Giancarlo Elia Valori
According to the Greek historian Polybius, Alexander the Great used to say that propaganda “serves to maintain and protect the victories after the cessation of hostilities”.
This quote is still an essential key to understand the mechanisms of contemporary propaganda and psyops.
The current psychological war, in fact, is aimed above all at radically changing and building from scratch the perceptions of the inhabitants of any target State.
Whoever wins this war, apparently painless, is spared the costs of the conflict and definitively weakens the opponents, regardless of their military strength – opponents who no longer have the ability to use their conventional or indirect weapons.
Or they use them against themselves.
Even in indirect strategies and psyops, however, it is always a matter of stopping and breaking a kill chain.
What counts in these operations is always hitting the enemies where they are weaker.
Hence, always keeping at a safe distance from opponents – also from the cultural viewpoint – to avoid any conventional fight, but using, however, mass psychology like Alexander the Great, so as to “ensure” a victory which is obtained with an economic, financial, cultural and symbolic struggle.
Or to replace the military victory with that of psyops. Without a fight.
Contemporary society, however, makes things much easier.
Today we are in the phase of “attention economy”, of the massive saving of thought – the phase in which all messages, even the “highest” ones, are developed and processed to be consumed very quickly, because of an attention span which is always very short, almost as hypnosis or sleepwalking.
With a view to making the desired content be selected, two mental and material channels need to be used: the “mirror neurons” in the F5 area of the premotor cortex and the maximum use of induced emotions.
It should be recalled that mirror neurons are particular neurons that fires both when an individual acts and when he/she observes the same action (or even an emotion) performed or experienced by another.
They are the material basis of empathy.
Hence disinformation uses negative emotions and correlates them with messages useful to the sender. A message that is barely abstract, or even completely sensitive and iconic, is related to a fixed emotion of nuisance, discomfort, pain.
This is the initial core of disinformation.
The excess of negative emotions, often related to dezinformatsja techniques, always triggers anxiety and stress in the individual subject. It also lowers the serotonin levels and operates on both subjective fears and those already embedded in people’s minds.
Given this induced state of mind, the information reaching the brain is no longer directed to the prefrontal cortex, which is accustomed to use logical categories, but emotional information is targeted and directly to the motor cortex.
In this phase the brain is blocked by stress or by those situations that the Palo Alto Psychological School considered to be at the origin of schizophrenia or of “double bind”, which occurs when an individual receives two conflicting messages, a positive and a negative one, sent out by an affective source, with one negating the other and thus being emotionally distressing.
Ultimately there is the almost total material deactivation of the frontal cortex, i.e. the transformation of homo sapiens sapiens into an angry robot.
This is the reason why it is useful for disinformation to always use violent or irregular content in messages – content that increases aggressiveness and hence weakens the cortex.
The brain area of empathy is then weakened, precisely with the violent content of communication, or even with the mix of noise, rhythm, repetition of sounds, lights and signs that Marshall McLuhan considered typical of our time (and rightly so), as he told us in his book, written with Quentin Fiore, entitled War and Peace in the Global Village.
Hence the geostrategic effect of these operations: when a whole country is gradually flooded with this type of communication, everybody – including the ruling class – will suffer a temporary weakening and inactivation of the frontal cortex.
Hence, when they take decisions, they will anyway operate with pseudo-concepts, automatic reactions, commonplaces, wrong perceptions and old stereotypes.
Therefore the political link of the future will be the meeting of big data technology with the new neurosciences.
Even without recalling H.G. Wells or George Orwell, the current possibility of manipulating very large sections of the public – in a stable, effective and complete way – is already at its peak.
Whoever succeeds in manipulating the opponent always stands to wins, while whoever proves to be porous or not to be able to oppose – with an equal and contrary operation – the psychopolitical dezinformacjia of an enemy State always stands to lose.
And possibly he/she does not even realize it.
We have already reached the time of the IT influence operations.
In this context, however, even in the age of cyberwarfare, the enemy operations use – above all – the old techniques of advertising manipulation typical of the era prior to the Internet.
Firstly, there is the traditional bandwagon effect, which exploits the natural tendency of human beings to conform to their target group.
The rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, facts, trends and products. increases the more they have already been adopted by others. In other words, the bandwagon effect is characterized by the probability of individual adoption increasing with respect to the proportion of people who have already done so.
There is nothing better than the “spiral of silence” to reinforce the bandwagon effect. The other side of the coin. Individuals have a fear of isolation, which results from the idea that a social group or the society, in general, might isolate, neglect or exclude members due to their opinions. This fear of isolation consequently leads to remaining silent instead of voicing opinions..
Hence the isolation determined by heterodoxy is a further push to regimentation, a typical trait of the bandwagon effect.
Psychopolitics has also another mechanism available, Astroturfing – a term derived from AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass, as a play on the word “grassroots”.
It is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. It is intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information. It entails creating an aura of success and universality that is reinforced by many “testimonials”, often paid, who guarantee the validity of the product or the political idea.
Nowadays, however, we have already reached the era that John Negroponte predicted as early as in the 1990s – the phase in which even the most advanced information technologies would become “customized”, i.e. they would quickly be adapted to every single consumer or voter.
Obviously the more customization increases, the more information and influence content can be selected for each consumer-voter, with evident effects of invisible manipulation and regimentation.
We also need to study the filter bubble mechanism, i.e. the effect generated by the algorithms of various social platforms that, with a view to customizing services, create an information trap based on users’ preferences. These algorithms dictate what we find online by creating a unique universe of information for each of us and fundamentally alter the way we encounter ideas and information.
This is matched by the echo chamber effect, which describes an increasingly common situation in which people are only shown content that reinforces their current political or social views, without ever challenging them to think differently. Beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system.
Therefore, echo chambers and filter bubbles select and divide the online audience, but also the audience outside the Web, thus often polarizing it artificially.
Hence we go back to Ivan Ivanovic Pavlov’s old theory of the bio-psychological reinforcement of previous beliefs – hence to the construction and confirmation of conditioned reflexes of individuals and groups.
In fact, nowadays every political message tends to create its own conditioned reflex.
As Pavlov discovered, in people and animals a given stimulus always triggers a response and, when the connection between a stimulus x and the response y is definitively established, the key stimulus always automatically triggers the same response in both animals and human beings.
And the stimulus may have nothing to do with the mechanism triggered by the response.
This reminds us of the linguist De Saussure when he said that the relationship existing between the signifier and the signified is purely arbitrary and analytical. There is no objective bond between the physical concept of “ox” and the word “ox”, but it is anyway stronger than any natural link.
In this context, we must also study symbolic actions. They are based on the premise that actions speak louder than words and they are designed to convey a symbolic and powerful value for any fact – an artificial message that is conveyed to a wide audience to prompt a response, in Pavlov’s sense.
A child shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sea, a girl killed brutally, a bartender achieving success in London are all examples of facts isolated from their context, to which an induced symbolic power is attached, which ultimately triggers a mass response to this complex Pavlovian “stimulus”.
Furthermore, each fact is valid only if it is incorporated into a narrative. The human brain is not made to analyse isolated facts at any time, but to organize them into a storytelling, which has a time dimension and, above all, an end.
And it always concerns people, even if it speaks about mere facts.
Personalization is also inherent in the human brain, and every person has a positive or negative value. As in the musical drama typical of Naples, the so-called sceneggiata napoletana, he/she can only be isso (“he”, the hero), essa(“she”, the heroine) and ‘o malamente (“the villain”).
Therefore our mind reacts only briefly to the stinging action that we call “thought”.
This was a beautiful idea of the founder of American pragmatism, Charles S. Peirce.
Hence symbolic actions exert their influence when they bring together material actions and symbolic operations.
All this creates powerful signals, effective on behaviours – including political ones – which are immediately and intuitively manifested in the audience.
The disinformation narratives are based, above all, on symbolic actions which penetrate, always deeply, into the target public that has been selected for the operation.
Hence disinformation always takes up the following forms: a) the fabrication from nothing of a piece of news and/or a narrative; b) manipulation, i.e. the construction of an “environment” suited to the news useful for disinformation, be it true or false; c) misappropriation, e.g. the use of others’ data to fabricate manipulated news which, however, seems to come from the source of the original news; d) the old propaganda, which is used to favour a party, a leader, a “cause”; e) satire, which – as we Italians know all too well – can influence the political discourse (suffice to recall Giorgio Forattini’ satirical cartoons of Bettino Craxi dressed as Mussolini or the comic destructuring of Silvio Berlusconi; f) parody, which relates a narrative to an emotional and amusing fact that has little to do with the narrative itself.
