Keeping Your Head On in a Post-Truth Era, Part 2

In my last post, I discussed propaganda as a tool of control and subversion, and observed that the cultural climate has shifted in such a way that it behooves us to engage consciously with the strategies and consequences of it. Instead of bemoaning propaganda or relegating it to one “side,” it seems to me wisest to acknowledge that it exists, it is effective, and it is widely employed.

What to watch for is whether propaganda leads us toward personal and collective danger. The information we take in influences the mind, the heart, the body, and then our actions. Thinking about things that terrify me, I feel fear in my body, and I respond fearfully to otherwise innocuous things around me. When I can calm and defuse that emotional reaction within me, however, my mind is freer to engage rationally with propaganda.

Thoughts and propaganda are similar in that trying to get rid of them is a poor use of energy. What is more useful is engaging mindfully, cultivating the ability to observe one’s thoughts and reactions with some distance and curiosity. Here are some ideas on strategies to do this:

Image of a fist above text:
Image of a fist above text: “Keep Calm and Decolonize Everything,” in a poster that evokes British wartime propaganda. From Oppression Monitor Dailey.
  • Understand you are being manipulated

Objective truth might exist, but there are no objective people. We all have agendas, conscious and unconscious, and we want things from each other. I write this blog post because I want to live in a world of conscious human beings and I believe this is an important contribution to that. I also write this because I want potential clients to read this, go to my website, and sign up for therapy from me so I can make money. Both are true.

These motivations shape the way we communicate information to each other. Effective persuasion offers information in ways to motivate desired behaviors. Ideally, we communicate accurate information in health-affirming ways. Sometimes, however, this motivation comes through deception—knowingly stating something that is false, or stating accurate information in misleading ways. (Much popular reporting on scientific research exemplifies this, presenting the research as much more conclusive than it truly is. See also most clickbait headlines.)

When interacting with others, it’s useful to consider what agendas are in play and decide how we want to engage with them. Does my agenda match yours? Can I work with your agenda in a way that meets mine? What I do then is an active choice. Even if someone is actively trying to con you, and you recognize it but decide to go along with it, you are now a co-participant rather than a person being manipulated.

  • Cultivate curiosity about what you know and what you feel

Even when you have a practice of not clicking the obvious clickbait-y titles of articles, it’s hard not to see that “[Celebrity] DESTROYED [this politician] over [controversial issue]” and unconsciously internalize the story. At times, reading the actual article In some cases, reading the article intentionally would be more helpful, as it would help you evaluate for yourself whether someone was “DESTROYED.” You might also attend to the ways the article is shaping the story. Some articles will take one sentence of an actual thing that happened and add paragraphs of speculation and unverified claims.

Dangerous propaganda roots in unexamined assumptions and those Id feelings of lust, anger, fear, vindictiveness, hope, comfort, and pleasure. It finds safe harbor in our bias and bigotry, our assumptions about whomever we perceive as an enemy or an “other.” It is nearly impossible to stay conscious about all of this at all times, but when we feel particularly provoked we might sit with some questions:

  • “How do I know this to be true?”
  • “Where did this knowledge come from?”
  • “What evidence supports this knowledge? What evidence contradicts it?”
  • “Is there someone I respect with whom I can talk to about opposing views?”
  • “What feeling does this bring out of me? How strong is this feeling?”
  • “Who benefits from my thinking and feeling this way? Who gets harmed by it?”

This is largely about curation of the mind and the heart. It’s difficult to make thoughtful choices when I’m ramped up into fight, flight, or freeze. If this article or commercial stirs up panic about the future, is that going to help me effectively navigate it? If this propaganda wants me to meekly accept what’s happening and go along with something that assaults my core values, is doing so in my interest?

It’s easier to engage this practice when we don’t want to believe what something is telling us. It’s harder to do this when we do hope or fear something is true. Doing this practice with both is useful. When something seems to confirm your greatest hope or your greatest fear, take a step back.

