Convinced Julian Assange handed Trump the election? Certain he raped two women in Sweden? Want to see him rot in jail? The fourth in a five-part series by clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson explains the science behind smear and propaganda, and how and why it works.
On Sunday March 3rd and 10th, hundreds attended rallies organised by the Socialist Equality Party of Australia in Sydney and Melbourne, demanding that the Australian government secure freedom for Julian Assange.
Acclaimed journalist and film-maker John Pilger spoke at the Sydney rally along with founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation, Professor Stuart Rees AM, and editor-in-chief of US news website Consortium News, Joe Lauria.
The rallies called for the Australian government to intervene to protect its citizen, Julian Assange, who has been confined to the Ecuadorian embassy since 2012. Assange is suffering arbitrary detention according to two UN rulings. Should he leave the embassy he is expected to be extradited to the United States and prosecuted for his publishing activities, most likely over 2010 disclosures of US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), Julian Assange faces “well founded” risks of “political persecution and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” and “physical harm” in the United States. The WGAD further ruled that Assange is entitled to compensation and the restoration of his freedom.
Shortly before the Melbourne rally, in an escalation of the US government’s pursuit of the Wikileaks founder, news broke that Chelsea Manning had been jailed for refusing to testify in Grand Jury proceedings against Assange. Wikileaks tweeted, “Whistleblowers are now being forced to testify against journalists. A new angle in the attack on media freedom.”
“This is the cutting edge of attempts by governments and the corporate elite to abolish free speech, censor the internet and suppress mass anti-war sentiment,” Evrim Yazgin, President of the International Youth and Students for Social Equality, told the Melbourne rally.
Rally organiser, James Cogan, added that “the Trump administration is moving to file the first ever criminal charges against a media publisher, Wikileaks, using the powers of the 1917 Espionage Act.”
Speaking at the Sydney rally Consortium News editor Joe Lauria asked, “from their point of view it’s easy to understand why the U.S. wants to crush Assange. But what is Australia’s excuse? Why is it fighting America’s battles? Why has the Australian mainstream media also turned against Assange after an election held in the US, not here? What has happened to Australia’s sovereignty?”
CATCH UP ON THE SERIES
Part 1: The Psychology Of Getting Julian Assange: What’s Torture Got To Do With It?
Part 2: The Psychology Of Getting Julian Assange, Part 2: The Court Of Public Opinion And The Blood-Curdling Untold Story
Part 3: The Psychology of Getting Julian Assange, Part 3 – Wikileaks and Russiagate: Trust Us, We’re The CIA
On the subject of sovereignty, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, Stuart Rees, noted that Australia’s culture of relating to the US and the UK “is dominated by a preoccupation with cowardice: scared to question what goes on in the Pentagon, in the White House, or even in Westminster”.
Despite their significance and timeliness, the Sydney and Melbourne rallies, like an earlier Sydney rally in June last year, were subject to a near total mainstream media blackout.
Suppression of news shedding light on the true story of Julian Assange’s persecution, such as the Australian rallies, is consistent with the decade-long smear campaign against Julian Assange and Wikileaks, as explored in Part 2 of this series. At last year’s rally, John Pilger traced that smear campaign to a 2008 document by the Cyber Counter-intelligence branch of the US Defence Department (DoD), which outlined a plan to destroy the “trust” at Wikileaks’ “centre of gravity”.
As explored in Part 3, over ten years since the DoD drafted its plan to attack trust in Wikileaks, the offensive has taken the shape of Russiagate, with Russiagate proponents marching in lock step behind the Trump administration as it wages its authoritarian crackdown on free speech via Julian Assange and Wikileaks.
In order to justify this pursuit, #Resistance™ warriors are placing their faith in US intelligence agencies, with their long history of lies, over Wikileaks, with its unblemished record of accuracy.
In Part 1 I proposed that, true to the modus operandi of counterintelligence, which according to the CIA website, seeks to “leverage insights” into adversary “vulnerabilities”, every major vulnerability in the human reality-processing system has been leveraged and exploited in order to attack trust in Wikileaks since the DoD launched its mission against the publisher in 2008.
The psychological end-game of that mission has been mobilising populations for a war on journalism via Julian Assange, and gaining public consent to treat public interest journalism as public enemy number one.
