Peter Pomerantsev

Democracy Cohort

Peter Pomerantsev charts tactics to counter disinformation — originally in his native Ukraine, and now in the United States.

Peter Pomerantsev was working as a documentary producer in Russia when the Kremlin, under Vladimir Putin, rebooted propaganda. “Factual media was flooded with state-sponsored disinformation, seeding endless cynicism and conspiracy thinking,” he says. “The aim was to spread such deep doubt and division that debate became impossible.” His first book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, charted how this happened. His second, This is Not Propaganda, tracked similar tactics across the world, showing how leaders from the Americas to South Asia have used them.

Identifying the problem, however, is not enough — so Peter turned his attention to solutions. At the London School of Economics, he co-founded Arena, a research project that explores how media can reach polarized and antagonistic audiences, using insights from Ukraine, Italy, Hungary, Germany and Sweden. He continues this work at Johns Hopkins University, surfacing insights to help in the US — and across the world.

Media in the U.S. isn’t often equipped to counter the root causes or effects of what we call ‘disinformation’, but which in reality is one small element in a structural attack on democratic discourse. In fact, traditional media’s focus on profit and segmented audiences often helps to exacerbate the problem. We need new media strategies whose aim is to engage a broad coalition of audiences in democratic debate and interaction.

Peter’s research with Arena in Ukraine illustrates that it is possible to debate and discuss even the most painful issues in a constructive way — by speaking to people’s unarticulated historical traumas, common values, and aspirations for the future. As an Emerson Collective Fellow, Peter will focus on an increasingly divisive topic — American history — and look at how the media can help people across the political spectrum confront its complexities. Working with historians, sociologists, journalists, and others, he will conduct polling and qualitative research to analyze the nuance of Americans’ historical attitudes and pinpoint factors making people vulnerable to disinformation.