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The manipulation of public opinion

REMINDER : Any denunciation of manipulation is attacked as if it were an apology for naivety, or even obscure interests. Opportunistic cynicism easily considers that one does not go against power dynamics. It's the idea that viewpoints are fixed and only communicate through violence. However, the primary impulse of opinion is to understand. The manipulator will help in their own way. Let's remember that sensitivity to conditioning is a mark of intelligence. Propaganda claims to shed light on a viewpoint, but its illumination makes it doubtful. Its presence clouds judgment, which no longer feels free; because freedom is not given, but to be acquired. Advertising and its techniques aim to prevent rational decisions. Advertising explicitly opposes any scientific inquiry: it promotes existing evidence, if not illusion, when democracy demands contradiction. Perception, opinion, sensations are particularly manipulable, which is why hypersensitivity, intolerance are easy. There is a consensual propaganda, a zeitgeist, a "moraline" as Nietzsche said, which wants to divide the world into two camps and irrevocably condemns one. It's quite handy. Life isn't so simple, and those behind this moraline know it well, but they use this need for explanation present in everyone. After the great fire of Rome, Nero let the Christians be accused. Today, we talk about the price of social peace ...

We know well that there is no message without form, no signified without signifier. Let the structuralists play with their toys. It's difficult to say where manipulation begins and who doesn't practice it, more or less in their interactions with others, if only to seek help or love. "Thus, it is common to qualify the use of old rhetoric aimed at convincing by leading others' reasoning in the desired direction and eliciting their emotions as manipulation : acting both on a logical level and on a properly pathetic level : making others feel passions. However, it is one thing to act on people directly through persuasive discourse. It is another to act on the situation by organizing false appearances." (François-Bernard Huygue)

We support no one. We criticize, among other things, the professionalization of media or politics, and we find it unacceptable that these careers bring more benefits than independence and competence require. But that's not our point now. Truth has no party. Not everything is fair against an enemy. It's also not about participating in the lynching of these spokespersons, even if they reap what they sow. We also do not believe in conspiracies that would control the world: we can see the incompetence of these leaders. Believing in conspiracy is giving them too much credit for efficiency.

Propaganda (or advertising) is often attributed an effectiveness it is far from possessing. Acting on emotions only makes sense if public opinion matters. While propaganda may be more homogeneous in a coercive state, it is less effective there, surpassed by the natural mistrust toward unchallenged discourse. In capitalism, an objective interest commands both leaders and public opinion. Thus, there can be a coherence of deconstruction: this disorientation corresponds to interests, even if there is no conspiracy or guiding will. It is the functioning alone that is at work, alienating even the leaders themselves, in which vanity has its place. This lobbying only exists in democracies, the only regimes in which authority stems from influence : "The Conscious intelligent manipulation of the organized opinions and habits of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our society. It is the intelligent minorities who must systematically and continuously make use of propaganda." (Edward Bernays, Propaganda, New York, 1928) This lobbying has been particularly well understood by the "woke" who claim to reject influence if they do not control it. The image of reality has become the stake of a power struggle, and lobbyists, think tanks, advertisers, and propagandists play on public opinion, reinforcing the structuralist doubt between form and substance.

Propaganda is the offspring of the humanities and the knowledge of popular sentiments. The idea and use of images, messages, and manipulation of the public through an understanding of its motivations are key elements of current culture. The opium of the people today is political, cultural, and economic propaganda, whose most effective weapon and most insidious illusion are to persuade us that signs are things.