In this case, the ‘adversary’ in the US crosshairs has been not only Julian Assange and Wikileaks, but the global populations that Wikileaks seeks to inform. It is our own vulnerabilities – the vulnerabilities in the information processing systems of all human beings – that have been leveraged and exploited in the counterintelligence campaign against Wikileaks.
I say this not only because of the 2008 DoD plan to destroy Wikileaks. I say this because my PhD in psychology concerned the psychological processes by which one person influences another’s beliefs about reality. As a result, I am familiar with the large body of psychological literature concerning the human reality-attribution system, its vulnerabilities, and the ways in which those vulnerabilities can be exploited and manipulated. And I see the fingerprints of psychological tactics all over the smear campaign against Julian Assange.
Moreover, it is the essence of psychological operations, such as a DoD war on trust, to leverage vulnerabilities in human information processing. A military PSYOPS document issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2003, for instance, defines psychological operations as“planned operations… to influence the emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behaviour” of target audiences.
But how, in practical terms, do opinion-shapers influence the emotions, motives and objective reasoning of target audiences?
Through propaganda. Propaganda, a member of the psyops family, involves “the organised, systematic and intentional manipulation of information in ways that either distorts peoples’ perception of reality or pushes them to behave in ways they would not otherwise do” writes Professor Piers Robinson, chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the University of Sheffield and Director at the Organisation for Propaganda Studies.
Propaganda and Public Relations, moreover, accounts for over 80 per cent of contemporary mainstream media content, according to a recent Sonoma State University paper. Shutting down Wikileaks and Julian Assange is part of maintaining that state of affairs.
As Professor of Communication Sut Jhally, executive producer of The Occupation of the American Mind says, “give me control of the media, give me control of the stories through which people understand the world… and you don’t need police and armies on street corners. You can imprison people in their own minds. You can imprison people in their own imaginations”.
But what are the psychological processes through which reality-perception can be manipulated? What vulnerabilities can be exploited to that end? How is a war on trust, and journalism, waged?
Vulnerabilities in human reality-processing can be conceptualised on two broad levels.
One level is a core, motivational level, involving meaning-oriented processes. This level determines which versions of reality a person is psychologically vulnerable to accepting. It affects which propaganda seeds are likely to take root, and when. Most of us, most of the time, for example, are more amenable to flattering than unflattering realities about ourselves.
The second level is a more technical, surface level, at which particular versions of reality, once seeded, are consolidated and entrenched. Propaganda processes at this level operate much like watering a propaganda seed after planting. Technical vulnerabilities are related to efficiency-oriented mechanisms in information processing, which prioritise speed over accuracy. Repetition, for instance, fosters fluent processing, which the brain takes as a quick and dirty indicator of reality, or truth.
Vulnerabilities at both levels stem from the widely under-appreciated fact that human reality perception serves a range of goals other than accuracy. The human take on reality is guided by various tacit, unconscious objectives, including social objectives such as needs for belonging and connection, or personal objectives such as self-esteem. Or survival-related goals such as defending ourselves against realities that might make our heads explode.
Such goals unconsciously drive which information we accept or reject, and what we subjectively experience as ‘logical’, ‘rational’ or true, impacting how we perceive the world. Psychologists call this motivated cognition.
For example, the drive for connection and belonging renders human beings prone to aligning their perception of the world with those around them. This confers inadvertently conformist leanings in reality-perception, which are readily exploited in propaganda offensives and smear campaigns.
In the main, much human information processing is not only influenced by such unconscious motives but fundamentally determined by them, no matter how logical or rational we experience ourselves to be. In fact, so powerful are subterranean influences on conscious thought that, in the field of political cognition, reason has been described as a “gun for hire” in service of emotion.
“Humans excel at believing what they wish to believe,” write political psychologists John Jost and colleagues. All the better to propagandise with.
Such a view of human cognition draws on “three decades of research in the cognitive sciences, backed by hundreds of well-crafted behavioural studies in social psychology and now evidence from the neurosciences” note Professors of Political Science Milton Lodge and Charles S Taber. Neuroscientific research examining cognition by the millisecond, for instance, shows that emotion enters the decision-stream well before conscious thought. All up, Lodge and Taber describe political reasoning as “a bobbing cork on the currents of unconscious processes”.
