Today's bit of weirdness26 Sep 2016
The recent Lawfare Podcast episode "Disrupting ISIS Recruitment Online" makes fascinating listening. It's a recording of a panel discussion consisting of two Google-affiliated companies that do targeted advertising aimed at, well, disrupting ISIS online recruitment, and the US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
It is, at first listen, profoundly weird to hear the jargon of online advertising applied to propaganda. (It's propaganda I agree with, but propaganda nonetheless.) But then I realized where I'd come across the idea before: Robert A. Heinlein's "If This Goes On --". Here's a quote:
'I'm in the Psych & Propaganda Bureau,' he told me, 'under Colonel Novak. Just now I'm writing a series of oh-so-respectful articles about the private life of the Prophet and his acolytes and attending priests, how many servants they have, how much it costs to run the Palace, all about the fancy ceremonies and rituals, and such junk. All of it perfectly true, of course, and told with unctuous approval. But I lay it on a shade too thick. The emphasis is on the jewels and the solid gold trappings and how much it all costs, and keep telling the yokels what a privilege it is for them to be permitted to pay for such frippery and how flattered they should feel that God's representative on earth lets them take care of him.'
'I guess I don't get it,' I said, frowning. 'People like that circusy stuff. Look at the way the tourists to New Jerusalem scramble for tickets to a Temple ceremony.'
'Sure, sure-but we don't peddle this stuff to people on a holiday to New Jerusalem; we syndicate it to little local papers in poor farming communities in the Mississippi Valley, and in the Deep South, and in the back country of New England. That is to say, we spread it among some of the poorest and most puritanical elements of the population, people who are emotionally convinced that poverty and virtue are the same thing. It grates on their nerves; in time it should soften them up and make doubters of them.'
'Do you seriously expect to start a rebellion with picayune stuff like that?'
'It's not picayune stuff, because it acts directly on their emotions, below the logical level. You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.. You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic. It doesn't have to be a prejudice about an important matter either. Johnnie, you savvy how to use connotation indices, don't you?'
'Well, yes and no. I know what they are; they are supposed to measure the emotional effects of words.'
'That's true, as far as it goes. But the index of a word isn't fixed like the twelve inches in a foot; it is a complex variable function depending on context, age and sex and occupation of the listener, the locale and a dozen other things. An index is a particular solution of the variable that tells you whether a particular word is used in a particular fashion to a particular reader or type of reader will affect that person favorably, unfavorably, or simply leave him cold. Given proper measurements of the group addressed it can be as mathematically exact as any branch of engineering. We never have all the data we need so it remains an art-but a very precise art, especially as we employ "feedback" through field sampling. Each article I do is a little more annoying than the last-and the reader never knows why.'
I'll leave my ambivalence about Lawfare for another day. For now: the podcast makes fascinating listening, and if you haven't read "If This Goes On--", I highly recommend it.