Author’s Note: This article compiles and summarizes concepts found in a number of texts on rhetoric and propaganda. The following are ones I recommend for anyone who is interested in better understanding the topic and its application in EVE Online. In chronological order: 1) Aristotle’s Rhetoric. 2) Propaganda by Edward Bernays 3) Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. 4) How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley. 5) Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes; and 6) Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre.
This article is longer than the ideal length for an INN article; it is long because it is thorough. It’s written tongue-in-cheek. I’ll state here that I don’t actually want readers to become adept at propaganda. Instead, I want readers to recognize propaganda when they see it. The steps I have given to achieve narrative superiority not only teach “right” methods, but I also explain (or summarize others ideas, really) of why they work – the psychological exploitations behind them. This guide will also help you understand your own positionality in relation to propaganda and narrative wars taking place in EVE Online’s meta.
The Chief Cornerstone: Human Nature Isn’t Rational; It’s Social
It is maximally important, if you wish to understand narrative war and propaganda, that you relinquish any faith in people’s innate ability to perceive the world accurately.
For most of our existence, as a species, humans have believed the sun traveled across the sky. Because that is what their eyes saw. But this was an illusion; it was the earth that moved, rotated. Likewise, if I were to hold up a stone to you and ask you if it were solid, what would you say? Likely yes, perhaps after inspection. But modern science tells us that the atoms that make up that stone are mainly composed of vacuous space, with the smallest dots linked together in a matrix determined by the chemical laws of attraction. Your senses belie you, telling you the stone is “solid.” Your fingers and tools are simply too big to detect the truth undiscovered by your perception.
Human perception isn’t constructed to accurately perceive truth. You are reminded of this every time you look at an optical illusion. Rather, human perception developed with the purpose of being able to survive. You would think that perceiving truth would be advantageous in terms of survival, but as my examples above demonstrate, often truth is irrelevant for human survival. What’s it matter whether it is the earth that moves and not the sun, or that at an atomic level a seemingly solid stone is primarily space, or that those squiggly lines in optical illusions aren’t actually moving as your eye dances across it? These truths are irrelevant when growing your crops, or when dodging a stone thrown at your head; these are the priorities to survival and your human perception is more interested in attending to these things rather than Truth with a capital “t,” which may or may not be useful for human life and happiness.
In the same way that human perception isn’t well equipped to perceive the scientific truths of natural philosophy, that same perception isn’t well equipped to perceive truths in social and political matters as well. The human mind is more naturally suited for survival than understanding. Survival for human beings has always meant social cohesion, solidarity, mating, and friendship. Society, tribal or otherwise, offered warmth, protection, division of labor, and collective effort to defend against hunger, exposure to the elements, enemies, etc. A testament to the social instinct: in many ancient societies the punishment of banishment and exile was considered worth than death. In some modern societies, solitary confinement is considered inhumane, and psychological research has affirmed that such confinement imposes psychological harm on the alienated individual. To align with our social instinct, our understanding has adapted by understanding the world socially and collectively. The vulgar term for this is “groupthink.” Anthropologically speaking, groupthink isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.
Each child is born utterly dependent on others: we need breastmilk from a mother or wet-nurse, clothing from our family, language from society to satisfy an innate need for human connection. Infants are doubly reinforced – nature and nurture – from the very beginning, to be social animals with an instinct for social/dependent development. Without an instinct towards groupthink social cohesion and its benefits, almost everything would be much harder to accomplish, perhaps impossible. Just as matter is naturally attracted to itself via the law of gravity, humans instinctually gravitate towards each other: out of need as well as desire.
In sum, the first principle is to abandon any illusions about your natural ability to accurately understand the world. Distrust your own judgement and the judgment of those around you.
We Can’t Fact Check Everything
The second principle: human perception is social, not rational. Much of our understanding is socially constructed; very few of our opinions are developed because we undertook research projects, collected evidence, evaluated the results. This is in large part because nobody has the time to undergo research projects for every belief we accept; herein lies one of the first exploitable insights into the limitations of our understanding. We simply can’t fact check everything. Instead, shorthand our understanding by tending to believe the things we hear more than being skeptical. Fact: people are naturally more inclined to believe than question. This isn’t necessarily a weakness; it’s the only thing that allows us to function in the world, not having to question/fact check every piece of information we encounter.