Everyone knows that in case of aggression, one shouldn't rely too much on the police. At most, they'll agree to take your complaint the next day, and many women won't go to a police station the day after a rape. If someone close to you wishes you harm, a lawyer at their service can harass you and ruin your reputation before you can defend yourself. They can drag out your case long enough for you (or your heirs) to accept anything just to end it. If you happen to cross paths with a disturbed individual or a violent antisocial person, tough luck for you. If your fate doesn't fall into the hands of an examining magistrate, you're in trouble. If a journalist writes an article about you or simply uses you as the subject of one of their righteous indignations, beware of the image you portray and how they will use it for purposes beyond your understanding. When you're stopped by the police, you know it's best to be polite. When questioned by the press, you need to know their intentions. Unfortunate extras on television shows whose codes don't match those of the broadcast ! Without changing, you can go from being victims of a xenophobic capitalism to backward bumpkins in the grand spectacle of zapping.
There's a legal country and a real country. This division is well known. What's less known is the dramatic evolution of this opposition. There's a talkative, visible, well-meaning, moralizing, inevitably inclusive country, whose apparent kindness borders on arrogance (but specialists are working on mastering that ...) and a silent, private, peripheral, deplorable, and rotten country, miserably located. Unfortunately, this latter country is abandoned to wild competition, unemployment, precariousness, lack of teaching of our Nation and its culture, while at the same time being lectured to behave properly. This division allows those who control information to demonize their opponents. Society is based on the sharing of evidence : "Philosophy teaches us to doubt what appears obvious to us. Propaganda, on the contrary, teaches us to accept as obvious what it would be reasonable to doubt." Aldous Huxley

In 2017, the murderer of two women in Marseille had been convicted and should not have been free. Nordahl Lelandais was arrested after killing at least two people, including a young girl, but it's been revealed that complaints against him had been piling up for ten years. This means that if your neighbor threatens to kill you, you have to wait until they are suspected of an actual crime to be relieved of the threat ...
Next to this grim reality, the spectacular world is required to present a smooth and perfect façade. Genuine outrage, sometimes based on intolerance, is mixed with criminal scandals. Rape is equated with a sexist remark. As there's no society without crime, we reassure ourselves with the spectacle of a witch hunt. We exorcise through fire. "When it's blurry, there's a wolf," the pack says on social media.
One wonders if outrage doesn't replace action, if mobilizing public opinion on one issue doesn't hide inaction on another.

Two forces are in conflict. There is, at the same time, an official language of moralization that seeks to guide the population (and they resist), and a need for morality (plain and simple) that should be imposed on the powerful. It's the space of a smokescreen, a misunderstanding of both sides, organized by the preservation of organizations. (If there is indeed class struggle, it's the struggle of one class to dominate the others.)
All this to establish that procedures may be perfect, but their execution will not be ; and those who demand perfect procedures justify their distance from the work. People's opinions shape their relationship (or lack thereof) with reality.
This distinction applies daily to everyone's lives. Thus, security, justice, and public services are intangible data for everyone, while they represent practical possibilities for others. Laws are made by some and for others. Pure democracy probably doesn't exist (although in Switzerland, each citizen can request a vote or demand respect from the police, for example), just as the most absolute dictatorship (perhaps that of the Khmer Rouge) needs popular support.
The primacy of fundamental rights, such as security, over the morality of the time is a sign of democracy. The fact that laws apply to everyone equally. Thus, democracy can oppose popular judgment.

We know that it's forbidden to jaywalk, but we can do it, and the state doesn't have the means to enforce all the decisions it makes, often only for show. In this space of tolerance, citizens find breathing room, while the state finds the means for occasional actions that sometimes serve specific goals. It's in this spirit that the French Republic has provided that elected officials have discretionary but limited means, subject to some controls, that justice must be independent, that investigated individuals are presumed innocent, that governments must respect the constitution, for example.
These fictions are surpassed by the invention and marvellous refinement of propaganda. The spectacle plays with these republican principles. In this game of fools, if everyone is presumed honest, rewards often go to those who are not. Thus, the demand for ever more coercive procedures gives a shining garment to those who do nothing to deserve it.
Intimidation is a legal means of acting illegally. Everyone has the right to threaten with a lawsuit, but not everyone has the money and energy to fight.
In the moral stance of elected officials, there is therefore a degree of hypocrisy, because they know that not everything can be said, and they need autonomy from the opinion of their constituents. This hypocrisy is dated, and what can be said at one moment is no longer accepted at another. This is why Hollande's presidency, with its moral discourse, took hypocrisy to a new level. As an "exemplary" government, it accumulated an unbelievable series of scandals. If the most well-known is that of Jerome Cahusac, we must not forget all the others, including one of the first : the personal intervention of the head of state (responsible for the independence of the judiciary) with a judge who was to rule on a complaint from Valerie Trierweiler. Regarding the Judiciary, we saw the influence of the choice of individuals and the decrease in the objectivity of state servants. At the same time, one can have a discourse on impeccable morality and appoint people whose orientations are known. It is the government of the status quo, well known in "scientific socialism" of Comrade Stalin. There's nothing but "fair game" here, one might think. This overlooks that we are at a moment when doubt about the republic, democracy, and the independence of the state is tipping our societies. If they retaliate by electing Trumps or Le Pen, it will be the last gift that these self-proclaimed well-thinking and quite corrupt elites will have bequeathed us. The idea that corruption is only related to money matters is, moreover, one of their disguises.

