Mindf*cking the political brain

Joseph Goebbels is just so twentieth century. But he didn’t do badly, all considering. Eighty years ago, he had to deal in a print media format that only arrived daily, and black-and-white movies, a couple a year. But his “Big Lie” messaging about Germany’s national humiliation and the nastiness of Jews was still incredibly effective propaganda. He helped galvanize a whole nation, and made willing executioners of the German Volk.

Now in the 21st century, we’ve upgraded. What Goebbels grasped intuitively – our deep emotional reactions to social messaging – we can now track with fMRI brain-imaging, neurotransmitter-tests and precisely-designed experiments. We can target tailored messages to particular personality types, rather than just produce them, Model-T-any-color-as-long its-SS-black-style, for the masses. We can deliver this messaging constantly, and we are finding ways to measure its impact too. The vector for all this is our smartphones, who know us better than our mothers and our lovers.

Goebbels was wildly successful in his constrained 20th century environment. Imagine what he could have achieved with all this 21st century technology.

Some aspects of successful state propaganda do not change, of course. You’re always going to need to nurture an “us” and a “them”. This is best achieved by making “us” feel that “them” is attacking “us”. That helps entrench identity and triggers anger, which mucks up all your rational decision-making. Once that’s done and you’ve got your groups precisely defined, you can focus on demeaning “them”.

Christopher Wylie’s MindF**ck, Random House 2019 is an amazingly smart book. It’s also extremely distressing. Wylie worked on the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook operations up close in the UK during the Brexit campaign and in the US before the Clinton/Trump election. This is not only his tell-all story, but also an insightful guide to how smart social-messaging can indeed, technically, f*ck up your mind. Wylie’s brilliance is that he’s a data guy and an anecdote guy, and a courageous guy with a conscience who elected to fight back. It is very rare to find that combo.

When it comes to propaganda, we often think in terms of brain-washing. But trash this framework, people. It suggests that the manipulation is all about information: cleaning out some data, and injecting in an alternative set of “facts”. That’s not it at all. Mindf*cking is about triggering and manipulating emotional states. Emotion eats information for lunch every time.

Before Wylie starts a data/coding project, he gets on the road and chats with his target groups, getting them to just talk about their concerns and fears. For instance, once Cambridge Analytica got its US work, he watches a couple sit down in the evening for Fox News. And he sees them happily getting angry at being “patronized” by the DC liberals. The key is that they thus feel part of an “us”, a suffering group of real Americans, and then can blame “them” for all their stress. It’s a kind of anti-therapy, but it’s addictive and gorgeously cathartic. Why does this work so well?

Because neuroscience. Emotion is like the brain’s machine code, while complex information relies on that lower-level emotional code for compiling. Emotion helps form identity, and that’s doubly critical since it also forms a protective shield around the propaganda attack-load. Try explaining to a “real America” Trump supporter how the US tax legislation a couple of years ago did not help him any, or why Trump is intent to defund her Medicare, and they’ll emote that you’re patronizing them, because you’re a West coast liberal elite “them”. It’s as though they’ve been immunized through emotion against facts.

So much of this parallels what CCTV/Xinhua/Global Times etc. do. First, there’s the “us”. In the US/UK case, it’s the white working-class; in China, it’s Han Chinese. Then there’s the “them”; in China it’s Americans and/or (generally white) Westerners (plus ‘honorary’ Westerner Japanese sometimes too). The messaging is then all about entrenching the difference, and triggering anger. “They” bash “us” (China). “They” want to keep “us” contained. “They” invaded “us”, “they” are infiltrating Hong Kong, etc.

COVID-19 is just another instance of fertile propaganda. It’s crisis which made people fearful, which cost them loved ones, lost wages or just the boredom of staying at home. You’ve already got an “us”, but now you’re super-charged that sense of identity through living through a crisis together. And here comes along that damnable “Western media”, who can only focus on the mistakes, which looks down on “our” sacrifice, and who might even be covering up a bio-weapon made by “them”. Just like Fox, CCP propaganda entrenches a group identity by generating anger about “them” attacking “us”. And the us here is one big blancmange of ethnic-group, Party and state, all rolled up into one.

Wylie explains well the utility of aiming to trigger anger. For the UK’s Brexit campaign, he dissects the two sides’ tactics. Mindf*cking Brexiteers focused on making people angry about the bureaucratic, corrupt, super-state EU and all those immigrants stealing “our” jobs. An easily-defined “them”. That anger then interfered with any rational consideration of the practical consequences of leaving the EU – or the fact that a lot of UK immigration, if not the majority, was from outside of the EU and was within the UK parliament’s ambit to constrain. Instead, Brexit voters mostly only cared about “sovereignty”, an amorphous “us”. Ask a Brexit voter what they were voting for – “Take back control”. Ask them to name a single law which the UK should change after Brexit - befuddled silence (and some silent rage about being confronted with such a clever-clever question). Meanwhile, the antediluvian Remainers focused on the potential harm to “the economy”, hoping that this fear would help their cause. Dumb: anger clouds judgement, and increases our willingness to take risks, and thus can beat fear in the human brain poker match. And even if fear can be used to motivate action, the Remainers went about it all wrong. Who the fuck cares about “the economy”; most working class folk thought they had “a job” and that “the economy” was what London w/bankers did, Wylie recounts.

