Annalee Newitz on the sci-fi roots of the current "psyop" war

Journalist and sci-fi author on America's long history of psychological warfare — and a possible path to peace

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published June 16, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Brainwashing, television manipulation and crowd control (Getty Images/Brankospejs)
Brainwashing, television manipulation and crowd control (Getty Images/Brankospejs)

The "culture wars" raging around us with white-hot intensity are better understood as psychological warfare. So argues journalist and science-fiction author Annalee Newitz in their new book “Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind,” a sweeping look back at how we got into this heightened state of war and how we might be able to escape it. 

The avalanche of lies, disinformation, demonization and conspiracy theories ushered to center stage by Donald Trump was hardly his own creation and shows little sign of letting up, even if Trump himself appears somewhat diminished. To gain a foothold to make sense of it all — to “stop feeling the dread” and gain a deeper perspective — Newitz turned to history, especially to World War II and the early Cold War era, when the practice of psychological warfare was formalized as a permanent facet of American military doctrine, and also further back to the "Indian wars" of the 19th century, which "created a uniquely American paradigm for psychological operations" and also called forth a powerful counternarrative of resistance — the Ghost Dance.

As both a science journalist and a speculative novelist, Newitz is ideally suited to the task. Paul Linebarger, author of the foundational textbook “Psychological Warfare,” also became a prominent science fiction author under the pseudonym Cordwainer Smith. He wasn’t even the first to mix those worlds, though he remains the quintessential example. World-building — creating resonant, believable alternative realities — is central to both sci-fi and psyops. At least in his first edition Linebarger saw ending psychological warfare as integrally connected to waging it. He dropped that from the second edition, as the Cold War looked less and less as if it had a definite or foreseeable end, but it signals the intellectual kinship Newitz shares with him, as well as with other key figures like psychologist William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman.

Salon interviewed Newitz by Zoom. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. 

In your preface, you talk about turning to history, researching American ideological conflicts of the past 200 years to make sense of our current state of intense cultural conflict. Then you describe visiting the Hoover Institute archives to explore the personal papers of Paul Linebarger, the author of the classic Cold War handbook “Psychological Warfare” as well as a corpus of quirky far-future science fiction, under the pen name Cordwainer Smith. Why start with him? 

That's a really good question. Partly, it was where my interests started. I came to it through having known Cordwainer Smith's work as a science fiction writer, which I'd been interested in for a long time. Looking into his background I discovered he also had this other career working in intelligence with the military. Then I discovered the book "Psychological Warfare" and started reading that. I wanted to structure the book by starting in the Cold War and then kind of doing a record-scratch and going all the way back to the very beginning of the nation. There were two reasons: One is that people in the United States are familiar with psyops and psychological warfare being used during the Cold War, so no one would be shocked or surprised to learn more about it. I wanted to bring readers into a familiar world before defamiliarizing it, and saying, "Actually, you guys, this has been going on much, much longer." 

But the other thing is that the Cold War is a period that's very important in the United States for psychological warfare. That's when the military, particularly the Army, decides to have an ongoing group devoted to psychological operations. Before that, there were ad hoc groups put together for a specific war, and then they would be disbanded when the war was over. But after World War II, the Army was like "No, we need ongoing psychological operations expertise." That's really the moment when the field gets professionalized and institutionalized. So what we know today as psychological warfare in the United States really does grow out of that moment. Which isn't to say that the 19th century and 18th century aren't incredibly important. They are, but they represent a different phase. 

Chapter 1, "The Mind Bomb," deals primarily with early Cold War psyops, from World War II through the 1960s, though with some stage-setting: Freud's identification of the unconscious, and what followed. You write that Linebarger's work "depended on the  idea that psyops campaigns would always be overshadowed by the threat of nuclear annihilation." Yet as you describe, they took on a wide variety of forms, and the awareness of psyops in the popularized form of "brainwashing" became part of American culture at that time. It's a complex, multi-strand story. so What's the most important takeaway for readers, in terms of what follows?

"We see political leaders, cultural and community leaders, using the same exact strategies that we had been using against our adversaries in World War II, against groups of Americans who are being scapegoated and demonized."

There's a couple of threads I found really intriguing. One I've already talked about: the idea of professionalizing psychological warfare, and the idea that you could have a full-time job as a psy-warrior. That's happening throughout the 20th century, partly thanks to fields like public relations and advertising, where you get this professionalization of what would once have been referred to as flimflam or scamming. It's become a professional job, and so does psychological warrior. So that's one piece of it. 

