Propaganda is a slippery term. It has been used to disrupt democracies, sow suspicion and justify injustices. But at its core, propaganda is just another form of storytelling. Storytelling with higher stakes, but equally innocuous as a Hollywood script (until Harvey Weinstein buys the rights).
From tools to techniques, this article will remove our aversion to propaganda and identify the lessons it can provide in communicating stories. Whether you’re a brand, a marketer or a creative, these tips can ramp up the efficacy of your narrative or diminish the strength of those from your detractors.
Propaganda vs. Information Warfare
“Stories are tribal propaganda”, writes Will Storr. From constructing cities to interplanetary exploration, the evolutionary advantage of our species has been our ability to cooperate at scale. Underpinning this cooperation are the grand, collaborative myths we tell ourselves. Don’t steal, be truthful, respect elders; these narratives build a shared system of beliefs that maintain social order by ensuring adherence to the tribe’s common values.
While propaganda as a term has been sullied in recent times, any form of communication is propaganda. Whether it’s Hollywood or the Herald Sun, all media contains a grand narrative that intends to either reinforce or deter behaviours. ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ teaches us to fear greed, ‘The Godfather’ educates us on the perils of moral corruption and David Lynch films are a case study in the dangers of Ketamine.
Not all propaganda reduces as to a ‘bewildered herd’ of consumption that Chomsky would have us believe.
Information Warfare: Cambridge Analytica
Psychological operations firm Cambridge Analytica has popularised modern propaganda. Implementing techniques once reserved for warzones, Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL Group, were capable of operating large scale disinformation campaigns on civilian populations. Muddying the waters of elections and inciting coups from Trinidad to Thailand, the organisation was responsible for stoking outrage faster than Ricky Gervais at an awards night.
Cambridge Analytica was able to execute this by processing people into data (Christoper Wylie). By harvesting publicly available user information and feeding it to black box machine learning algorithms, we became the “raw material of a data-industrial complex”. Unlike the vague segmentation of yesteryear’s state propaganda campaigns, targeting individuals made it possible to turn them into “moveable units of society”. Moving those perceived most susceptible to messaging made it then possible to “move public opinion at scale".
In his autobiography “Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America”, data scientist turned whistleblower Christopher Wylie, details the techniques used for these campaigns. For the brand or marketer looking to implement similar techniques for less nefarious purposes, he relates the propaganda campaigns deployed to the three fundamental elements of any weapons system. Simplifying the Lockheed Martin Kill Chain, he terms these “the payload, the delivery system and the targeting system.”
In public influence campaigns, the attack’s raw material serves as the payload. While the message may deploy any number of techniques, the most universal are manipulation of cognitive biases, language and narratives. Combined, the payload mobilises the audience to perform a desired behaviour.
Scarface’s Tony Montana isn’t the only one to be burdened by the weight of personal ambition. While he buried himself under bodies and cocaine, everyone suffers the "yearning of the unfulfilled self” (Cristopher Wylie). Advertising has always sought to fill this abyss ie. feel younger with this lipstick, become more successful with this sports car. State propaganda exploits the same cognitive insecurity, only replacing the individual’s needs with that of a nation.
If you believe Will Storr, humans are motivated by two fundamental drives; the drive to connect and the drive to dominate. Bouncing between these poles results in the internal conflict master storytellers seek to exploit. Former SCL Group CEO Nigel Oaks went on record saying that their techniques sought to "appeal to people on the emotional level to get them to behave on the physical level". Irrespective of one’s intellect, cognitive penetration incites irrationality through appealing to our baser emotions.
Language is a slippery thing. It’s the difference between “global warming” and “climate change”, “recessions” and “negative growth”, propaganda” and “storytelling”. Whether the intention is to inflame or deescalate, manipulation of language works in tandem with that of cognitive biases.
Look no further than pricing pages to examine the interplay between language and cognitive biases. A case study in behavioural economics, the names and numbers awarded to pricing tiers are designed to overcome a target’s inhibitions with an irrational sense of value. All communication is an attempt to convince another of a worldview by exerting influence; whether the language used is deceptive or misleading is subjective.
