This isn’t a defense of propaganda. But it’s an empirical fact: the only effective way to counter propaganda is with propaganda. Let’s replace “propaganda” with a less loaded word: “narrative.” The only way to counter a narrative effectively in a world where “facts” are freely available and uncontrolled is to come up with another narrative that makes more sense to the people you’re trying to reach. If you don’t like “narrative,” let’s try an even more neutral formulation: “persuasive explanation.”
I say “persuasive explanation” because human nature works like this: we look for explanations for what we see happening around us, explanations that make sense to us personally and to the community with which we identify. Explanations that justify what we think needs to be done. Explanations that justify the social contract (the status quo or the idealized social structure we think should replace it), the way we want to live our lives and how we treat other people. Explanations that don’t require us to distrust people we respect or love, or require us to confront uncomfortable truths. Explanations that typically require other people to change their prejudices, opinions and ways rather than us changing our own. And once we’ve accepted an explanation, we cling to it until it no longer fits the “facts” we perceive, or until a new explanation comes along that better fits the criteria we used to accept the first explanation. Humans crave explanations precisely because they are actionable in some way: I accept this explanation, therefore I believe this or do this. And the explanation that I accept is to the exclusion of the explanation accepted by people who don’t agree with me. This is why “persuasive explanation” is the better term.
Humans’ preference for a persuasive explanation over the unknown, even when the explanation is based on mythology or the supernatural, is incredibly strong, to the point that every known human society has come up with folklore, mythology, religion and folk wisdom to explain almost every aspect of human life, the observable world, the universe and the afterlife.
OK, if the only way to effectively counter a persuasive explanation is with a better persuasive explanation, then what doesn’t work?
Fact-checking doesn’t work.
Saying that foreign enemies agree with your domestic enemies doesn’t work.
Labeling information sources as unreliable doesn’t work.
We need to pause to define terms here. When I say “doesn’t work,” I don’t mean that it’s pointless. Fact-checking, out-grouping and labeling work to reinforce the persuasive explanation that people already sold on the narrative have accepted. They convince only the already-convinced, which isn’t nothing, but that’s not really countering propaganda; at best it could be said to “inoculate” the people who already reject the propaganda you want to counter.
And there’s also an important caveat that needs to be made: since persuasive explanations are aimed at explaining the world as we perceive it, obviously another way to counter a narrative is to counter the perception of facts. That is, to furnish people with facts that support the counter-argument and deprive them of facts that would undermine the story you’re trying to tell. There are a couple reasons why this doesn’t work as well as it should, particularly today. First, the sources of information have become decentralized. Anywhere where people have access to the Internet, they have access to facts and information from all over the world. Secondly, a truly robust persuasive explanation is resistant to, and even superior to, facts. How’s that? Because it’s tailored to the lifestyle and prejudices of the people it’s aimed at. For example, climate-change denial is a persuasive explanation resistant to facts. No matter how many scientists raise the alarm about human effects on climate change, there’s an inescapable alternative narrative: the climate is always changing, with or without humans.
So to sum up: all of those who are dunking on Molly McKew for styling herself as a “narrative architect” should be alarmed, not bemused. She’s ahead of the curve. She realizes that all of the “anti-disinfo” projects will fall out of favor and the real money is in coming up with new persuasive explanations, not debunking, labeling and fact-checking, which is a form of group mental masturbation. The only mistake that McKew is possibly making is in staking her bets on an anti-Trump, anti-Russian Deep State, and their think tank allies. There’s another bet to be made: that an increasingly Trumpist US government, settling into power and making the wind blow (and the Deep State blows with the wind) will borrow Molly McKew’s ideas and come up with a persuasive explanation of its own, like it has turned the Russiagate drip-drip into an FBIgate drip-drip.