The last vestiges of Russia’s free press are falling under Kremlin pressure, says the NYT. “Everything that’s not propaganda is being eliminated,” a Nobel Prize winning editor said as Russian authorities moved to control the narrative in the Ukraine war.
But it’s not just in Russia that the free press has fallen. If you haven’t noticed, the Western press has also succumbed to its own free press issues. You can tell because of the highly synchronised and scripted nature of so much of the coverage. Whose truth is the better truth is now a matter of ideology. At the Blind Spot we are striving to look beyond the propaganda for the sake of smart capital allocation.
Of course, many of you will already be tuned into the propaganda wars and won’t be surprised to learn any of this. They’ve been going on, I suspect for a good number of months if not far longer than that.
The best way to think about what’s going on in my opinion is in terms of WW2 nomenclature. To wit, here’s a little extract from a suddenly relevant book I stumbled across in my library:
For the right purpose, white propaganda is not intrinsically bad. Its intention is to raise morale, rally the public and win the war.
The problem with current domestic coverage, I’d argue, is that there’s not enough of a positive tone coming through from such techniques for the repression to be justified. To the contrary most institutional propaganda seems focused on inducing panic, over-reaction and hysteria. In the height of WW2 the objective was to ensure that cooler heads prevailed. But Keep Calm And Carry On has been transformed into Panic, Over-React and Be Fearful of Everything.
The only place I can see truly morale-boosting propaganda at work is in the crypto market, no better example of which is the new Randi Zuckerberg WAGMI ditty put out last week.
A decade ago, I sang this song on Broadway. Today I sing this song, surrounded by new friends, as a rallying cry for the women of web3. Together, we can accomplish anything. And have fun doing it! #WAGMI
PS Look for some fun cameos!
PPS Sorry for *language* at the end ? pic.twitter.com/W9pYZmxwXz
— randizuckerberg.eth ? (@randizuckerberg) February 28, 2022
The video has had absolutely terrible feedback from the online Crypto Twitterati. And yet, it does make me want to buy crypto. So what’s up with that? I can only conclude it’s because the video evokes an 80s style which taps into a subconscious yearning — as a child from that era — for that age to return.
From an institutional propaganda perspective this makes sense.
US laws have always made domestic counter propaganda efforts legally contentious — specifically covert ones that might influence political processes, public opinion, policies or media. As a result, the only legal mechanism for exporting white propaganda was by targeting foreign entities with it, and hoping some of the good vibes might blow back.
Even so, as Rand Corporation’s Rand Waltzman, a former DARPA communications expert, told me in 2020 you have to go back all the way to the 1980s and President Ronald Reagan’s Active Measures Working Group to identify an official programme in operation. I, as a child growing up in a Polish household in the 80s, would have been a key recipient of such conditioning. From the A-team to Top Gun, morale-boosting imagery, films and TV which positioned the West in a positive light was the export of choice.
From the 00s onwards, however — with no more active programmes in place — this sort of American boosterism began to be diluted with more melancholic titles, often expressing self-loathing attitudes, apocalyptic inevitability, decline and general demise of the Western state. Avatar, The Matrix, 2012 and Deep Impact were some of the best examples of the genre.
For truly inspiring iconography you now have to look to foreign militaries, like Azerbaijan’s, one of many foreign forces that has figured out how well 80s techniques work for boosting morale. That, or crypto.
Was wokeism intentionally hijacked?
One thing I’ve noticed for a while is how the online“culture wars” have been riddled with the language of warfare and occupation from the very early days. From talk of allies, to micro aggressions (what used to be called threats) and safe spaces, to the way like-minded groups organise online in cells of digital soldiers (often identified by secret in-group monikers or symbols). The values expressed, meanwhile, are centred on redistribution of wealth, atonement for past sins and equality of outcome not just access.
This has been mirrored by equally combative talk from the crypto space: from the HODL (hold on for dear life) to We Are Gonna Make It and FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) — not to mention laser eyes — all centred on values of risk-taking, freedom and capitalism.
The two groups are adversarial by nature.
Consider too how they have geographically evolved. Wokeism sprung from US academic heartlands, while crypto seemed to be seeded and propagated very intensively in China and the East. In Judo you use your opponent’s weight and strength as weapons against them. From a purely observational point of view, could the active combatants in the culture wars have been using similar techniques?
Let’s consider just how long the propaganda war may have been going on.
In one of his last books, Second Chance, Zbigniew Brzezinski warned that unless the American system finds a way “to embody to the world an idea whose time has come”, the Pax Americana order may find it impossible to sustain itself. The view was that people need a cause to believe in. Without one, the liberal world order — despite having won the 20th century battle — risks decay from the inside.
As Brzezinski noted in 2008, as if sensing the global financial crisis that was to come (my emphasis):
“In 1776 America defined the meaning of freedom for a world just beginning to seek it. In the twentieth century, America became the principal defender of democracy against totalitarianism.
In today’s restless world, America needs to identify itself with the quest for universal human dignity, a dignity that embodies both freedom and democracy but also implies respect for cultural diversity and recognises that persisting injustices in the human condition must be remedied.”
“Only by identifying itself with the idea of universal human dignity – with its basic requirement of respect for culturally diverse political, social and religious emanations – can America overcome the risk that the global political awakening will turn against it. Human dignity encompasses freedom and democracy but goes beyond them. It involves social justice, gender equality, and, above all, respect for the world’s cultural and religious mosaic.”
Brzezinski was one of the key people then to connect the aspiration for social justice to a grand political “awakening” — meaning, in a sense, that he was the one who clocked that those who rose to the social justice challenge would become “woke”.
Presented in the Brzezinski 2008 framing, it would have been hard to predict how wokeism could ever have been turned into a dirty word. But over a decade on, the whole concept of social justice has been slurred. Mostly because — as per Judo — its own ideals have been used against it by being over exaggerated.
What we need to question is how and why his idea failed to deliver. What went wrong? Who sabotaged it? And how? Nobody in their right mind would be opposed to the original objective. So how did intolerance itself enter into the frame?
Here’s one possible answer.
Really good piece.
The bit re “keep calm and carry on” reminds me of Bill Durodie’s short article written in the early days of COVID-19
“Far from achieving a sense of security, remaining away from normality for too long can engender a mood of despondency, mistrust and avoidance. Aside from addressing our understanding of the virus that confronts us, as well as the economic ramifications of the choices we make in dealing with this, it may be that one of the greatest challenges governments will face is how they can best work with people to encourage a return to normality after this relatively prolonged period of social isolation, fear and dependence.
The risk otherwise is of a gradual acceptance of the new status quo – suspicion, avoidance and intolerance towards others, an unwillingness to embrace life’s uncertainties, fear of future emergencies, a dystopian, anti-human outlook and narrative, and all too willing acceptance of the curtailment of civil liberties, combined with a paralysing dependence on others, whether scientific experts or governmental authorities.”
Regarding information warfare, I found Thomas Rid’s ”Active Measures” quite engaging and enlightening read.
Yep got it! Though I am not convinced he has got the right take all the way through.
Ah, yeah, perhaps the material on the more recent times was… a bit incomplete? Nonetheless, I recall finding the historical perspectives highly interesting. Also I thought the descriptions of the peace movements provided an interesting mirror to the present wokes.