Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done With Facebook

If the Nazis were in power today, during the digital revolution, they would rule the world, says Dr. Yaniv Levyatan, an expert in psychological warfare

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Nazi propaganda minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Oct. 30 1938.
Nazi propaganda minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Oct. 30 1938.Credit: AP
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

What is psychological warfare?

Actually, there isn’t really such a thing. “Psychological warfare” is a deceptive term that’s intended to blur the true meaning: propaganda. Here in Israel in particular, the word “propaganda” is crushing and loaded. Since the end of World War II, we have seen all kinds of variations on this term, with “psychological warfare” emerging as the prevailing one in the West. In any event, it’s a newspeak term. Psychological warfare, or propaganda, essentially conflicts with liberal democratic values. Totalitarian states and terrorist organizations don’t spend time conceptualizing: They just do it.

Traditionally, psychological warfare has been the weapon of the weak...

That’s no longer really true today. There is no longer a weak side and a strong side. Before the digital revolution, psychological warfare was the preserve of states, and since then it’s everywhere. These days everyone can engage in quality psychological warfare.

What’s meant by “quality psychological warfare”?

To understand what psychological warfare is, it’s necessary to understand what propaganda is. The best definition, I think, is from Harold Lasswell, who was a pioneer of research into the mass media. According to him, propaganda is the management of the masses by means of manipulation and symbols. More simply put: to understand who you’re dealing with and what means you want to use in order to influence them. It’s actually a type of marketing. This morning, for example, Army Radio broadcast part of a monologue of a Hamas standup comic who was conveying a message to Israel. The thing is that, because of his fractured and weird Hebrew, it was ridiculous and ineffective.

Like the “Voice of Thunder” from Cairo in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yes. That’s a good illustration of why it’s hard for armies to engage in psychological warfare. To conduct it well, you need knowledge of marketing, communications, anthropology, sociology, culture and other fields. Those are “soft” fields of knowledge, rather than “military” ones. The Red Army in World War II had special units whose mission was to abduct German soldiers, who would then be interrogated about the effectiveness of psychological warfare on them. The abductees were shown posters and had to rank them in terms of how effective the messages were from their point of view. Three elements are required to create high-quality messages of psychological warfare: identifying distress, proposing a solution, and moving into action. So you need intelligence that’s oriented toward psychological warfare, not classic intelligence about order of battle and types of weapons.

Can you give an example?

In the 1991 Gulf War, American intelligence informed the psychological warfare units that there was a shortage of food, and that Iraqi soldiers were simply dying of starvation. Based on that information, a poster was created showing a group of Iraqi soldiers enjoying a hearty meal, with a message that went something like, “Hungry? Bring this poster to the prisoner-of-war camp; we promise you food now and release from captivity at the end of the war.” That was super-effective, and many soldiers accepted the invitation. That’s an example of a message that was successful, because it took advantage of an opportunity, in terms of military intelligence: the realization that the Iraqi soldiers were battered and hungry, and that this was the right time to try to influence them and suggest to them that they switch sides.

Dr. Yaniv Levyatan.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

An ineffective example is another poster from the same war, in which a U.S. soldier is seen shaking the hand of an Iraqi soldier and suggesting that he surrender. That went too far. No Iraqi soldier could identify with the message of shaking the enemy’s hand. So they introduced some improvements and created other posters in which the American was replaced by an Arab fighter [from the coalition of forces that took part in the war]. That was completely different: Here’s a brother, an Arab, you know him and can trust him, he’s offering his hand to you. That worked.

So it’s tremendously important to understand who your audience is and what moves it. At the same time, the world is becoming a place where you can accumulate more and more knowledge of that kind. You can target your messages accurately. Scientifically. Think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook.

Facebook is excellent for psychological warfare, because they’re constantly collecting information about us. An analysis of that information is very illuminating with respect to our personalities, our aspirations, our opinions. We saw that vividly in the story of Cambridge Analytica [which acquired data from profiles of some 50 million Facebook users] in the 2016 U.S. election. Our behavior in the social networks, which we perceived as something innocent and mundane, has become an instrument through which we can be influenced via manipulative techniques. The information we volunteer, such as Likes, make it possible for those who want to, to understand how to communicate with us in a precise way. Goebbels had a ministry of 1,000 personnel whose primary task was not to compose messages but to go into the field and examine how the messages work on people. Today you can do that by pressing a small button. If the Nazis had come to power today, they would have ruled the world.