“Not me,” I hear you say. “I’m rational.”
Perhaps. There are certain states of mind, and certain circumstances, that foster accuracy-oriented perception, rendering some people, and some situations, more propaganda-resistant. If you are tempted to read on to find out who and why, you may be one such person.
Meanwhile, what core motivational, meaning-oriented vulnerabilities have been exploited in the smear campaign against Wikileaks and Julian Assange? How have opinion-shapers turned reality on its head in the eyes of some, such that censorship is a bastion of democracy and free speech a menace to be overcome?
In achieving such an inversion, one challenge for propagandists has been that the smear-artists themselves possess a long history of breathtaking violence and corruption, as exposed by Wikileaks among others. US institutions and establishments, for instance, have been caught looting and occupying impoverished populations ravaged by disaster, illegally torturing detainees, rigging federal elections and covering for their own extensive civilian slaughter and war crimes.
In order for the institutions behind these acts to appropriate trust from Wikileaks and Julian Assange, we the people must be induced to minimise, discount and overlook their state-corporate corruption, along with Wikileaks’ public-service function in exposing it. Blaming Julian Assange for Donald Trump’s election, for instance, requires overlooking the fact that it was the Democrats who propped up Trump.
How do propagandists achieve such a sleight of hand? They leverage the human impulse to justify the system.
Just as individuals are generally motivated to view themselves in a favourable light, so are many motivated to view their social, political and economic systems favourably also. This tendency has been dubbed system justification.
System justifying impulses render members of a society highly susceptible to messages that minimise their society’s problems, gloss over systemic flaws and glorify the status quo.
A robust program of psychological research demonstrates that system-justifying motives compel many people to perceive the systems on which they depend as being right, good, fair and just, even in the face of powerful reasons not to, and even when suffering at the system’s hands.
The pioneer of system justification theory, political psychologist John Jost of New York University, says that “by now hundreds of studies have supported predictions derived from system justification theory, vividly illustrating the ways in which people uphold the status quo and minimize or overlook its flaws, thereby perceiving it as more legitimate than it actually is”.
A counterintuitive finding of this research, with particular relevance to Wikileaks, is that flaws in a system typically exacerbate rather than quell system-justifying tendencies. Systemic cracks such as corruption or injustice, termed system threat, jeopardise the psychological sense of safety, wellbeing and meaning that a functioning system brings.
Rather than critique the system in light of systemic failures, then, many people are inclined to double down on the system’s legitimacy, in an effort to restore their sense of security and wellbeing.
For example, following a Wikileaks revelation.
In countless studies, when people read passages or articles highlighting problems in their political, economic or social arrangements, such as an article on the decline of American society, they respond defensively, with greater rationalisation, faith and trust in the systems described.
Given that system justification acts in this way to protect people from harsh realities, John Jost describes it as a form of self-deception, fuelling “fundamental delusion” about the social and political world. Its influence on political information-processing, he says, is “profound”.
With its profound influence on political reasoning, in light of the devastating flaws in US democracy exposed by Wikileaks in 2016 (election rigging, ‘public’ versus ‘private’ positions, and state-corporate connivance), the system-justifying impulse could have been expected to kick in. So as to defend against harsh realities revealed by Wikileaks (eg democracy as sham), system-justifying delusions (eg it’s all Russia’s fault) were poised to take hold, legitimising a system exposed as unsound.
Russiagate descended on these psychological vulnerabilities ferociously, stoking collective self-deception with delusional material galore, in which the legitimacy of election-rigging elites was bolstered, and Wikileaks was cast as the wrecking ball.
In a system-justifying panic, persecutory fixation on evidence-free ‘foreign evil-doer’ tropes took hold, unhinged from accepted realities around internal election interference, and Russiagate doubled down on the sanctity of precisely that which had been revealed as lacking: ‘American democracy’.
Capitalising on self-deceptive defence of the broken status quo, Russiagate has buttressed American democracy with magical thinking, in which mostly unseen and irrelevant puerile social media posts – such as Bernie Sanders in Boxer shorts – hijacked voters’ brains, sowed racial and class division in a land of social harmony, and defiled democracy.
