Mass psychosis | Psychological warfare | Brainwashed
Image: Lucas | AdobeStock

The Art of Psychological Warfare

From marketing manipulation to all-out psychological warfare, Stories Are Weapons clarifies how our world – and worldview – is seldom our own.

Psychological Warfare and the American Mind
Annalee Newitz
W.W. Norton
June 2024

Everyone knows that stories are weapons, but we need more people to understand how these weapons work, or stories will continue to be used against us. This is part of what Winston Churchill meant when he said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Why nefarious people do nefarious things is a subject that concerns us all, but it’s a far more difficult question to answer than how they accomplish their nefarious things.

Annalee Newitz’s new book, Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, goes the distance in examining this question of how stories are manufactured to exploit our weaknesses. This compelling exploration of how psychological manipulation has been used as a tool of control and influence throughout history is divided into three parts, each focusing on different aspects and case studies of psychological warfare, ultimately presenting a clear argument for why understanding these tactics is essential today.

Newitz begins by examining the historical context of psychological warfare, particularly focusing on the influence of Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious and how his nephew, Edward Bernays, applied these concepts to the burgeoning field of advertising. Bernays, often called the “father of public relations”, recognized the potential of using psychology to shape public opinion. One notable example is the Lucky Strike cigarettes campaign in the 1920s. Bernays cleverly linked the act of smoking with women’s liberation, turning a public health hazard into a symbol of freedom. “A campaign that could sublimate women’s love of freedom into a lust for cigarettes” perfectly encapsulates the insidious nature of this manipulation, capitalizing on trending suffragette politics to sell a product.

In 1951, the U.S. Army established the Office of Psychological Warfare, recognizing the need to harness the expertise of advertising professionals and science fiction novelists who understood the intricacies of world-building and narrative construction. This innovative move aimed to create sophisticated psychological operations (psyops) to influence enemy and ally perceptions during the Cold War. Paul Linebarger, a key figure in this endeavor, authored the office’s handbook, Psychological Warfare, which became a seminal text in the field. Under the pseudonym Cordwainer Smith, Linebarger also penned numerous science fiction novels and short stories, infusing his literary work with insights from his psychological warfare expertise and vice versa. This period was marked by extreme paranoia, with fears of the atomic bomb and the potential for brainwashing influencing both military strategy and popular culture.

Stories Are Weapons then delves into the Cold War era, highlighting how Bernays’ know-how was co-opted for more sinister purposes. He was hired to protect the interests of United Fruit (now Chiquita) in Guatemala against a reformist government. The coup of 1954, which overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected leader, was justified through stories of a communist threat, spread by Bernays and supported by CIA black operations. “Few journalists questioned why a small group of anti-Arbenz forces was able to stage a coup in 1954, overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected government, and hand thousands of small Guatemalan-owned farms back to United Fruit. In 1997, classified documents revealed that the CIA had aided the men behind the coup with training and supplies—and their black ops were justified by stories about a communist threat, spread by a PR guy who wanted to sell bananas.” This episode underscores the powerful role of psychological warfare in shaping political outcomes and protecting corporate interests.

Newitz then traces the roots of psyops back to the American Revolutionary War, presenting an uncannily familiar scenario: Benjamin Franklin’s creation of fake newspapers to demoralize British forces and influence public perception. This early use of “fake news” helped America gain independence by convincing people that the revolution was winning, showing the long history of disinformation as a strategic tool.

Stories Are Weapons then shifts to psyops used by the American government during the Indian Wars, “a period of violent mythmaking, where the United States used everything from schoolroom lessons to adventure novels to justify the nation’s bloody westward expansion”, framing Native Americans as obstacles to progress. In response, the Lakota people created the counter-narrative of the Ghost Dance, envisioning a world free of white colonizers. This historical context sets the stage for understanding how psychological warfare has been woven into the fabric of American history.

To form a bridge between military and cultural psyops, Newitz tells the story we all know about Cambridge Analytica, whose team of researchers “was helping authoritarian politicians target people whose minds were vulnerable to fascist propaganda”, a phenomenon that whistleblower Christopher Wylie described as “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.” Although the US military claims it doesn’t conduct psyops against its citizens, the rest of the government disagrees. As a result, “methods of information warfare that seemed novel in 2016 are now a part of our everyday lives.”

