Propaganda and Right-Wing Extremism
In Adorno’s Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism, there is an examination of the appeal and continuation of the “new right” (for Adorno, the rise of the National Democratic Party of Germany and its influence some 20 years after WWII). Adorno gave this lecture in 1967 to the Socialist Students of Austria at the University of Vienna. Adorno noted that his analysis here is just one interpretation, not meant to invalidate other interpretations but to add to them (4). His lecture continues to resonate today, particularly in light of America’s media/social media situation. It is undoubtedly worth reading to spot some relevant implications.
Adorno begins this lecture by restating his thesis from his 1959 lecture, “The Meaning of Working through the Past”:
…the reason for right-wing extremism, or the potential for such a right-wing extremism…is that the social conditions for fascism continue to exist…[and] despite the collapse of fascism itself, the conditions for fascist movements are still socially, if not politically, present (4).
He situates this problem in terms of the “concentration of capital,” and this “tendency towards concentration still creates the possibility of constantly downgrading strata of society that were clearly bourgeois in terms of their subjective class consciousness and…cling to, and possibly reinforce, their privileges and social status” (4). As such, these groups “tend towards a hatred of socialism, or what they call socialism; that is, they lay the blame for their own potential downgrading not on the apparatus that causes it, but on those who were critical towards the system in which they once had a status…” (4).
Again, Adorno’s interpretation should not preclude a deep analysis of other structures underlying such movements, but this loss of status is one of the motivating factors behind the rise of right-wing “grievances.” Their perceived cultural displacement gives rise to a “typical socio-psychological symptom,” the wanting of “catastrophe” (4). The desire for disaster or catastrophe attributed here is no mere attempt at psychologizing:
I am speaking especially to those of you who are rightly sceptical about any merely psychological interpretation of social and political phenomena – that this behaviour is by no means purely psychologically motivated; it also has an objective basis. Someone who is unable to see anything ahead of them and does not want the social foundation to change really has no alternative but, like Richard Wagner’s Wotan, to say, ‘Do you know what Wotan wants? The end.’ This person, from the perspective of their own social situation, longs for demise – though not the demise of their own group, as far as possible, the demise of all (8).
Adorno also attributes to these right-wing movements a general lack of intellectual rigor and developed theory. However, this does not make them ineffective–nor should one underestimate them because of this lack:
One should not underestimate these movements on account of their low intellectual level and lack of theory. I think it would show a very weak political eye if one concluded from this that they are unsuccessful. Rather, what characterizes these movements is an extraordinary perfection of certain methods, first of all of propagandist methods in the broadest sense, combined with the blindness, indeed abstruseness, of the aims they pursue. And I think that precisely this constellation of rational means and irrational ends, if I can put it in such a simplified form, in a sense corresponds to the overall tendency of civilization, which leads to such a perfection of techniques and means while the overall social purpose falls by the wayside. The ingenuity of the propaganda used by these parties and movements is that it balances out the difference, the unquestionable difference between the real interests and the fraudulent aims they espouse. It is the very substance of the matter, just as it was with the Nazis. When the means increasingly become substitutes for aims, one can almost say that, in these extreme right-wing movements, propaganda actually constitutes the substance of politics. And it is no coincidence that the so-called leaders of German National Socialism, the likes of Hitler and Goebbels, were first and foremost propagandists, and that their productivity and imagination went into propaganda (9-10).
Additionally, these propagandists create imagined enemies for their adherents:
There is a whole array of designated enemies. One of these is the imago of the communist…Communism has been reduced to a bugbear. One factor in this – as another bugbear – is the concept of materialism, though people confuse, in a very primitive fashion, the materialism of the pursuit of profit and the interest in material advantages with the materialist theory of history, thus behaving as if those who want to change this system were nothing but vulgar materialists who simply want more…Then another bête noire, of course – as long as one cannot be openly anti-Semitic and as long as one cannot murder the Jews, because that has already happened – consists of the intellectuals, who are especially hated. The phrase ‘left-wing intellectual’ is another one of these bugbears…Obviously, in spite of everything, anti-Semitism continues to be a ‘plank of the platform’. It outlived the Jews, one might say, and that is the source of its own ghostly nature. In particular, feelings of guilt are fended off by rationalization: ‘There must be something in it, otherwise they wouldn’t have killed them.’ Now, of course, there has been official legislation to make these things taboo. But even the taboo about mentioning the Jews becomes a means of anti-Semitic incitement, with a wink and a nudge: ‘We’re not allowed to say it, but we understand each other. We all know what we mean.’ And, in this technique of allusion, the mere mention of a Jewish name is already sufficient to create certain effects (12-14).
