Recent events in Charlottesville and the stream of deflections and false moral equivalences from the White House accentuate the fact that we are now dealing with a president who only cares about power.
Many of the Trump tactics we are seeing and saw during the presidential election are cribbed from Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime, and are quite advanced.
The three tactics we’re seeing the most are toxic cynicism, whataboutism, and attempts at owning all of the narratives across the political spectrum. Here’s what they look like, and some thoughts on how to combat these imported propaganda techniques.
Tactic 1: Toxic cynicism
The idea behind toxic cynicism is discouragement.
If you believe that nothing you do is going to make a difference, you’re more likely to check out and not even vote.
We saw this in large doses in the last election: Everything is awful so f*ck it, why not vote for Trump? If everyone is lying, what difference does it make?
We’ve heard this for years from right-wing pundits in these forms:
- You can’t trust the government
- You can’t trust the media
- You can’t trust science
- You can’t trust academia
In the past, these narratives have been used to discredit traditional institutions while building up the organizations that corporate America wants us to trust: Big business.
We all know the marketing—We need to free some “markets.” We need tax cuts to unleash the power of our corporations. What’s good for business is what’s good for America. Markets regulate themselves. More consumer choice will fix all of our issues with government.
All of these narratives were designed by corporate special interest groups like the Chamber of Commerce to encourage one thing: Selling off government (organizations designed by and for people) to private industry (organizations with profit as the main goal).
We’ve heard so much of this over the years from our own propagandists that we were really susceptible to even greater levels of cynicism in this past election. Over and over again we were told that Hillary Clinton was just as bad.
Vanity Fair wrote about the goal of toxic cynicism in Russian propaganda:
At the heart of this mind-set is the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth or even facts, because everything is spun or disguised to reflect advantageously on one group or another. “The whole idea of values has been thoroughly debased [in Russia], to the extent that if you talk about Western values you’ll just get a laugh,” says Ben Nimmo, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council. This environment of toxic cynicism allows Putin’s word to be as good as anyone else’s, because according to Moscow’s worldview everyone, including and especially westerners, is a self-righteous hypocrite and a liar.
I hear this from conservatives all the time. They think that everything that comes from the left is some sort of spin. Therefore, any spin of their own is justified.
Tactics for fighting cynicism
Pointing out propaganda techniques is not the most effective way of fighting them. With this in mind, I like to talk about a few ways of countering them if you encounter them personally.
1. If you know folks who just like to dump on everything on social media, get rid of them. I call these commenters “seagull commenters” because they just like to take a shit on everything. This doesn’t mean conservatives. It means trolls.
2. Form groups of allies where the moderators can get rid of these people.
3. If you see people who are liberal getting down, pick them up. Tell them what they’re doing does matter. Talk about how it does make a difference. It takes psychological energy to fight movements and we need to pick people up, not tear them apart.
4. Work to establish trust with people.
5. Hold conversations at a values level rather than a policy level. If you can recognize when people you know have the same values as you do, it’s easier to see them as on your side even if you disagree about a candidate or a policy.
Tactic 2: Whataboutism
Whataboutism is a sly sideways ad hominem attack. It’s an appeal to hypocrisy. You think Nazis running over people in Charlottesville are bad? Well, what about Antifa?
All you have to do is change the subject and try to make the other party look hypocritical for bringing it up at all.
Whataboutism is one of Donald Trump’s favorite twitter tactics.
When the congressional budget office estimated that the Trump healthcare plan would kick 24 million people off healthcare, Trump tweeted about Obamacare.
During the election we constantly heard: What about Hillary’s emails? As the Russian investigation has ramped up, we hear: What about leaks?
No matter the issue, change the subject.
Russian journalist Alexey Kovalev wrote a viral post earlier this year in which he warned the American press corp about answers from the Whitehouse packed with “false moral equivalences and straight, undiluted bullshit.”