Part II of Stories Are Weapons is about 60 pages, and it examines several modern case studies from the culture wars, illustrating how psychological tactics are used to divide and control. “Culture warriors have two goals: convince Americans that some of their fellow citizens are the enemy; and convince ‘the enemy’ that there is something deeply wrong with their minds, and therefore they are not qualified to demand greater freedoms and personal dignity.” They divide us with lies and then gaslight the rebels into submission.

One significant case is Charles Murray’s infamous 1994 book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which purports to provide scientific evidence that Black people are less intelligent than white people. Psychologist and sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin succinctly criticized this in a 2021 tweet: “White supremacy is a psyop.”

Stories Are Weapons‘ second case study is about anti-LGBTQ+ moral panic in the education system, many angles of which are demonstrated in the case of a suburban Texas school district’s decision to dismiss high school journalism teacher Rachel Stonecipher. Someone scraped all the queer-friendly safe space stickers off the classroom doors, and Stonecipher allowed her news nerds to do a story on it that questioned the school’s authorities. Newitz, who is the child of two English teachers and is transgendered, really captures the tense emotionality of the students and teachers involved in this incident. They also draw apt parallels to past witch hunts like Joseph McCarthy’s homosexual purges in the 1950s and the crusades of right-wingers like Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s. This case shows how fear and prejudice are weaponized to suppress dissent and maintain control.

The third case study explores the vilification of comic books as feminist propaganda, using the story of Wonder Woman to transition from the old notion of “mental hygiene” to modern “wokeness”. This reflects the evolving rhetoric used to attack progressive movements and maintain cultural dominance.

Part III of Stories Are Weapons, “Disarmament”, is only 40 pages long because what we need to do to resist manipulation is quite simple and obvious. We cannot fight fire with fire; spreading misinformation about those who spread misinformation clearly will not work to undo these manipulative deception strategies. Newitz recommends the United Nations peacekeeping approach of disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating.

Disarmament in the culture wars means to treat our knowledge of the past as a gift, remapping the past by showing our receipts. They cite the Coquille tribe’s effort to uncover documents showing the true borders of ancestral lands as defined by the original treaties. This approach emphasizes the importance of historical truth in countering misinformation. By revealing accurate historical records, we can dismantle false narratives and provide a solid foundation for understanding and reconciliation.

Demobilization in the culture wars means deprogramming through democratic watchdog institutions prepped for propaganda disaster response and skilled in rooting out sources of disinformation, especially on social media platforms. The trouble there, of course, is that businesses would like the government to keep its nose out of the backroom where the treacherously profitable algorithms live. Newitz points to the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) and the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) as nonpartisan groups that exemplify how informed and coordinated efforts can effectively break the chain of misinformation before it spreads widely. The SIO studies the abuse of information technologies, monitoring threats in real-time, and developing strategies to mitigate these risks. Similarly, the EIP safeguards the democratic process by identifying and analyzing misinformation related to elections. The EIP helps ensure that election-related disinformation is promptly addressed and neutralized by collaborating with stakeholders across various sectors.

Reintegration in the culture wars is perhaps the most difficult part of the undertaking. It means a shift towards slower, more intentional media consumption. This includes using closed or invite-only systems for socializing, such as family group chats or workplace Slack channels, instead of the addictive and often toxic environment of instant global communications. Media literacy is also crucial, grounded in the simple understanding that not everything we see online is true. It involves knowing how to check facts and examine the credibility of multiple conflicting sources. And finally, it involves putting the damn smartphone down and just going to the library. There’s a huge amount of verifiably true information at the library, librarians skilled in helping you with how to parse all of it, and nobody shouting in your ear about how dumb you are for not liking what they like or threatening you with violence because you’re different from them.

Stories Are Weapons is an awesome work because it doesn’t pretend to be groundbreaking. It’s a straightforward public service announcement, neatly summarizing the basic facts of a major problem in a digestible manner and offering genuinely actionable solutions that could significantly improve our everyday lives. Its clarity makes it accessible to high school students and essential reading for anyone eligible to vote. Indeed, Stories Are Weapons is for anyone seeking to make sense of the manipulative narratives shaping our world.

Newitz’s work is a reminder that understanding and addressing psychological warfare is crucial to preserving democracy and personal freedoms. Get a copy for your conservative granddad who likes reading military history books. Get a copy for your teenager who spends 14 hours daily on social media. Get a copy for the creative writers and the software engineers in your life. Get a copy for yourself as a reminder that you’re not going crazy. By recognizing and countering these tactics, we can better protect ourselves and society from the insidious effects of psychological warfare.

RATING 9 / 10