How to fail at culture jamming

The story of the twenty-first century media landscape thus far is the story of the left’s own tools being used against it, more effectively than they had previously been used. ‘Fake news’ is the currently-popular term, but we’re really talking about disinformation (from the Russian Дисинформатся), a particular variant of propaganda. More specifically, we are talking about culture jamming — a set of techniques intended to disrupt, subvert, or complicate existing unconsidered ideological positions using non-rational or pre-rational mechanisms.

Culture jamming has its origins in the Situationist movement’s idea of detournment and in the Discordian religion’s idea of Operation Mindfuck. Detournment is the remixing and recontextualization of some existing sign, subverting its meaning and demonstrating its underlying absurdity: a common version of this among Situationists is to substitute the dialogue bubbles in comics or subtitles in foreign films with surreal slogans that contradict or poke fun at the original work (and such classic detournment is a stable of modern internet culture). The Situationists thought that scrambling the message of centralized corporate-capitalist media was necessarily good — that only in this way could the progress of consumerism (the “Spectacle”, an attitude wherein things are only important to the extent that they participate in an economy of conspicuous consumption) be slowed. Among Discordians, all strongly-held beliefs are considered suspect, and until recently it’s been mostly held as obvious that the creation of any kind of doubt (particularly doubt with an irrational element) is ultimately a good thing.

Culture jamming, as codified by Kalle Lasn, is a combination of these sets of techniques, but is put toward the kind of centrist liberalism that Lasn’s Adbusters magazine supports: it is neither the scattershot ontological terrorism of Operation Mindfuck nor the focused radical anti-capitalist surrealism of Situationist works, but merely a marketable and centralization-friendly application of a mix of counterculture-oriented & traditional marketing techniques geared toward a vague greenwashing-friendly folk-environmentalism and capitalism-friendly anti-consumerism. By growing the political tent to include centrists of all stripes, Lasn did for memetic subversion what Eric S. Raymond did for free software: he divorced techniques from the moral and structural criticisms they were originally meant to fight against, and opened up the door for even fairly uncreative people to use those techniques to uphold the status quo.

Of course, Lasn does culture jamming wrong — which is to say, he performs the techniques ineffectively. The mistakes of Lasn (and Adbusters in general) are basically similar to the ones being made by the center-left, the center-right, and almost everybody using the techniques today (with the exception of some Discordians and certain parts of Russian intelligence).

Most of these mistakes are 101-level propaganda failures, warned against in Paul Linebarger’s text Information Warfare — literally the US Army’s psyops/propaganda manual. The biggest one is a failure to properly identify and cater to your target audience.

Almost all pieces of ostensibly-subversive media are dual-use, and fail to perform either task effectively because of it. Signalling one’s own position is important — it’s how group norms are communicated and maintained — but it’s poison if you’re trying to communicate with the outgroup. Generally speaking, your ingroup’s idea of the motivations, behaviors, and beliefs of the outgroup does not accurately represent how the outgroup thinks of themselves, and acts as an ingroup signifier for your group. Any media based on how some group’s ‘enemies’ think of that group, rather than how that group thinks of themselves, will not merely fail but be instantly identified. For instance, the right characterizes the left as wanting to be babied by designated superiors, while the left characterizes themselves as expecting a basic level of empathy between equals. A right-wing meme that targets leftists will fail if it is built on the model of leftism that assumes a hierarchical structure of care. Likewise, the left characterizes the right as callous, while the right characterizes itself as self-sufficient. Any left-wing meme that targets the right will fail if it assumes its target thinks of itself as callous! Such messages are good for defining and communicating the values of the ingroup, but worse than useless as propaganda.

Ineffective, because they are based on outgroup models

The second biggest problem is the direct attack. Even if you have correctly identified the opposing viewpoint and have correctly identified a logical flaw in it, pointing out that logical flaw directly will be ineffective. Positions are not generally held for purely rational reasons — there is an irrational core to every belief, made necessary by the absence of full information. (If we were all perfect logical-positivists and refused to believe anything without solid evidence for it, we would all be solipsists, since occam’s razor would tell us that it’s easier to believe all our senses are totally unreliable than to believe that a world as strange as ours exists at all.) We build up rationalizations around a core logical leap, and we build our group and personal identity around those rationalizations. A direct attack on a logical inconsistency that keeps us glued to our family, friends, and favorite TV shows is rightly considered an attack on our entire way of life. So, while logic is necessary for formulating a piece of propaganda, it must be obscured in the piece itself.

