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We’re in a psychological war with ‘the greatest propaganda machine in history’ — will we survive it?

In ‘Stories Are Weapons,’ Annalee Newitz identifies our mortal enemy, who looks awfully familiar

Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind
By Annalee Newitz
WW Norton, 272 pages, $28

It used to be we knew who our friends were and who we were fighting against. Maybe sometimes there was a fifth column working to undermine us, but even that term coined in the Spanish Civil War is less than a hundred years old. Today, though, radically open platforms of so-called “social media” act as what Sacha Baron Cohen called them in 2019, “the greatest propaganda machine in history.” I worked with him on some of the research behind that statement five years ago and, on all evidence since then, it is clear that bad actors are indeed sowing social division wider and deeper than ever before. Their lies can have effects at a scale and with a perversity that previously was the realm of science fiction.

Annalee Newitz’s Stories Are Weapons sets out to explain how stories have been explicitly weaponized for named conflicts, but also how stories have always been de facto weapons in de facto conflicts. What has changed in the last century is how the technology of warfare has been brought into the domestic sphere for political ends. As Newitz puts it: “In our current social media psywars we can witness in real time as weapons once used in military conflicts are deployed in domestic culture wars.”

As we stand on the verge of dystopia, there are few people better positioned than Newitz to guide us through the unholy “troika of influence machines” that they identify as “military psyops,” “advertising” and “popular media.” They are a science journalist and author of science fiction novels who politely turned down the offer to be the Forward’s tech columnist 15 years ago and who now write for a variety of outlets including New Scientist, The Atlantic and The New York Times, as well as co-hosting the influential Our Opinions Are Correct podcast with Charlie Jane Anders. In Stories Are Weapons, they outline the history, methods, and harms of the troika, the surprising role of science fiction writers in crafting the propaganda playbook for the U.S. Army as well as some possibilities for combating domestic propaganda.

The story starts with Freud whose great achievement was to think systematically about how little our conscious minds were in control of our thoughts and actions. He, of course, came at it with the intention (however flawed and sexist his methodology) of using his insights to heal. But his nephew Edward Bernays — doubly close, since his mother was Freud’s sister and his father was the brother of Freud’s wife, Martha Bernays — turned this insight into a way of manipulating people’s opinions. In 1923’s Crystallizing Public Opinion, he outlined how to use “mass media like newspapers to appeal to their unconscious bias.”

Although contemporary mass media looks little like Bernays’ newspapers, his basic insight persists all the way through to today. The ur-experiment of selling Lucky Strike cigarettes to independent women through a rally of “Freedom Torches” resonates through the book. By intertwining something that the audience desires (freedom) or believes (protests work) with something that the storyteller wants them to do (smoke cigarettes), the storyteller can shape their will. Traces of the Lucky Strike experiment are evident in every military Psyops (psychological operations) tactic and every domestic propaganda move Newitz outlines, even, those she discusses, that take place before Bernays proved his explicit point. Bernays’ insight into mass manipulation is relevant whether considering the leaflets dropped on the German troops in World War I, the exploitation of 87 million Facebook accounts that Mark Zuckerberg surrendered to Cambridge Analytica and the Trump Campaign of 2016, or Russia’s ongoing distractions from its war of aggression in Ukraine. 

Newitz traces the implementation of psychological warfare into domestic American politics both in the century since Bernays and, also avant la lettre. They note that:

“There are three major psychological weapons that combatants often transfer into culture war: scapegoating, deception, and violent threats. These weapons are what separate an open, democratic public debate from a psychological attack.”

The opening chapters outline how this scapegoating works by painting vulnerable communities as either non-human, subhuman or “foreign adversaries.” Though Newitz does not use the words “othering” or “dehumanization” these are the effects of the weaponized stories they discuss. These stories are wielded against non-voting women, against LGBT communities in school board fights, against Native Americans through white colonial narratives of Native extinction, against immigrants through political rhetoric of “cockroaches,” and against Black equality when discredited racial science reappears in “bell-curve” pseudo-academia. It’s an odd omission for a Jewish author to overlook the stories told to dehumanize America’s Jews. But perhaps there will be room for a new chapter in the next edition that can take into account the prominent “Zionists are not Jews are not human” poster at a protest in New York during the week of the book’s release.