  • Make a list of what matters to you

What do you stand for? How do you think people should treat each other? Who are your allies in this?

I recommend identifying five core values, often one to three words, which could be written on a card you keep in your pocket or posted on a note around your home. Periodically I will revisit these core values in terms of my life or responses. If I say I value kindness, for example, I could spend a week looking at how I am practicing kindness in my interactions with others, and whether the media I’m consuming supports kindness or undermines it.

Having five might not seem like a lot, but the interaction between them becomes complex. If you need help, here is a post that includes an exercise on identifying your core values.

  • Ground regularly
An image of a fist, surrounded by rays, around which are the words
An image of a fist, surrounded by rays, around which are the words “Defend Equality” and “Love Unites.” Does this align with your values?

In this context, grounding is the act of bringing awareness into the body, the present moment, and our connection to the earth. Simple ways to do this include: focusing on the feeling of your feet on the ground, your butt in the chair, or the weight of gravity holding you to the earth. Look around the room and notice what is there. The body lives in the present moment, and so when the mind and heart get ramped up into intense fantasies, contacting our senses brings us gently back to “what is”.

When I guide people in grounding, I often encourage them to notice the stability of the ground in this moment. When I do this, a part of my mind says, “But there could be an earthquake.” And I acknowledge, yes, that is true, but in this moment I can feel through my feet that the ground is stable. That is the point. I don’t need to deal with an earthquake that’s not currently happening.

Recall this next time you feel stirred up by potential threats to your safety, especially when it’s the hypothetical possibility of violence, or a conflict that is happening miles from where you live. Notice the feelings engendered and how the media you consume invites you into a political “us-vs-them” drama, away from listening and connection.

Then try grounding. Right now, in this moment, is your body safe? Does the ground feel stable? Are you around people you trust? Is anything catastrophic happening? What in your life at this moment could benefit from your attention? You have power in your life, more power than you do in those political narratives. Do something meaningful for yourself, and then revisit the drama. What feels important now?

If you want support, this link will take you to an audio recording I made of a grounding exercise.

Most of all, I urge us all to turn away from these grandiose, Internet-fueled feelings toward engagement with what’s in our lives today. When you find your energy being turned against a vague enemy, redirect that passion toward what you value, what you are for.

Keeping Your Head On in a Post-Truth Era, Part 1

Last December I was out running errands with my spouse. We noticed a man standing on an island in the middle of traffic holding up a sign on which was written one word, a hashtag. I had no idea what to make of it. “What on earth is he doing? What is the point?” I looked up the hashtag on my phone, learned about a conspiracy theory that seemed pulled straight from the 1990s “Satanic Panic” playbook, and told my spouse about it. My spouse, in turn, pointed out that I had done exactly what the man with the sign wanted. He infected with this meme, this idea. Not too long after that, the hashtag and its associated story motivated a person to go into a business named in the theory with a gun, threatening the workers.

Propaganda utilizes simple, emotionally captivating messages and images, often drawing upon easily recognized symbolism. Image of a white woman wearing an American flag dress, spreading grain on a field. Above her is the headline: “Will you have a part in Victory?”

We are in the midst of a war for our minds. More accurately, as Rhyd Wildermuth writes, we are waking up to a war that has been ongoing. Different factions seek to influence our behavior through seeding our minds with ideas in line with their interests. When it’s an influence I don’t like, I want to call it propaganda. Alley Valkyrie discusses why, and why this is limiting, in her column “Musings on Propaganda in an Age of Authoritarianism”:

We tend to interpret the word ‘propaganda’ as information that is inherently untrustworthy. We refer to “Soviet propaganda” or “anarchist propaganda” with the understanding that those folks likely aren’t telling the ‘truth.’


Historically, propaganda was generally regarded as a neutral force, holding true to its Latin roots. ‘Propaganda’ derives from propagare, meaning ‘to propagate,’ and propaganda was recognized as a powerful weapon that could be wielded in the name of countless agendas. It was only with the rise … of authoritarian governments that disseminated mass propaganda through the means of mechanical reproduction in order to manipulate the public in favor of repressive tendencies, that the word took on a permanently negative connotation.

