There’s a lot of weird and crazy things in the media these days, but one of the weirder and crazier things that I’ve seen lately appeared in the Ottawa Citizen back in October.
The headline was “Forged letter warning about wolves on the loose part of Canadian Forces propaganda campaign that went awry”. Apparently, “a letter from the Nova Scotia government sent out to residents to warn about a pack of wolves on the loose in the province was forged by Canadian military personnel as part of a propaganda training mission”.
That training mission also apparently involved using a loudspeaker to generate wolf sounds. I don’t know what’s weirder, that the Canadian Forces would do such a thing, or that they’d get caught. Are the Trailer Park Boys now running psy ops? (Sunnyvale is in Nova Scotia. Just saying).
The article quotes a U.S. professor who calls this a major violation of ethics. “This is way over the top,” Briant said. “It’s a very dangerous path when you start targeting your own public with false information and trying to manipulate them.”
“Briant said the deception has nothing to do with wolves; it was likely an exercise in the testing the military’s skills in trying to manipulate the population with false information…”
This is where it gets really interesting, though:
“The Nova Scotia propaganda training comes as the Canadian Forces spools up its capabilities to conduct information warfare, influence operations and other deception missions aimed at populations overseas and, if necessary, the Canadian public.”
“Briant revealed on Monday the Canadian Forces spent more than $1 million in training its public affairs officers in skills to influence targeted populations.”
“In July, this newspaper reported a team assigned to a Canadian military intelligence unit monitored and collected information from people’s social media accounts in Ontario, claiming such data-mining was needed to help troops working in long-term care homes during the coronavirus pandemic. The collection involved comments made by the public about the provincial government’s failure in taking care of the elderly in the province. That data was turned over to the Ontario government, with a warning from the team it represented a “negative” reaction from the public.”
“This newspaper reported at the same time that the Canadian Forces planned a propaganda campaign aimed at heading off civil disobedience by Canadians during the coronavirus pandemic. The plan used similar propaganda tactics to those employed against the Afghan population during the war in Afghanistan, including loudspeaker trucks to transmit government messages. The propaganda operation was never put into action.”
“In addition, some Canadian military officers have suggested creating fake Facebook and other social media accounts for carrying out deception operations as well as harnessing social media accounts of Canadian Forces members, military-friendly academics and retired senior military staff to challenge opposition politicians and journalists who raise controversial issues regarding the Canadian Forces.”
Canadian Armed Forces “information warfare”
So, I suppose we can at least be secure in the knowledge that the Canadian Forces seems pretty inept when it comes to “information warfare”. It took a “military intelligence unit” to figure out that the public had a “negative” reaction to old people dying of COVID? And their plan was to cruise around in trucks blasting propaganda from loudspeakers? What the fuck? Damn, I guess “military intelligence” really is an oxymoron.
However, there’s good reason to be concerned as well. For one thing, isn’t it unsettling that the Canadian Forces are gearing up for “information warfare”? Who exactly are they going to war with? If the army is preparing for “influence operations and other deception missions”, for what ends are people to be influenced and deceived?
We can make guesses. On February 15th of this year, the Globe and Mail published a piece by Lisa Kramer, which advocated for using an “evidence-based approach” to COVID propaganda. Of course, she didn’t call it propaganda. She called it: “messaging urging Canadians to abide by COVID-19 lockdown measures”.
Kramer writes: “Evidence suggests people will be more likely to follow the rules when information is framed both to make it easy to grasp and to emphasize that the majority of others are behaving themselves, too… “[b]ecause lockdowns go against humans’ innate social nature, it can… be helpful to use psychology-based methods to help promote lockdown-abiding behaviour. One such approach is to curate the way we present information, building on extensive evidence that people care what others think and engage in activities that others deem socially acceptable.”
What she is referring to is the concept of social proof, popularized by behavioural scientist Robert Cialdini in his classic work “Influence”. In this book, which I would highly recommend to anyone wishing to understand political persuasion, social proof is identified as one of six “weapons of influence”. The idea, put simply, is: “monkey see, monkey do”. A person who isn’t sure what constitutes appropriate action in a given situation will look to other people and imitate their behaviour. We all know this intuitively; as we all discern what is correct through reference to what other people think is correct. This becomes all the more true in unfamiliar situations, such as during times of crisis.
Back in March 2020, a group of behavioural scientists penned an open letter urging the U.K. government to use evidence-based techniques to influence the public with comply with its commands. Their letter states: “those essential behaviour changes that are presently required… will receive far greater uptake the more urgent the situation is perceived to be.”
Fear mongering and psychological manipulation
It seems so benign when they put it that way, but it would seem to me that what is being proposed is that the state uses psychological manipulation to frighten the populace so that they are more compliant.
Other examples make a pattern clear. According to an article in Die Welt, headlined “The German Government Ordered Scientists to Produce Data to Scare Citizenry”: “a group of German lawyers has been pushing for the Koch Institute to disclose correspondence with the German Home Office in which the latter demanded that “scientists” create “scientific” documentation to scare the populace…The document, published just weeks later, finally identified a worst-case scenario in which more than a million people could die from the coronavirus.”
