Analysis Culture

How are you being fooled?

Propaganda is not a new thing. As time goes on and information is more readily available, we are acutely aware of its existence — especially when we look back at its effects throughout history. The luxury of hindsight is something we could use to learn from. Like us today, the people who were successfully manipulated either didn’t realize it at the time, or they didn’t care.

I recently spoke to Alex Hollings, author of The Perception Wars: How Influence Shapes Conflict, and he said that “…a great deal of how we see the world we live in today is the result of concerted perception management campaigns; from ‘ailments’ like Halitosis that were invented to sell mouthwash to traditions like using diamond rings to signify being engaged, which was invented by DeBeers in the 1930s. If you’ve ever known anyone that thought eating carrots would improve their vision, you know someone whose world view has been shaped by World War II era propaganda efforts.”

Not all propaganda campaigns are evil. WWII saw some very positive campaigns hoping to inspire people across the US to support the war effort; South Korea regularly engages in campaigns to educate rural North Koreans and make them aware of the situation they’re in. Agree or disagree with the cause, the out-in-the-open propaganda campaigns are not the ones you need to watch out for — they’ll shove themselves right in your face. It’s the subversive ones, the ones parading around as unbiased truth, that you have to watch out for.

“Managing a narrative isn’t, in itself, a nefarious undertaking. Sometimes these narrative efforts even develop organically when groups try to find ways to engage the public more effectively with their sincere messaging. Things get more complicated when we start talking about weaponized influence, wherein groups attempt to shape narratives without engaging with you in a conscious way,” said Hollings.

If you’re a member of a community with any political power (like the power to vote), then you are likely being subjected to these campaigns. They don’t all involve malicious, suited men in dark corners smoking cigars — they might just be a politician insisting that they are a bastion of truth, or a celebrity trying to stretch a narrative to cover up dirty deeds. It could be some memes or opinion articles shotgunned across the web.

And the most important part? They will appeal to you.

Why would anyone launch a propaganda campaign that doesn’t appeal to their target audience? Why would a corrupt Republican or Democrat try and trick the minds of those who align themselves with the opposite political party? Well, quite obviously, they wouldn’t.

They appeal to you and they claim to be the one, shining truth. Maybe they’ll allow a little nibbling here and there, allowing you to say to your friends, “Well, they’re not perfect,” followed by the inevitable, “BUT…”

Hollings went on to say that, “Propaganda and other kinds of influence campaigns only really work when they engage with your identity. They tend to encourage a sense of victimhood among the recipients and then identify a bad actor that’s responsible for that victimhood. Once that’s been established, you can start working on a ‘call to action’ to take the fight to those bad actors, whether they’re from another country, religion, political party or what have you.”

If you’re thinking, “Ha, yeah that’s totally what’s happening to those other people,” then you’re missing the point. Who is taking YOUR ideology, and twisting it for their own ends? How are they doing it? Who is parading around as your friend but is really your enemy? Who within your own political party is not being entirely honest?

It doesn’t mean you have to ditch your ideology entirely. Indeed, political parties, religious institutions, and even businesses would do a lot better if they held their own accountable. And so if you want your side to win, study your own side. Find the speck in your own eye and take care of it — you might find that there was a log in there the whole time.

This is how propaganda works. If you don’t have the presence of mind to critically question and test every facet of your own team, then you will fall into the annals of history side-by-side with everyone else who has been duped by the silver tongue of a two-faced politician.

When a famous face whose views you support comes out and says something that puts an inspired fire in your chest — that makes you feel glad to be on their team and no one else’s — what is your reaction? Is it of leaping onto the bandwagon, cheering their names in the streets or on your Facebook wall? Or do you react with a healthy level of skepticism? Do you react with poise and critical thinking?

Ask yourself: How am I being fooled?

Check out Alex Hollings’ The Perception Wars: How Influence Shapes Conflict on Amazon.

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2 years ago

So when some of my favorite writers from the old place get together and collaborate . . . hell yeah. Great article Luke, thank you.

2 years ago

The sales lady who tells me I deserve *both* pairs of cute shoes. The burger place that tells me I can have it my way. Every echo chamber that says what I already believe but sounds smarter than me about it. 😬

2 years ago
Reply to  Luke Ryan

I’m really disappointed. I thought if I buy the right car I can become as cool as Matthew McConaughey.

2 years ago

Alejandro and Luke shaking some nuggets from the wisdom tree. Nice!!!

2 years ago

Luke, well done. I have Alex’s book and have only read a short way into it. I’m really an ass about catching up on my reading…
geo sends

2 years ago

I Loved the write, Luke. I wrote a comment a few hours after you posted, but accidentally deleted. I ditched my Windows computer and bought a MacBook Air, and am still Learning. I have accidentally deleted more than have retained. I have Alex’s book, and I have your book, both sitting on my side table along with Heart of a Ranger which is half read. I spend so much time on a computer that after crunching numbers and architectural details for 8-10 hours a day my eyes have had it. I love reading, but I prefer audio. I buy or… Read more »

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