The characterization of the “enemy” is hard to miss in our social-mediascape: the code words, the literal and metaphorical “winking,” are all too insidious. One need only think about the term “globalists” to find shivers running down one’s spine at Adorno’s all-too-close-to-home assessment. The law of the land, then as now, has certain (albeit limited) guardrails in place, so it cannot fully express itself; and, so, this aforementioned ideology has two characteristics of conflict: the complaint of not being able to say something and incitement:
So, as far as this ideology goes, the law prevents it from expressing itself fully. One might say that all ideological expressions of right-wing extremism are characterized by a constant conflict between not being allowed to say something and those things that…are intended to bring audiences to boiling point… (15).
Given recent trends in and around right-wing media, the complaint of “not being able to say something” looms large. As a “frivolous” example, but one that displays the deep-seated nature of this dangerous problem, one need only look at the recent Gina Carano firing to see this played out in the ways Adorno notes here: a bald complaint about being censured for clear anti-Semitic postings and a “wink and nod” of anti-Semitic tropes to and by followers.
And, as the recent case par excellence, we have all the explicit components present in the 1/6 attack as an example of Adorno’s incitement claim.
If one can get adherents to focus on the propaganda as the “matter itself,” then one does not need a coherent theory. One can work with a “conceptless praxis”:
A fundamental aspect of this ideology is its fragmentary nature. Many ‘planks’ such as the eastward expansion, imperialism in the true sense, have fallen away willy-nilly. The prospect of ‘tomorrow the whole world’ is completely absent, which gives the whole thing rather a lack of impetus and makes it rely more on desperation than was subliminally the case in National Socialism. But let me say again that there was never a truly, fully developed theory in fascism; it was always implied that what mattered was power, conceptless praxis and, ultimately, unconditional domination, and that spirit of the kind that expresses itself in theory was secondary by comparison. And that in turn gave these movements an ideological flexibility, of course, that can be observed so widely. This is also part of the Zeitgeist: the predominance of a conceptless praxis, which also has consequences for propaganda (16).
Again, we do not need a focused ideology. What we need is to have adherents focused on the propaganda itself. There need be no specificity in what one promises–it can be, as noted above, fragmentary:
This propaganda is less concerned with the dissemination of an ideology which, as I told you, is too thin to draw in the masses. So propaganda here is primarily a technique of mass psychology. It is based on the model of the authority-bound personality, in the same way today as in the time of Hitler or in the movements of the ‘lunatic fringe’ in America or anywhere else. The unity lies in this appeal to the authority-bound personality. One hears time and again that these movements all promise something, and that is true as a characteristic of the lack of theory. But it is false in the sense that there is a very specific, emphatic unity in this appeal to the authority-bound character. You will never find a single utterance that does not correspond to the schema of the authority-bound personality. And if one uncovers this structure of the appeal to the authority-bound personality, this truly sends the right-wing extremists into a rage, and I think this constitutes a degree of proof that one has struck a sore point in this structure. So the unconscious tendencies that feed the authority-bound personality are not brought to light by this propaganda; on the contrary, they are forced even deeper into the unconscious; they are kept artificially unconscious. Consider the excessive significance of so-called symbols that characterizes all these movements (17).
One need not accept the whole psychology put forward by Adorno (et alia) to detect a general trend toward authoritarian acceptance in right-wing thinking, and one could look to recent studies in the emerging field of political neuroscience (with all appropriate caveats and qualifiers) showing particular brain activity (e.g., “lighting up” of right amygdalas), preferences, or just self-identification. Of course, Adorno warned that the right-wing adherent would not accept such psychological findings or analysis. For psychoanalysis is
hated most of all…the fear that the unconscious will become conscious, and the authoritarian character, which form a kind of syndrome together. This propaganda technique rests on both certain formal traits and varyingly isolated individual topics. It has long been my conviction…that there are a relatively small number of recurring, standardized and completely objectified tricks that are very poor and thin in themselves yet, by being constantly repeated, gain a certain propagandist value for these movements (17-18).
The mere repetition of these “poor” and “thin” tricks is enough to give them force. The repetition of “poor” and “thin” tricks is not difficult to identify in our own media landscape, and they expand and become like the feathered pillow metaphor–release those feathers to the wind, and one will never be able to gather and return them to their case. So, what should we do? Of course, Adorno has a strong suggestion:
I am aware that right-wing extremism is not a psychological and ideological problem but a very real and political one. Yet the factually wrong, untrue nature of its own substance forces it to operate with ideological means, which in this case take the form of propagandist means. And that is why, aside from the political struggle by purely political means, one must confront it on its very own turf. But we must not fight lies with lies, we must not try to be just as clever as it is, but we must counteract it with the full force of reason, with the genuinely unideological truth (22).
