From Kissinger to Trump

The political strategies driving modern propaganda

Today (and over the next two letters) 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 intentionally 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. Importantly he’s also very fond of the surrealism and non-sequiturs of 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.”

P.S.: I have a proposal to speak about this topic at SXSW. If you could sign up and vote for it I’d be appreciative. Voting closes on Friday the 23rd so thanks in advance for your help.

File under: #propaganda #constructiveambiguity #perceptionmanagement #realitybasedcommunities #nonlinearwarfare
Next week: 
We’ll move from discussing propagandist strategies to looking at their tools & tactics.