Topped off as it is by an escapist fantasy of US intelligence agencies as progressive saviours, Russiagate is ‘fundamental delusion’ indeed. It has proven as divorced from logic and evidence as any delusional belief system, and as impervious to reality-testing.
In this persecutory worldview, any systemic critique of the corporate state is a Russian plot. A British retiree who likes to read and tweet? Russian. A Syrian commentator living in Perth with a YouTube channel? Russian again. Environmental activists? Yep. Russian. Jill Stein? Russian too. Black Lives Matter? Riled up by Russians. African Americans? Can’t think for themselves those African Americans according to Russiagate. Russia is controlling their minds. So, yes, Russian. Wikileaks and Julian Assange? Russian. Of course. Russian, Russian, Russian.
Were Russiagaters suffering auditory hallucinations and hearing the voices of Joseph McCarthy himself, they could scarcely emulate collective psychosis more successfully.
As in McCarthy’s day, the spectre at the centre of this paranoid ideation is a familiar one – the foreign bogeyman. Like the immigrant bogeyman across the aisle, it serves the same psychological function that foreign bogeymen always have: protection against ugly truths at home, refuge from harsh realities and retreat into the familiarity of the status quo. At the expense of Julian Assange. And systemic critique of the corporate state.
For the elites whose agenda it serves, the whole system-justifying process maintains power, quells dissent and rationalizes war.
In the case of the information war against “information rebellions” on the internet “battlefield”, as a Senate Judiciary Committee heard, the victims of that war are journalists and publishers, including Julian Assange, and the populations they seek to inform. They are human beings sharing information, dehumanised and disappeared, as victims of warfare always are, behind the bogeyman – in this case Russian – upon whom system-justifying Western populations are incited to project their rage and fear.
And thus reality is inverted. Those exposed as corrupt are viewed as virtuous by virtue of their corruption. And those who expose them are corrupt by virtue of their exposé. Free speech as menace to be overcome.
More broadly, Wikileaks’ very role in revealing the machinations of power renders it vulnerable to system-justifying responses at every turn. The moments at which Wikileaks exposes systemic corruption and abuse are the very moments at which canny smear artists move in for the kill. Russiagate is no exception.
When Wikileaks exposed US war crimes in 2010, populations were psychologically ripe for system-justifying defence of the national security state. Which is precisely what took place.
Assange and Wikileaks were cast as dangerous terrorists with blood on their hands, gratuitously targeting the poor defenceless US war machine. In reality, Vice President Joe Biden admitted that the 2010 releases had caused “no substantive damage” other than to be “embarrassing”.
When Wikileaks exposed the CIA spying on us through our iPhones and Smart TVs the CIA cast itself as a victim of Wikileaks’ espionage.
Now in 2019, as the US, the UK and Australia defy binding international law, imprisoning Assange for journalism in violation of two UN rulings, flouting the world’s leading human rights organisations and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), it is Julian Assange who is placed on trial: by media and the US national security state.
In this equation, the objective reality is that Assange and Wikileaks are the ones with institutional legitimacy, and the law, on their side – international law, human rights treaty law and the rules of asylum. Should Julian Assange be extradited, “rule of law” itself is at stake says Professor of International Law and retired UN expert on the promotion of international order, Alfred De Zayas.
Moreover, in fending off the rogue US national security state, Wikileaks has the support of the world’s leading democratic and human rights institutions, including the UN, the IACHR, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.
It is the pursuit of Julian Assange and Wikileaks that threatens the existing order and the rules-based status quo. To system-justify is to come to Wikileaks’ defense.
Smear artists, however, will never tell you that.
Not everyone, needless to say, is equally inclined to defend the status quo. According to Jost and colleagues those most apt to system-justify are those with high needs for order, structure, certainty and control.
So what of the rest of us? How does a smear campaign target those who are more capable of tolerating their society’s flaws? What vulnerabilities can smear artists seize upon there?
Alongside system justification, a psychological vulnerability underpinning smear campaigns is what psychologists call derogation of moral advocates. According to psychological research, those who draw attention to their society’s failings tend to be viewed negatively by the very groups they seek to enlighten and assist.
