Psyops and marketing: Two sides of the same coin

If our adversaries had set out to design a tool for delivering targeted propaganda to American citizens it would be hard to imagine anything better than Facebook.

During World War I Edward Bernays worked for the  Committee on Public Information. His task was to build support for the war both domestically and abroad. He referred to his work as “psychological warfare”

After the war he needed to earn a living. He wrote his Machiavellian style job application as a book titled “Propaganda”. His goals with the book were two fold. One, to shift negative connotations around the word. Two, to convince American companies his techniques could be used to move Americans to buy their products. He failed on the first goal, but succeeded in the second. He is known as the “father of public relations.” His client list is a who’s who of American foundational companies, including Proctor & Gamble, General Electric, American Tobacco Company, Dodge Motors.

Marketing is the private sector application of psyops

Moving people to decide to eat a hamburger, buy a new car, switch brands of soap, vote for a candidate, decide not to vote — it’s all driven by the art and science of influence messaging. Consider these basic tenants that of social media marketing and you see the industry’s roots in psychological warfare.

8 to 10 touches – It takes eight to ten touches to move a new potential to a sale. In the modern market place that doesn’t mean calling them ten times. It means slowly saturating their world with your message. They see your promoted post of Facebook. Another on Instagram, Google drops ads on other websites they visit. Another Facebook post pops up. A celebrity influencer endorses your product by featuring it in their social media posts. A personal friend shares your funny post. If they opt in to your messaging by following your social media your content is delivered directly to their feed.

Power of images – Social media companies worked hard to develop their platforms to share images and then videos because images really are worth a thousand words to deliver a message. They by pass the logic centers and mainline into the brain’s emotional centers.

Emotions sell –  People rarely make a buying decision based on logic. They make the decision from emotion and apply logic to justify it. The most powerful sales driving emotion is fear. Happiness and reaching for a better life are effective too. But if you really want to influence a behavior figure out what keeps them up at 3am. Figure out the subliminal motivators they don’t even realize are driving their decisions.

Test, test, test and follow the data – One can only imagine what Edward Bernays would have thought of social media marketing tools where it is possible to track almost every response to a campaign. Where A/B testing campaigns can deliver precise feedback on customer response in a matter of days. A/B testing is when two versions of the same ad are posted. For example, they may have the exact same messaging, but two different pictures. The more successful is then run against another version and so on and so on.

Facebook is the ultimate propaganda delivery machine

There is a saying in the tech start-up industry, “If you’re not paying, you are the product.” It is a fact of capitalism survival of the fittest that companies need to generate revenue to stay in business and pay employees. If consumers are getting to use a product or service without a monetary charge, the company has developed another revenue model. Usually, one commoditizing user attention and/or data.

Most Facebook users mistakenly believe they are Facebook’s customers The customer is the person paying. On Facebook advertisers are the customers. Facebook’s prime directive is to constantly build a better tool for advertisers to sell to Facebook users. In doing so they have created the ultimate tool for delivering propaganda.

Building user profiles – In 2008 Facebook opened up membership from just college students to everyone. For the last decade Americans have been making daily contributions to their own marketing dossiers. Even that wasn’t enough for Facebook. The company has also been building systems to vacuum up every bit of data they can about users outside their platform. Scraping data from other sites visited. All those convenient “Log in with your Facebook” websites and apps. Aren’t free. The price is the data on all your activity on that site. Grant Facebook access to your contacts and they mine them for your network and affiliations. Facebook has profiles of people who have never had a Facebook account because their email address was in the contact list of a friend, family member or colleague who gave Facebook access to their contacts.

Grooming users – Everyday millions of people log into Facebook to deposit more information about themselves and to scroll through the news and information the algorithm has determined will be most interesting to them to keep them on the site longer. Rather like veal calves. Many people swallow whatever Facebook puts into their feed.

Sites like Facebook and Google which intended to help users find what is most interesting to them had the unintended consequences of creating confirmation bias bubbles. As soon as a user clicks on a content link the algorithm delivers more of the same. The algorithms have gotten so efficient that it takes effort to search for a different perspective on an issue.

Delivering targeted messages – Now we have a rich profile of millions of people – their likes, their dislikes, their hopes, their fears, their social networks, their age, their political orientation, their sexual orientation, their income, their location, to name a few things. We have them tuning in everyday to find out what is going on in their world and to be entertained. The final piece is the system to deliver 8 to 10 messages finely tuned to them.

Facebook’s ads do just that. The make precision guided munitions look clumsy. If you know who you want to target Facebook ads can deliver. Some people argue the Russian Facebook ads in 2016 weren’t effective because they didn’t go viral. They didn’t have a big reach. They didn’t need all of them to reach tens of thousands of people. They only needed to reach a few thousand specific people.

Social media brought Bernays’ work full circle. The ultimate propaganda weapon was created in the private sector as a marketing tool.

Winning the unwinnable arms race

We will never win the information arms race on social media. This battle has been going on since the advent of the sites. As soon as Facebook, Google, or Twitter updated their algorithms my marketing friends convened for sushi, sake, and strategy. We got busy figuring out how to work the news system to our clients’ best advantage. The obstacles social media companies throw up to counter warfare tactics will always be temporary and will only lead to further innovation by attackers.

Playing whack-a-mole with Russian bots and trolls is theatre of counter measures.To truly counter information operations we need to drop down to the foundational level.  We need to train people recognize influence tactics wherever they appear. We need to inoculate the herd against propaganda, disinformation, and manipulation. 

Like a biological virus, information contagions are dependent on enough susceptible hosts to spread. As the Macedonian Google ad gamers discovered, some types of information did not spread because it met too many potential hosts that rejected it. As with biological the whole herd does not need to be immune to propaganda and disinformation, we just need to reach critical mass of inhibitors. Even reaching critical mass will require a large strategic and sustained effort with collaboration across domains.