Also the blog post which could have been titled: “You won’t believe what the Internet is doing to your brain!”
Or maybe: “10 Ways Blogs Are Destroying Politics As We Know It.”
I bet those kinds of titles are all too familiar to the average reader. They’re the hallmark of clickbait, blog posts which are designed, psychologically speaking, to reflexively rouse curiosity, anger or awe – the three trigger emotions which are most associated with sharing posts. Shared enough times, a post becomes viral. Viral posts generate ad revenue for bloggers, so bloggers have a concrete incentive to write clickbait.
And, much like the cigarette advertisers of the 1970s and 1980s, they have psychological manipulation down to a fine art.
It was only a matter of time before interested parties caught on to the propaganda potential of the Internet in its current form. Political parties, activist groups… anyone with the potential to hire people like Edward Bernays, considered to be the founding father of P.R – or ‘manufactured consent’. They don’t call P.R that any more, naturally – it smacks of manipulation, and that would be… well, bad P.R.
Bernays, in the opening of his book Propaganda, writes: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
One of the most recent manifestations of this propaganda machine is clickbait. As Ryan Holiday covers in his rather amazing book Trust Me, I’m Lying, the Internet – and blogs, in particular – is the ultimate propaganda platform. Anyone can say anything, as much as they want, in ways that are visually stimulating, in mediums that arrest and compel, and they don’t have to be true to be convincing… editing, spin, even fake videos are used to build up and destroy people and organizations. Planned Parenthood, for example: Planned Parenthood is a reoccurring target of the political Right, and is currently in the media after doctored videos purporting to show them selling ‘chopped up baby parts’ were published online. Of course they don’t do this – but even though the videos are fakes, they are emotionally stimulating and they conform to the beliefs of people who really really want Planned Parenthood’s baby part black market to be real, so that they can continue to be angry and offended and justified in those beliefs.
P.R originated in the USA, and it is the USA that really suffers the brunt of clickbait, to the point now where the next U.S election almost certainly rests on the success of bullshit posted online. Left, Right, Fringe… it doesn’t matter. There’s so much convincing propo and so many talented marketers, busy-bee bloggers aspiring for moments of viral fame, and corporate (and not-for-profit) hounds pulling the strings that stunts will win out over policies, if everyone tweets about it enough.
The scary thing? We know this happens. We know we’re vulnerable to this. But no one stops it, and no one stops themselves from reacting.
I’m not American, but I worry about the next U.S election. The rise of the Internet propaganda machine has contributed to a sharp increase in extremist positions. When I was a teenager, the mantra on 4chan was that the Internets were not serious business, that anything you did online stayed online and didn’t translate to your ‘IRL’ persona. This is increasingly tenuous. The Internet is having very real consequences on politics and the public mind, contributing to a fanatical frenzy at both ends of the political spectrum, on people whose entire worldview is shaped by blog-based propaganda.
The regimes of the past could only have dreamed of a system like this. Not only are people still as receptive to bullshit as they ever were, they can now access free sources which exclusively feed their cultured worldview, however bizarre or contradictory that worldview is. We are seeing people increasingly focused in on their extreme point of view, hostile and hurt by exposure to ideas that they don’t agree with.
In other words, we are the self-perpetuating propaganda machine: the Facebook memers, the #hashtaggers, the Imgurians.
Edward Bernays said: “Small groups of persons can, and do, make the rest of us think what they please about a given subject.” But when it is a mass of /b/tards or Stormfronters or David Icke’s true believers, those groups are no longer small.
I don’t think even Edward Bernays saw this one coming.