Essentially these votes were brain-hacking competitions. The populist rightwing hired coders, while us liberals relied on the op-ed writers at the New York Times and The Guardian. We need to get smarter, quick. Wylie explains his thinking over how internet companies like Facebook should be regulated. That would be a good start. But I would love to have read his thoughts about how to mindfck them back. And now of all times, when people are fearful. Does simply showing that Trump/Johnson are empty vessels, not up to the job, do the trick? Does showing calm, expert leadership reassure now that we are really fearful? Or does their minfcking just go to the next level? These are questions we will be struggling with for a long while.

So what is it that’s going on in our brains?

Mindf*cking is here to stay. Thanks to tremendous progress in neuroscience in the last few decades we know a lot more about the brain’s attack surface and vulnerabilities. Here’s Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worse, Penguin, 2018 to explain. His is an incredibly rich and erudite guide to why we feel the way we do, why we do the things we do. Sapolsky is a legit genius; he’s got one of those damn medals.

The “us”/”them” division is deeply-embedded. Show someone a photo of someone of another race and within milliseconds they’ll be a fear-reaction in the amygdala (a part of the limbic system along with the hippocampus). It’s the anger/fear center of the brain. The brain’s frontal cortex, assuming it’s allowed to work, will then quickly step in to police the conscious reaction. But deep down we’re all “racist” because, of course, we evolved to see difference-markers as a potential threat. So a lot of behavior is defined by the interplay by these two bits of our brains, as Daniel Kahnman and Amos Tversky explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Sapolsky, though, dives into all the neurotransmitters which add amazing complexity to what goes on up there.

Oxytocin, the hormone mothers get shots of when cuddling their kids, or when you and your dog get when you look into each others’ eyes, is not a “love for humanity” hormone. It might bind us to our loved ones, but it does not work on our feelings for “them”. In fact, it makes us less pro-social with strangers. Give it to men and they’ll stand a few inches further away from women who aren’t their girlfriends/wives (imagine the power of that!).

Or take testosterone. It’s not just triggered when we face danger – the key seems to be attacks on our status. (Those liberals think I’m “deplorable”; those westerners look down on “us” Chinese.) Testosterone is associated with more risk-taking and aggression in people with that pre-existing tendency. Create some stress and anger too, and that triggers the amygdala and the secretion of glucortoids, which generally f*ck with the pre-frontal cortex, making the brain less able to control the emotional reactions triggered by the anger/fear limbic system.

Why is the CCP so well-positioned?

Which brings me back to China and its Ministry of Info Wars. The CCP has a number of mindf*cking advantages. It has an almost-monopoly grip on the local information environment, controlling most news and opinion media. There are honorable exceptions like Caixin, though they can only usually indirectly point out minor errors in the Party’s generally wonderful ways. For those who can read English and VPN-jump the Great Firewall, there is information freedom. But VPNs can be shut down. And the majority of the population do not read English, and have little interest in seeking out alternative views anyway. So you have a nice cognitive gated-community.

Second, China has the world’s most-smartphone addicted population. The “bowed-head tribe”. Some five+ hours a day on average, seven in the last couple of months if the survey data I’ve seen is to be believed.

And third, it’s got a cohesive ethnic group to work with; the Han “us”. As Benedict Anderson taught us, ethnic identity is “imagined” too, just like other identities, but when your face signals this identity, rather than the clothes you wear, the music you jive to, or the bowling club you belong to, it’s much easier to work with. And worked on it the CCP has, ever since 1989. To the point that if you criticize the CCP, you’re can be easily labelled a (race) traitor. The CCP cannot allow an alternative Han identity to form. And that is why it’s important for a strong, proud Han Chinese identity separate to the Party and openly sympathetic to liberal freedoms to emerge. (Hot tip: calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” harms this effort, however much of an emotional hit it gives you. And don’t give me that BS about us calling it the Spanish flu, own up to the dog whistle you’re blowing)

So that’s a closed information environment, a population uber-addicted to the key vector of transmission, and an easy “us” to work with. A mindf*cker’s paradise. Just one thing missing…

My (uninformed) impression (please tell me I’m wrong) is that so far CCP propaganda is not targeted via personality-type analysis. Wylie discusses how Cambridge Analytica used the Facebook data their Cambridge University Psychometric Centre collaborators provided to model personality types off online behavior. A 2015 study showed that 300 Facebook likes allows a decent coder to understand someone’s personality ‘better than their wife’. (I like to think mine gets me better than that.) And other work, including by the CIA in its efforts to infiltrate and manipulate Latin American drug cartels, provided a guidepost on who to target: those testing high on neuroticism, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. (And that sounds like my ex.) Once they had a personality profile, they deliver tailored content designed to push your buttons. And the trick with the models is that once they’d trained on the Cambridge dataset, they could use the model to predict personality types by looking at what car you drive, your church memberships, your network of friends etc.