Indeed, we see which rulers are rising to power today and what their messages look and sound like. We can take it that there’s a connection.

Goebbels likened himself to a pianist. He said: I know which chord to play in order to rouse the German public. Think of all the companies that offer an analysis of the dialogue in the social networks, per unit of time. This makes it possible for politicians to construct messages for the public on the basis of precise information. It’s absolutely scientific. Such an analysis can show, among other things, the attitude of the target audience to certain words. If a politician wants to curry favor with a particular audience, he knows absolutely which words will elicit a positive response. What if Goebbels had had tools like that? If he’d had a way to know precisely what people feel. Dream. Want.

Or what they’re afraid of.

Fear above all. The most powerful motivation. Across all of human history, the elites have known how to control communications and the public consciousness. The social networks supposedly overturned the equation. The public feels that it controls the media, that it has the power to fight the elites. The Cambridge Analytica story demonstrates that this is a lie.

The balance of forces hasn’t changed – on the contrary.

Whoever has access to big data controls both the media and the public. We live in an era in which psychological intelligence is infinite. My ability today to shape public consciousness is phenomenal. During the Cold War, the CIA and the KGB tried to shape the consciousness of both their domestic audiences and the rival. They invested vast resources in their efforts. Today it happens by remote control as a matter of routine. The Russians intervene in Trump’s campaign; the British vote for Brexit despite their own interests. Whoever has the ability to control these tools can generate insane developments on a historic scale.

The technology will continue to improve in a way that will support that exploitation. Both in terms of the consumer’s addiction to the network and at the level of the tools for analyzing the information. Our salvation at present is actually that big data analysis is still lagging behind.

Everyone wants to understand what makes us tick. In the same way that incredible breakthroughs are happening in DNA, we’re also seeing incredible breakthroughs in the study of control of the masses. Industry 4.0 – the fourth Industrial Revolution. The connection between big data and artificial intelligence is truly frightening, because just as the machines of the Industrial Revolution streamlined production, today the means exist to streamline social processes. In China, as we know, there’s no Google or Facebook. The authorities have their own local channels that allow them to keep their finger on the pulse at all times, to understand exactly what the public’s opinion is and which way the wind is blowing, and to act accordingly.

They call it “algorithmic regulation.”

The citizens are ranked on the basis of their digital signature, and thus various sanctions can be implemented against them. Who can guarantee that the same thing won’t happen in the West?

No one.

I wear an Apple Watch. I’ve forsaken the war against privacy. I know it’s over and done with. Let’s say I have an Apple TV at home. When I watch television or wear my watch, Apple knows what turns me on. Now think about a politician who knows what turns me on, on the basis of that data. You and I will get different content [from each other] every evening.

You don’t have to go that far – you can be sent content on WhatsApp.

You mean Rumor Mill 2.0. WhatsApp is a fantastic tool for disseminating psychological warfare. We all saw it, for example, during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. In periods of emergency, when the government restricts information available to the public, WhatsApp is the perfect solution for the huge thirst for information. During Protective Edge, WhatsApp was flooded [by members of the public] with rumors and facts that severely damaged the morale of Israeli society. Visual elements are constantly being improved. “Deepfake” technology makes fake videos possible, in which you can take any person – a movie actor or the president of the United States – and put whatever you want in his mouth. The lips will move in perfect synchronization. It’s very difficult to see that it’s false.

When we talk about psychological warfare, we’re referring to three publics: home, or what’s known as the “base,” neutral and rival.

"Hungry?" A detail from a poster disseminated by U.S. forces to Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf War.