Consider two theoretical pieces of propaganda, both intended to convince a right-wing person to support universal medical care. One shows a scowling Clint Eastwood, with the text “Don’t be such a hard-ass; support universal health care.” The other shows John Wayne, in character as a cowboy, taking care of his horse, with the text “Sometimes, even a cowboy needs a support from a loyal friend; support universal health care for all the cowboys in your life.” The second will probably be a lot more effective.

Somehow, I couldn’t find a picture of John Wayne grooming or feeding a horse. So, here’s a filtered version of an unnamed man in a cowboy hat, from a horse-grooming how-to site.

The first caters to an outgroup assumption about the target audience (callousness) and contradicts it while failing to argue against it. The second uses imagery that represents your target audience to themselves (cowboys, seen as strong and independent), brings up an obvious flaw in that attitude (“nobody’s actually fully independent”) obliquely so it doesn’t feel like an attack, and then reverses the normal thrust of both left-wing and right-wing rhetoric on the topic (suggesting that, contrary to the idea that universal health care makes people less independent, much like a cowboy’s horse, it makes people more independent by being like a “reliable friend”). It reframes some right-wing ideas around the topic without naming them (health care is a friend rather than a parent, and — like a horse — a servant rather than a master), and is quite explicitly gentle around a hot-button topic.

The third problem Lasn makes — one that most current practitioners of culture-jamming are incapable of making — is a dependence upon normal centralized distribution mechanisms & economies of scale. Lasn published a book through a conventional publisher and then started a magazine. This requires a lot of people and a lot of money. As a result, the content can’t be too radical — investors can’t be turned off by it — and so-called ‘grey or black propaganda’ (i.e., situations where the group the material came from is misrepresented or unknown) is off the table. Before the internet became most people’s primary media intake channel, grey and black propaganda either required a lot of independent resources (for instance, ostensibly-native German-run pro-Nazi pirate radio stations in WWII Britain & the American-run pro-American equivalent in WWII Japan) or some cleverness (like Joey Skaggs, who independently created fake organizations and shell companies and manipulated the use of unverified press releases and media packets by lazy journalists). Today, propaganda generally comes without clear lineage. We see shares of shares of screencaps of reposts, and unless the bias of the originator is very poorly hidden, we can’t tell that the originator’s group is at odds with the target’s group.

The propaganda outlet RT is a great example of this done well: it caters primarily to a group of comorbid suspicions, all of which are pretty reasonable (yes, the United States *does* perform morally-dubious acts and hide them from its citizens; yes, you are absolutely justified in being worried about that), and uses its selection of mostly-accurate facts and mostly-believable fabrications to subtly push its agenda. One would not necessarily know, from the content RT puts out, that its parent organization is simultaneously making both right- and left-wing Facebook groups, running bot swarms to retweet both white-separatist and black-separatist messages, and organizing protests and counterprotests of their own events in several countries. Instead, RT basically looks and feels like a center-right version of The Intercept with more UFO-related content.

When we talk about the distribution of information, we often use epidemiology metaphors. These metaphors are more apt than one might think: not only does information spread like a virus, but even notions of immunity are shared. Actual viruses have a protective covering around their DNA called a capsid, and this capsid allows them to attack particular kinds of cells by binding to particular kinds of receptors. Memes have capsids too: every meme has not simply a juicy inner statement, but formal elements like font, language, and imagery choices that indicate which audience it’s for. We decide whether or not to read the text of an image macro based on whether or not these more obvious signifiers indicate that it’s meant for us. Once we read it, we are able to be affected by it. The biggest barrier is a failure to properly target messages meant for people not like you.

Perhaps even larger than targeting is the open question: do we really want our propaganda to be effective? If we know how to target the other side but we still fail to put ourselves in their shoes, it means that we have decided that the masturbatory self-gratification of demonstrating our ingroup solidarity is more valuable than achieving our ostensible aims — or that the outgroup is so awful that we would rather our project fail than empathize with them. Perhaps this is true: maybe, sometimes, we face an enemy so inhuman that communication is pointless and empathy only corrupts us. However, I refuse to believe in inherent evil; I think our best bet is still communication, even if our communication must be evasive in order to reach home.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store