Furthermore, because people naturally gravitate towards others, our understanding tends to conform with this social instinct. Arguing, publicly disagreeing with others, standing out from the crowd, all induces psychic stress. Our social instinct pushes and pulls our understanding towards conformity with the group. Deep down in our DNA we are all just like high school kids wanting to be accepted, to feel we belong and have a place. Once we come to terms with this, we can analyze the implications of these human instincts/limitations and how they might be exploited to win a narrative war in EVE Online.
Summary: the above material provides the theoretical foundation for all that comes after. Below, then, are the steps to achieve narrative victory.
Step 1: Grab A Megaphone
This one is obvious and needs little explanation. Your narrative can’t take hold if people can’t hear. You must first be heard and heard widely. Narrative proliferation must be maximized. Start with populated places with lots of traffic and shout so the people in the back can hear.
EVE Example: posting on r/EVE doesn’t promise your message won’t be drowned out by others, but does have the potential to be seen by many.
Step 2: Tell A Good Story (Truth Optional)
My father Graydoc and I often joke: “Don’t ruin a good story with the truth.” While said tongue in cheek, there is a lesson to be learned here. The truth is often complex – or worse – boring. The fact is that the world is chaotic, even incomprehensible. (Go to Wikipedia and search “quantum mechanics” as an example of how nonsensical, though true, the physical world is.) Add into the equation the actions of irrational human beings and you have a real conundrum. Trying to understand anything in the world, especially the political/social world, is a difficult task.
Picking out truths from this swirling mass of chaos we call the world is very difficult. Sometimes impossible, for we often lack measurable data. This is true in EVE as much as anywhere. The data we do have can be organized into tables and graphs to make the endless strings of numbers researchers generate a little easier to manage. But even then, such graphs are hard to make sense of. Even the best minds can misinterpret the true causes for the data they examine and do so all the time. Finding the truth, answering why, is hard.
But human are narrative animals. We are better at telling stories than interpreting spreadsheets. Narratives make sense out of the chaos, even if those narratives don’t offer true causes. The best narratives aren’t the most true; rather, they make the most sense. Tell a story that explains the phenomena people see and feel. If two opposing narratives make equal sense out of listeners’ experiences, the more exciting one will win; especially in EVE, which is fantasy and where people thrive on drama and scandal to make the game interesting.
RL Example: The American middle class observe the following phenomena: 1) they actively feel life getting harder; 2) they see increasing numbers of people who look and speak differently from them. The following narratives make sense of at least one of the observations.
Narrative 1: American middle class life has gotten harder because immigrants are taking their jobs and soaking up benefits paid for by their taxes.
Narrative 2: American middle class life has gotten harder because real wages have stagnated since 1973 while debt (things like student loans) has doubled; increased immigration is an irrelevant factor.
Which narrative is true doesn’t matter for our purposes. The relevant question remains: which narrative is more believable? Which makes better sense out of what people see and feel? Which is more exciting? That’s the narrative most people will adopt.
Another piece of advice: politicize everything. Leave nothing untouched that might be useful for your cause.
Step 3: Be First
The early bird gets the worm. It’s not only important to tell a good/better story, but also important to be quick about it when opportunity presents itself. Research shows that people have an inherent “firstness” bias – they are more likely to remember what they’ve heard first, even after correction. Test subjects purposely given false information, which is later corrected, will more easily forget the correction than the original falsehood. It’s easier to learn, than to un-learn and re-learn.
Step 4: Drown Out The Competition
When I was in Europe on a trip I saw an acquaintance of mine lose a bunch of money to a man with a ball shuffled around between three cups. Before he lost his money, he watched a number of other people playing the game, winning and losing, but excitement all around. Each time someone won/lost the ball was obviously under one or the other cup. “Bad slight of hand,” I thought. The trap was set. The moment my acquaintance put money down I watched a master at his trade go to work. Later I realized something that struck me like lightning; all those other people playing, winning and losing, were in on the con. Good propaganda works the same way. We too often think of propaganda as a solitary guy writing a piece, with you buying it or not. No. Really good propaganda is an apparatus; it needs hype-men, a community, people surrounding the target providing a whole experience.
Fact: people will adopt the collective narrative of those around them, even if counter-evidence stares them in the face. One study showed that this was true even with something as basic as identifying lines of equal length. Researchers put a test subject in a room at a table with about five other people who were in on the experiment. The group was shown pieces of paper with lines on them, and told to point to lines of equal length. The experiment was set up so that the test subject would always go last. The first few times those in on the experiment pointed to the correct lines. But then, in unison, they all pointed to two lines of different length, saying they were equal. Of course, the test subjects looked at the lines and the others incredulously. Then something interesting happened. While some maintained their belief that the lines were unequal, against popular opinion, many conformed and pointed to the same lines as the others. Many didn’t break ranks.
