When the KGB were coming to arrest my father, grandmother developed a secret code using sausages to communicate vital information. If she were to bring a certain kind of sausage to his cell and slice it one way, it meant that news of his arrest had been passed to the West, broadcast on Radio Free Europe, and taken up by international human rights groups. If it were sliced another way, it meant that they hadn’t managed to get the information through.
It was 1978, in Kyiv, and my father, Igor Pomerantsev, had been detained for “allowing friends and acquaintances to read copies of harmful literature”: books censored for telling the truth about the Soviet prison system (Solzhenitsyn) or for being written in a style too subversive for the regime (Nabokov). He also signed human rights petitions condemning politically motivated arrests and wrote literature that went against the grain of Soviet Social Realism. The narrator of his first novella, written at the time of his arrest, is a budding poet who comes from a family of Soviet journalists, and who contrasts the regime-sanctioned, imperial, impersonal writing he finds in newspapers with his own stream-of-consciousness approach:
“This country has thrown off the chains of Capitalist Slavery! Welcome the Socialist Sun! Let the Darkness be gone!”
“Just a minute ago you were walking the street, breathing in air and breathing out words, now you have burst through to the page, now it will pour out, like wild berries you’d been carrying inside your jacket. Is there any joy greater than writing in the first person?”
In 1978 human rights, freedom of speech, freedom to access and produce information, a hyper-individualized sense of self and a modernist aesthetic could still be wrapped around one central notion of “freedom,” which was in turn part of a greater geopolitical struggle where the by-now lazily totalitarian Soviet Union used censorship as its modus operandi.
Fast forward 40 years, and a remarkable new report by the Institute of the Future shows how everything has turned topsy-turvy. Eighteen months in the making, the report looks at how governments use online campaigns to reinvent the old process of “silencing, harassing, intimidating, discrediting and ultimately arresting those perceived to be a threat to state power.” The old methods of censorship may have become technically untenable, but nasty regimes have adapted, employing an approach which uses, in the words of philosopher Tim Wu, “speech itself as a censorial weapon.”
One the one hand it is now much easier for a dissident to speak out online. But regimes can also viciously attack them without ever admitting to doing so, disguised behind masquerades of online activists (trolls) and automated accounts (bots), or instigating online mobs.
The Institute for the Future categorizes several types of such campaigns.
There are the operations where the government controls the whole process. For a modicum of deniability one could hire a black PR company or work through a youth movement. In Azerbaijan, for instance, there is Ireli, created, according to its leader, for the “education of young people and the protection of Azerbaijan’s interests in the virtual world.” In practice this means sending online threats to critical journalists like Arzu Geybulla: “I’ve been called many things; a slut, a dog, a pig—you name it. These insults involved my ill mother and deceased father. She was a whore; he was a traitor who slept with an Armenian slut.”
A step away are “state-coordinated” campaigns, such as in Venezuela, where the Maduro government has set up closed social media channels to direct enthusiasts on whom to attack, with what messages, and when, but doesn’t carry out the work itself.
A more sophisticated approach is to merely inspire a campaign, but then take no part in its organization.
This is common in Turkey, where ruling party-member columnists incite mob attacks. When the journalist Ceyda Karan, for example, was sentenced to two years of prison after writing a story which inadvertently showed a picture which mocked the Prophet Mohammed, a regime party-member columnist tweeted that the sentence had been too short. Over the next three days Karan received 13,000 tweets from 5,800 users, many calling for her hanging under sharia law. This approach can have its downsides, however: Sometimes mobs attack the wrong person, leading the President to have to call them off.
This sort of campaign has also become a feature in the United States, inspired by Donald Trump himself and his social media manager Dan Scavino, and has led to journalists, academics and opposition political actors to receive death and rape threats as well as accusations of treason. As Freedom House wrote,“Fake news and aggressive trolling of journalists both during and after the presidential election contributed to a score decline in the United States’ otherwise generally free environment.”
What gives extra spice to these campaigns is that they use the philosophy of freedom of speech as their justification, crying “censorship!” whenever there is any chance of their being taken down by social media platforms. Though many countries do have concepts like “hate speech” and “incitement to violence,” they end up being very hard to pin down in practice, beyond blocking the most direct instructions to harm someone physically. As a Mexican feminist activist and journalist described to me recently, “We have spent our whole lives fighting for freedom of speech. It’s very hard to now ask for censorship. When does a death threat become real? When they just hurl abuse at us? When they threaten us? When they publish our address online?”
The Institute for the Future’s report tries to find a clever way around, arguing that this “speech” is itself actually an attack on someone’s human right to express themselves—a form of censorship essentially—and as states have a duty to safeguard human rights, they can’t just ignore these attacks by excusing them as “free speech” and therefore claim it’s none of their business. Flipping the script to focus on the rights of the victim is smart, but it may be only that. The problems are far knottier. We are still light years away from even something basic as getting social media companies to respond in a concerted way to protect those who are attacked online. What hope is there for thus corralling regimes who covertly instigate attacks themselves?
The era of online information abundance and digital technology has scrambled the old equivalences of freedom of speech and human rights, warped the logic of censorship versus self-expression. In a much more insidious way it also undermines the idea of a free “self” as formulated in opposition to top-down, totalitarianism-versus-individualism oppression.
“Is there any joy,” my father had written in 1978, “greater than writing in the first person?” The thought was elaborated by his contemporary poet Joseph Brodsky, who was first arrested and exiled from the USSR at a similar time. “The surest defense against Evil,” Brodsky told his students at Cornell in 1984, “is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated.”
But the subtler forms of social media-powered propaganda encourage you to speak about yourself as much as possible, be as individualistic as you can: “What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks when you log on. And then this self-expression is transmuted into data to target you for political purposes, pushing you into behavior without your consent or awareness: hyper-individualism undermining the individual’s autonomy. And when it comes to “eccentricity” and “whimsicality,” there are few who can outdo the current American President, who undoes the oppressions of grammar, spelling and rational thinking to release a riot of first-person writing which can read like a satire on modernist poetry.
Yulia Komska, the Dartmouth scholar who rediscovered the Brodsky quote for me in her sublime, co-written new book, Linguistic Disobedience, insists that this sort of individualism-as-narcissism gets Brodsky’s point wrong. “For Brodsky, the tongue-twisting idiosyncrasies joined forces not so much to benefit the self as to perfect the art of estrangement. This oppositional stance . . . holds one’s oppressive reality in contempt and works to reshape it at the same time. Nowadays, rampant individualism may scream capitalist conformity to many, but its more renegade uses capture the anarchical spirit of society’s fraying margins, where disobedience often comes to roost.” In other words, there is a way to use individualistic writing not as self-indulgence, but as a way to see the world and the self afresh and thus open the possibility of transforming it.
It’s not the only strategy available. Poets often sense approaching cataclysms earlier than political scientists, and by the mid-1990s my father, by now living in the West, began to leave behind first-person writing. Instead he began to look for other ways to explore what the freedom to experience the world in undictated-to terms might mean. He began to explore the language of anthropology, biology. In a work from 1999, he moved the focus away from the first person altogether, fashioning a work based around an analysis of a dictionary of winds. It’s clear that he’s talking about freedom, but there’s little mention of the “I” at all—just detailed, metereological descriptions of gales, breezes, gusts, breaths.