How Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and Gwyneth Paltrow Short-Circuit Your Ability to Think Rationally

The sketchy rhetorical tricks of politicians, celebs, and con men—and how they work.

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ILLUSTRATION: PETE SHARP FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

By Eric Roston +Follow18:00 GMT+7, 15 tháng 10, 2021

I’m not saying 1 only total losers 2 would skip this story, but a bunch of people did warn me. If you read on, you’ll discover how only I 3 can protect you from the shadowy groups 4 peddling lies 5 to control your children6

[Notes:

  1. Paralipsis, or bringing up a statement or thread solely to disassociate oneself from it.
  2. Ad hominem statement, or denigrating a person or people instead of grappling with their arguments.
  3. Authoritarian appeal to fear.
  4. Appeal to conspiracy.
  5. Projection technique, or falsely accusing enemies of using one’s own unethical tactics.
  6. Authoritarian appeal to fear.]

If a version of this message sounds familiar, it’s because it contains some of the most common techniques deployed by the authoritarians, con men, bosses, and questionable cultural figures swirling around us. Donald Trump. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even Barstool Sports’ Dave Portnoy, Elon Musk, and Gwyneth Paltrow have inadvertently used some of these methods. (Respectively, prejudicescare tactics, and faux intimacy.)

Propaganda—communication designed to manipulate thought or behavior—is the opposite of persuasion. It’s running amok, juiced by social media clicks, dopamine hits, cable TV, and, as always, advertising. Whether used gingerly by celebrities twisting the truth or dangerous demagogues wrecking democracies, rhetorical devices are brain hacks. Leaders short-circuit followers’ ability to think rationally; they stir emotion, scapegoat the innocent, enforce group identity, and arouse suspicion without evidence.

“These strategies are designed to influence you without your consent,” says Texas A&M University communication professor Jennifer Mercieca, who’s writing a book about propaganda to follow up her 2020 Demagogue for President, which examines Trump’s rhetorical strategies. “You take a dirty narrative, and you filter it through Trump’s Twitter feed, and it looks a lot cleaner.”

As powerful as these tactics are, Mercieca says they can be reduced to a universal mind-control playbook. Propaganda experts break down some of the most dangerous stealth assaults, which—once identified—give us the best shot at defusing them.

Narrative Laundering

What It Is: While money laundering obscures the origin of criminal income, narrative laundering hides the originators of stories. Mainstream media won’t usually run a false and destructive narrative put out by an extremist group. But stories can slip into public discussion bit by bit, gaining respectability with each retelling, often through opaque intermediaries.

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ILLUSTRATION: PETE SHARP FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Textbook Case: The Soviet Union in the 1980s seeded false stories around the world suggesting that the U.S. created HIV/AIDS.

Recent Moment: For decades, Charles Koch, chief executive officer and chairman of Koch Industries, has funded a massive network of right-wing think tanks, programs, and events capable of laundering stories into mainstream politics and media. During an historic Texas cold spell in February, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has received Koch funding, issued a press release wrongly blaming the state’s considerable wind-power industry for power outages felt by millions. The day before, an official with the state’s power grid operator had said the biggest culprit in the blackouts was outages related to natural gas, coal, and nuclear power.

False Equivalence

What It Is: A comparison among two or more people, events, or things that share something superficial but basically have nothing important to do with each other; the intent is to diminish the relevance of one element.

Textbook Case: Comparing anyone (and anything) who isn’t actually a genocidal dictator to Hitler and his movement. A cheeky bit of internet folklore from 1990 known as “Godwin’s Law” proposed that the longer any online discussion runs, the more likely it is that someone will make an inappropriate comparison to Hitler. Examples are so common you don’t have to look much beyond Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who has likened a mask mandate, requests for vaccine documentation, and praise for the late Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to support of Hitler and Nazis.

Recent Moment: Donald Trump (@realdonaldtrump) tweeted on March 9, 2020: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

Faux Intimacy

What it is: A form of manipulation resulting from the imagined “parasocial relationships” people form with movie characters and celebrities. The distantly adored can take advantage of their personal appeal to further their vanity, corruption, or worse—now often goosed by social media, which exacerbates the illusion of intimacy.

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ILLUSTRATION: PETE SHARP FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Textbook Case: Who knows what it was—hormones, post-Kennedy assassination national trauma, Pied Piper melodies—but millions of teenagers lost their minds for a few years in the mid-1960s and thought the Beatles were their boyfriends.

Recent Moment: Gwyneth Paltrow leapt from Hollywood ingenue to wellness mogul, leading her $250 million Goop empire and its devotees down some scientifically dubious paths. While “healing stickers” and “vaginal steaming” seemed scammy, it was the $66 vaginal jade egg purported to regulate menstrual cycles, among other things, that led Goop to a 2018 California court order (and settlement) that barred the company from making unsupported health claims.

Appeal to Misplaced Authority

What It Is: Someone hangs the truth of their statements on someone who sounds like an expert but isn’t.