The Global Times and the CCP’s other attack tactics still seem quite 20th century in this regard. They pen nationalistic pieces and push them out to everyone online. Anyone reading the last Politburo readout from Xinhua will not mistake it for cutting-edge mindf*cking. But there are darker, smarter corners of the Chinese online world. Xinri Toutiao crows about its machine-learning abilities, and pushes ever-more nationalistic/militaristic content to those who like that shit. Pretty soon you’re a slots-player in a PLA-information casino. I’m pretty sure there are thousands of Weibo accounts which push similar messaging. 50 centers clearly try to set the tone in comment threads (creating the illusion of a much bigger “us”), though there have been interesting instances where they’ve lost control, a recent Weibo post by Hu Xijin being one amusing example. The next step, and I guess it’ll come, is profiling of users’ personalities and then targeting of Weibo/Wechat moments feeds. Maybe they’re already actively sponsoring Wechat groups for this kind of thing – given the closed system it’s hard to see in to what’s happening inside.

And finally, it’ll get worse

All this will get worse as the economy feels more stagnant. One reason I’m not optimistic is Stanford’s Scott Rozelle. Together with his enormous gang of ex-student collaborators, he’s spent the last 20-odd years studying rural China, and in recent years, has focused on the tens of millions of “left-behind” children. They’ve shown these poor kids have cognitive deficiencies resulting from bad nutrition and unfortunate child-care practices. The parents have to work hundreds of miles away, so the grandparents are left in charge, but they’re busy too, or incapacitated, or just don’t spend enough time with the children. Rozelle was due to publish China’s Invisible Crisis (here) last year – but the scuttlebutt was that his co-authors were scared the findings were too politically-unpalatable to Beijing, so it never came out. (I welcome corrections to this interpretation.)

You can still read about the work in their academic papers. Here they find that early migration by the mother results in a 0.3 standard deviation decline in her child’s cognitive ability by their two-year birthday. Which leads us to this paper, in which they looked explicitly at IQ scores. The conclusion: “…cognitive delays are alarmingly common, and nearly half the toddlers in our sample score an IQ of less than 84 on the BSID test (more than one standard deviation below the mean). In analyzing the source of this, we find that poor parenting—for example, not reading to, singing with, or engaging in stimulating play with one’s children—is closely associated with these delays.”

We know enough about brain development in children to know that these impacts are not just bad for IQ, but are compromising too for emotional development. Child development specialists talk a lot these days about the importance of “attachment”; a baby developing a strong emotional bond with a parent, usually the mother. Such bonds lead to healthy early brain development, and affect gene-expression (the cutting edge science of epigenetics), which Sapolsky discusses too. Take that attachment away and stress-related hormones go way up and the epigenetics go wrong, triggering a flurry of bad things. The release of glucocortoids interfere with hippocampal development, and result in impaired impulse control (think marshmallows). Stress at a young age also leads to bigger and more active amygdala (remember: that’s the brain’s anger/fear center). It also leads to your dopamine system being suppressed, raising the chances of depression and anhedonia (an inability to feel pleasure) later in life.

So, the chances are that there are already millions of young adults, born in the 1980s-90s to migrant parents, with brains wired to reason less well and to get angrier quicker. And millions more in-coming. This is a human tragedy in and of itself. These kids deserve so much better. Their parents are not to blame; they were motivated by what was best for their families. We are all vulnerable to mindf*cking, but they’ve been left even more open to the hack.

The more I consider the work of Wylie, Sapolsky and Rozelle, the more I fear we have opened up the abyss and that mindfcking the political brain now is just too easy, and too sophisticated. We are run, as humans, with an operating system which has multiple flaws, and there’s no patch or update that is going to make us less vulnerable. Orwell wrote the authoritarian future was a boot stamping on your face, forever. Well, it’s now probably Goebbels with a floor full of coders and engineers, forever, too. We can, as Wylie suggests, aggressively regulate the vectors like Facebook which allow this manipulation, but this is not straightforward at all. Perhaps they’ll be a bigger social backlash against mobile phones as we realize what damage they are doing, even beside political mindfcking. But Wylie cautions that with the inevitable roll out of the Internet of Things it’s more likely we’ll be further enmeshed in these networks.

At least future political scientists - whether they study domestic or international politics - will have plenty to study; the new science of political mindf*cking.