How Psychological Warfare Moved From Battlefields To Politics

17:13 minutes

A collage of newspaper, eyes, ears, and mouths that shows an abstraction of how lies spread.
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When you think about connections between science and war, the obvious links are in technology—advanced radar, spy satellites, more powerful explosives—and in medical innovations that seek to heal the wounds caused by conflict. But in a new book, Stories are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, author Annalee Newitz says that stories and narrative can be weapons too, used in battle on a psychological battlefield.

Ira talks with Newitz about the history of psychological warfare, from Sun Tzu to Benjamin Franklin, and its modern American incarnation under the guidance of Paul Linebarger, who was also a science fiction author known by the pen name Cordwainer Smith. They discuss the characteristics of a psyop, how techniques of psychological warfare have been co-opted into modern politics, and whether there’s a route toward “psychological disarmament.”

Read an excerpt from Stories are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind.

Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When we talk about war and conflict on this program, it’s often a technology story– faster planes, more resilient armor, powerful lasers or spy satellites. Or it’s a medicine story, how to help heal those devastated by warfare. But my next guest says that narrative and psychology are parts of that fabric, too.

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist based in San Francisco and author of the new book Stories Are Weapons, Psychological Warfare and the American Mind. Annalee, always great to talk to you.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, thanks again for having me back.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. All right, tell us what led you to write this book.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It really grew out of my interest in history. I had started noticing, of course, like all of us, that we are in the midst of a really difficult culture war here in the United States. And I started to get curious about where it was that culture war had come from. And I realized that one of the architects of it was actually a science fiction writer whose work I knew really well.

He wrote under the name Cordwainer Smith in the 1950s and ’60s. But in his other life, his name was Paul Linebarger, and he worked in military intelligence and wrote the very first army manual on psychological war. And as someone who writes science fiction and who’s interested in history and science, I had to know more.

And so I dove deeply into Linebarger’s life. I visited his archive at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, and I just discovered all of these really interesting connections between the way that storytellers manipulate our minds and manipulate our emotions and the actual doctrine that the military uses to create these psychological weapons to undermine our enemies in warfare.

IRA FLATOW: Can we define some terms? Let’s talk about some of them– misinformation, propaganda, psychological warfare. Tell us what they mean.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think the terms often get really confused. So psychological warfare is specifically launched by a military, a state power, or a non-state actor. And a PSYOP, a psychological operation, is kind of the smallest unit of psychological warfare. And this is a message that is intended to traumatize or harm the enemy by undermining morale or by confusing them.

And ultimately, the goal of a PSYOP is always to get an adversary to surrender in a warfare situation. And today we’ve seen a tremendous, what I would call a weapons transfer program that really gets started during the Cold War, where a lot of these military psychological weapons start getting used in domestic cultural conflicts.

And that’s when you start to see things like misinformation being propagated for political purposes, essentially lies that serve a particular political purpose. And you start to see propaganda being used, oftentimes by US politicians and leaders against Americans, which goes against military doctrine. A PSYOP is only supposed to be used against a foreign adversary. So once it spills over into the domestic space, then you start entering into weirder territory.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because that implies that we’re seeing each other as foreign adversaries. I mean, things are so polarized.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. And I think that’s one of the ways that we’ve kind of lost sight of the point of our public sphere, our domestic public sphere, where we debate and discuss and argue over all kinds of political issues, from climate change to how we handle pandemics. And when we start transferring PSYOPs into that public sphere, we can no longer have conversations as a democratic nation. We start, as you say, treating each other like foreign adversaries. And it shuts conversation down.

IRA FLATOW: When you were talking before, I was reminded that this is really not a new phenomenon. I mean, Sun Tzu’s Art of War is full of it, isn’t it?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. I mean, this is certainly something that goes way back to our earliest recorded descriptions of war. Irregular warfare or simply trickery in war is super common as a strategy. But in the United States, we have a really specific brand of PSYOPs that really grows out of the 19th century wars that the US government was making on hundreds of Indigenous tribes in the West, as the nation kind of expanded outward from its original shape.

And what we see is this really specific pattern of the US military using a combination of science– sometimes it’s psychology, sometimes it’s anthropology in the 19th century– and using pop culture. You just see a ton of effort being put into making these propaganda messages, these PSYOPs, essentially fun.