Another name for purposely exploiting people’s groupthink bias is “gaslighting.” Fact: regardless of the ethics, gaslighting works. On your own people as well as others. One might question whether the test subject who pointed to the same lines as the others really believed like the others, or simply acted in unison. But I would posit that at some point this distinction doesn’t matter from a propagandist’s perspective. If they talk the talk and walk the walk then you’ve won. Further, their behavior also convinces those around them.
If the social instinct is strong enough to have people point to something as non-political and objective as line length, what hope do you, me, or others have when team bias is engaged? What hope for objectivity when all those at the table are your teammates, and instead of evaluating something as solid/simple as line lengths, it’s something as fluid/complex as whether your enemies in war have a valid point of view.
If you want to win the narrative war you must monopolize the discourse. Flood every platform, forum, reddit page, and news source with your people and your narrative. Fill these places with your narrative until they overflow; leave no place untouched, no safe haven. Doing this works twofold: 1) it gives the (mis)impression of common opinion, which applies the pressure of the groupthink bias on others. 2) it also squeezes out counter-narratives, giving the (mis)impression that they are minority opinions. Monopolizing the discourse can also de-facto silence these other opinions, diluting them beyond visibility (see Step 1).
Step 5: Rinse And Repeat . . . A Lot
Fact: research shows that people have a repetition bias. If they are told something repeatedly they are more likely to believe it. Take Step 4 and do it over and over again until narrative victory is achieved.
Step 6: De-legitimate Enemies
Even when employing Steps 1-5 it might not be possible to silence enemies and counter-narratives, especially if they also are employing these tactics. It then becomes necessary to de-legitimate enemies, counter-narratives and those who propagate them. There is more than one way to do this.
1) One of the easiest ways to delegitimate an enemy is through laughter. To laugh is to say “your ideas aren’t even worth addressing.” It also requires no effort, or thought; no points need to be addressed. Given this, laughter carries a lot of weight for little cost. Try this experiment; enter a forum with some of your friends and invade an argument you don’t care about. Pick a random side and have you and your friends type “lol,” “ahahahah” etc., upvoting these comments while downvoting the side you’ve chosen to demoralize and watch how the character of the argument changes. Without even making a point or countering one you will see people walk things back, re-state things, even switch sides.
Laughter also signals that something is unthreatening. SirMolle, after his real picture was revealed with a pink hat on, was memed to high heaven. Feared dictators and conquerors have a much harder time being taken seriously as memes. Humor often cuts sharper than steel.
2) Staining Character. Aristotle said that a man’s character was more convincing than any argument he could make, his ethos being more important than his pathos or logos in rhetorical matters. Developing a good ethos with an audience can be hard, sometimes impossible. But casting doubt on your opponent’s character is easy and often as effective. It is easy because evidence of wrongdoing rarely is required. All that is needed is to make an audience suspicious of your opponent’s motives for acting or speaking the way that they do. “What’s the real reason you are saying this?” “My opponent claims he fights for justice but really it’s for power/from jealousy/for wealth/etc.” See Step 2. If you can tell a good story that makes sense about your opponent, truth isn’t necessary. If you can’t tell a better story than your opponent and/or develop a good ethos, go on the offensive: cast suspicion on the other’s character and motives.
3) Sow Doubt. Doubt is the mind killer. It is highly infectious, erodes confidence, and stalls action. It also takes much less effort than taking the time to prove your opponent wrong, counter each of their points, providing more convincing evidence. Luckily, it is often as effective as proving your opponent false for much less effort.
The book Merchants of Doubt is an academic study revealing the public relations tactics of certain corporate interests to cast suspicion on things, like the dangers of smoking, or global warming. One famous sentence came from a strategic public relations memo. Big tobacco companies, as science started revealing a link between smoking and cancer, said: “Doubt is our product.” Big Tobacco funded their own scientific studies with the express purpose of making the scientific findings on smoking more ambiguous instead of more clear.
The tobacco industry realized something about human psychology; they didn’t need to disprove the science linking smoking to cancer to keep people smoking. They only needed introduce doubt. So long as people think, “Maybe it hurts me, but the science isn’t sure just yet,” they kept smoking. Therefore, should you find people being swayed by your opponents’ argument, you don’t need to disprove their points or even their evidence. Simply sowing doubt will be enough to keep those with team bias (and other biases in your favor) from being swayed.
