A Primer on Propaganda in The 21st Century

daniel harvey
Apr 12, 2019 · 11 min read

Contemporary propaganda is surreal, swift, and algorithmic. The tactics and tools used by the alt-right, Russian trolls, and far-right politicians have its roots in political strategies from the 70s, 80s, and 00s. If we’re going to fight back we need to follow the thread that goes from Kissinger all the way to Christchurch.

A brief editors note: This is a transcript of a talk I originally gave at UX Crunch’s “Manipulation by Design” event on 26 March 2019. If you’d rather watch the original scroll to the bottom of this post or hop over to YouTube. Or if you’d rather read a snappier but less detailed tweetstorm you can do that too.

**As of July 2019 I’ve shifted most of my online writing to my newsletter. If you like this article you should consider subscribing. Thank you.**

True story: I was actually going to take a break from doing this sort of thing. But when Steven reached out to me with an ask to talk about about how things like Brexit were influenced by design I couldn’t resist. Two points before we start: 1. I’d like to apologise in advance for all the hideous photos of hideous rich white men. They really are the worst. 2. I’m a former New Yorker. Expect a lot of expletives.

Original illustration by the brilliant Tash Willcocks

Today I want to talk to you about propaganda in the modern world. This will be a whistle-stop tour of the strategies, tactics, tools, and channels used by bad actors, trolls, and other assholes to spread hate, disinformation, and terror. Before we do though I’d like to give a shout out to the amazing Tash Wilcocks for illustrating all of this in one brilliant go. Ok… buckle up. This is going to be a bumpy ride.

As with many horrible things in the world today, a lot of this shit starts with elder statesmen and war criminal, Henry Fucking Kissinger. He was a pioneer of “constructive ambiguity” as a policy construct. It’s weasel words that “fudges” sensitive issues to let countries save face while actually accomplishing little. Or worse, exacerbating issues over time. A perfect example of this is UN Security Council Resolution 242 which had two mutually exclusive principles in it. That resolution and other policies like it in the mid 70s lit the fuse for the conflict we see in Syria today.

…and it had explosive results in the 80s. At the time International Intelligence agencies attributed many terror attacks to Syria. America stood alone in pointing the finger at Libya. “Perception management” in the Reagan administration was designed to generate buy-in for aggressive foreign action from an American electorate that was weary from the Vietnam War. Rather than solve real problems with unpredictable outcomes, Reagan fabricated “rogue states” with cartoonish leaders from whole cloth. Reagan’s simplistic Hollywood sense of “good guys vs bad guys” played out as inter-agency bureaucracy to fuel nightly news theatrics.

Karl Rove is a complete scumbag. He was instrumental in shoving the Overton Window further right in the early 00s. By doing so, he helped create the conditions for the Tea Party to take shape. As with many leaders in conservative American politics today, he’s a good example of what dumb people think a smart person is like. Regarding our topic today, he’s best known for the idea of “reality-based communities.” Here’s a quote from journalist Ron Suskind recalling the conversation where it came to light.

Rove said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

Reagan, Rove, (and maybe even Kissinger) are simpletons compared to Vladislav Surkov. Surkov is Putin’s most powerful “Gray Cardinal.” Before politics, his professional background was in advertising/PR and avant-garde theatre. It’s disgusting to say but he’s an absolute innovator in propaganda. Under a pseudonym, he published the concept of non-linear warfare. It’s about information warfare as much as military force. Non-linear warfare is designed to destabilise perception. It’s been described by journalist Peter Pomerantsev as “a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused. A ceaseless shapeshifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.” Opposition can’t formulate a competing narrative because the narrative is always changing, always surreal, always confusing.

Every one of us is all too familiar with how much Trump and Brexit are exemplars of “post-truth politics.” The more outrageous the lie the greater the social and traditional media coverage. Barack Obama stated that the new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true.” We’ve all heard the old adage “A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes.” The modern version of that might be “A Lie Can Dominate Global News Cycles While Facebook Faffs About Outsourcing Fact Checkers.”

Derision of Experts was at the heart of Karl Rove’s “reality-based communities” concept. It’s become a key component of modern propaganda since. “People in this country have had enough of experts” is an example from shit-weasel, Michael Gove.

Repetition was one of Goebbels’ chief weapons as Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany. It remains a powerful tactic for propagandists today. They repeat their claims ad infinitum even after proven wrong. Vote Leave continued making their bullshit claim of giving the NHS £350 million a week if Brexit happened UNTIL the very day after the referendum.

Another common tactic is feigned rejection of partisanship. Senate Majority Leader and Geriatric Mutant Pedo Turtle, Mitch McConnell has made a career out of this horse-shit. Under his leadership the GoP has enforced strict party discipline while lying about being more bipartisan than the Democrats.

All roads lead back to this god damned bus. Propagandists run on utopian campaigns now. They make egregious promises, based on lies, that they have no intent to deliver on. They’ve spent so much time trading on fear that they’re trying their hand at optimism instead.