The divertissement, the myth of our society, is a very important axis of disinformation.
With a view to better understanding the manipulation of facts, we should also recall the woozle effect, also known as evidence by citation, which occurs when frequent quotation of previous publications that lack evidence misleads individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is evidence and non-facts become urban myths and factoids.
There are also the new “Potiemkin villages”, i.e. the fake institutional networks of dezinformatsjia, managed by IT operators expert on strategic influence.
During the 1930, the Potiemkin villages were fake villages built from scratch by the Soviet secret police, in which important visitors, often pro-Soviet ones, were shown that everything went very well, indeed. Nowadays they are built online.
After the visit, in the old Soviet villages everything returned to the usual daily tragedy.
Moreover, for all these categories, there are BOTs on the Web, i.e. the “ro”-bots.
It should be recalled that in 2017 BOTs alone generated over 50% of the Internet total global traffic.
The bot is an automated software, which operates on the basis of some algorithms.
Currently 23% of the Internet traffic is attributable to “good” bots, while 29% is produced from grey or black sources.
A typical technique of bots and trolls, which are Internet subjects operating through provocative, irritating or out-of-theme and meaningless messages, is to reinforce the polarization induced by other media, both on the Internet and in classic channels.
We have seen, in fact, that a large part of the propaganda on the Web tends to isolate and polarize the content and the audience.
Here the practice that – in psychology – is called the Overton window comes to mind.
For the American psycho-sociologist, the degrees of acceptance of public ideas are roughly the following: 1) unthinkable; 2) radical; 3) acceptable; 4) sensible; 5) popular; 6) policy.
According to Overton, every idea, even the most unthinkable, has its own specific window of opportunity.
The more it is discussed, the more reasonable it appears. Overton maintains that all ideas, even the craziest ones, can shift from the stage of unthinkable to that of public democratic debate and their subsequent acceptance.
Hence the Overton window wants to ensure that ordinary citizens take possession of a crazy idea and make it their own, possibly working on the assumption that even cats and dogs – as we have recently read in an important Italian newspaper – can and hence must vote in political elections.
The process is at the origin of a large part of contemporary psychopolitics: initially the problem – such as the vote for cats and dogs – is unacceptable or ridiculous.
Then, at a later stage, the issue reiterated in all kinds of ways becomes “unacceptable, but with reservations”.
We must never have taboos, “medieval” residues, preconceived ideas. This is the standard justification.
In this phase, intellectuals – or what they think they are – advocate the vote for cats and dogs.
Here the entire sequence of psychopolitical techniques that we have analysed above begins.
And again, imperceptibly, the issue shifts from the stage of “forbidden, but with reservations” to that of “acceptable”.
Here the above mentioned techniques of conditioning and influence still operate, especially the improper transition from the specific and particular case to the general categorization.
Still today, any manipulation of information is based on the irregular syllogisms defined by Aristotle.
Do you remember Fido or Bogey? They were so smart and certainly they would have voted with full knowledge of the facts.
Then Overton’s window shifts from “acceptable” to “sensible” and here usually two major categories operate: the economic necessity of the minority group – in many cases – or the pseudo-Darwinian natural selection.
Then comes the testimonial phase, as is the case with advertising, particularly that of consumer goods: don’t you remember Rin Tin Tin? What about “Inspector” Rex?
How dare you exclude dogs from voting? You are not “progressive”, up to date.
As seen above, the risk is exclusion from the group.
Hence everyone talks about it and the issue is amplified by the show business and the media.
The final stage is policy. You can ultimately take Fido to the voting booth.
It should be noted that these artificial conditioned reflexes are also designed to temporarily forget the real situation of the people and the country.
With 1.8 million poor families, in Italy – equivalent to 5 million individuals – people take their minds off their problems by talking about the vote for cats and dogs, or about other nonsense like that, which they can believe thanks to the above mentioned “Overton window”.
We have no doubt that shortly the technologies available for mass psychopolitical manipulation will increase.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France
President of International World Group