32 Tips For Navigating A Society Full Of Propaganda And Manipulation
For as long as there has been human language, humans have been using it to manipulate one another. The fact that it is possible to skillfully weave a collection of symbolic mouth noises together in such a way as to extract favors, concessions, votes and consent from other humans has made manipulation so common that it now pervades our society from top to bottom, from personal relationships between two people to international relationships between government agencies and the public.
This has made it very difficult to figure out what’s going on, both in our lives and in the world. Here are some tips for navigating this complex manipulation-laden landscape, whether that be the manipulations you may encounter in your small-scale personal interactions or the large-scale manipulations which impact the entire world:
1 — Understand the fact that humans are storytelling animals, and that whoever controls the stories controls the humans. Mental narrative dominates human consciousness; thought is essentially one continuous, churning monologue about the self and what it reckons is going on in its world, and that monologue is composed entirely of mental stories. These stories can and will be manipulated, on an individual scale by people we encounter and on a mass scale by skillful propagandists. We base our actions on our mental assessments of what’s going on in the world, and those mental assessments can be manipulated by narrative control.
2 — Be humble and open enough to know that you can be fooled. Your cognitive wiring is susceptible the same hacks as everyone else, and manipulators of all sorts are always looking to exploit those vulnerabilities. It’s not shameful to be deceived, it’s shameful to deceive people. Don’t let shame and cognitive dissonance keep you compartmentalized away from considering the possibility that you’ve been duped in some way.
3 — Watch people’s behavior and ignore the stories they tell about their behavior. This applies to people in your life, to politicians, and to governments. Narratives can be easily manipulated and distorted in many different ways, while behavior itself, when examined with as much objectivity as possible, cannot be. Pay attention to behavior in this way and eventually you’ll start noticing a large gap between what some people’s actions say and what their words say. Those people are the manipulators. Distrust them.
4 — Be suspicious of people who keep telling you what they are and how they are, because they’re trying to manipulate your narrative about them. Be doubly suspicious of people who keep telling you what you are and how you are, because they’re trying to manipulate your narrative about you.
5 — Learn to see how trust and sympathy are used by manipulators to trick people into subscribing to their narratives about what’s going on. Every manipulator uses trust and/or sympathy as a primer for their manipulations, because if you don’t have trust or sympathy for them, you’re not going to mentally subscribe to their stories. This is true of mass media outlets, it’s true of State Department press releases which implore you to have sympathy for the people of Nation X, and it’s true of family members and coworkers. Once you’ve spotted a manipulator, your task is to kill off all of your sympathy for them and your trust in them, no matter how hard they start playing the victim to suck you back in.
6 — Be suspicious of anyone who refuses to articulate themselves clearly. Word salading is a tactic notoriously used by abusive narcissists, because it keeps the victim confused and unable to figure out what’s going on. If they can’t get a clear handle on what the manipulative abuser is saying, they can’t form their own solid position in relation to it, and the abuser knows this. Insist on lucid communication, and if it’s refused to you, remove trust and sympathy. Apply this to people in your life, to government officials, and to 8chan propaganda constructs.
7 — Familiarize yourself with cognitive biases, the glitches in human cognition which cause us to perceive things in a way that is not rational. Pay special attention to confirmation bias, the backfire effect, and the illusory truth effect. Humans have an annoying tendency to seek out cognitive ease in their information-gathering and avoid cognitive dissonance, rather than seeking out what’s true regardless of whether it brings us cognitive ease or dissonance. This means we tend to choose what we believe based on whether believing it is psychologically comfortable, rather than whether it’s solidly backed by facts and evidence. This is a weakness in our cognitive wiring, and manipulators can and do exploit it constantly. And, again, be humble enough to know that this means you.