Step 6: Carefully Channel Disagreement
If you have completed Steps 1-5 you have probably already won the narrative war. But not all will be won over this way. The loyal, the dull, the complacent, the passive, the zealot, the un-reflective, and the team-player will be easily convinced by even the vulgarest propaganda so long as Steps 1-5 are accomplished. But you will not convince all, who might see your efforts for what they are, or find the more blatant aspects of your propaganda distasteful.
The neutral, the bright, the curious, the devil’s advocate, the historian, the reflective, the naturally suspicious, the skeptical, and most importantly, the enemy – many of these will not be convinced by Steps 1-5 because they will appear too one sided, hence suspicious. At some point the people mentioned in these categories will want to hear the other side of the story lest they feel something is being kept from them, that your side is carefully keeping their eyes away from information you’d rather keep hidden. To win these people over you must give them Emmanuel Goldstein’s book; you must allow them to hear enemies and their arguments (though not too much or for too long). Doing so makes it look as though you have nothing to hide, nor are afraid of their arguments.
This last step is the most subtle, and carries the greatest risk of failure. Only allow dissenters to speak who you are confident can be one of the following: de-legitimated, outnumbered, or argue worse than your own rhetoricians. If you want to your narrative war to be perfect you must allow some opponents through to be heard by your more difficult audience members. Silencing all opposition is suspicious; allowing defeatable opposition creates trust and increases the legitimacy of your position. Defeating opposition in front of an audience will solidify your narrative victory entirely.
Where Is Truth’s Place (and Your Place) In Narrative Wars?
One of the questions I ask my students at the end of our class on rhetoric is to reflect on whether there are any ethical limits to the kind of rhetoric we use: in advertising, in politics, etc. Is it ethical to lie to win an argument, even if supporting a good cause? As much as we may wish it were different, truth is often isn’t needed to be convincing. The sophists of ancient Athens understood this, and that’s why the philosophers hated them so. I tend to not tilt my students one way or another in answering this question; I mainly wish them to think about something few of them have thought about. I always get interesting answers.
But this guide doesn’t teach you how to take the high road in narrative wars; it teaches you how to win.
Narrative wars in EVE Online are happening all the time and we are always in the midst of them. I have seen all 6 Steps used in EVE’s narrative wars, either consciously or organically. I have seen them work, too. Rarely are we in good places to be perfectly rational and objective, given our affiliations and the worth of skilled rhetoricians/propagandists. If you think you are too intelligent to be manipulated by EVE propaganda, I assure you that you are not. Almost no one is; human nature is simply too biased and exploitable for us to be totally untouched, un-swayed, unmoved. However, this is a subject where knowledge truly is power; those most ignorant of the techniques of rhetoric/propaganda are the most susceptible.
There’s no test to determine whether you are thinking clearly or have completely “drunk the koolaid.” But here is a test to measure the probability of whether your beliefs are under the influence of bias and instinct. A higher score means you’re more likely to have your biases and social instincts influencing your thinking.
- I tend to fact check and research the EVE narratives I encounter and believe in. (1 all the time — 5 I never do)
- The narrative I believe now happens to be the first one I heard regarding the issue (1 don’t agree — 5 agree)
- The narrative I believe now is the one I hear most frequently (1 don’t agree — 5 agree)
- The narrative I believe now is the one that seems to be believed by most people. (1 don’t agree – 5 agree)
- The narrative I believe now is the one that my team believes in. (1 don’t agree – 5 agree)
- I tend to get my EVE information from the same source every time. (1 don’t agree – 5 agree)
- I tend to get my EVE information from my teammates only, or teammate-run sources only. (1 don’t agree – 5 agree)
- I feel dissident narratives are silenced or squeezed out on my preferred forums, shows, and podcasts. (1 don’t agree – 5 agree)
- If I believed my enemy’s narrative, I couldn’t continue to serve my own team in good conscious. (1 don’t agree – 5 agree)
- If I believed my enemy’s narrative, and admitted it publicly, it could threaten my position in my organization. (1 don’t agree – 5 agree)
- If I believed my enemy’s narrative and admitted it publicly my teammates would reject me or treat me differently.
- I think my team in EVE should win a (narrative) war by any means necessary; after all, it’s just a video game. (1 disagree – 5 agree).
- I have seen evidence of my team silencing or hiding information that would be bad PR.