Fortunately for smear artists, this process packs a double punch. It applies not only to publishers of systemic critique such as Julian Assange and Wikileaks, but anyone who sticks their head above the parapet to defend Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
In a PhD thesis on the topic, Nadia Bashir from the University of Toronto writes, “Individuals generally agree that questionable, harmful, and illegal behaviours are wrong and unethical. Thus, it may seem counterintuitive that individuals often vilify those who aim to expose and therefore eliminate these behaviours. A growing body of research demonstrates, however, that individuals who take a stand against immoral behaviours (i.e., moral advocates) can elicit scorn rather than admiration.”
Anyone who publically defies the smear campaign against Julian Assange, or pushes back against war and propaganda more generally, is likely to have experienced such scorn first hand: apologist, Russian bot, Kremlin troll or stooge. For this reason, following the Sydney rally to free Assange, rally organiser James Cogan warned, “The more support that is expressed for Assange, the more slander and vilification will be directed against him and his defenders.”
In Bashir’s research, moral advocates who speak out against injustice, such as injustice against Julian Assange, are perceived as more annoying, offensive, arrogant, selfish, self-centred, obnoxious, greedy, insulting and traitorous than other people. Which makes them easier to smear.
In short, those less vulnerable to system-justifying processes, and more inclined to stand up for Wikileaks, are simultaneously more vulnerable to being shamed. To being disliked. Viewed as annoying, offensive, arrogant or obnoxious. Apologist. Stooge.
Such prospects no doubt contribute to what John Pilger has called the “eerie silence” surrounding Julian Assange.
But why do moral advocates elicit negative reactions? Who is most vulnerable to perceiving moral advocates in this way?
Is it those most concerned with morality, and most disturbed by their society’s moral flaws? Is it, paradoxically, those with the deepest attachment to moral conduct themselves?
Not according to Bashir’s research. In her studies, Bashir found that those who demonise moral advocates do so because they value social image over moral considerations. What bothers detractors of moral advocates, she says, is “how the advocates have made their group look in the eyes of others.” To restore the group’s tarnished social image, “group members seem to adopt a ‘shoot the messenger’ approach.”
Joseph McCarthy, for one, appears to have appreciated this fact. In 1950 McCarthy told a reporter, “I’ve got a sock full of shit and I know how to use it.” And use it McCarthy did. He wielded his shit-filled sock against anyone who dissented from the official narrative such that “the bane of the liberal in the fifties was the threat of mistaken identity” writes historian Professor Bruce Cumings. Mistaken identity as a Stalinist then, and a Putin-Nazi-Trumpen-Fascist now.
It’s all about the image, in the eyes of others.
Cumings adds that it was “a dark period indeed, a maximisation of the potential for absolutist conformity” in which dissenters suffered “intense psychological pressures and admonitions to change their thoughts or be excluded from the spectrum of political acceptability.”
The upshot is that those willing to defy derogation, buck political acceptability and stand up for Julian Assange and Wikileaks can rest secure in the knowledge that they are placing morality – and reality – over social image concerns. Getting hit with a shit-filled sock for their efforts is a mark of moral advocacy well done.
Once a system-justifying narrative has been deployed and enforced through derogation, the perception that all ‘right thinking’ people agree must be imposed. This tactic exploits the human vulnerability to shared reality.
As a social species, human beings are wired to take our cues as to what is real from those around us. The founders of shared reality theory note that “the individual creates and maintains the experience of reality… by sharing it with others”. Jost and colleagues add that “perceptions of reality that are socially constructed and seemingly shared by others around us are quite simply ‘taken for granted’ and, in this sense, acquire a sort of presumptive legitimacy.”
To achieve shared reality, human beings engage in “social tuning”, which is a process of unconsciously aligning their worldview with that of those around them, particularly those on whom they depend, or whose affiliation they seek.
Accordingly, in a smear offensive such as that against Julian Assange, it is critical to foster the perception that the majority of desirable others hold derogatory views, while suppressing coverage of favourable attitudes and support. Suppressing coverage of rallies to free Assange, with international support from respected figures, is a case in point.