And that was one of the reasons why Paul Linebarger, who, of course, lived a double life as a science fiction writer and a PSYOP crafter, why he was so important because he was one of the folks who said, listen, we have to learn from movies. We have to learn from popular books, how to make America just sound really cool, and get our enemies to come over to our side because we’re just awesome.

And in the 19th century, where this starts, really, is with James Fenimore Cooper’s incredibly popular novel, The Last of the Mohicans, which spreads this cultural idea, this PSYOP, that Indigenous tribes are dying out. Now, if you were to show this book to the many Mohicans who are still alive and hanging out today, they would say, no, there is no last Mohican. It hasn’t happened yet.

But that was a very powerful meme at the time, and it really helped the US government justify expansion into the West by saying, well, listen, you guys all read Last of the Mohicans. You know that these guys are just about to die out. So we might as well just go ahead and take their land.

IRA FLATOW: One person who wasn’t fooled was Mark Twain. As a reviewer, he took that book apart. I remember reading his review of The Last of the Mohicans.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Good for him, yeah.


IRA FLATOW: But when you’re talking about fun, that’s really interesting because when I think of fun and propaganda, I’m thinking of advertising, right? I mean, that’s what the whole point is to get you to buy a product. This thing is fun. It’s going to help you, you know? Buy an idea, an emotion.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right. And you really nailed it because advertising is another huge influence on psychological war in the United States. That’s one of our big innovations as a country. And several of the people in the early 20th century who are basically creating the professional field of public relations and advertising are also very involved in military intelligence operations.

So a great example is Edward Bernays, who was one of the very first public relations experts. He was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, and he loved using psychology in his work. And he also, in the 1950s, worked with the CIA to help overthrow the leftist leaders in Guatemala. So he kind of divided his time between advertising bananas, which was one of his big areas of interest, and trying to overthrow governments or advocate on behalf of governments using advertising.

And so by the time the military is codifying what it means to create a PSYOP, when Paul Linebarger is writing his book, advertising is the model. The military talks about finding a target audience in the same way that advertisers talk about finding a target market. And the point is, again, to make the PSYOPs fun and engaging. And it’s a huge aspect of American policy to do this.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm, but are there any common techniques, no matter what the topic, to create an “us versus them” situation? Is there like a textbook to tell you how to do this?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: [LAUGHS] In fact, there is.

IRA FLATOW: There is?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: There actually, of course, is. There are many textbooks in the military on creating PSYOPs. And there’s really two ingredients that make a PSYOP. One is that it includes lies. It often has a kernel of truth somewhere. A really effective PSYOP always has a little bit of truth that’s been decontextualized or recontextualized so that it provides a message that is beneficial to the sender and can undermine the enemy.

The other thing that’s really important to know about PSYOPs is they almost always include violent threats. And this is how you can always tell the difference in a culture war when we’re talking about domestic debates, when one side of that argument is something like, those people over there shouldn’t exist. Those people should be rounded up. Those people are criminals. Any time that message goes along with a political idea, you’re in the realm of PSYOPs because all of those things are violent threats.

IRA FLATOW: It’s scary to hear that because we’re sort of living through that today with the political climate we have.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: We absolutely are. And this is one of the reasons I wrote the book, was I wanted people to understand that when someone comes at you with that kind of comment, it’s not the opening stage in a debate. It is a weapon. They’re delivering weaponized messages that can’t be met with rational responses. We have to change the conversation.

We have to say, no, we’re not going to talk about how we’re going to beat each other up anymore. We’re going to start a new conversation where we say, well, what do we each want out of this situation? What do we want from the future of America? And not talk about who we want dead and who we want in jail, but just, where are we going next? Can we please start discussing that?

IRA FLATOW: Back in the day– and I’m a child of the ’60s– I used to listen on my shortwave radio to Radio Moscow, and I was trying to figure out what was real and what was made up. And it was very hard to do that. I mean, sometimes it can be very, very personal and, like you say, violent, but sometimes it can be really subtle, can it?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It can be really subtle. And one of the things that a number of the experts I talked to pointed out is that the Russian style of PSYOP at the time you were listening, the Soviet style, really is to flood the zone with chaos. So there’s so many messages that are untrustworthy that you never really know what’s going on. And that is a way of pacifying people and undermining their sense of what’s real.