These campaigns of moralization have been extended by spectacular laws of moralization. They are indicative of a qualitative leap that is distancing us from democracy. We know that democracy is not just about voting, but that it lives in the respect and action of citizens and their associations. In the expression of the Nation, in daily life, in orientation choices, there are always two voices : that of the government, often that of a dominant class or at least of a superstructure that wants to maintain itself, and that of the people, a sort of controlled hubbub more or less controlled by the former. Two conceptions of society are then opposed, which can be caricatured as follows :
/ The fascist conception, but also simply advertising, returns to the people a credible version of its discourse, unitary, purified, and oriented by power to strengthen it,
/ The democratic conception obeys the organization resulting from popular discourse, necessarily including contradictions, according to the structure that the country has given itself.

In other words, the government serves the people (this is the meaning of the words minister, deputy, etc.) or leads them (in German, Führer means leader, helmsman). Propaganda in this case aims to deceive rather than enlighten. The appetite for coherence in the face of a random world lays the groundwork for moralizing violence.

If justice operates with adversarial procedures and the burden of proof, for example, the same cannot be said for the press, as we already saw with Strauss-Kahn. Suspicions are far more effective than justice. Conversely, when a man is caught in the act of a knife attack, the media refer to him as an "alleged" perpetrator.
"Slander, slander, and something will always remain," said Voltaire.
Is this ultimately a desperate resurgence of the ruling class, in agony since '68 ? They began their careers on the corpse of the revolution, ending them by locking themselves in their bunkers. The Anthropocene gives a predominant place to the industry of persuasion: nature must adapt to advertising. When a minister confesses to his own "administrative phobia", the Society of the Spectacle has reached the point where appearance is completely disconnected from reality : the message has become autonomous, a final victory for the structuralists.
One wonders if there isn't a law that suggests shameless domination needs moralizing publicity, according to Gustave Le Bon's invention and George Orwell's denunciation.

This "influence" is neither new nor unique to France. When the United States uses extraterritorial clauses to impose fines on foreign companies, as seen with Société Générale or Alstom, it's economic warfare hiding behind pretexts. The abundance of American lawyers reveals the form of modern power.
Therefore, we must distinguish in this manipulation of opinion between pretext, camouflage, and influence, message. There is often a kernel of truth in these "communications," which makes them more powerful. This truth claims to be the essence of the described event, while it justifies an overall message. Intervening in opinion has never been prohibited in democracies. Slander is condemnable, but sometimes difficult to combat. This leads us back to the obligation of truth and its defense as a fundamental principle of democracy.

"If totalitarian states have always wanted to intervene in opinion from the beginning, it is only recently that democracies have done so on the same scale. Information thus becomes, as in wartime, a tense space. The Gulf War and the collapse of the USSR (1991) were a shock to Iranian and Chinese leaders, who perceived American superiority in the information field as an existential threat to their regime. Even before 2001, Russia, China, and Iran saw themselves as being at war for the survival of their respective regimes. The principle is to monitor national interest, even to export it by establishing influence networks to gain a foothold in dominant media. The focus of this battle is public opinion, which needs to be influenced and conditioned in its perceptions, by producing destabilizing narratives. All of Russia's public and private resources are mobilized to accelerate the "decomposition" of democratic societies, encouraging existing dissent and chaos, amplifying distrust of established institutions, and weakening the "regime of truth," i.e., the framework for enunciating what is true and what is false, in order to deprive Western citizens and their leaders of the ability to make rational decisions. The manufacture of distrust and doubt is a long-term project, pursued by the KGB since the 1950s, but suddenly accelerated by the opportunities offered by social networks, starting with Facebook and Twitter, in terms of content amplification and dissemination and targeting psychologically vulnerable individuals." - David Colon

If Americans are the masters of the world, they are challenged by the Russians. Their "dezinformatsiya" is a formidable weapon. Jean-Jacques Mevel explains that the West is the target of a "hybrid war," where false information aims to discredit institutions.