Textbook Case: Former MTV personality Jenny McCarthy became an anti-vax crusader after her son was diagnosed with autism, often making misleading or false statements about the connection between the two. In 2010, the same year physician Andrew Wakefield, the author of a retracted 1998 paper about autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, was removed from the U.K.’s medical register, McCarthy publicly defended him as a victim of “a remarkable media campaign engineered by vaccine manufacturers.”

Recent Moment: Republican Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson has touted the work of a Madison, Wis., critical-care pulmonologist who wrongly said that the horse dewormer ivermectin fights Covid-19. Public-health agencies and doctors vociferously point out that it’s not an approved treatment and can be toxic.

The Big Lie

What It Is: A simple falsehood so bold and repeated so frequently with such blinding power that followers are dissuaded from challenging its absurdity. “People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one,” wrote U.S. intelligence officials in a World War II analysis of Hitler’s personality.

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PHOTOGRAPHER: PETE SHARP FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Textbook Case: America’s big lie was written into the Constitution in 1787: Article I, Section 2 stated that for every five enslaved people, three people would be added to population rolls for the purposes of taxes and representation. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, replaced the three-fifths compromise with a clause that extended citizenship to those formerly enslaved. Yet the legacy of the big lie persists today.

Recent Moment: “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide.” —Donald Trump, Jan. 6, 2021

Appeal to Fear

What It Is: It conjures the specter of a threat, harm, or evil to gain support.

Textbook Case: In a February 1950 speech, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin seeking momentum for a second term, claimed to have a list of 205 State Department employees who were Communist spies. Thus began the Red Scare, which lasted until McCarthy was censured four years later.

Recent Moment: During the Brexit debate, Vote Leave campaigners warned that by staying in the European Union, “we cannot stop criminals entering Britain from Europe,” and cited a “former secretary general of Interpol” who called EU membership “like hanging a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe.” Discriminatory rhetoric by Vote Leave campaigners singled out Turkish people.

Butterfly Attack

What It Is: Bad actors impersonate members of a social group, commonly on social media, to confuse the discourse, inject disinformation, and stoke racism.

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ILLUSTRATION: PETE SHARP FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

Textbook Case: The term—a phrase drawn from observations by evolutionary biologists that some butterflies developed physical similarities to evade detection by predators—refers to the creation of false online identities that trick people, along with search and social media companies. These accounts mimic members of social groups that have historically faced discrimination, and they are used to add disinformation, fake slogans, and division within online community discussions. The earliest claimed use of this method came in 2013, when its proponents tried to deploy it on a hashtag, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, that had been trending on Twitter and was being discussed widely in media.

Recent Moment: A July 2016 blog post at TheSaltCollective.org listed Black people who would leave the U.S. if Trump were elected president. The post popularized a new hashtag, #Blaxit, a play on Brexit. It was then co-opted over the following three years by racists who created fake accounts that distributed memes encouraging Black people to leave the U.S. and sabotaged online activism promoting Democratic voter turnout, according to the Media Manipulation Casebook, a project of Harvard University’s Technology and Social Change Project.

Data Voids

What It Is: Co-opting phrases people can search for online that have never been uttered before or that rarely garner much attention. These terms are then seeded with misinformation or disinformation. Someone prompted to search for them will be greeted with pages of falsehoods or biased information.

Textbook Case: The man who murdered nine Black congregants in a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015 became radicalized after searching Google for “black on white crimes,” a rare phrase that steers inquiries to websites filled with false, incendiary material. “This is a classic example of a ‘data void,’” wrote two Microsoft researchers who invented the term in 2018. “Outside of white supremacist communities, no one makes websites using this phrase.”

Recent Moment: In March 2020, Chinese officials began creating a connection between the origin of Covid-19 and Fort Detrick, the U.S. Army research lab in Maryland that’s long inspired urban myths. State media and other sources filled the web with more manufactured material, then the search engines caught up: The most popular Google search related to Fort Detrick in 2020 was “Fort Detrick coronavirus,” according to an analysis in October by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., a think tank .

Black Propaganda

What It Is: Material fabricated so that it appears to be written or produced by the victims of the propaganda.

Textbook CaseThe Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a notoriously fraudulent 1903 work, originally published in Russian, that purported to be written by Jewish people looking to control the world. Courts and scholars labeled it a libelous forgery in the 20th century, but Hitler encountered it and made it a foundation of the Nazis’ big lie against Jewish people.

Recent Moment: Secondary Infektion is a multiyear effort that originated in Russia to plant fake and forged material across the internet in Europe and the U.S., according to the research firm Graphika, which said the intent was to seed conflict and create confusion. Material such as faked correspondence among U.S. senators was meant to set Americans against Turkey, while documents, photos, and videos were attributed falsely to groups that included the Committee to Protect Journalists and Greenpeace.
 
Read next: How to Win Back Loved Ones Lost to Extreme Views

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