Art by Major Sniper.
I’ve played many different sports throughout my life, but the first was baseball. I played in my hometown’s Little League for five seasons and also watched professional games, and in the course of following pro baseball, I acquired an overriding hatred for the New York Yankees, the winningest team in the history of the league. I hated them not for any kind of logical reason, but just because they won a lot. If you’d pushed me for a deeper reason, there’s a very good chance that the reason I gave would have made no sense, because the belief itself wasn’t rational. It was emotional.
As much as we might wish differently, humans are fundamentally irrational creatures. We form beliefs based on feelings, not on facts, and then we go desperately searching for reasons and facts which will justify the beliefs we’ve already decided to hold. Even education and intelligence are no insurance against this irrationality. In his book “Why People Believe Weird Things,” author Michael Shermer says that even smart and well-educated people believe total nonsense – and in some cases are more likely to believe nonsense than less-educated people are – “because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”
This tendency toward feelings, this willingness to form emotional beliefs and try to justify them afterward with reason, is central to the role of propaganda in EVE Online. In this examination of propaganda, we’ll be looking at four major aspects. The first is the way people form beliefs. The second is the two targets of propaganda. The third is the three types of propaganda, and the fourth is the three hallmarks of good propaganda.
How People Form Beliefs
You may find it profoundly concerning that humans form their beliefs irrationally. You may also be tempted to protest that other people might do this, but that you personally certainly don’t. (Don’t do this – you’ll just prove Michael Shermer right.) But Shermer, in his book The Believing Brain, is quite explicit: “We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons… beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.” A common axiom of social psychology is “people are rationalizing, not rational.”
It’s easy to understand why the brain does this. We live in an ever-more-complicated world, much of which we don’t understand. We simply don’t have time to research the facts about every technological development, every moral issue, every geopolitical quandary before making decisions – but yet we live in a world where we are expected to have a stance on many of these things. There is too much to know, and not enough time. Making snap decisions based on intuition is our brain’s way of taking a shortcut to the finish line. Many times these snap decisions are correct. Sometimes they are not.
People are split on whether this irrationality is a feature or a bug in our brain’s cognitive programming. Some, like Shermer, believe that irrationality is a bug which prevents us from living a life of pure reason. Others believe that irrationality is a feature, and point to the ways in which we use emotion to encourage social norms and mores. After all, a parent’s love for a child is emotional, not strictly rational, but without that attachment, society would collapse.
As this relates to EVE, it’s important to understand that our beliefs about the game – specifically, our attitudes toward certain players and in-game organizations – are most likely emotional, not rational. These beliefs are informed by our personal biases and past experiences. Because we have formed beliefs for emotional reasons and are in need of “facts” to justify those beliefs to ourselves and others, we are the perfect target for propaganda – a specific form of communication which is designed to either encourage sympathy toward one group or to encourage antipathy toward another group.
Whether you’re sympathetic to, let’s say, Bombers Bar, depends largely on whether you’re a member of the group or whether you belong to one of the organizations (most frequently Goonswarm and Test Alliance Please Ignore [TEST]) that they target. (If you’re not a member of any of those groups, your attitude toward Bombers Bar depends on your attitude toward the people they target and whether you have sympathy for those people or for the people who attack them.) If you belong to Pandemic Legion (PL), you probably have an emotional attachment to PL and will find those emotions aroused if someone speaks negatively about them. For my part, I have an emotional reaction to PL because I lived in Providence in January of 2017 when PL and friends invaded. I experienced the loss of my space-home and the stress of having to move my stuff to the other end of the galaxy when my corporation relocated. Because of that, I take special delight in stories of PL’s misfortune.
All of the examples I just gave are attachments formed on the basis of emotion, not reason – and that’s not a bad thing. We don’t sit down and crunch statistics before deciding which in-game organizations to like or dislike. We filter things through our personal experiences and our personal biases. This is inevitable. There are over 850,000 corporations and over 9,000 alliances in the game. We literally do not have time to acquire facts about all of them, or even a meaningful fraction of them, in order to make rational decisions. So our brains take that shortcut we talked about earlier, and presto, we have emotional beliefs in search of justification. In fact, even having beliefs about EVE at all indicates a degree of irrationality; wouldn’t a perfectly rational person choose to do something else with his or her time, something that offers a tangible reward for the time invested, such as running a real-life business instead of a space alliance or learning a foreign language instead of mastering EVE slang and acronyms? Because we’ve committed to playing the game, we’ve already made the cognitive investment that gets a foot in the door for EVE’s propagandists.
Propaganda is the perfect tool for this situation. It’s an appeal to emotion that helps people feel justified in whatever it is they already believed.