Tactics for fighting whataboutism
1. Refocus, refocus, refocus. Keep bringing back the original issue. So you’re saying Nazis are okay? During press conferences in Russia, Putin never allows journalists to attack his deflection. In personal conversations, you have every opportunity so long as you don’t take the deflection bait.
2. Point out when equivalences aren’t the same. So the people who are fighting against Nazis are as bad as Nazis? Is that what you’re saying?
3. Teach people about non-violent protest techniques (so they don’t do it). Work to prevent this from happening in the first place. Extreme protest techniques decrease support for movements.
4. If and when violence does happen during protests, distance ourselves from these folks. In some cases they may be agent provacateurs.
5. If someone on the left actually does something that is morally wrong, it’s okay to say this is wrong. This can help build trust.
Tactic 3: Own all the narratives: right, left, center, the entire spectrum
The United States isn’t here yet, but one of the tactics used by Vladislav Surkov, the inventor of Putinism, is to try to co-opt narratives across all strata of politics and communities. The idea is that if you can control these narratives, they can be controlled to the advantage of those in charge.
Peter Pomerantsev wrote this about Surkov’s strategy in The Atlantic:
The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls.
The Kremlin switches messages at will to its advantage, climbing inside everything: European right-wing nationalists are seduced with an anti-EU message; the Far Left is co-opted with tales of fighting U.S. hegemony; U.S. religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality. And the result is an array of voices, working away at global audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support, all broadcast on RT.
In other words, you make it look like there’s many “sides” when there’s really only one.
Rand Waltzman, former DARPA program manager, testified before Congress in April about this new threat the U.S. is facing from influence operations (IO) or cognitive hacking on social media. Influence operations is the collection of tactical information about an adversary as well as the dissemination of propaganda in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent.
Waltzman warns that in the past the vast majority of our cyber security efforts have been aimed at traditional hacking while we missed the threat from IO:
For example, little attention has been paid to defending against incidents like the April 2013 Associated Press Twitter hack in which a group hijacked the news agency’s account to put out a message reading “Two explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured.” This message, with the weight of the Associated Press behind it, caused a drop and recovery of roughly $136 billion in equity market value over a period of about five minutes. This attack exploited both technical (hijacking the account) and psychosocial (understanding market reaction) features of the information environment.
According to Waltzman, here is what a typical strategy against a given target might look like:
- Take the population and break it down into communities, based on any number of criteria (e.g. hobbies, interests, politics, needs, concerns, etc.).
- Determine who in each community is most susceptible to given types of messages.
- Determine the social dynamics of communication and flow of ideas within each community.
- Determine what narratives of different types dominate the conversation in each community.
- Use all of the above to design and push a narrative likely to succeed in displacing a narrative unfavorable to you with one that is more favorable.
- Use continual monitoring and interaction to determine the success of your effort and adjust in real time.
When it comes to liberals and the left, you can see that the idea would be to replace an effective narrative with another left-leaning narrative that actually favors the opposition. In the 2016 election, for example, there were many left-leaning narratives attacking Hillary Clinton that aided Donald Trump.
Tactics for fighting information operations
Rand Waltzman discusses in more detail what an effective strategy for countering Russian propaganda would look like on a national level. He calls it a whole-of-nation approach. This whole-of-nation approach is “a coordinated effort between national government organizations, military, intelligence community, industry, media, research organizations, academia and citizen organized groups.”
A few things we can do
- Support the work of a free press and those in the press that work in the interests of people. We need organizations and people in the press that we can trust.
- Better narratives are a much better tactic than pointing out falsehoods. Develop strong narratives on the left that talk about what is going to work in the best interests of people. The right has for years pushed the narrative of smaller government. A better narrative that the left needs to talk more about is democracy. Talk about how checks and balances on power are how we can really fight corruption.
- A better narrative often brings people together rather than divides them. For example, if the opposition tries to pit activists versus politicians, a better narrative talks about how we need them both and how both might work together.
- When you find better narratives, share them with the people you know.
David Akadjian is the author of The Little Book of Revolution: A Distributive Strategy for Democracy (also available as an ebook).