And that’s something that’s now been imported into the United states, too. And we see that a lot. One of the things that’s happening right now on social media with the flood of AI-generated messages is that no one’s really sure if they’re talking to a person or a bot or if the image they’re seeing is real or invented. And so we’re kind of– again, this is a way in which the American people are throwing PSYOPs at each other’s heads.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You mentioned Cordwainer Smith. There’s this interesting line throughout the book about connections and parallels between popular science fiction and propaganda operations, and part of it ties into the idea of world building. Having a believable world can help create a reality. Tell us about that.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, one of the things that you see a lot, especially in PSYOPs after the Cold War that have really been influenced by Cordwainer Smith, but a lot of other science fiction writers who also have been involved in military intelligence, is that when we create these pieces of propaganda, we try to make them as realistic as possible, using the tools of storytelling that science fiction writers often deploy.

So when you’re watching, say, a Star Wars movie, one of the things that makes it really immersive is that you have characters speaking different languages. You have spaceships that aren’t just big blobs in the sky, but actually have nuts and bolts and all kinds of little details that really make us feel like there’s a kind of technological or scientific plausibility there– I mean, if you ignore the FTL and the Midichlorians and all of that.

But part of worldbuilding is to create a world where people feel like the fiction is real, and that is an incredibly powerful tool for PSYOPs and propaganda. What you want is for your adversary to start believing your message. And there’s all kinds of ways that this can be done. It’s obviously very easy now online to create all kinds of fictional images and movies and messages that feel very real.

But back in World War II, there were very simple ways that this kind of thing was pulled off. There’s a great PSYOP that Linebarger talks about in his work, where the Japanese dropped leaflets on Americans who were in the Philippines, and the leaflets were supposed to be from the US Army. So it was a black propaganda pretending to be coming from their adversary. And it just said “Warning– venomous snakes rampant in jungles.”

And so US soldiers who were getting these leaflets thought that the army was warning them that they were about to walk into a jungle full of deadly snakes. And if they brought that leaflet to their commanding officer and said, what the heck is this, the officer would deny it because, of course, it hadn’t come from the military.

So it was a perfect way to create a conspiracy theory. Even though it was just a simple slip of paper, it was so evocative. It was like, oh, my gosh, this came from us. This is about a real threat because there really are some snakes there. It would undermine morale. It would create confusion. So anything that you can make sound plausible and really immerse your target audience in a story, that’s going to work great as a PSYOP.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about if stories are weapons, are there any shields? Are there any bulletproof vests that we might adopt?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s a great question, and that’s a huge part of what I investigated in this book. What are the ways that we can create new kinds of stories? How do we change the conversation away from throwing weapons at each other to offering ideas?

Historically, we’ve seen lots of examples of ways that people pushed back against a psychological warfare. In the 19th century, Indigenous nations in the West became fascinated by the ghost dance, which was a social movement. It was spiritual and political.

And it was a way to gather together confederacies of tribes, to sing and dance and tell stories about what America would look like without white settlers. It was a change of conversation. It wasn’t responding to the military. It was saying, no, we’re going to tell our own story based on our own traditions about a future we would like to see.

And then later in the 20th century, in a completely different context, you had a psychologist writing a comic book called Wonder Woman, which he intended as a PSYOP. He actually said that he wanted to create, basically, a feminist psyop, a kind of culture bomb–


ANNALEE NEWITZ: –that would push back against sexist stories about women. And so Wonder Woman became this really powerful story embraced by feminists, who told a tale of female triumph and autonomy at a time when women were being really discouraged from joining the political sphere or the public sphere.

So we know that people living in the United States have come up with alternative stories, and people are still doing that now. We’re telling stories about our communities. We’re telling stories about science. We are insisting on the fact that we deserve to be alive, and we deserve to be out of jail. And we should continue doing that. The whole goal is, put more stories out there that can raise morale and give people hope that we can reach an end to the culture war, that we can reach disarmament.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great to hear, Annalee. It’s always a pleasure to have you on our radio program.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Always happy to be here. Thanks so much.

IRA FLATOW: Annalee Newitz, science journalist based in San Francisco, author of the new book Stories Are Weapons, Psychological Warfare and the American Mind. It’s a great book. I suggest you go out and get a copy. And you can read an excerpt of the book at sciencefriday.com/propaganda.

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