As is failing to mention polling data indicating popular support for Wikileaks and Juilan Assange. Even among viewers of mainstream media, where Assange is routinely derided, over 80 per cent of participants in a recent 60-Minutes Australia poll, involving 10,000 respondents, voted for the Australian Prime Minister to bring Julian Assange safely home to Australia.
Preventing such realities from being shared is pivotal to smear campaigns, lest reality be tuned in unofficial directions, and populations determine reality amongst themselves. Instead, dissenters from official narratives must be made to feel isolated, and alone.
As well as tuning towards others’ reality-perceptions, shared reality drives people away from the worldviews of those from whom they wish to disassociate. Speciously pairing Wikileaks supporters with undesirable others, then, is another tactic of the smear campaign.
Pairing Wikileaks supporters with the right for a leftist audience, or anti-Americans for a patriotic audience, or with misogyny for an egalitarian audience, or with ‘truthers’ for any other audience, functions by tuning reality perception away from Wikileaks’ supporters, in a range of directions.
The reality being obfuscated here is that the narratives smearing Julian Assange and Wikileaks are not left or right, nor pro- or anti-American narratives. They are elite narratives. They are the narratives of the individuals and institutions that stand to be exposed should Wikileaks continue publishing.
So who is most vulnerable to sharing reality with elites, and therefore most likely to buy into the smear campaign?
Given the drive to tune reality-perception in desired directions, it is those who crave elite belonging and acceptance. Harbouring aspirations to elitist circles, such as elitist media, political or academic circles, could be expected to foster reality-sharing with elites, by virtue of elitist aspirations.
Importantly, this vulnerability goes beyond mere conscious conformity. It involves a subconscious process by which officially anointed narratives and smears, such as those on Russiagate, Wikileaks and Assange, feel subjectively more real and true to the brain. In the language of corks and tides, the desire for elite status is the emotional tide upon which the cork of political opinion bobs.
As Comedian and commentator Jimmy Dore observes, having built a Youtube channel around debunking elite narratives, “all the people I want to impress in my life I already did… These people in journalism I have no respect for. I don’t want to impress David Corn or Rachel Maddow or some a***hole at the Washington Post. I’m going to expose them for being the propagandists that they are.”
The tyranny of the group
One of the most robust psychological tendencies of human beings is to organise themselves and their perception of the world into social groups; specifically, their own social and cultural groups, or ingroups (us) and other social and cultural groups, or outgroups (them).
A wealth of research over decades shows that people are susceptible to all kinds of destructive motives and attitudes towards outgroup members, particularly under conditions of insecurity and threat.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that intergroup psychology has been extensively exploited throughout the psychological war on Julian Assange and Wikileaks, perhaps most heavily since 2016.
Whether measured psychologically, physiologically or neurologically for instance, human empathy is lower towards members of outgroups than ingroups. People are more willing to torture outgroup members, and tend to view outgroups as less human, such that members of other social groups are viewed as less capable of human experiences such as pain, heartbreak and suffering.
In light of this, every effort has been made to cultivate group-based identification vis-à-vis Wikileaks from a range of angles, whether in terms of left versus right, Democrats versus Republicans, the US versus the world, women versus men or Clinton versus Trump.
Since the 2016 US election, anyone who is remotely left, centre left, pseudo-left, latte-left, corporate left, or #Resistance™ liberal has been incited, vigorously, to view Julian Assange as being on the right. The alt-right. The Putin-right. The Trumpen-right. The misogynist right. Or the anarchist-right. And all of the above.
Not only is this likely to render many who identify with the left more callous towards Julian Assange, and less moved by his arbitrary detention, persecution and torture, it also carries implications for reality-perception. Perceiving outgroup members negatively is a hallmark of intergroup psychology.
Even when strangers are divided into groups based on nothing other than coin tosses or the colour of their T-shirts, group members are inclined to view other group members as less likeable, less honest, less trustworthy and more irresponsible. For starters.
Fortunately for propagandists, the antipathy towards outgroup members can skyrocket from disdain to murderous rage under conditions of fear and threat. The immense fear and threat experienced by many after Donald Trump’s election is a case in point. The impulse towards the ‘other’ in such conditions can be a fight to the death.
Which is no doubt why the Clinton campaign wasted no time in getting to work pinning their election loss on Russia and Julian Assange within the first highly emotionally charged 24-hours of Trump’s victory, when group-based emotions were running high.