Adorno’s fitting analysis of the “tricks” of propaganda is readily apparent. But does this last suggestion still apply in our media landscape? Where the lie travels faster and farther than the truth? Where the truth is buried under more mountains of lies? It is easy to say, “truth will out,” but can this approach “do in” the “tricks” of relentless propaganda? What happens when the so-called “custodians of truth” fail us? What do we do with the democratization of voices in the various media publishing platforms? Certainly, this democratization can be a welcomed and good thing, but what of its dangers, as we have seen all too clearly in the last few years? There have been moves by social media companies to mitigate these influences (such as de-platforming). However, they have come up “too little, too late” far too often. They also give far too much power to the platforms and rely dangerously on self-regulation. What do we do about algorithms, micro-targeting, trolls, shit-posting, etc.?
There have been helpful popular guides produced to limit propaganda’s dangers (and the media’s complicity with it). For example, The Citizen’s Agenda (https://pages.wearehearken.com/hubfs/Citizens%20Agenda%20Guide.pdf) is an attempt to help journalists navigate these waters during campaign coverage. Also, there have been critical guides for individuals analyzing reasoning and reception: e.g., The Thinker’s Guide (https://www.criticalthinking.org/TGS_files/SAM-MediaBias.pdf), A Field Guide to Fake News (https://firstdraftnews.org/project/field-guide-fake-news/), On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt, and Calling Bullshit (https://www.callingbullshit.org). This is not to mention numerous other books on media literacy and critical thinking–as well as courses (open source or otherwise) dealing with these issues.
However, there is skepticism about the reach of such projects and their usefulness regarding changing people’s minds, which brings in far too much for us to analyze here–e.g., brain science, social science, psychology, and more. But as just one example of the science of changing minds, we can look to notions of finding underlying values. Some scholars, such as Dr. Tali Sharot, note that bringing “facts” to an argument is not necessarily the way to get someone to change positions. Bringing “cold, hard facts” tends to make people entrench and retreat. We need to find the value of the issue at hand, and once we can find an underlying value that resonates with our interlocuter, we are more likely to persuade that person to listen to our position. You can find a short video on Big Think with Dr. Sharot talking about these issues here:
Another informative source on newer forms of propaganda is from Daniel Harvey. His Medium article details important strategies used by propagandists. There is also a video presentation of this article here:
In the article, Harvey begins with Henry Kissinger and his idea of “constructive ambiguity”: the employment of weasel words, of fudging issues to save face, while not accomplishing anything.
We next encounter Reagan’s “perception management.” Here we have the creation of simplistic narratives in order to have the electorate “buy in” to aggressive policies.
Following this is Karl Rove and his notion of “reality based communities.” Harvey quotes journalist Ron Suskind describing this approach:
Rove said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’
Next up is Vladislav Surkov, an operative of Putin’s propaganda wing, and the idea of “non-linear warfare.” Harvey notes that Surkov is
Putin’s most powerful “Gray Cardinal.” Before politics, his professional background was in advertising/PR and avant-garde theatre. It’s disgusting to say but he’s an absolute innovator in propaganda. Under a pseudonym, he published the concept of non-linear warfare. It’s about information warfare as much as military force. Non-linear warfare is designed to destabilise perception. It’s been described by journalist Peter Pomerantsev as “a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused. A ceaseless shapeshifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.” Opposition can’t formulate a competing narrative because the narrative is always changing, always surreal, always confusing.
The all-too-familiar “post-truth politics” is tackled next. The main “exemplars” of this approach are Trumpers and Brexiteers:
The more outrageous the lie the greater the social and traditional media coverage. Barack Obama stated that the new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true.” We’ve all heard the old adage “A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes.” The modern version of that might be “A Lie Can Dominate Global News Cycles While Facebook Faffs About Outsourcing Fact Checkers.”
Again, we come back to Karl Rove with the idea of “derision”–it’s the view that people are tired of experts and so we can simply dispense with them.
We come now to “repetition.” This is also an approach that Adorno notes in his essay, and it’s the notion that the more we repeat something, no matter how ridiculous or untrue, or even if it’s disproven, it gains credibility in the minds of those who hear it; or it simply causes an “intellectual exhaustion” in an audience.
Mitch McConnell makes an appearance for his method of “feigned rejection of partisanship.” This is the practice of pretending that you are being bipartisan (or more bipartisan than your opposition), when, in fact, the opposite is true.
The Brexiteers make an appearance again with the idea of “utopian campaigns.” The concept here is that propagandists in the past tended to campaign on fear but have now taken to pictures of positive outcomes: e.g., “all your troubles will be over”; or “we’ll return to the glorious past.” The promises are big, but there is no attempt to fulfill those big promises.