The “home” people are with us in any case and the rivals are hard to convert; the story is of course the neutrals. History shows that those who succeed in mobilizing the neutrals win. The best example I know is from World War I, in which the British conducted razor-sharp psychological warfare, which depicted the Germans as barbarians and succeeded in searing that image into the American consciousness. That way they got the neutrals, in this case the Americans, to conclude that the British were the good side in this story. They did very sophisticated work, they disseminated information without taking responsibility for it or betraying its source.

That’s known as “black propaganda.” There’s also white and gray. Can you explain?

With white propaganda, we know who is behind it and what its message is – let’s say, “the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson states.” With gray propaganda, the person behind it doesn’t want you to know who he is, so he assumes another entity – “foreign media report,” let’s say. In black warfare, the disseminator of the message simply lies. He delivers the message while disguising himself as someone else. In World War II, the Americans established the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, which engaged in acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines and in psychological warfare against the Nazis. The OSS disseminated fake newspapers in Germany, maintained a radio station that broadcast messages that undercut German morale, and conducted campaigns aimed at harming the morale both among German soldiers and society in general. For example, a campaign featuring the “League of Lonely War Women,” in which the OSS spread information to the effect that there was an organization of German women who wanted to provide “special services” to German combat troops.

The idea being to plant the feeling that the wives at home were being unfaithful.

It was a very successful campaign. I did research about the OSS in the course of doing my doctoral degree. I found, for example, that they actually wrote a manual about how to spread a rumor. At that time it was done face to face. They were allowed to spread a [test] rumor in a Manhattan skyscraper. It reminds one of the viral models in the social networks, with the identical distribution: among every 1,000 Facebook users, only 1 percent are influencers or consciousness leaders.

And by analogy, if you want to spread a rumor in a building, you should find the most bored gossipers on each floor, instead of talking to a lot of people.

That’s the idea. What’s interesting, by the way, is how you fight a rumor. The great dream of the person who spreads a rumor is that it will ultimately display a dynamic of mass communication. Which is why the biggest mistake [in fighting it] is simply to repeat the rumor in the mass media.

Denying it immediately validates it, turns it into reality.

And in addition, whoever hasn’t already been exposed to it, will be now, and that has far-reaching implications.

And the current incarnation is fake news.

Clearly. Fake news is the fig leaf hiding the fact that we are victims of psychological warfare. That newspeak term allows every story to be categorized as a gag. Fake news. Alternative facts. It’s not as off-putting as “psychological warfare.”

I read the study of fake news published by Yochai Benkler [an expert on information technology], of Harvard Law School. One of his arguments is that the left still thinks in terms of journalistic tools, such as validation and facts, but for the right-wing audience, that’s less relevant. That’s why the story [from the 2016 campaign] in which Trump was alleged to have attacked an adolescent girl didn’t catch on, but the one about Hillary Clinton and the pedophile pizzeria did. The point, again, is who you’re talking about.

You are now evoking Lasswell’s definition precisely: Know your target audience and what sort of language to use with it, because not everything works on everyone. If we presume that the left controls the mass media around the world, that doesn’t leave the right any alternative other than to take control of alternative channels, such as the social networks, and to create what’s known as “civil journalism” there. The target audience is insufficiently acquainted with or doesn’t take an interest in journalistic tools, and is receptive to the information I want to give it. I also don’t overburden them with complex messages, but with scraps of information. In the world of psychological warfare, the point of departure is that consciousness is like a pail. Let’s say I am an American citizen in the years before the 2016 election. I’m not excited by either Trump or Hillary, but with time, I’m exposed to more and more content that presents Hillary as a criminal. After two years of that, by the time the election takes place, I’ve already heard so much nonsense that my consciousness is fully formed: I loathe Hillary.

The pail has been filled.

Right. Think, for example, of the way America’s founding fathers, who were super-propagandists, persuaded the public to rebel against the king of England and embark on a new path. The constantly threw out scraps of information. For example, what became embedded in the public memory as the “Boston Massacre.” In fact, four people were killed there. Psychological warfare is not throwing a bomb, it’s a matter of long campaigns. Psychological warfare can’t win wars, it’s a force multiplier.

Just a force multiplier? Given all we’ve talked about so far, isn’t it decisive?


Why not?

