The Fine Art of Flinging Poo
I’ve been thinking about the Capitol riots lately. I don’t mean “how could this happen?” (anyone who’s read even a little bit of history already knows the answer) or “what role did the former President play? (that answer is self-evident, and getting more so every day).
No, that’s tedious, dreary, and altogether too predictable. What I’ve been thinking about is the fascinating narratives that have sprung up around the failed coup, how contradictory they are, and how those contradictions don’t seem to matter.
I’ve come to an unexpected conclusion: The fact that the narratives are inherently self-contradictory is part of what makes them compelling. The mutual impossibilities in the narrative threads are precisely why they work.
Okay, so hear me out.
In the aftermath of the January coup attempt, a bunch of different, competing stories started to coalesce on the political right about what happened. There were no riots; the Capitol attackers were just tourists. It wasn’t insurrection; it was completely peaceful. The attack wasn’t peaceful, but it also wasn’t Trump supporters, it was Antifa. Or no, not Antifa; it was an FBI false-flag operation. But the rioters were martyrs. If Trump is re-elected, he will give them all pardons.
Clearly these can’t all be true. The attack was orchestrated by peaceful tourists who were really FBI Antifa in disguise, yet they’re all martyrs who deserve pardons? Nobody can believe all of this.
And that’s exactly the point.
I’ve started calling this strange, scattershot approach to propaganda the “MSTF technique:” Make Something That Fits.
When I was growing up, my mother always used to say, “information by itself almost never changes attitudes.”
This is the central premise of propaganda. Propaganda, at its core, is about selling a feeling—an alternate-earth, a view of the world carefully tailored to resonate emotionally with the target audience. Facts may not care about your feelings, but that doesn’t matter. People believe what they want to be true or what they fear is true, not what the facts say.
Anaïs Nin put it succintly: “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.”
The purpose of all these narratives about the January 6 riots is to sell a feeling: It wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t our fault. We aren’t the bad guys, they (however ‘they’ is defined) are.
The contradictions, the mutually impossible narratives, help do that. The fact that all these stories about tourists and Antifa and martyrs and the FBI contradict each other helps reinforce, not diminish, the message.
Two ways, one direct and one indirect.
When you create a bunch of different stories and fling them all into the world with a shotgun, you create a sense that there’s no such thing as reality, there’s just a bunch of different opinions.
Nobody has the truth. The truth doesn’t exist. There’s your truth and my truth and they’re all equally valid. How dare you say you have ownership over the truth? That’s elitism! Fact-checking? Simply another opinion.
When you remove people’s ability to agree that there are such things as facts, there is such a thing as a sequence of events that happened—in short, that reality exists independent of your opinion—you make the job of propaganda easier. You can far more easily manipulate people into accepting the narrative you create for them when you sever their connection to the idea that reality exists.
But don’t the targets of your propaganda see these conflicting stories and say “these can’t all be true, so what’s going on here”?
No. That’s the brilliance of MSTF. You’re flinging poo at the wall to see what sticks, but different parts stick for different reasons.
People who believe the Big Lie of the “stolen election” aren’t all the same, and they don’t believe it for the same reasons. It’s tempting to lump all the Big Lie believers into the same basket of deplorables, but the fact is there are a lot of baskets, each deplorable in its own unique way.
That’s where the malicious genius of MSTF comes from.
The people who are listening to all these different narratives do have one thing in common: they are motivated reasoners. They want to believe their guy won, the election was stolen, and they were done wrong. They are, essentially, looking for a reason to believe.
The January insurrection shook that. Insurrection is not acceptable, not in the United States. If their side participated in insurrection, that makes them the bad guys.
The genius of MSTF is the realization that if you have a diverse group of people all looking for a reason to believe they’re on the side of right and justice, you may be better served by a half-dozen narratives that each appeals to a different target audience it fits perfectly than by one narrative that doesn’t fit anyone perfectly, even if those narratives are mutually contradictory.
Motivated reasoners will grab hold of any story that feeds them emotionally, whilst ignoring stories that don’t. The contradictions don’t matter. To the person who wants to believe the riots weren’t really riots, the story of peaceful tourists resonates. The idea that it was an FBI false flag? Who cares? It was peaceful anyway, so it doesn’t matter.
On the other hand, the conspiracy theorist who sees sinister, shadowy cabals of evil schemers behind every corner will find the FBI false flag compelling. Of course it was the FBI, that’s what they do. The bit about the tourists is a diversion, and yeah, maybe that story will satisfy the sheeple, but I see the truth. Not like those poor blue-pill suckers who sleepwalk through their lives.
And the thing about having a half-dozen narratives is those who do believe that reality is a thing must chase down and debunk every one of these stories. It’s a rhetorical Hydra: for every narrative thread you lop off, two more take its place.
In other words, having multiple competing narratives makes the propaganda more resilient, more compelling, and more easily accepted by the target audience. Each person can find the poo that sticks to him, and let the rest pass him by.
The key takeaway here: You’re selling emotion. When you’re selling a feeling, the facts don’t matter.
Information by itself almost never changes attitudes. It doesn’t matter if the ‘facts’ contradict, because you aren’t selling the facts. They’re just filler.
I personally find myself more on the political left than the political right, as you might imagine. Having said that, however, I do see an unfortunate tendency amongst my fellow liberals to sneer at the perceived idiots on the right, to watch them be fooled by Big Lies and obvious propaganda, with a sort of condescending “look at those poor slow children, how dreary it must be to go through life that dumb and gullible.”
Listen up, fellow lefties: You are human too. These same strategies work on you. In fact, smug assurance they won’t work on you makes you more vulnerable to them.
It takes a different form on the left than the right. The right are more prone to MSTF propaganda that appeals to the authoritarian impulse; the left, to soundbite activism.
When you see a whole lot of words with a bunch of different narrative threads all easily wrapped up in a bumper-sticker-sized sound bite, pay attention. Someone may be trying to manipulate you.
Compare narratives. Look at details. Watch out for appeals to emotion. Beware a bunch of stories that are long on emotional appeal but short on specifics. Don’t assume you’re immune. You aren’t.
Good propagandists understand that ultimately, we see ourselves through stories. We see the people around us and their relationship to us through stories. We accept that which agrees with the narratives we believe, and reject that which doesn’t. Yes, that includes me. And you, dear reader.
Belonging to what Bush aide Karl Rove once sneeringly dismissed as the “reality-based community” requires vigilance and work.