Effective propaganda associates a desired action with a higher purpose. Voting for Obama in 2008 was a pledge to historic change, while voting for Trump in 2016 was a historic return to wearing red hats.
In order to persuade a nation, elections are traditionally about “one unitary and discernible thing”. This singular focus simplifies the message and enables it to take root in some grander story. Be it a story of a secret conspiracy, a brave martyr or an inevitable event, these tales inflame the imagination and ignite action. Using a singular call to action in an advertisement or landing page as a marketer should be no different.
“In informational combat, the payload is often a story - a rumour deployed to trick a general or a cultural narrative indeed to pacify a village. And just as the military invests in chemistry to inform bomb building, it also tries to research what kinds of narratives will yield the biggest impact." (Mindf*ck - Christopher Wylie)
Today’s most sophisticated disinformation campaigns operate on the same platforms used by consumers and digital marketers. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are equally the tools for tyrants as they are for your arthritic, 89 year old grandmother. Eighteen years since the birth of Facebook and we’re still in the social media’s Wild West. These platforms feed unmediated information to captive audiences free from governmental oversight. For provocative nationalists like UK’s Nigel Farage, social media offers "the reach of a traditional media organisation without its obligations”.
But unlike the flawed logic of second amendment advocates that "guns don't kill people, people kill people", the platforms used to deliver disinformation are neither inherently good nor bad. Yes their weaponisation makes scaled manipulation possible, however they’re also the same tools with which we operate legitimate businesses and model our lives on vacuous influencers. Any harm inflicted by the platform is a byproduct of its misuse yet it’s still difficult to imagine any election not subject to outside forces attempting to influence the outcome.
Macedonia’s Bot Herders and Russia’s Troll Farmers are the proletariat serving state propaganda from modern sweat factories. Outsourced creation and publishing of campaign content enables fast and affordable dissemination of propaganda. With fast fashion brands like Nike and Zara using sweatshops in Bangladesh to manufacture products, it’s not difficult to imagine brands using troll farms in Macedonia to manufacture positive sentiment online.
Data is the rocket fuel powering today’s propaganda. Paired with psychometric profiling and machine learning, data science enables communicators to monitor and predict individual behaviour at scale. And in sacrificing our privacy to the gods of social media, we’re producing more data than Marvel are superhero sequels.
Microtargeting is the zeroing in on audiences based on underlying values and attitudes accumulated from vast data sets. With the effectiveness of propaganda largely attributable to how well it speaks to the inherent fears or prejudices of the viewer, microtargeting is being used from everything from US elections to direct mail.
None of this targeting used in modern propaganda campaigns would be possible without the ability to process vast sums of data. While a shadowy data brokerage system and the digitisation of services is making it easier to farm user data, information operations are only effective as the quality of their data inputs. The ability for machine learning to ingest, sanitise and identify insights of user information is making data science an invaluable tool in the modern propagandist’s playbook.
A key to Cambridge Analytica's Information Operations was their ability to identify and segment audiences based on psychographics. Pooling public social media information with other datasets, CA was able to build profiles of US voters with over 5,000 individual data points.
Segmenting audiences based on personality models such as the Big Five, these profiles could serve as an accurate prediction of an individual’s behaviour. These were then baked into systems that could disseminate personalised propaganda to the masses. When this information was weaponised in the 2016 US Presidential Election, the payload mobilised nationalists and convinced undecided to remain home on election day.
Propaganda is as much a part of our lives as breathing. Inseparable from storytelling, any attempt to influence behavioural change can have a net positive or net negative outcome. Modern propaganda tools and techniques allow stories to be disseminated at scale, providing a means for brands and creatives to enhance the reach and efficacy of the content.
Right before he had them all executed, Joseph Stalin once described writers as “the engineers of the human soul.” Today’s engineers of the human soul are as likely to be social media strategists as they are ASIO staffers.
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