I wrote this piece in mid-2017 and declined to publish it at the time — I considered it to be perhaps too dark, or an overstatement of the situation. Now, over three years later, I think it was an accurate, if partial, assessment of where things stand. This week I plan to write more on this topic, and I think this is an appropriate time to revisit this piece.
We have all heard about “fake news” and most of us have some sense that there has been a concerted effort to manipulate online news media for political influence.
But for all the discussion, there has been relatively little analysis of the underlying strategy: how exactly does this work? What is the goal? And why does it seem so difficult to fight? This essay is an attempt to answer these questions as concisely as possible and is the product of a considerable amount of study of this topic.
Here is how and why propaganda and psyops techniques are being used by right-wing (and far left) political operators, specifically in the United States, but also in Europe and elsewhere.
How does modern propaganda work? There are three main tactics that define today’s efforts.
Cultivate Many Small Audiences
When we think about mass media, we think of television, radio, and newspapers, where a relatively small number of outlets and content producers can reach a very large audience. Historically, there has been a wariness of the power concentrated in these producers, as well as regulation that has aimed to ensure that these broadcasters do not have undue influence.
By contrast, contemporary propagandists aim to build up many smaller audiences. This is made possible by the internet, where a single blogger, YouTube star, or small website can garner audiences in the hundreds of thousands or low millions. That’s not a lot by mainstream media standards, but when taken together, an array of small audiences can reach many millions of people.
Attack Mainstream Media
People only have so much time and attention. The more that people believe that mainstream media is biased — or worse, incorrect—the more they will distrust it and seek outlets that reinforce their own worldview. So the cultivation and growth of these smaller audiences is aided by the gradual chipping away at mainstream media.
Appeal to the ‘Open Mind’
Democracies place a high value on independent thinking and rational analysis, and having an “open mind” is a desirable quality. Those seeking to build small audiences for the purposes of propaganda can thus appeal to the ideal of an “open mind,” and prompt people to question both mainstream media and conventional wisdom, causing them to search for ‘alternative’ voices that comport with their own predispositions. This reinforces their self-image as an “independent thinker,” and accrues social capital with others who also question dominant narratives about reality.
By clawing away at consensus-reality, modern propaganda efforts aim to build a bloc of constituents composed of a wide range of small audiences. Because all of these audiences are built on opposition to consensus-reality, they can be relied upon to oppose it.
Now that we understand exactly what is being done, we can try to identify what it actually is. Today’s propaganda techniques borrow heavily from three other concepts: fascism, PSYOPS, and reflexive control.
The term fascism is widely used but broadly misunderstood. It is derived from the ancient Roman word fasces, which is a bundle of rods (or arrows) bound together with a strap, and an axe blade projecting from the bundle. This symbol was used to signify the power of a magistrate in Ancient Rome.
The modern idea of fascism came from Mussolini’s Italy, and was borrowed from the Sicilian concept of fasci, meaning “men organized for political purposes.”
Fascism is thus a literal bundling together of interest groups to wield political power and to achieve political ends. It is an aggregation of aggrieved audiences.
Contemporary right-wing propaganda is thus literally fascist in nature, inasmuch as it aims to build a voting bloc from many smaller audiences.
PSYOPS is a military term meaning “psychological operations.” It was developed as a technology rooted in modern behavioral science and psychology, and aims to exert control over a population to achieve military objectives.
For example, in managing the aftermath of the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was desirable that the many factions present in those countries support US military operations, or at the very least, that any opposition be minimized and managed.
To do this, coalition military forces deployed PSYOPS techniques as a kind of weapon aimed at achieving its goals.
According to SCL Group, a leading practitioner of military PSYOPS techniques, here are the steps involved in planning an effective behavioral modification campaign:
- Identify the objective: what do you want people to do; how do you want them to behave, or not behave?
- Strategic Communication Planning: what messages do you want to convey to produce the desired behavior?
- Target Audience Analysis: what audiences exist, and what are their belief systems and goals that may affect whether you can get them to adopt the desired behavior?
- Campaign Intervention Strategy: how does your strategic communication need to be tailored to produce the desired behavior in each of your target audiences?
In PSYOPS, the goal is to produce a specific behavior — by any means necessary. This means that you may or may not be wishing to alter someone’s belief system for the better, and you may or may not be conveying information that is true. Your only concern is activating the target audience and getting them to behave in the way you desire.