The ever faster cycle of domestic disinformation means that anyone who pays even the slightest attention to online trends is familiar with the steps that Newitz discusses. What Newitz does is to explain the history and tactics of how our unconscious is used to make us act against our best interests. First the bad actors scapegoat and demonize a population as untrustworthy, subhuman, “not-us” — for example, labeling teachers who champion LGBT rights as “groomers.” Then, using deception, they lie about what’s at stake or what the rules are — like suddenly and inconsistently categorizing certain rainbow flag stickers as “unsafe” and “dangerous.” Finally they threaten — either through unmoderated social media or simply by twisting a school board to fire your enemies.

One of the emergent properties of mass platforms is how the ease of disinformation leads to plausible deniability. First, private platforms like Facebook (where the January 6th Insurrection was organized), Truth Social, and X (formerly known as Twitter) deny any responsibility for the vile content of the posts that earn them income. Then, bad actors, disingenuously citing “free speech,” can whip up passionate and hateful feelings, while – because there are no specific calls for violence – they can effectively insulate themselves from accountability. 

“We have officially entered an age of what experts call ‘stochastic terrorism,’ a term that has become increasingly popular in the last decade to explain random violence inspired by online media,” Newitz writes, explaining that if a story is compelling enough, the probability that someone will act on it comes close to certainty, however bizarre and unlikely the story is. The rise in anti-Black racism associated with the advent of the Trump 2016 campaign did not target a Charleston church but nevertheless drastically  increased the likelihood of someone like “white supremacist Dylann Roof,” taking action and murdering “nine people at Bible Study at a Black Church.” In Newitz’ account, a “stochastic terrorist is someone who becomes activated and violent when triggered by outside pressures. Accusing others of genocide or child abuse are other ways of removing their humanity.”The conspiracy theorists and amplifiers who posted the ludicrous #Pizzagate tales of politicians engaged in child-trafficking from a pizzeria stoked the fires of disgust, and the “gunman who showed up at Comet Ping Pong with an AR-15” was a stochastic terrorist. 

To that list, Newitz could have added the murderous shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. All three of those gunmen felt compelled enough by spurious online deceptions, bolstered in turn by hateful narratives of political disgust, Black inferiority and the virulently racist Great Replacement Theory that Tucker Carlson promotes, to take the lives of their fellow American citizens. Newitz does not draw the lines between who benefits from stoking hate between American citizens and demonizing “marginalized groups like Black people, Jews, immigrants, and the LGBT community” but they do mention the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) and quote its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin boasting of their “surgical” ability to affect the U.S. elections. Contemporary internet patterns are ideal for domestic and foreign actors to align in encouraging disunity and disaffection in the opposition and passion in the hate-and fear-filled base.

After scaring the reader for hundreds of pages, Newitz does conclude the book with some methods of inoculating our societies against the effects of these domestic psyops. They suggest that successful counters can include: pointing out the psyops, countervailing with truth, refusing to be threatened, and telling a better, truer, defensive story. I hope they are right that these will be effective, but I was unconvinced. 

We’re in the middle of an unprecedented profusion of narratives. Like never before in history, we are constantly surrounded by representations of things that are physically distant from us and a bewildering number of explanations for them. Newitz recounts how, in 1943, in the middle of World War II, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, “a Jewish psychiatrist who fled the Nazis across Poland and Austria” before reaching safety in America, wanted to investigate how formerly peaceful people could send their neighbors, colleagues, and friends, into death camp.” Along with her two Berkeley colleagues and philosopher Theodor Adorno they published “The Authoritarian Personality” which outlined the conditions and the tendencies of people who might become fascists given the right conditions. As with Freud before them, their studies — intended to help people avoid social pathologies — has been turned into a playbook for fascists. 

The hallmarks of authoritarian personality are ethnocentrism, mistrust of science, hatred of the other, “cynical about humanity,” and a fear of “rapid social change.” Our current context of unavoidable climate change, seemingly inevitable seismic changes due to technology, and an unprecedentedly large, young, and connected global population seems incredibly fertile ground for fascism. Given that Newitz has just spent hundreds of compelling pages explaining how well dystopian world-building works, even in the fragmentary, deceptive world of mass participation in privately owned public platforms, it is not clear that they provide any defense, just the intellectual comfort of understanding the levers of our own destruction. 

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