Peter Pomerantsev (2024)

Part biography and part assessment of the modern media landscape in the face of prolonged and well-funded disinformation. Sefton Delmer crafted a lot of British propaganda against the Nazis, drawing on his own childhood in Germany.

As with How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News and the Future of Conflict – another take on the same issues, with less of an historical driver – Pomerentsev focuses on the importance of the perceived messenger as well as the message: the idea that “truth will prevail” simply isn’t true when untruth is being cleverly promoted. Delmer pioneered this approach by creating radio-based characters crafted to appeal to particular segments of German society and seed disquiet amongst them.

(I was reminded at one point of a character in The Day of the Triffids who works as a professional agitator able to meet anyone on their own ground, changing his voice, dress, and presentation style to suit the audience, and arguing that the way you deliver a message is at least as important as its content. Delmer would have approved.)

One can see Delmer as the origin of the modern approach to “flood the zone” and undermine belief in all media and information. He was constantly criticised by his opponents (both those making moral arguments and those simply wanting to be in control) to demonstrate the efficacy of his techniques. That misses the point somewhat. He wasn’t looking to bring about concrete, short-term changes, but rather was trying to influence the medium-term attitudes his listeners had to their information sources: marketing rather than sales. It’s hard to measure the successes of this, other than to point out that now, eighty years later, his approach seems to have been refined and re-applied by people who are, in many cases, closely aligned to the politics he himself fought against.

4/5. Finished Friday 3 May, 2024.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)