretending that they were on some sort of trying to prove something. But I think this is not accidental. I think in the Cold War, both sides, both the Democratic Capitalists and the Communists, were, were in a way, you know very much part of the great enlightenment tradition, they were both trying to prove that their vision of the world, their vision of progress was better, that Communism or Scientific Marxism was a true vision of the future, a scientific one or rational one.
So, therefore you needed arguments to prove it. You needed facts to prove you are going somewhere. I mean, I think, facts generally are not very pleasant things. Facts tell you are going to die, facts tell you that you are not very good looking, that you are overweight, that your wife left you or didn’t. Facts are in necessary when you are trying to get somewhere, when you are trying to argue something, when you are trying to build a house or build a new society. (inaudible) the Cold War ends, and then you have, the, sort of, end of history, but end of history there still is an idea of a future, there’s one future anymore, it’s some version of liberal democracy, of globalization, but we are still kind of all going there, so you have The Economist magazine, as a sort of like, you know, a vision of where we are all meant to be going, with the European Union, with the free movement of people and labor and goods and ideas. And people are still trying to prove that they’re getting there. Yeah, that they’re becoming more rich.
And even Russia, which was really trying to undermine the whole system from inside, (inaudible) not officially saying “We are on our way to being part of a greater globalized future”, and the President Medvedev, that was very much the message. They wanted to do their own weird sovereign way, but there was still an idea that they were somewhere to get to, with, you know, EU entry was always a side of where you were meant to be going. So, there was still an idea of a future it wasn’t very competitive anymore, but it was still there, so people were still trying to argue something about their societies, that they did in fact have free and fair elections, even when they were actually faked, as in Russia’s case, or that their economy was actually getting better.
Now, after the 2008 crash, and after, I suppose, the war in Iraq, that idea of a future, a globalized future, a future of liberal, global liberal democracy, that sort of sours, and that stops being anything that, you know, attractive to lot of people. Quite the opposite, it starts seeming very dangerous and very unsettling, until the idea of future disappears entirely from public discourse. You see this is very strong in Russia, after the Kremlin, after Putin comes back to power 2012, he gets rid of any kind of discourse about the future, and he replaces it with fantasies of nostalgia, for lost empires. In America, Donald Trump doesn’t talk about the future, it’s “Make America great again”, in Britain you have Brexit. These are all nostalgia-driven ideas, and nostalgia by its very, by its very nature is a, is a, is a dream like virtual reality, it is an irrational impulse, an irrational mode of, of, of discussion. It’s the idea of the future disappears, and when that disappears, facts have to come back to this idea that facts are part of a conversation about the future, about progress, about getting somewhere. If you don’t try to get somewhere anymore, you don’t need facts to prove that you’re getting there.
So, when we talk about a post-fact world, we’re actually talking about a world where the idea of the future has disappeared, where the idea of progress has disappeared. You can see this is very strong, I think in Eastern Europe. As long as the countries of East… now Central Europe, sorry, Central European countries like Poland, or Hungary, (inaudible) have a clear idea of the future, getting into the EU, they had a pretty much sober and rational political discourse where facts mattered. They needed to prove that they were reforming their Ministries, that they were following the acquis communitaire to enter the EU. Once they entered the EU, and the idea of the future disappears because the problem with the EU is getting in is a great process, once you are in, it’s unclear what you are meant to do next. As soon as they get into the EU that idea of the future disappears, and you have the emergence of conspiratorial, nostalgic post-fact politicians like Kaczynski or Orban.
Now, how is this related to journalism, because part of the question here is about political philosophy and you know, journalism doesn’t have to be engaged in that. I mean maybe doesn’t some sort of level, only for columnists or journalists of ideas or maybe the editorial policy of a newspaper or television station could be dedicated to finding a way forward for society. But, you know that not all journalists think about that when they get up in the morning, we do stories you know, I was a documentary maker for many years, I don’t get up in the morning thinking about the future, I think about my story, it’s a very practical thing. But, I think it does relate to the very practical, everyday business of storytelling in journalism. I think this is about where you put yourself in relation to your reader. If you are talking down to your reader, you’re not really helping him get somewhere, if you’re simply doing this, or balanced journalism, which I becoming I think utter bullshit, the sort of like five minutes to Hitler or five minutes to the Jews and that’s meant to be balanced sort of journalism, you’re not really helping the reader go somewhere.
Now, I think there is a way of being a journalist, doing research, criticizing, you know, power, being rigorous and fact-driven, and putting yourself to a different relation to the viewer by really understanding the stories that the viewer needs in order to go forward in his/her life, to (inaudible) be a friend to the viewer and trying to get them to understand that, let say it’s a story about, I don’t know, tax reform, how, you know, how they will be personally affected by tax reform, who are the people trying to make their lives a misery through the lack of tax reform, how they can move forward in achieving better tax reform. Sort of a journalism that maybe doesn’t become activism, but, but maybe (inaudible) sometimes a little bit like an activist, but most importantly takes the position of the viewer, of the reader and helps them move forward in their lives. Some people are calling this “constructive news”, “solutions-based news”, but it is a way to become relevant and to restore facts to the conversation because when you are trying to prove something, we’re trying to help the reader forward, then facts become important again.
So, that’s my sense about how journalism needs to change and adapt, it really means changing, a lot of the ideas behind public service, broadcasting, I mean in Britain the BBC has always been above the fray, that’s always been its position, and I think that’s enough anymore. I think you actually have to go down, really understand the viewer, really understand the audience and help them move through the fog and the ficket and the conflicts in front of them. Then you become relevant to them, and then you can restore a real fact-driven conversation, and you take away the space to then which demagogues and populists operate, because they’re, the moment they’re saying they’re on the viewer’s side, they don’t really offer real solutions, they offer him enemies, they offer conspiracies, or immigrants as enemies in order to make the viewer feel good in a way. What you’re doing is something else, you’re still being a journalist, you’re still being critical, you’re still researching, you’re still telling stories, but you are thinking about from a slightly different point of view. Anyway, let’s discuss that idea.