• Andrew Johnston

Censorship, Propaganda and Storytelling as Mind Control

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

While I've been sitting here, waiting for the government's digital vivisectionists to turn the internet loose, I've had ample time to ponder the nature of information and attempts to control it. Mostly, I've been trying to figure out why any of this is necessary. Not in some above-the-fray moralistic way, mind you, but in a much more practical sense. Why would any sophisticated authoritarian body rest so much of its control on such a clumsy, antiquated tool when it has access to far more elegant techniques?

There's nothing new about censorship, especially here. The First Emperor's campaign against Confucianism - now known as the "Burning of Books and the Burying of Scholars" - was, if not the first instance of book burning in history, certainly the first of its scale. Ever since, there's been a simple understanding among despots the world over - if an idea threatens your order, then you can block that idea from public view.

I'm saying "ideas," but a better term might be narratives. Contrary to popular reckoning, the facts never speak for themselves - a fact can't say anything other than its own name. A fact gains meaning when it is linked to other facts and these links are interpreted. This is the narrative, and it's how humans think about nearly everything in life. We tell ourselves stories to understand how the world works.

Censorship is one approach to a dangerous narrative, and has been a favorite for thousands of years. The most direct approach is to destroy the facts that comprise that narrative. It's easily done, but isn't terribly stable. After all, you can't destroy a fact, only cover it up - and if your subjects uncover an inconvenient fact, they're going to be all the more suspicious of why you spent such effort hiding it.

There's a second type of censorship, one that's much more subtle - narrative control. You leave the facts where they are and instead seize control of the story that makes it so dangerous. Governments have a long history of this as well, but most historical rulers did nothing more than exploit traditional narratives that were already there - mostly those relying on in-groups built around common factors such as culture, religion, ethnicity or nationality. However, the more sophisticated tyrants of the modern age have tools and techniques to truly master narrative, to shape it or even create a new one from nothing.

If a government wishes to master the narrative, they have a number of approaches. Censorship can be part of it - it's easier to tell a story if information that contradicts your story is invisible. At the other end, a narrative may be propagated through disinformation, the fabrication of false facts. The beauty of this tactic, though, is that neither of this tricks is required. You can master the narrative without resorting to such naked subterfuge - all you really need are some basic storytelling skills and knowledge of history and psychology.

I'm describing what's usually called propaganda. To most, it's just a snarl word for any narrative that contradicts our own - but then, it's never been an especially well-defined term. We know propaganda when we see it, or so we tell ourselves. Part of our own prevailing narrative in the West is that we're too rational and worldly to fall for propaganda. It's this thinking that makes us vulnerable to it.

Propaganda is not merely related to censorship, but is an extension of the same. What we usually call "censorship" is perhaps best termed external censorship, an attempt to master the social narrative through some tangible means - whether that's a lit torch or a DNS poisoning routine. Propaganda is internal censorship. Properly executed propaganda creates a "censor" inside the subject's mind, and this is far harder to dislodge.

The effect of this internal censor is such that external censorship becomes unnecessary. Earnest belief is resistant to things as feeble as persuasion or rationalism. If a person buys into the dominant narrative, and he is exposed to information that would tend to support an alternative narrative, then he's not going to change his mind. He'll resort to a handful of tactics - he might create a counter-narrative that explains the fact away, or question the veracity of the fact, or ignore the fact and launch accusations at the person who raised it, or perhaps all three in sequence. What's more, the internal censor will drive him to prefer information that confirms the narrative and avoid other narratives entirely - he creates his own form of external censorship without government action.

I've observed this dynamic firsthand...but so have you, I'd wager. No doubt you've been thinking about it as I've been describing it. Storytelling is a kind of mind control, and the only counter is the story we tell ourselves. You've probably been thinking of your nutjob neighbor and his deranged beliefs. It's unlikely you saw any of your friends and well-wishers in here. You definitely didn't see yourself.

Thus, we see the power of internal censorship and its many advantages over external censorship. Propaganda is weightless, invisible and durable. It is self-sustaining and self-propagating. It makes no demands of its hosts and, thus, is at home in any society. And no one wants to believe that he is vulnerable to its effects, which only makes it more effective.

This is the future of tyranny - and it's what makes so much of dystopian literature so comical. Dystopian writers exhibit a common lack of creativity in that they all assume that authoritarianism will look the same in the future as it did in the past. They posit some brute force despotism, perhaps with some high-tech flair but still ultimately rule by the club. But the truth is that dictators of the future may not have to rely solely on force, and whatever scientific refinements they may have, their core technique will be the oldest one in the world:

They'll tell you a story, and you'll believe it because you want to.

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