Once upon a time, I believed that most conflict and bigotry arose because people were not adequately aware of “the truth.” If I could simply, calmly, and rationally explain that truth to another person, I thought, they would understand my perspective and change their behavior. This is a fantasy underlying many forms of liberal activism, from fighting climate change through racial justice, among other causes.

In this worldview, there are arbiters of truth, at least those who come closest to understanding our best grasp of the truth. It is appalling, according to this mindset, that anyone would ignore or deny these arbiters of truth, such as the scientists who affirm that climate change is real and human behavior is causing it. When confronted with that, the response is often to become condescending, dismissive, all the hallmarks of “liberal elitism.”

Now this fantasy seems facile. What is lacking is appreciation for another truth. It turns out rational argument is not enough, there must be a compelling appeal to the heart as well. Marketers and public relations professionals have known this for decades.

During my late teens, I read William S. Burroughs’s essay “The Electronic Revolution”, in which the writer Burroughs discusses human language as a literal virus (a concept that has become mainstreamed in our reference to content “going viral”), and ways by which language becomes weaponized and used in the service of those societal twins, control and subversion. “Illusion is a revolutionary weapon,” he asserted, going on to explore strategies of employing doctored recordings to plant seeds of doubt and rebellion.

Here’s one example:


Put ten operators with carefully prepared recordings out at rush hour and see how quick the words get around. People don’t know where they heard it but they heard it.

Social media today attests to his theories. I’m scrolling through my news feed and see a provocative headline that suggests something that wants to appeal to my most Id-centered emotions: anger, fear, pleasure, vindictiveness. I see that someone I don’t like got “DESTROYED” on a news show, or a politician got caught out on a scandal that had been long-suspected (or desired). Sometimes I click on the article and, upon reading, realize that the headline is misleading or the story is actually much less compelling than promised.

Other times, it gets its hooks in me. When the topic comes up in conversation, I’m already half-assuming it’s true. “I heard that! I saw it online.” People make a trending hashtag about it, memes about it. I get into arguments over why it matters. I argue about the way people argue about it. Several people write thinkpieces on why we’re misunderstanding the essential reason why the news matters. Maybe I learn later that the story was misleading but the damage is already done.

For those who still value the idea of transcendent, liberating truth, the idea of a war of propaganda is offensive. Sitting with my own discomfort, I take Valkyrie’s point that propaganda is a neutral technology, one that could successfully broadcast one’s own beliefs and opinions as much as opposing ideologies. Memes, for example, are effective at persuasion and consolidation of bubbles because they appeal to both lobes of the brain. They contain language communicating the essential point (left brain) with aesthetically and emotionally captivating images (right brain).

"The Fire of Your Soul," collage by author, 2017.
Collage is a visual form drawing upon the same cut-up techniques, taking existing mass-marketed images and re-contextualizing them, generating new possibilities.”The Fire of Your Soul,” amateur collage by author, 2017.

“The Electronic Revolution” was a significant influence on the industrial music scene, which played with the splicing of musical forms with sampled audio content. One of my favorite exemplars of the genre is Meat Beat Manifesto’s Satyricon, a work that explores themes of propaganda, state control, and liberation of the mind through freeing the body. The song “Brainwashed This Way / Zombie / That Shirt” is a triptych that splices and remixes media samples from advertising, film, and political speech over a series of shifting beats to link together marketing and the deployment of pleasure for social control. (I cannot find an officially sanctioned version of the song available online, but a YouTube search will get you there. Or you could buy the album.)

All this said, while a wholly rational appeal is not very effective to motivate change, a wholly emotional and aesthetic appeal is dangerous. Appeals to fear, anger, and pleasure are very effective at getting us to turn off our critical thinking skills. This feature is beyond political orientation.

So what could help us keep our heads on straight in a “post-truth” world? I’ve got some ideas in this next post.