When the word "disinformation" comes up, the world of intelligence inevitably refers to an article published on February 26, 2013, in the Russian defense magazine VPK (Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kurier, "Military-Industrial Courier"). General Valery Gerasimov, newly appointed Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, unveils his strategy and outlines, supported by graphics, the key elements of what will soon be called in the West "hybrid warfare." A conflict where lines are blurred. Where military force is no longer necessarily decisive. And where, without being at war, one is not quite at peace.

"The value of non-military tools in achieving political and strategic goals is increasing, and often they outshine the power of weapons in effectiveness," explains General Gerasimov to his troops, the Kremlin, and undoubtedly the rest of the world. The method outlined in VPK involves "increased use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other tools." There is even talk of a fifth column. A Russian warning ? On paper, the concept does not appear particularly innovative. From the power of attraction (soft power) to "total war," power strategies have long played across the entire spectrum.

The perception of the VPK article abruptly changed in March 2014 with the landing of "little green men" in Crimea. These troops, without flags, without distinctive signs but hooded and speaking Russian, secured the annexation of part of Ukrainian territory. The Kremlin went from theory to practice. The casualties were few, but a recognized border was transgressed. In eastern Ukraine, the armed secession of Donbass, more violent, shortly thereafter provided another example of a conflict for which Moscow disclaims any responsibility, with a hand over the heart. Hybrid also means obscuring paternity ...

Three years later, it's no longer the commandos in green camouflage, but the "trolls" who sow trouble in the West. These spirits, even more malicious than their Scandinavian ancestors, spread rumours, discord, and fake news in the jungle of the Web. They reproduce at lightning speed. At the end of the American campaign, they accused Hillary Clinton of running a paedophile network from a pizzeria in the federal capital. In Berlin, they invented the rape of Lisa, 13, then triggered anti-refugee demonstrations to Angela Merkel's Chancellery. In France, they fuelled a vicious campaign about Emmanuel Macron's private life when he was a candidate.

No one can say with certainty that the trolls are acting on Kremlin orders, like the little green men of Sebastopol. But the presumption is weighty. The native language of these cyber-creatures is often Russian, their internet address often leads to Russia. Their targets in the West share equal distrust of Vladimir Putin. Ultimately, everything suggests that their dirty tricks are orchestrated.

The trolls even have their "factories," a network of manipulators, computer experts, and keyboard workers located in St. Petersburg, the city of the Russian president, according to some Western intelligence. The NATO alliance is the designated adversary of General Gerasimov. Not surprisingly, after three years of Ukrainian crisis, NATO remains the primary target of cyberbombardment.

In essence, allies must defend against a persistent myth : the "encirclement" of the Russian Federation. A glance at the map shows that the only contact borders are two almost unarmed Baltic countries (Estonia and Latvia), the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad now defended by nuclear-capable missiles, and a few dozen kilometers of national park in the extreme north of Norway. It's little for the pincer grip of a continent-sized country with 20,000 km of borders, an active army of 750,000 men, and a revitalized arsenal of intercontinental missiles.

It doesn't matter. On January 9, 2019, citing "Western media," the Russian state agency RIA Novosti released a dispatch announcing the imminent deployment of 3,600 US Army combat tanks in Europe. That's over 40% of the American arsenal ! The source ?, the website of a so-called Canadian think tank, anti-NATO, pro-Putin, and specialized in conspiracy theories. Targeting the German audience, the Russian state-owned RT-Deutsch (Russia Today group) speaks of only 2,000 American armoured vehicles, but this is just the beginning, a "signal sent against Moscow." This double "duck" started five days earlier on an information website based in Donetsk, the unofficial capital of Russian-speaking separatists in Donbass : "Massive NATO Deployment : Washington sends 3,600 tanks against Russia." The siege has begun ...

