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lunes, 27 de febrero de 2017
The Power of Propaganda & Multilateral Narratives
Story Can Assert Control Over the Masses
Stories can move us, both on the silver screen and in reality. Images by Lucas and Riefenstahl.
Okay, so I want you to stay with me just a bit longer, before we explore the mechanisms of the Collective Journey, because this next part might get a bit uncomfortable, but it’s super important.
At first blush, this post might seem to some like an anti-Trump screed, or that I’m impugning the methods of the current administration. That is not what it’s designed to do. From the start, we’ve discussed how Collective Journey storytelling is on the rise in television, in advertising, and most critically on global stage in social issues, government and politics.
At the heart of Collective Journey is an engine, a combination of major factors that make this model many times faster and more powerful than any other narrative approach. We believe this is why all around the world strange and spectacular events are happening so suddenly, so confusingly.
Shortly in this series, we are going to take apart the Collective Journey engine, and show you how it’s built. But in order to truly understand it, we have to trace key modes of storytelling to pivotal moments in human history over the past century. We have to understand the power of propaganda and multilateral storytelling.
The Collective Journey engine is a tool. It can be used to empower or enslave. We’ll leave it to you to decide the intentions of those who clearly understand it, and are using it in highly effective ways today. Our main goal is to show you how this tool works.
Making the World Safe for Democracy
Earlier we talked about how Edward Bernays believed that entire populations could be pacified—and nations fortified—by promoting a consumerist culture. In the early 20th century, the United States went all-in on this theory, and so went the Western world. Need became desire. Practical became fashionable. Instead of rational reasons for purchasing products and services, advertisers preyed on our idealism, our aspirations…and our fears.
But the corporate world was not the original testing site for Bernays’ theories. Ground zero was in politics. With the advent of World War I, Bernays was originally recruited to help President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to convince the hesitant American people that entering the war was the right thing to do. Bernays picked up on the narrative that the United States was not so much defending a number of ancient empires, but was instead spreading democracy across Europe.
We went to war, because we were, “Making the world safe for democracy.” The slogan, and the myriad stories that flowed in support of it across popular media, was wildly successful.
During the Paris Peace Conference, after the war in 1919, Bernays was awestruck at the public’s response to Wilson. By the hundreds of thousands, they treated him as a kind of savior, a god. The hero had arrived from beyond the seas, a unifier and champion of the people, and he had raised his sword against the invading hordes. After defeating them, he returned with the twin boons of liberty and capitalism to pass onto his adoring throngs.
Image ©Roger Viollet, Paris
Bernays was not the only one watching these narratives bear such fruit. German Doctor of Philosophy, Joseph Goebbels, also observed with interest.
Less than fourteen years later, Goebbels would be serving Adolph Hitler as the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Goebbels believed in Freud’s assessment that the human race were barely controlled savages, and he believed in Bernays solution that carefully designed and transmitted messages can assert control over the masses, both in the name of preserving order, and so that the elite can retain power.
There were just a few big differences, of course. The Nazi narrative tossed aside consumerism, after all the Crash of ’29 and subsequent Depression in America seemed to prove that approach a failure. They tossed aside democracy, because it proved incapable of asserting the kind of control necessary to maintain stability in times of crisis.
Goebbels addressing the public.
But most troubling was that the Nazis decided to provide an outlet for the dark impulses cited by both Freud and Bernays. They pinpointed enemies, scapegoats, targets, and the Third Reich granted permission for people to unleash their pent up anger, fear, and depravity upon them.
This would become Hitler’s Final Solution, the Holocaust.
To do this, Goebbels needed to assert complete control over the German media. He did this over time by impugning and vilifying critics, eroding the peoples’ faith in independent journalism, and becoming the sole shaper of stories from the perception of both those in Germany, and of those overseas.
When story surrounds you, particularly if it is passed down by authority, shorn of contradictions, and singular in intent, no matter how irrational it is, it slowly becomes acceptable. It becomes real.
Slayer of Dragons
In Mein Kampf, the blueprint of the Hitler narrative, there are many references to the perilous journeys of great heroes, a mold in which Hitler would cast himself:
Great, truly world-shaking revolutions of a spiritual nature are not even conceivable and realizable except as the titanic struggles of individual formations, never as enterprises of coalitions.
Siegfried Slaying the dragon Fafnir, Konrad Dielitz (1880) from the epic Germanic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen
Under the adverse economic and political conditions of a demoralized Germany, it would not take long for Goebbels to shape an epic narrative where culture, lifestyle, and yearning would all be streamlined into the fanatical worship of this one man, Hitler, slayer of dragons, savior of the Aryan race.
The result would be an exponentially supercharged version of what Bernays saw in Paris, and a nation eager to follow their hero into the oblivion of World War II.
While any number of pundits and bloggers have made direct allusions to the work of Goebbels in comparison with the narrative strategies being used by authoritarian governments on mass audiences today, the reality is somewhat different. After all, we are moving from a strictly broadcast model into an age of pervasive communication.