Two Targets of Propaganda
We defined propaganda earlier as a specific form of communication which is designed to either encourage sympathy toward one group or to encourage antipathy toward another group. It can take various forms, which will be discussed in more detail below, but most often shows up in a visual medium (memes, comics, edited images) or in the form of a short phrase which can be easily repeated (something like “NCdock” or “Goons are botters,” both of which will be addressed later).
The two targets of propaganda are given in the definition: it can either be aimed at “ourselves” or at “the other.” The first type is when one group says positive things about itself, with the goal of either encouraging its own members or eliciting sympathy or support from people who are not members of the organization. The Glassing of Tribute is a great example of this. It sends a clear and simple message, to Imperium members and to neutral observers, that the Imperium is going to be successful in their current offensive in Tribute.
The second type, propaganda about “the other,” is aimed at a group other than one’s own and is intended to either demoralize members of that group or else stir up negative emotions about the group from unaffiliated outside observers. A recent humorous example is Dude, Where’s My Invasion? I wouldn’t say that this image was designed to “stir up negative emotions” about CCP as such, but it was definitely intended to tap in to a widespread public feeling about CCP and its inability to manage large in-game events (a feeling which only became more pronounced after the controversial decision earlier this year to cancel the Alliance Tournament).
As you encounter propaganda, whether on Reddit or the EVE forums or your alliance’s own website, ask yourself who it’s aimed at and what claims it’s making about “ourselves” or about “the other.”
Three Types of Propaganda
There are a few different types of propaganda, grouped by the looseness or tightness of their connection to reality.
The first is to make observations that are simply true. “But wait,” you might say, “if you say true things, isn’t that just called news? How can it be propaganda if there’s no falsehood in it?” The answer is that it depends largely on the motivations of the person who’s making the claim. Let’s take, by way of a recent example, this Reddit post, which sarcastically asks TEST Military Director Vily for an AAR of a battle which TEST and its coalition-mates lost heavily. Now, is there any falsehood or spin whatsoever in the post? Of course not. A battle really happened, and the battle report linked in the article is accurate, and there was no AAR posted from Vily or any other TEST representative. But the writer’s intention was not to transmit news; they weren’t providing context or information about a battle that would have been of interest to the community at large. Their intention was to make a statement about Vily and to give their readers a certain negative opinion about TEST’s military prowess. That’s an example of how even a true statement can be propaganda. One of the great misconceptions is that propaganda means something false. In fact, as we’ll learn shortly, in order for propaganda to work, it actually has to be true.
The second type of propaganda is unified messaging, which is best defined as an intentional oversimplification of complicated events in order for large numbers of people to have the same understanding of it. Consider this image:
Now, is “United We Will Win” an objectively true claim? Of course not. It’s wishful thinking. It’s certainly not a lie – it’s a lot easier to win united than it is to win divided – but it’s an intentional oversimplification of what it takes to win a war. However, if everyone in the alliance truly believed the message, their dedication to fleets would increase and they actually would be more likely to win. Another example of unified messaging is the name given to the 2016 war that saw Goonswarm displaced from its home in the north. Much of EVE, including CCP, refers to it as World War Bee, a bland name that conveys no useful information other than that Goonswarm was involved in some unspecified capacity. The Imperium prefers to call it the Casino War, which keeps front and center the true cause of the war: that it was bankrolled with illegal ISK from in-game casinos and real-money transactions. “The Casino War” clearly establishes the narrative that Goons were done dirty by various underhanded in-game entities and even by CCP, who did not punish those violations of their EULA until after the Casino War was already over.
When 2018 came around and the Imperium invaded the north, “revenge for the Casino War” was the unified message. Everyone in the Imperium, even those who had been away from the game for weeks or months and couldn’t figure out why we were allied with TEST, could understand “revenge for the Casino War.” That’s an example of unified messaging: there’s no falsehood or spin in it, but it’s simple enough for everyone to understand, even if that process of simplification has caused some nuance and detail to be lost in the mix.
The final type of propaganda is spin, which is giving a narrative that’s partially true but that leaves out certain details which don’t advance the narrative. Now, understand me clearly: there’s no inherent problem with leaving out certain parts of a story. In college I trained to be a history teacher, so I say with some authority that all history is a simplification. Every writer of history makes decisions about who she’s going to include in the retelling and who she’s going to leave out, what back story and context is important enough to include and what isn’t, what events are central to the narrative and which there simply isn’t time for. The amount of time that a historian has to retell an event is dictated by medium (are you writing a small pamphlet or an entire TV miniseries?) and by audience (you can’t write with the same detail for eight-year-olds that you can for people pursuing their doctorate degrees).
