Stories Are Weapons Mark Dery

A new book by Annalee Newitz chronicles the use of storytelling as propagandistic tool.

Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, by Annalee Newitz, W. W. Norton, 246 pages, $27.99

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The positivity industry has repurposed Joan Didion’s best-known quote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” into a self-help maxim. The sentence encapsulates Didion’s belief that “we live entirely . . . by the imposition of a narrative line” on our lives. Narrative, she maintained, is how we manufacture meaning from the welter of our experiences, the chaos of our thoughts.

Didion’s explanatory narrative about our explanatory narratives has become an explanatory meta-narrative. The necessity of “storifying” your “messaging” is now TED-talk orthodoxy, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s pop-neuroscience parables and given scientific legitimacy by evo-psych titles like The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall. On YouTube, the algorithm serves up a promo video for the screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s “STORY Seminar” (yes, all caps). “When the storytelling goes bad in the culture,” McKee intones portentously, “the result is decadence . . . the tide of negative culture, I think, you know, bad, false, empty lies, is almost overwhelming us.”

“We tell ourselves stories . . .” is the opening sentence of Didion’s essay “The White Album,” a morning-after meditation on the cultural chaos of the ’60s. It was a moment much like ours: belief in institutions, from government to science to law enforcement to SCOTUS to democracy itself, was fast eroding. It was a time, wrote Didion, “when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.” Maybe that’s why her quote speaks to us. Our insistence on the power of storytelling comes at a moment of epistemological vertigo, when our faith in narrative truth is being swept away by a tide of lies.

Increasingly, however, we tell ourselves stories in order to lie. In Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, Annalee Newitz chronicles and critiques the struggle for control of the mass imagination. A science journalist and founder of the SF and tech-culture blog io9, Newitz reads American history through the lenses of propaganda and psyops. They consider the weaponization of storytelling in today’s culture wars as well as in past propaganda campaigns to rationalize white supremacy and anti-Black racism, gin up moral panic over LGBTQ people, and justify the extermination of Indigenous peoples and the erasure of their cultures.

The author of science-fiction novels like The Terraformers (2023)—set in an engineered Eden whose cast of characters includes a sentient flying moose and naked mole rats with a massive IQ upgrade—Newitz knows how to spin a cracking good yarn. Stories opens with the author ensconced in the archives of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford, poring over Psychological Warfare, a handbook written for the US Army in the late 1940s by “an odd military intelligence expert named Paul Linebarger.” Burrowing into “the centuries-old diaries and photos” among his papers, writes Newitz, “I was plunged into a Cold War mystery.”

Linebarger, a professor of Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins when he wasn’t a covert theorist of mind control, was also Cordwainer Smith, the pseudonymous author of brain-warpingly weird SF stories. “The more I immersed myself in Linebarger’s work, the more obvious it became that his skill as a science fiction writer was a crucial part of his success with military psyops,” writes Newitz. “Propaganda is, after all, a story we tell to win allies and frighten enemies. . . . Linebarger believed that words, properly deployed, were more powerful than bombs.”

Contemplating contemporary America, an irradiated hellscape cratered by the “ongoing psychological battles” that have “erupted around the economy, health care, schools, the courts, and in government at all levels,” Newitz decides “storytelling [is] to blame.” They excavate narrative’s historical role in psychological warfare, or psywar. First up: the journalist and pioneering propagandist Walter Lippmann’s creation, for the US War Department, of “millions of leaflets, dropped from airplanes like text bombs, intended to undermine the morale of German troops” during World War I. Next, we meet Edward Bernays, the founder of public relations and, not incidentally, Freud’s nephew, who instrumentalizes Freud’s theory that beneath our rational minds lies a shadowy iceberg of unconscious irrationalism. Bernays uses his uncle’s insights to sell newly enfranchised American women on the notion that cigarettes, hitherto deemed “unladylike,” should be brandished as “torches of freedom,” a bit of semiotic con-artistry that pleased his client, Lucky Strike, mightily.

Hopscotching backward in time to the Indian Wars, Newitz situates the “proto-psyops, brainwashing, and propaganda aimed at rewriting the history of North America” in the context of “an ideological war against Indigenous ways of life”—the nineteenth-century prelude to Governor Ron DeSantis’s whitewashing of the teaching of American history in Florida’s public schools. Doubling back to the present, Newitz does a postmortem on the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica’s use of social media platforms like Facebook to spread mis- and disinformation during the 2016 presidential election, helping Trump and his minions target “authoritarian personalities” whose “minds were vulnerable to fascist propaganda.” A source calls it “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.”

Military-style psyops and propaganda once reserved for America’s adversaries are now being used by far-right psywarriors, Newitz concludes, not only to manufacture consent for their radically antidemocratic agenda but to delegitimize the very idea of objective truth. The goal isn’t so much to persuade people as to disorient them or, as Russian psywar operatives like to call it, maskirovka—“baffling people with bullshit.” Under Putin, says Newitz, “government agencies flood social media with misinformation.” Russians “don’t trust their government; they don’t trust educators and scientists; and they don’t trust one another,” a US Army psyop instructor tells Newitz. America is beginning to look a lot like Putinland.

There are some curious lacunae in Stories. Despite repeatedly noting social media platforms’ dogged refusal to take psywar threats seriously, their dismissive if not openly hostile attitude toward their own watchdogs’ warnings, and their role as super-spreaders of ideological Ebola, Newitz dreams a hopeful dream of “skilled first responders at tech platforms . . . who can spot propaganda outbreaks” and contain them before they burn through the public mind. Newitz imagines “public and social media platforms [that] step in and stop influence operations before they infect the public sphere with confusion.”

Can anyone muster the suspension of disbelief required to indulge this fiction? Certainly not Newitz’s own interviewees, one of whom notes “with a grimace” that none of these reforms will happen without buy-in from our tech overlords. Anyone who has watched Zuckerberg in his neatly pressed human suit, serving up steaming helpings of maskirovka to congressional committees, knows the odds of him or any other social media CEO doing anything that cuts into their obscene profit margins are less than zero.

For a former columnist for Metro Silicon Valley and onetime member of the board of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Newitz is strangely silent on the science fictions spun by libertarian tech bros like Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and their fanboys in the breathless business press—pernicious myths whose free-market fundamentalism, implacable hostility to government, and devotion to profit maximization at any cost have played no small part in the privatization of the public sphere and the erosion of democracy.

Newitz’s last, best hope, in the book’s concluding chapter, “Public Spheres of the Future,” is . . . libraries. “When we immerse ourselves in the silence of the library, we learn the most fundamental defense against psyops. Our minds belong to us.” A consoling fiction. Meanwhile, in the world outside our heads, a superstorm of bullshit is headed our way.

Mark Dery is a cultural critic, essayist, and the author of four books, most recently, the biography Born To Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey. He has taught journalism at NYU and “dark aesthetics” at the Yale School of Art; been a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow at UC Irvine, a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome, and a fellow at Hawthornden Castle near Edinburgh; and published in a wide range of publications.

A new book by Annalee Newitz chronicles the use of storytelling as propagandistic tool.
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