The Rise of Multilateral Narrative
Let’s leap forward to the early 2000s to examine one last kind of storyteller before we arrive at Collective Journey.
Once again, we have an economically decimated and politically demoralized nation, only this time it’s Russia. In an effort to consolidate power in his bid to restore the primacy of his country, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would dip into the time-honored trappings of the Hero’s Journey.
Putin needed to pull the focus of the Russian narrative to himself as a strongman, one who could assert “stability,” “effective management” over the “confusion and twilight” of the 1990s post-collapse era of the Soviet Union. But if the country was still a mess, what kind of story would convince the Russian people that their hero had arrived?
The answer arrived in the form of a leather-jacketed science fiction and theater nerd named Vladislav Surkov, who would become known as the “political technologist of all of Rus.”
Surkov is the creator of a kind of storytelling that moves beyond the public relations of Bernays or the culturally systemic propaganda of Goebbels. So contemporary, it doesn’t even seem to have a name. The closest we’ve found is Geoffrey Colon’s term, information jamming.
We call it multilateral narrative.
Of Course, the French Invented It
Intrigued with the use of strange and alien signs and symbols to represent modern anxieties, Surkov was impressed with a new post-modern artform out of 1990s France, as described by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. The expression was…
Characterised by the recognition of multiple perspectives and micro-narratives. Every utterance should be thought of as a “move” in a game… Dominance of information is power... By subverting dominant forms of media representation through a process of defamiliarisation (chaos) these artists reveal an underlying mechanism of control.
The task of a true artist is to transcend this situation by creating works that are incommunicable and therefore cannot be processed and commodified by information systems.
Surkov would not use a gallery or museum. His installation would be all of Russia. He convinced Putin that if the media were used to generate a climate of uncertainty, confusion, contradiction, a polarizing mixture of truth and fiction, then the people of Russia would be forced to turn to the Kremlin for reassurance, for stability, for effective management.
Documentary journalist Adam Curtis described the Surkovian method in this 2014 news segment on nonlinear war, and “destabilized perception”:
His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening.
Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”
A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable.
See that? Surkov was not even hiding the fact that he was doing this. Like a three-card Monte player in Times Square in the 1980s, he made it clear that this was theater, but you’ll never know what’s real and what’s not.
Like when Billy Jack called his shot on that Native American-hating sheriff, the only thing you do know is that you’re gonna get whopped in the face.
The result for the Russian people has been exhaustion and resignation. It’s like watching with glassy eyes an endless, nonsensical reality show. The only thing that’s clear is that if the threat is real, the Kremlin will take care of it.
Shock & Awe: The Last Linear War
Compare this with the sophisticated level of narrative used by the Bush administration to convince Americans that war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq was justified in the wake of 9/11.
Their framework for the Iraq narrative was broadly understandable: Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and had affiliated himself with Al Qaeda. The job of the administration was then to prove these assertions through a complex trail of breadcrumbs, a schematic of story with all the accompanying twists of a techno-thriller (yellowcake uranium, Colin Powell’s frightening United Nations presentation, Judith Miller’s New York Times spy exposé), and a stunning fireball climax (Shock & Awe).
Whether you believed this narrative or you didn’t, you could not fault its logic. The Iraq story was complex, but it stood up to a degree of scrutiny, and most importantly, the evidence presented made some kind of sense.
The multilateral narratives of Putin’s Russia purposefully do not. As journalist Peter Pomerantsev put it,
Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.
The layers and clusters of story used in Russia’s multilateral narrative techniques are vastly different from the more conventionally galvanizing Hero’s Journey style of national narrative used as recently as the Bush and Obama administrations. In Surkov’s model, the audience is addled, defeated, and polarized across a dazzling array of issues, even as they infer that a strongman is here to maintain order and protect them.
Drama & Disquiet
Let me confess at this point, a grave concern about the potential for abuse with this new technique. Multilateral narratives are the kind model I both celebrated and cautioned against while I was introducing transmedia storytelling on the world stage, back in the mid-00s.
In the final moments of the TEDx talk I gave in Geneva, Switzerland in 2010, I warned that humanity was entering into a period of rapid change, and that one day soon, we will experience firsthand the dangers of the transmedia conveyance of “pseudo-facts and highly convincing movements that can become destructive.”
We can by made to surrender our freedoms, to become enslaved, and then to commit terrible acts, by this storytelling modality alone.Jump to 17:14 to go straight to the scary stuff.
With no uncertainty, we have arrived at that day.
Light at the End
But there is also a solution. When we step back far enough, we can recognize the methods that people—filmmakers, advertisers, governments—are using to communicate with us.
These are new and sophisticated models of storytelling, so there seems to be an infinite number of moving parts to them. But again, there is an engine at the heart of Collective Journey, a foundational set of factors for how and why this method is so powerful.
If we understand this engine, we can better understand how it is being modified to effect us in certain ways. We can understand how it can be hardwired into our emotional core. We can understand how to use it for ourselves, to exponentially amplify our own messages. And we can understand how to disengage ourselves from it and disrupt it, if that’s what is necessary.