Peter Pomerantsev: ‘The language of protest is appropriated by the far right’

Writer and academic Peter Pomerantsev wants to take down the online troll factories that are telling lies. The author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible spoke to The Big Issue about how everyone can play their part in stopping bots seizing control of elections, public health and the web

The Big Issue: How can people fight back against disinformation during elections?

Peter Pomerantsev: There has been a boom in communal fact-checking. Social media is great for that – you find a disinformation story that’s trending and you can take it to a fact-checking organisation, who will likely have built some sort of rapport with the platforms, and will push for the story’s exposure to be upgraded or downgraded accordingly. [Full Fact is the UK’s leading independent fact-checking charity.]

What’s the difference between identifying fake news and watching out for news biases from publication to publication?

Take the Russian campaign during the American election. A lot of that disinformation wasn’t malicious. It’s not the content which is the main problem, the deceptive part is the way it was being amplified. You should look at the campaign itself and see if it’s being pushed by people who are genuine. That’s very hard to do at the moment without a digital forensics specialist, so we need to push the big social media platforms for transparency.

If we can see why we’re targeted by certain online content, and we can see the mechanics of how the story’s being pushed, we gain an understanding of the overall architecture of the campaign. That creates much more discerning readers and internet users.

Trolls and bots will sometimes attack individual users. What does that behaviour tell us?

It’s a pattern that we’ve seen country to country – marginalised groups really take the heat of these campaigns. Women in particular are targeted. I’ve heard different explanations: like that there was all this lying under the surface and the internet allowed it to bubble up. But when you’re a bully, you pick on the people with less power than you.

How is the relationship between online communication and protest likely to evolve?

So many movements are set alight on social media now,. Disinformation campaigns try to get inside protests and manipulate them. The language of protest has been appropriated by the far right. Tommy Robinson crusades for freedom of speech. Or far-right movements in Europe who call for some really racist things to protect women’s rights. The language of the left has essentially been hacked by these groups, which puts us in a really confusing position.

What are the main challenges for internet users who want to get involved?

There’s a lot of trivial misinformation that’s actually pointless to fight because they’re small parts of a bigger campaign. Understanding what the dangerous bits of disinformation are is tricky. There’s a temptation to go for the easy stuff.

Recently there was a great story, it was satire but you would’ve thought it was true: that Donald Trump believes suicide bombers deserve the death penalty. And fact-checkers spent a long time pulling that one apart, they had to hammer home that it was rubbish. Secondly, we need to undermine the financial system that promotes disinformation. Advertisers put their content on disinformation sites because it’s a cheap way of getting to their audience. If we can eradicate the financial incentives, I think that would help a lot. But the reality is that we’re always going to live with this.

This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality by Peter Pomerantsev is out on August 1(Faber & Faber, £14.99).