Alexander Nix, CEO of SCL Group, likes to make this comparison: if you own a piece of beachfront property and you want to keep people from swimming there, which sign works better? One that says “NO SWIMMING, PRIVATE PROPERTY,” or one that says “SHARKS SEEN IN WATER”? The answer is obvious, even if the information conveyed isn’t factual.
Through the identification of many specific target audiences, modern propagandists are actually able to conduct PSYOPS by tailoring messages (true or not) intended to modify behavior and delivering them with incredible precision.
If you have ever tried to get someone to make a decision favorable to you, while having them think that the decision was their idea, you have practiced reflexive control — a concept studied and developed in the Soviet Union (and now Russia) over the last 50 years.
Reflexive Control (RC) aims to influence the decision of an enemy by transmitting information that informs their decision-making process while keeping the desired outcome secret. The desired outcome must be kept secret in order for the target to be convinced that the decision is truly their own. If the decision is their own, it is much easier for them to gain the support of their constituents.
By flooding the information landscape to influence’s the opponent’s decision-making process (which may incorporate details about individual psychology and exploit personal weaknesses), the practitioner of RC can induce a desired outcome in an opponent without their conscious knowledge.
The End of Democracy
Taken together as a set of technologies, Fascist Propaganda, PSYOPS, and Reflexive Control are sufficient to permanently co-opt democracy.
While in the past we have fretted over the ownership and influence of mass media, today we need to be concerned about who owns and controls these technologies. Specifically, they are being deployed by a powerful combination of actors with aligned interests: domestic conservatives and foreign powers.
Robert and Rebekah Mercer have developed a potent propaganda and PSYOPS machine that encompasses Breitbart News, Milo Yiannapoulos, Cambridge Analytica (part of SCL Group, the PSYOPS firm I mentioned above), and myriad PACs and other initiatives. Breitbart founder Andrew Breitbart believed that “politics is downstream from culture,” and indeed this idea borrows from the work of Italian political philsopher Antonio Gramcsi. They want to build an impenetrable defense for their particular brand of conservatism — a cultural hegemony that will last for decades to come.
Likewise, we have seen for decades that Russia has been keen to use all of these tools in its assault on the United States and the west. And we should expect that they will continue to use and perfect them going forward, and that they will share these technologies with other powers who aim to shape and limit the influence of the United States and NATO.
Democracy depends on the swing of the pendulum: the gentle and gradual sway of public opinion towards the inertia of the center. For much of the 20th century (and excepting the chaos of the war years), this is what liberal democracies experienced. In fact, it became so much the norm that our current situation, which presents a deep threat to that old order, appears as anathema.
However, this new threat is very much manifest, and there is a very real chance that we will lose control of our democracy in the United States if we do not take it seriously and address it. Already there are signs of normalization and acceptance of realities that are deeply troubling (collusion, lying, obstruction of justice — see Amy Siskind’s lists of tears in the fabric of our republic).
All it takes to subvert a democracy is a set of technologies that enables a permanent majority, and that majority can be as thin as 50.1%. We have seen that taken together as a bundle, the micro-audiences harvested through careful application of fake news can already exceed 50%. And a continued war on consensus-reality and mainstream media can help grow those micro-audiences further.
Couple this with military-grade behavioral control technologies developed for PSYOPS and Reflexive Control and you have a powerful tool for reliably controlling behavior, culture, and electoral outcomes in a democracy.
Along with the Mercers, these efforts are being funded by the Koch brothers. Charles Koch is a deep thinker with a background in engineering, with three degrees from MIT. Robert Mercer is perhaps one of the most brilliant computer scientists alive. These are not stupid people we are dealing with.
They are brilliant engineering minds who also happen to be billionaires, and they have designed a rational and workable technological approach that has already begun to subvert our democracy. They are being aided by foreign powers that think similarly, and we should expect that to continue indefinitely.
The real question is whether there is any way to fight this technology. Arguably there is, but given that there is little popular understanding of what is actually being deployed, it would seem the first step is to agree on the nature of that situation. But since that the thrust of this attack is aimed at shaping behavior that would prevent such consensus, that seems unlikely.
And so it would seem as though this is how America and the world will enter a new Dark Age. We will find out, eventually, whether we have the will or the means to ever awaken again.