Conspiracy comes next: Birtherism, QANON, Pizzagate. This is the darker, gnostic “campaign,” the attempt to convince people that there are secret goings on, and only a select few know about these goings on, and if you are one of them you are special and “in the know.” You’re part of the “club.”
“Micro-targeting” is “programmatic advertising,” and is “sophisticated and nuanced.” It come in different forms. One of these forms is “dissent”: one can pay to craft “messages based on users’ race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and political affiliation…[as] well as their interest in things like the Tea Party, Malcolm X, ‘funny pics,’ Fox News, and Maya Angelou…These fake ads and groups [leverage real] concerns to their own ends. In effect, they weaponised dissent— our most fundamental and important aspect of democracy!”
We also have seen “objectivity” weaponized:
20th century journalism prided itself on objectivity. Groups like the BBC even have legal obligations to be impartial. To give ‘fair and balanced’ air-time to all comers. Nigel Farage has appeared on the BBC more in recent years than most any other politician. The NYT, CNN, etc. have hired far right extremists, neo-nazis and climate change deniers. Depending on your pov that’s either a cynical cash grab or a misguided attempt at fairness.
Next comes the broad category of “troll tools.” Harvey lays out the different ways in which “bad actors” can effectively hijack discourse. There are various tools they use: e.g., shit-posting, sockpuppets, outrage, Redpilling, crowd cover, cryptofascism, rebranding, using enemies to unify. Harvey highlights a couple of these. The first is Redpilling. This “is the copypasta recruitment strategy far right extremists use to flip at risk converts to join their shitty nihilist crusade.” The second is shit-posting, or the “act of throwing out huge amounts of coded meme content to confuse, distract, and aggravate your enemies while entertaining, inspiring, and communicating with your allies.”
Signal boosting is exacerbating these problems. Social media platforms (Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, Twitter, Discord, WhatsApp, 4chan, 8chan) help get these messages out to the masses and create avenues for the use of these aforementioned tools: “The fundamental business model of many of these platforms is advertising revenue. And that revenue is predicated on daily active users. Sadly outrage outperforms happiness by leaps and bounds — we click more when we’re angry. We no longer live in an attention economy but rather an outrage economy.”
Harvey doesn’t just describe the problems, he also suggests some ways to combat them: “So what can we do as consumers, creators, and a society to fix all this shit?” Harvey first suggests that we break the news cycle: “Studies show that people who’ve gone cold turkey on social media are less informed but are happier. We need to acknowledge there’s a difference between ‘right’ and ‘right now.’ How can we find slower, more responsible ways to consume the news? Step 1 — turn all your notifications right the fuck off.”
Second, Harvey suggests that we “educate people on how to live in a media saturated world. There are different approaches to media literacy programs but one thing they all have in common is an emphasis on critical thinking and analysis.”
Third, we should teach algorithmic literacy: “Why are these systems making the recommendations they are making for us? Why are they serving us the content they are? And as designers and technologists we need to start making these systems more transparent to the people that use them.”
He also notes we need to acknowledge that “hate speech is not free speech.” A larger philosophical point could be made here regarding Popper’s paradox of tolerance. But in practical terms, Harvey notes that we need to “enforce existing ToS evenly and fairly. No one is above the law and no one should be above ToS either. Apply the same approaches to erasing white radical extremist content that the platforms use to censor ISIS. Better definitions of protected groups. Better algorithms to detect hate speech. Down rank / shadow ban hateful content. Better distinguish between ‘fake dissent’ and real dissent and protect the latter. Troll dissent has patterns and inconsistencies that are detectable.”
Lastly, Harvey claims that we
need to create new networks with new business models. That starts by challenging lazy assumptions that advertising should be the model for everything and that all networks have to be immense and addictive as a result. There are other models: from subscriptions to SAAS direct revenue to DTC sales. The most successful companies have multiple business models. It just makes good business sense to diversify your revenue streams, metrics, and business models away from propaganda.
These suggestions and descriptions are vital in the effort to combat propaganda, but I can’t help but feel, in my darkest moments, pessimism at the potential success of changing “Aunt Marge’s and Cousin Clive’s” mind on Facebook. Will they do the work necessary to prevent themselves from falling down the hole of, say, conspiracy? So much rides on larger governmental checks and balances, businesses/corporations/platforms “doing the right thing,” and individuals educating themselves and their communities. But, in my most optimistic moments, I think the solution to some of these issues might lie somewhere in the epistemological shift from the individual (how “I” know) to the group (how “we” know).
Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism, Theodor W. Adorno, Translated by Wieland Hoban. Polity Press, 2020.
“A Primer on Propaganda in The 21st Century,” Daniel Harvey, Medium, https://medium.com/20minutesintothefuture/a-primer-on-propaganda-in-the-21st-century-2f3ea327d19c.