8 — Trust your own understanding above anyone else’s. It might not be perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than letting your understanding be controlled by narrative managers and dopey partisan groupthink, or by literally anyone else in a narrative landscape that is saturated with propaganda and manipulation. You won’t get everything right, but betting on your own understanding is the very safest bet on the table. It can be intimidating to stand alone and sort out the true from the false by yourself on an instance-by-instance basis, but the alternative is giving someone else authority over your understanding of the world. Abdicating your responsibility to come to a clear understanding of what’s going on in your world is a shameful, cowardly thing to do. Be brave enough to insist that you are right until such time as you yourself come to your own understanding that you were wrong.
9 — Understand that propaganda is the single most overlooked and under-appreciated aspect of our society. Everyone’s constantly talking about what’s wrong with the world, but hardly any of those discussions are centered around the fact that the public been manipulated into supporting the creation and continuation of those problems by mass media propaganda. The fact that powerful people are constantly manipulating the way we think, act and vote should be at the forefront of everyone’s awareness, not relegated to occasional discussions in fringe circles.
10 — Respect the fact that the science of modern propaganda has been in research and development for over a century. Think of all the military advancements that have been made in the last century to get an idea of how sophisticated this science must now be. They are far, far ahead of us in terms of research and understanding of the methods of manipulating the human psyche toward ends which benefit the powerful. If you ever doubt that the narrative managers could be advanced and cunning enough to pull off a given manipulation, you can lay that particular doubt to rest. Don’t underestimate them.
11 — Understand that western mass media propaganda rarely consists of full, outright lies. At most, such outlets will credulously publish the things that are told to them by government agencies which lie all the time. More often, the deception comes in the form of distortions, half-truths, and omissions. Pay more attention to discrepancies in things that are covered versus things that aren’t, and to what they’re not saying.
12 — Put effort into developing a good news-sense, a sense for what’s newsworthy and what’s not. This takes time and practice, but it lets you see which newsworthy stories are going unreported by the mass media and which non-stories are being overblown to shape an establishment-friendly narrative. When you’ve got that nailed down, you’ll notice “Why are they acting like this is a news story?” and “Why is nobody reporting this??” stories all the time.
13 — Be patient and compassionate with yourself when it comes to developing your narrative navigating skills. Like literally any skill set, you’ll suck at it for a while. If you learn you’ve been wrong about something, just take in the new information, adjust appropriately, and keep plugging away. Don’t expect to have mastered this thing before you’ve had time to master it. Like anything else, if you put in the hours you’ll get good at it.
14 — Find reliable news reporters who have a good sense for navigating the narrative matrix, and keep track of them to orient yourself and stay on top of what’s going on. Use individual reporters, not outlets; no outlet is 100 percent solid, but some reporters are pretty close on some specific subjects. Click this hyperlink for an article on one way to do build a customized and reliable news stream. Click this hyperlink for a list of all my favorite news reporters on Twitter right now.
15 — Don’t let paranoia be your primary or only tool for navigating the narrative matrix. Some people’s only means of understanding the world is to become intensely suspicious of everything and everyone, which is about as useful as a compass which tells you that every direction is north. Spend time in conspiracy and media criticism circles and you’ll run into many such people. Rejecting everything as false leaves you with nothing as true. Find positive tools for learning what’s true.
16 — Hold your worldview loosely enough that you can change it at any time in the light of new information, but not so loosely that it can be slapped out of your head by someone telling you what to think in a confident, authoritative tone. As Carl Sagan once said, “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”
17 — Speaking of confident, authoritative tones, be suspicious of confident, authoritative tones. It’s amazing how much traction people can get with a narrative just by posturing as though they know that what they’re saying is true, whether they’re an MSNBC pundit or a popular conspiracy Youtuber. So many people are just plain faking it, because it works. You run into this all the time in debates on online political forums; people come at you with a supremely confident posture, but if you push them to present their knowledge on the subject and the strength of their arguments, there’s not actually anything there. They’re just accustomed to people assuming they know what they’re talking about and leaving their claims unchallenged, and it completely throws them off when someone doesn’t buy their feigned confidence schtick.
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