In Brussels, the Alliance says it has faced a 400% increase in disinformation volume over three years. On its website, NATO has catalogued 32 "Russian myths," from reality distortion about Kosovo in 1999 to the alleged liberation of Crimea in 2014. As for the US Army, it did indeed unload M1A1 Abrams heavy tanks in Bremerhaven in January. But there were only 87 in total, intended to "reassure" Poland and the Baltic States against repeated Kremlin manoeuvrers, according to NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu. For the same mission, four French Leclerc tanks will soon be dispatched to Estonia (under British command), then to Lithuania (under German command).

"Soviet propaganda used the same approach in its golden age," says a professional tasked with unearthing large-scale fakery : first planting a lie in a Western newspaper, then using the latter as a credible source in regime media to support its own theses. But there is a big difference : the speed of propagation and the multiplicity of Internet channels today allow bypassing almost all filters. The rest is copy and paste. It's also no coincidence that the disinformation machine runs at full speed on weekends, when Western newsrooms are understaffed ...

In Russia, the audience has been mostly captive since Vladimir Putin reduced what is called civil society to passive resistance. The system governs the message almost everywhere, from media to NGOs, universities to think tanks, not to mention Parliament and of course banks. The method has since spread throughout the rest of the former Soviet empire, through a shared language and networks. More recently, especially in the Balkans, it has expanded to the limits of the so-called "Orthodox fraternity," a front for the desired sphere of influence by Moscow. From the Baltic states to the heart of Germany, this propaganda still finds favour among millions of native Russian speakers, immigrants, or expatriates.

"Every nation aspires to be well-regarded by its neighbours. Russia, however, has chosen a path that has nothing to do with the BBC, the Alliance Française, or the Goethe Institut," explains Vit Novotny, Czech co-author of a thorough report on Kremlin's external propaganda. It's not about promoting a positive image, but about undermining trust within European democracies and showing, without declaring, its ability to cause harm.

Dezinformatsiya casts doubt on established facts, discredits men and institutions that are troublesome. It buries evidence under layers of rumours and falsehoods. "Revealing the underbelly of history !" is the ambition declared by Sputnik, a radio/Internet portal that stirs up trouble in around thirty languages. Under Russian state control, it is a cousin of Russia Today.

The machine for obscuring facts with "alternative" versions, sometimes deliberately contradictory, went into overdrive in the summer of 2014, after the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by a missile fired from the ground, over separatist Eastern Ukraine (298 dead, mostly Dutch): the CIA would have done it, as on September 11, 2001 in Manhattan, this time to discredit the Kremlin. A Ukrainian fighter would have shot down the plane, believing it to be President Putin's. The Boeing 777 would have taken off from Amsterdam-Schiphol already loaded with corpses, etc. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has his own definition of disinformation: it consists of "throwing mud into clear water and then claiming that it is dirty."

We know the story, with the 'liberation' of Ukraine. Yet we see with Zelensky that propaganda is shared and that truth has its place.

The difference likely lies in maturity versus imagination : "The more modest its scientific content, the more it appeals exclusively to the senses of the crowd, the more decisive its success will be. This is the best proof of the value of propaganda, much more so than the approval of a few educated minds or young aesthetes. The art of propaganda consists precisely in making itself accessible to the environments in which the imagination operates, those of the great mass dominated by instinct, finding, by taking a psychologically appropriate form, the path to their hearts. That this is not understood by those among us who are supposed to reach the height of wisdom, only demonstrates their intellectual laziness or presumption.
It is absurd to give propaganda the diversity of a scientific education. The assimilation capacity of the great mass is very limited, their understanding small, but their lack of memory is great. Therefore, effective propaganda must be limited to very few points and emphasized with stereotyped formulas as long as necessary, so that even the last listener can grasp the idea. If this principle is abandoned and one seeks to be universal, its effects will be diminished, for the multitude will neither digest nor retain what is offered to them. Thus, success will be weakened and eventually annulled. Thus, the more extensive the content of the exposition, the more necessary is the psychological accuracy in determining the tactic" (Gustave Le Bon).