Because without physical force, psychological warfare is worthless. We don’t get worked up by Hamas’ psychological warfare. They won’t win the war against Israel through psychological warfare. Because we know that they’re weak. But Hezbollah has more than 100,000 missiles that threaten us and has succeeded in creating a balance of terror. Besides which, Hezbollah has a star that Hamas doesn’t have: Nasrallah.

A poster from the “League of Lonely War Women” campaign.

Nasrallah himself said that a bullet strikes one soldier but the camera strikes at the whole of Israeli society.

Nasrallah is a star, on top of which the Israeli media very much heightened his presence. The media created the label “Nasrallah promised and he will deliver.” The fact that the Israeli media gives him a platform empowers him significantly. Can you imagine a situation in which Al Manar [a Hezbollah-affiliated satellite television station] broadcasts speeches by Bibi live and translates them from Hebrew into Arabic? Why do we do that with speeches by Nasrallah?

Be that as it may, when we’re connected all day long, we are simply surrounded by psychological warfare.

Totally. We get it in the head from Facebook, Apple, the politicians, the education system, the corporations, all manner of vested interests. All of them assault us. Every one of us encounters about 2,000 marketing messages a day, overt and covert.

Advertising also resorts to techniques of psychological warfare.

After World War II, veterans of the OSS and of the American propaganda system were hired by Madison Avenue advertising firms – like the ones we saw in “Mad Men.” They transferred the know-how and experience they acquired on the field of battle to the world of marketing and advertising. Many parallels exist between psychological warfare on the battlefield and psychological warfare in business. Just as there is black psychological warfare, brands also operate under other identities. What is the prestige car Lexus? A Toyota. It’s the Toyota model for a rich target audience. A few years ago, when McDonald’s wanted to promote their own coffee, they launched a campaign that fought against Starbucks and created a website where their product was touted as “the unsnobby coffee.” That’s excellent psychological warfare, because under a humorous veneer it suggests an inherent weakness in the rival’s product: that it’s both expensive and not sufficiently high-quality.

What’s the key to effective propaganda?

A simple message for simple people.

“Sourpusses” [a reference to Netanyahu’s description of the media and political rivals].

Classic. Apple’s overriding principle: “Keep it simple, stupid.” They’ll publish an ad containing nothing but a white background and an Ipad, without any text. If you understand your target audience, you have everything.

Sourpusses. With one word you assert, first of all, that there’s no place for criticism as such, and that there are two sides. Smart winners or crybaby losers. Now let every person choose the side he wants to be on.

I remind us of the rule: whom you’re talking to and what you say. After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, the Americans passed a whole series of laws that infringe deeply on individual rights, and to avert criticism, anger or bitterness they called them the Patriot Act. Under those statutes you can put anyone under surveillance and eavesdrop on everyone, and if you’re against that you’re not a patriot – you’re a traitor. It’s just like the sourpusses. Machiavelli said there is only one sin: to lose your seat.

In the battle for consciousness, the truth is the first casualty.

The truth? You know what they say: It bores me. I too don’t want the truth. I want to be thrilled. I want to feel something. The truth is usually unpleasant, and we live in an era in which everyone chooses his own truth and spares himself from having to cope with what he finds unpleasant. The public prefers to bury its head in the sand and choose the media channels that offer the truth that’s appropriate to him. Everyone chooses his channel in order to go with his truth.

In these conditions, what chance does Western democracy have of surviving?

We’ve known the answer to that question since 1945. Lasswell contemplated it at the end of the war. He wanted to understand whether it [propaganda] was truly a tool that democracies should use, as he grasped its vast potential for fascist regimes. His conclusion was that it could also be used to transmit liberal democratic values. It depends whose hands the tool is in. In the present era, the responsibility is all ours. We need to be aware and filter things by ourselves – not go like sheep to slaughter. Our point of departure needs to be that we are being influenced all the time. We need to understand how that works and to find where this is happening. No one can do it for us. Parents need to teach their children, teachers their pupils. Ignorance is paradise for propagandists. The future of democracy depends on the existence of a critical public that is able to exercise doubt. We need to be our own antivirus.

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