‘Your echo chamber is a trap’: on Trump and the media

Journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev is an expert in propaganda and media development. He has testified on the challenges of the information war to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the U.K. Parliament Defence Select Committee. 

Natalia: People are wondering what to do now that Trump has won. I’ve noticed that for those of us who have covered Russia, the answers come more easily. In light of that, what is your advice? What should people be doing now that Trump is the president-elect?

Peter: Since we’re speaking about Russia — learn from the mistakes of Russian liberals. A lot of liberal America is inspired right now, and I can just see it falling into the same trap that the Russian liberals fell into. Russian liberals are in an echo chamber. They’re not reaching the people they’re supposed to reach. So the Kremlin gets to define them. Remember — your echo chamber is a trap. You need to be going out of your comfort zone to at least reach the people who are sitting on the fence.

Natalia: That’s very hard to do, for journalists especially. We have our target audience, and that’s it.

Peter: This is why it’s time to reinvent the profession. If you’re writing your Atlantic long-read, you’re targeting the Atlantic readership. Now you must do the thing that’s much harder. You must go beyond that. We need to reinvent journalism so that it doesn’t just involve us talking to ourselves. Let’s face it, the bad guys have been more effective.

Natalia: Can we talk about how they are more effective?

Peter: Take a look at [conservative radio and TV host Sean] Hannity. Remember Trump’s “pussy grabbing” fiasco? When that came to light, you couldn’t just lavish Trump with praise. So Hannity discussed Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal and WikiLeaks every day, hammering and hammering away on that. Saying that e-mails and WikiLeaks didn’t play a role in the election is wrong. If Hannity thought they were useful — they played a role. Look at how someone like Milo [Yiannopoulos, British journalist and technology editor for the far right Breitbart News] uses humor to legitimize far right ideas. Watch people like Hannity, like Milo, see how they work, study the propaganda, so you can be effective in countering it.

Natalia: Let’s discuss the allegations that state-sponsored Russian hackers interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump win. A lot of people are mad at Obama for not taking a bolder stand against that at his last presser as president. But did he have a choice? On the one hand, a lot of people feel violated, and they want him to do more. On the other hand, he’s being cool and calm and presidential about it, and maybe the point is to play the long game — give Trump enough rope to hang himself with.

Peter: I love Obama, but he was played. Where is the strategy? How long is this long game? Cool and calm is a good approach, especially when everyone else is hysterical, but there is a vast difference between “ignore strategically” and “let the Russians do whatever they want.”

Natalia: How do you handle a guy like Trump, who simply doesn’t care about Russian interference?

Peter: You can’t do what the Democrats have done. They’re pushing Trump and Putin together now. Instead you should be smart and do everything to push Putin and Trump apart. Saying nothing and then going into overdrive once the truth is out is the wrong approach. What is needed now is a thorough investigation, of course. Also, let’s not go overboard with our definitions of Trump. There are similarities between his approach and Putin’s approach, but Trump is more of a [populist former leader of Italy Silvio] Berlusconi figure.

Natalia: What should the American public prepare for now?

Peter: That Trump will be an 8-year president? If some of his populist economic measures succeed, we could be looking at that.

Natalia: Unless he starts a trade war with China and everything goes to hell. Based on his Twitter feed, I feel like this is a likely outcome.

Peter: It all depends on whether or not he’s a complete moron.

Natalia: Not very reassuring.

Peter: Look — Trump has the power of reality TV on his side. What’s more powerful than that? How about President George Clooney? All those women who voted for Trump will forget him in an instant. Maybe I’m joking, or halfway joking, but the truth is, it’s time for the media and for liberals to reinvent themselves. It’s doable and has been done before. Just don’t stay in your bubble. So many Democratic leaders are in a bubble, so they cocked it it up, when they should have been calling on those who would tell them what they needed to hear, as opposed to what they wanted to hear. They didn’t plan for bad outcomes. You can learn a lot from others, but you have to actually be willing.

Peter Pomerantsev is the author of “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia,” winner of the 2016 Ondaatje Prize.

Originally published December 19, 2016.