We could begin almost anywhere. But let’s start in Ukraine, with Babar Aliev. Babar is a former gang leader who used social media disinformation campaigns to undermine a separatist movement. When his opponents won, he was picked up and put on a train out of town. His great disappointment, he tells Peter Pomerantsev in This is Not Propaganda, is that the separatists sent just three men for him. (Last time, he says proudly, there were three vans with Swat teams.) Today he is setting up ‘media literacy’ classes, helping people differentiate between true and untrue stories, reliable and unreliable sources.
Pomerantsev himself was born in Ukraine, and his own parents’ experiences of Soviet-era trouble with the KGB and their subsequent lives weave through this book; but mostly we are accompanying him in the present day, as he meets people who have been on the front line of the (dis)information wars. Many are committed activists, like Babar; or like Srdja Popovic, who produces step-by-step guides to ‘non-violent direct action campaigns’, and runs practical workshops on the peaceful overthrow of dictators. Or ‘P’, whose locally targeted social media disinformation activity helped get Rodrigo Duterte elected to the presidency of the Philippines. Or Alberto, a brilliant data-nerd, based in Mexico City, but who might simultaneously be operating in Barcelona. (Protest movements connect trans-globally behind the scenes most surprisingly.)