Propaganda used to mean getting people to believe stuff. Now it means getting them to question what they believe or whether there’s any truth at all. However disorienting this is, it may not be all bad.
The term “propaganda” originally referred to a 17th-century committee of Roman Catholic cardinals that sought to propagate the religion through foreign missions — the marginally and only temporarily benevolent face of European colonialism. In modern times, public relations guru Ed Bernays revived the term to describe the way Woodrow Wilson’s administration convinced Americans to support U.S. involvement in World War I. Propaganda was about telling the same story through so many media channels at once that there appeared to be only one story.
Today, however, the primary goal of government propaganda is to undermine our faith in everything. Not just our belief in particular stories in the news, but our trust in the people who are telling the stories, the platforms, and fact-based reality itself. Facts are, after all, the enemy of beliefs.
What many of us forget is that this new style of influence through disorientation is really an appropriation of the counterculture’s techniques. This is what the Situationists were doing. So were the hippies and “heads” of the 1960s.
Before Watergate anyway, it felt as if the press and the government were on the same side, telling the same story to us all. There was no way for the underfunded counterculture to compete with mainstream reality programming—except by undermining its premises. The flower children couldn’t overwhelm Richard Nixon’s National Guard troops, but they could put daisies in the barrels of their rifles.
Taken to the extreme, this sort of activist satire became Operation Mindfuck, first announced in 1968 by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea in their Illuminatus Trilogy. The idea was to undermine people’s faith in government, authority, and the sanctity of consensus reality itself by pranking everything, all the time.
The idea of Operation Mindfuck was to break the trance that kept America at war, blindly consuming, and oblivious to its impact on the rest of the world. Destabilize the dominant cultural narrative through pranks and confusion. Say things that may or may not be true — but probably not. But maybe. Levitate the Pentagon as an act of protest. Publish conspiracy stories about Jackie Kennedy walking in on Lyndon Johnson sexually abusing the exit wound in JFK’s head when his body was being transported back to Washington, DC.
Operation Mindfuck sought to suggest that anything anyone in the counterculture was doing at any time might just be part of an elaborate prank. This put outsiders in a difficult position: The only safe assumption was that anything a hippie was doing was part of Operation Mindfuck — some sort of trick or game. But because this could only lead to paranoia, one had to assume that whatever they were doing was probably harmless. They were, after all, just pranks. For their part, the counterculture agitators hoped the assumption that they were just jesters would keep them safe from any real persecution.
But over the ensuing decades, it was the progressive left whose ideas ended up becoming mainstreamed. Really, from All in the Family onward, it was progressive values in fictional TV — Maude to M*A*S*H, Murphy Brown to The West Wing. And as that became the dominant cultural narrative, Operation Mindfuck became the tool of the alt-right. Is the Cult of Kek — that Egyptian frog cartoon — real? Can they cast spells on social media that change the way people think and vote?
Or consider the president himself, releasing more decoys per minute than an Apache helicopter and forcing Americans to, at the very least, entertain the notion that the entire media is run by the deep state. Anything is possible, right? Climate change is a hoax. The earth may be flat, as an increasingly vocal minority are arguing. Easily misinterpreted videos on Twitter force everyone to stop and think twice before deciding they know what it is they’re really looking at.
But the value of Operation Mindfuck isn’t just the opportunity to exchange one delusion for another. It’s not about replacing the fantasy of a borderless world with that of a walled nation-state or that of a free-market jungle with communism, but seeing all of them as extreme, ideological endpoints. These are reality tunnels — perceptual limitations and conceptual frameworks, shaped by our experiences and prejudices. None of them can be understood as absolute. But at the same time, we have to remember that some of these tunnels are a whole lot closer to reality than others. It’s up to us to choose the most constructive and compassionate ones to inhabit.