…of course, they haven’t stopped peddling darker notions. Conspiracism, and belief in conspiracies, is at an all time high. Birtherism, QANON, Pizzagate… I could go on and on. They are purpose-built to radicalise people and drive them to stochastic terrorism. Lest we forget a man entered the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria featured in Pizzagate and fired an AR-15 rifle.

The original sin of social media is programmatic advertising. Propagandists are able to micro-target their lies for maximum impact and minimal cost. Some sources say Russia’s Internet Research Agency only spent $100,000 on their election influence campaign. The IRA and other propagandists use micro-targeting in sophisticated and nuanced ways. Let’s look deeper…

The IRA crafted messages based on users’ race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and political affiliation. As well as their interest in things like the Tea Party, Malcolm X, “funny pics,” Fox News, and Maya Angelou. They fixated on racial tensions in general and Black Lives Matter in particular. These fake ads and groups leveraged REAL concerns to their own ends. In effect, they weaponised dissent — our most fundamental and important aspect of democracy!

And finally, propagandists have weaponised objectivity. 20th century journalism prided itself on objectivity. Groups like the BBC even have legal obligations to be impartial. To give “fair and balanced” air-time to all comers. Nigel Farage has appeared on the BBC more in recent years than most any other politician. The NYT, CNN, etc. have hired far right extremists, neo-nazis and climate change deniers. Depending on your pov that’s either a cynical cash grab or a misguided attempt at fairness.

So how does this all come together in the hands of bad actors? There are a lot of tricks and tools used by Internet trolls but I want to shine a light on two that are particularly distressing in light of recent events.

Redpilling is the copypasta recruitment strategy far right extremists use to flip at risk converts to join their shitty nihilist crusade. Shitposting is the act of throwing out huge amounts of coded meme content to confuse, distract, and aggravate your enemies while entertaining, inspiring, and communicating with your allies. The manifesto of the Christchurch shooter is an obvious example of this technique.

Everything we’ve talked about is signal boosted across social media. The fundamental business model of many of these platforms is advertising revenue. And that revenue is predicated on daily active users. Sadly outrage outperforms happiness by leaps and bounds — we click more when we’re angry. We no longer live in an attention economy but rather an outrage economy.

This all came to a head recently in Christchurch, New Zealand when an alt-right terrorist murdered 50 people and injured dozens more. The attack was live-streamed on Facebook, broadcast to YouTube, and shared along with his manifesto on Reddit, 4Chan, 8Chan, and more. You could even download it via The Daily Mail. His media strategy was so complete and so expedient that unlike similar attacks in the recent past there was no gap for copy cat interpretations to emerge.

Aldous Huxley once said,

“In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or the propaganda might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies — the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

So what can we do as consumers, creators, and a society to fix all this shit? Because we have to fix it. We can’t throw in the towel like Facebook has done with their disingenuous “pivot to privacy.”

As individuals we can take steps to break the news cycle. Studies show that people who’ve gone cold turkey on social media are less informed but are happier. We need to acknowledge there’s a difference between “right” and “right now.” How can we find slower, more responsible ways to consume the news? Step 1 — turn all your notifications right the fuck off.

As a society we need to educate people on how to live in a media saturated world. There are different approaches to media literacy programs but one thing they all have in common is an emphasis on critical thinking and analysis. It teaches people to understand the power structures that shape media representations and the ways in which audiences and producers derive and create meaning. It asks “who benefits?” With an event like Christchurch sharing the video or manifesto, or even naming the terrorist, bolsters his terrible agenda.

Media literacy alone isn’t enough though. We need to start teaching everyone — from school age children on up — algorithmic literacy too. Why are these systems making the recommendations they are making for us? Why are they serving us the content they are? And as designers and technologists we need to start making these systems more transparent to the people that use them.

As designers and technologists we can acknowledge that hate speech is not free speech:

  • Enforce existing ToS evenly and fairly. No one is above the law and no one should be above ToS either.
  • Apply the same approaches to erasing white radical extremist content that the platforms use to censor ISIS.
  • Better definitions of protected groups.
  • Better algorithms to detect hate speech.
  • Down rank / shadow ban hateful content.
  • Better distinguish between “fake dissent” and real dissent and protect the latter. Troll dissent has patterns and inconsistencies that are detectable.

We need to create new networks with new business models. That starts by challenging lazy assumptions that advertising should be the model for everything and that all networks have to be immense and addictive as a result. There are other models: from subscriptions to SAAS direct revenue to DTC sales. The most successful companies have multiple business models. It just makes good business sense to diversify your revenue streams, metrics, and business models away from propaganda.

Thank you for your time and attention. I hope you found the talk worth your while. Cheers.

ed. note: and thank you for taking the time to read this and if you’re so inclined please share, clap, and keep the conversation going in the comments. Please consider reading my related posts: The Outrage Economy and The Dystopia is already here.


A critical look at how tech is shaping our lives today & what actions we can take for a better tomorrow

daniel harvey

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Creative Director, UX Designer, Writer. I write #20MinutesintotheFuture, a critical look at how tech is shaping our lives & what we can do for a better tomorrow


A critical look at how tech is shaping our lives today & what actions we can take for a better tomorrow