Harnessing intergroup animus in this way is central to all pro-war propaganda, playing a central role in mobilising populations for war of all kinds, by mobilising hate.
Social psychologists Kevin Durrheim and colleagues write that “call to arms discourse… justifies violence by contrasting a virtuous ‘us’ with a savage ‘other’” including “by creating new targets, grouping together diverse enemies, characterizing them in potent and novel ways, and promoting new norms for action against them.”
Grouping Wikileaks with Trump and Russia after the 2016 election was one such novel characterisation, bringing together diverse enemies in new and potent ways. It justified information war and promoted the new norm of shutting a publisher down for truthful election coverage.
In the efforts to exploit intergroup psychology for purposes of smear and censorship, Julian Assange has been paradoxically vulnerable to group-based framings by virtue of the fact that he is “not a groupist”, to use his words. This has made it possible to define him as an outgroup member from a range of angles. As has the fact that Wikileaks is a non-partisan media organisation, with no group-based, state-based or political ties, publishing exposés across social and group boundaries, upsetting groupists across the board.
What is obscured by such framings is the fact that, as Joe Lauria has observed, supporting Wikileaks is “not a left/right issue at all. It’s a have or have-not issue…. There are the haves and have-nots right now. That’s how the world is being increasingly divided, and not only by money and wealth and property but by information…. That’s where Wikileaks comes in. It helps the have-nots to have information.”
Trust us, it’s confusing
A final tactic by which elites elicit trust in their narratives is to make matters confusing. While propaganda narratives must be simple in their thrust (e.g. ‘Russia hacked American democracy’), they are often complex in their detail.
Russiagate, for instance, has involved a two-year barrage of “bombshells”, indictments, data points and dossiers, including a stream of meetings and emails between this-or-that political operator on this-or-that date, with this-or-that suggested significance, which turns out to be insignificant to Russian collusion in the end. Every time. Including the recent Michael Cohen testimony.
Evidence of collusion, however, is beside the point. The point is that in psychological research, feeling bamboozled by complexity on sociopolitical issues leads to increased feelings of dependence on government. Confusion over details of current affairs has been found to foster greater trust in government authorities, avoidance of the information in question, and faith that the government can be relied upon to sort things out.
Sowing confusion in this way is a common tactic used to sell war and economic policies. Simple issues such as elites plundering nations and economies for profit are couched in complicated sectarian and economic terms, causing publics to switch off and leave things to their leaders. As professor of Communication Sut Jhally notes, a primary tactic of propaganda and public relations is to “take what is clear and make it confusing”.
In Russiagate, by the time the next bombshell hits, media consumers can’t remember what they’re supposed to remember and assume that it all must be significant if elites are still banging on about it. Which they inevitably are.
All of which obscures the fact that there is so far no evidence whatsoever of Trump-Russia collusion, with or without Julian Assange. Not the Trump Tower meeting, not the GRU indictments, not the Roger Stone indictment, not the Michael Cohen testimony nor the fictitious Manafort meetings with Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
But none of that matters. All that matters is this: “Trust us, it’s confusing”.
CATCH UP ON THE SERIES
Part 1: The Psychology Of Getting Julian Assange: What’s Torture Got To Do With It?
Part 2: The Psychology Of Getting Julian Assange, Part 2: The Court Of Public Opinion And The Blood-Curdling Untold Story
Part 3: The Psychology of Getting Julian Assange, Part 3 – Wikileaks and Russiagate: Trust Us, We’re The CIA
Next, in the final article of this series, I will explore the technical vulnerabilities in human reality-processing that have been exploited in the smear campaign against Julian Assange and Wikileaks. In the process I will answer the question of who is psychologically resistant to propaganda, and why.
The tactics deployed to exploit technical vulnerabilities in reality-processing are the same tactics that are deployed in all major propaganda offensives. So once you recognise them, you will be equipped to spot a serious propaganda campaign, such as Russiagate, a mile away.
Meanwhile, if you missed the rallies in Sydney and Melbourne, the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) of Australia is continuing to build a movement to free Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. The SEP intends to make Julian Assange’s protection an election issue.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.