ONE of the key characters in Victor Pelevin's marvellous 2008 short story, "The Hall of the Singing Caryatids”, is described as a “political technologist”. The story concerns a bizarre scheme he has hatched to lure back to Russia an oligarch who owes his billions to the commercial exploitation of "military neuro-linguistic programming" techniques. Like much of Mr Pelevin's work, the story takes for granted that the reality we perceive is really a flimsy ideological hallucination cobbled together by various powerful actors interested in guiding our actions for reasons of their own. His work is more sophisticated than that of many latter-day Orwell imitators in that in his world different actors are simultaneously cobbling together incompatible hallucinations, and most of them are doing a hilariously inept job of it.
I thought of Mr Pelevin's "military neuro-linguistic programming" while reading Keith Darden's New York Times op-ed yesterday, "The War on Truth in Ukraine." Like many independent Russian commentators, Mr Darden focuses on the surreal quality of the information environment in Ukraine, including Russia's use of mysterious insignia-less "green men" (pictured), its incitement of separatist uprisings (that look like a directed reality-TV version of Kiev's EuroMaidan), the (probably fake) threats against Jews, and other untraceable incidents of "provokatsiya". Mr Darden is careful to note that both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian actors are engaging in these information-manipulation efforts (though the Russians are obviously much better at it), forming at least two incompatible visions of reality in separate, polarised camps. "Doubt’s shadow has not left Ukraine, " he writes. "Instead, the failure to agree on facts—to share a basic reality—has become the norm."
The elusiveness of truth is a symptom and an accelerant of Ukraine’s descent into uncertainty. Legitimate authority—governmental, factual, legal, moral—is unrelentingly being effaced...Thomas Hobbes wrote eloquently about life in the absence of political authority, but he couldn’t foresee the modern fracturing of facts and narratives that accompanies its collapse. Today, as authority in all its forms is degraded, life becomes not only “nasty, brutish and short”; it becomes so riddled with disinformation and lies that there is no clear path to settlement. And the void in trust invites armed action.
At about the point where Mr Darden begins to speak of the "failure to agree on facts" and the degradation of "legitimate authority", one begins to wonder just how separate what is happening in Ukraine is from political trends in the rest of the world. To put things another way: to me, the techniques of propaganda and ideological manipulation Vladimir Putin's government is employing in Ukraine feel new, adept, and cutting-edge; they seem to tell us something about where the world is heading. But how different is the fragmentation of reality in Ukraine from the much-commented polarisation of reality in America? For that matter, is this really anything new, or is it just the latest version of the types of propaganda that political actors have always used to split or unify target populations?
On the first question, it's interesting to compare a recent study by the Pew Foundation's internet research project that mapped American Twitter conversation networks around different kinds of topics. The researchers observed six distinct patterns of networking that developed around different issues. For example, when breaking news stories are politically neutral, they may develop into "fractured communities" of people conversing with each other, each around their own favourite information source; or they may turn into a hub-and-spoke model, with many communities all disseminating retweets from a central major-media source. For political topics, however, the result is often what the researchers called a "polarised crowd" model.