A proper historian will make all of those difficult decisions from the point of view of, “How do I convey this information as accurately as possible given the limitations of time, medium, and audience?” Spin makes the same decisions from the point of view of, “How do I make my people look as good as possible, and our enemies as bad as possible?” Northern Coalition dot (NCdot) has been referred to for years as NCdock, a riff on their real or imagined reluctance to undock and take any fight in which they’re not guaranteed victory. This is a good example of spin. Most alliances in the game have engaged in the same behavior at some point, so it’s not that anyone really has a problem with NCdot staying docked if outnumbered five-to-one. But at the same time, it’s possible to tell a story that depicts their choices in the worst possible light, and so that’s the story that NCdot’s enemies tell. Welcome to the magical world of propaganda in action. As with all the previous examples, the claim is rooted in truth, but with key details, nuance, and context left out in order to create the most uncharitable depiction possible of NCdot.
Those are the three fundamental types of propaganda: simple truth (though told in bad faith), unified messaging, and spin.
Hallmarks of Good Propaganda
At any given moment, there are twenty to thirty thousand people logged in across New Eden. They come from diverse cultures and ethnicities. They speak dozens if not hundreds of different languages. They have varying degrees of education. Crafting propaganda to appeal to such a diverse audience is not easy. In my estimation, good propaganda has three fundamental qualities:
- It must be rooted in truth. One of the most common narratives surrounding Goonswarm for the past few years is that it’s full of botters. Was there any truth to the claim? Probably at least a fragment; I believe if you took any sample of 31,000 players from EVE (the population of Goonswarm), you would find a number of botters among them. The fact that 31,000 Goons are typically found only in the region of Delve, whereas most other (much smaller) alliances have rental empires that span multiple regions, means that it may have been easier to locate botters within Delve due to the higher population density. However, when CCP Peligro posted a pie chart showing the greatest botter bans per alliance, the data didn’t back up the Goons-as-botters narrative. As such, that narrative has largely died off. Now that it is known to be false, it is useless as propaganda. Another good example of this is the “Band of Developers” scandal from the early days of EVE. Goons alleged that CCP developers favored the Band of Brothers (BoB) alliance, and eventually, proof came out that a developer had indeed gifted BoB some priceless Blueprint Originals. If the claim of favoritism had been baseless and false, it would have been useless as propaganda. The fact that it was true spurred most of New Eden – by some accounts, 90% of the entire player base of the game – to team up against BoB and ultimately destroy them.
- It must be simple and easy to understand and to repeat. There is room for nuance in history, but not in propaganda. You don’t have to speak much English to get on board with “Revenge for the Casino War” or to comprehend the idea of “NCdock” or “Goons = botters.” “The Glassing of Tribute” is a four-word masterpiece of propaganda for precisely this reason. If you want an idea to become widely spread, you have to make sure that everyone can repeat it.
- It must be opportunistic. If your opponent messes up, you have to seize on that and ram it into the ground while you have the chance. Analysts of the “NCdock” meme will note that Goonswarm engaged in the same behavior during the Casino War, refusing to undock while outnumbered. That is unquestionably true – but Goonswarm did it then while NCdot is doing it now. Remember, nuance does not have a role in propaganda, and so the meme proliferates unchecked. Another good example of this is the botter narrative discussed in a previous paragraph. Once the actual data on botting came out, enemies of the Imperium dropped that narrative, and will doubtless seize on a new one when the chance presents itself. If your opponent welps a fleet, propaganda that. If your opponent’s leader says something stupid or bigoted, propaganda that. If some news comes out that’s extremely unflattering to your opponent, propaganda that. Seize the moment and make the most of it.
Remember, all propaganda should be fundamentally an appeal to emotion, because emotion is how humans form the majority of their beliefs. There’s a place for reason, for facts and statistics (as we found when the botting data changed the narrative around Goonswarm), but therein lies the difficulty of making truly good propaganda: it must be rooted in truth while still being an appeal to emotion; it must convey truth while still being easy to understand and repeat; and it must be opportunistic without being something that is forgotten in a week or two.
Given that people are primarily driven by emotion, having a strong propaganda arm is important for any in-game organization. Whether this is something formal, such as the Imperium’s Ministry of Truth, or whether it is something informal that consists of dedicated people posting well-thought-out propaganda on Reddit, managing the community’s perceptions of your organization is crucial. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with appealing to emotion in order to shape people’s thoughts and perceptions of you; if we are most basically emotional creatures rather than rational ones, then you have to speak to us in the language we know best, which is feelings. You won’t always convince people – because, remember, those people have oftentimes already formed their beliefs, and are looking to justify what they already believe, not to be persuaded – but with dedicated effort over time, you and your organization can master the art of the meme.