The same article goes on to not that fear-conditioning seems to be widely accepted. It notes that “on the website of one of the largest and best known institutions of higher learning in the US, Cornell University, the following study was found: “Modelling the role of media induced fear conditioning in mitigating post-lockdown COVID-19 pandemic: perspectives on India”.
This study (which has not been peer-reviewed) finds that “fear conditioning via mass media (like television, community radio, internet and print media),” along with positive reinforcement, resulted in “significant decrease in the growth of infected population.”
Basically, this study advocates for the use of fear-mongering propaganda in the name of Public Health, specifically through the formation of conditioned reflexes. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? They were conditioned to drool when a bell was rung. Are we being conditioned to have automatic, unconscious reactions to certain stimuli as part of a propaganda campaign?
According to the study, the answer to this question is yes. It states: “Modelling studies have shown that fear has a major influence in reducing the impact of a pandemic. Fear was shown to be directly associated with increased social distancing, as well as increased security measures… Thus, reflex fear production through incoming information, combined with other techniques, can increase social distancing and cautious behaviour. Fear conditioned reflex production, a subspecies of classical conditioned reflex production, is the making of a connection between unpleasant events and a stimulus from the environment.”
The question then arises: If we are conditioned through fear, which stimuli are triggering which responses?
The study provides one example: “in the case of COVID-19, a person can be considered to have an attached reflex if he forms a connection between being uncomfortable and touching surfaces. In this way, he begins to perceive touching surfaces as touching the virus itself.”
This is deeply troubling. People are being conditioned to be afraid of touching surfaces. How insane is that? Are we really to believe that this in the name of the greater good? What about the psychological suffering of individuals who are highly susceptible to fear-conditioning? How many children will become life-long germophobes as a result of the current obsession with viruses? How many people will develop serious phobias and mental disorders as a result of this? What will the effects on society be if there is a class of people who are afraid of everything? Will a certain percentage of people become psychological casualties of this era?
As someone with a boundless curiosity regarding the human mind, it saddens me that psychology is not being used not to uplift and inspire people, but to keep them down. I personally feel that if the goal really was to save lives, that it wouldn’t be necessary to use fear to gain compliance. It would be possible to appeal to people’s better instincts, towards caring and conscientiousness. I believe that a positive message could have been equally (or more) effective, if the goal really was to protect the vulnerable from real and imminent danger.
One should remember that propaganda is morally neutral. Anti-smoking campaigns are a form of propaganda which, if you think being addicted a carcinogenic drug is bad, you might be inclined to think was beneficial for society. Nor is reference to the principle of social proof either good or bad. However, I don’t think that the motivation of any of this fear-conditioning is to “save lives” or protect the vulnerable. I believe it is to condition the population to be compliant, so that they won’t put up too much of a fuss during a time in which society is being radically transformed into a form that none of us would have chosen.
The good news is that social movements also have the ability to employ weapons of influence. Courage is as contagious as fear, and people will, once a certain threshold is crossed, emulate acts of defiance as well as acts of conformity. That means that social proof is a principle which can we as a movement can make use of as well. By everyday acts of disobedience, we can normalize resistance. Right now, the expectation is that people will comply with any rule, no matter how absurd. We must break the spell. And how do we do that?
It will acquire just enough resistance to reach a critical mass at which the illusion cracks and defiance becomes generalized. Remember, people look to others for cues from others as to how to behave. If breaking the rules becomes more common, following suit will be perceived as less risky by others. Through small, incremental actions, disobedience becomes more possible within the popular imagination. People then will be more willing to experiment with what they can get away with, and their examples make rupture with groupthink easier for people whose personalities are on the more conformist side of the spectrum.
The point isn’t to stubbornly insist upon an alternate interpretation of reality. The point is to show that alternatives exist, and that it is possible to create them, and that in order to be free in an unfree world one must both break the rules and get away with it.
Beautification of the city under cover of night is one way to take arms against the sea of lies that is drowning the world. Make no mistake: the souls of the pacified masses cry out in despair, desperately desiring that which gives life meaning, purpose and direction. If you can express what you are feeling through any form of self-expression, you are making it easier for others to find their voices. Political graffiti and wheat pasting provocative art sends a message to those who desire to remember themselves, whispering to their truant hearts: “there are others who are like you”. A spontaneous dance party in the streets sends a message to the city: “Dance before the day is lost!”
The task right now is to remind people of what there is to live for, to call people’s spirits back into their bodies, to energize their spirits with the desire to live and to fulfil the purpose of their existence on Earth. And how can one accomplish that?
By doing it yourself. By having fun. By laughing, dancing, playing, singing, gathering together. By having a good time. By refusing to take life so seriously. By affirming the bonds of friendship and community that bring true collectivity, that which emerges through love and organic social organization, and never from the false collectivity imposed by the state.
For A Joyous Rupture with the Reality of the Fear-crazed, for the Contagion of Revolt!