The other piece is what we see in the 1950s, during the Cold War, with the brainwashing scare, but also the Red Scare, the HUAC hearings, the Lavender Scare hearings, All of that is an example of how psychological warfare strategies spill over into the realm of domestic cultural politics. If we take Linebarger seriously, if we take the military definition of psychological war seriously, it is a practice that is intended to be aimed at a foreign adversary, not something that Americans are supposed to use against each other.

These are weaponized messages. They are intended to demoralize, intended to be full of lies and threats. But during the 1950s, in the Cold War, we see political leaders, cultural and community leaders using these same exact strategies that we had been using against our adversaries in World War II, using them against groups of Americans who are being scapegoated and demonized. So that's an incredibly important shift in the understanding of how psyops should be used and, again, that's the world we live in today.

Chapter 2 deals primarily with the 19th-century "Indian wars," which you call "a period of violent myth-making," saying, "Many of the psychological weapons developed during the Indian Wars became prototypes for the professional psyops products deployed during the 20th century and beyond." Central to this era was the "last Indian" myth, which served to obscure what was going on, both physical violence and cultural annihilation. Talk about how that worked, and also how Native Americans responded with their own psyop, the Ghost Dance? 

The thing I think is interesting about that period in U.S. history, which encompasses hundreds of wars with thousands of tribes and nations and confederacies of group of tribes and nations, is that we see the U.S. government doing what it did during the Cold War, which is to say waging total war while at the same time also engaging in cultural warfare. One of the pervasive cultural myths that you see coming out of pop culture, as well as the government, is this idea that Indigenous tribes and nations will naturally go extinct to make way for white settlers. 

"One of the pervasive cultural myths that you see coming out of pop culture is this idea that Indigenous tribes and nations will naturally go extinct to make way for white settlers."

These myths borrow from both science and mythology. There's definitely a strand of social Darwinism in this idea that some groups just naturally go extinct, which of course is not how natural selection works. We’re all human, so that isn't the proper window to look at this. But we also see this popularity, partly based on James Fenimore Cooper's 1830s novel "The Last of the Mohicans." It's basically a meme about the claim that indigenous people are dying out, there's only one left from this huge tribe, and of course we know this is a myth. Even today, there's tons of Mohicans walking around who can tell you, "Hello, we're still here!" But it's a very powerful myth because it justifies westward expansion for the nation, justifies the selling of real estate in the West where the U.S. government had promised Indigenous nations that they could continue living. But if they've disappeared, then white settlers feel justified going out there and buying land and settling down. 

But the other part of the of the psychological operation here that's very powerful is that it works against Indigenous people to undermine their sense of self: “Oh, you think you're Indigenous, you think you're part of the Mohican nation and tribe, but actually you don't exist." This is a big strand in how culture war works in the United States. We're seeing it now with the way that trans people are being treated, especially trans teenagers, just being told, "You just can't be trans. I'm sorry — even if you think you are, you can't be. That's just not a thing." 

And what about the Ghost Dance?

There was never a last Mohican. Many tribes and nations resisted very successfully, and by the late 19th century you see this incredible resistance movement — both the military resistance, of course, and also a cultural resistance movement known as the Ghost Dance. It takes off among the Plains nations and tribes, and what it is — it's a dance, it's a song, it's a spiritual belief, it's a political movement. It has different forms depending on what tribe or nation you're in. There are actually recordings you can listen to on the Smithsonian website of a couple of different examples of how people engaged in Ghost Dances. 

What the Ghost Dance tells is a story about what happens to North America when the white settlers go away. It's an alternate future of of this land: All the industry, all the Western farming practices roll up like a poster and underneath is the land as it was before farming and roads and Western-style cities. The buffalo return. Today we would call it a kind of utopian vision. It grows out of a long, long history of Indigenous philosophy and politics, but it was an incredibly effective form of resistance because it was a story of Indigenous survival. It was a story that Indigenous people told to each other, and it was incredibly threatening to the U.S. government.  

It was not associated with war or violence, but it was portrayed that way and was outlawed. This is ultimately how Sitting Bull, one of the great leaders of Indigenous resistance to the U.S. government, is shot and killed by cops on the Pine Ridge reservation. He's allowing his people to do the Ghost Dance and he's been engaging in the Ghost Dance, and he's refusing to obey the government. So it becomes this symbol of of resistance. You can see how that type of resistance, which is decentralized —it's taking place all over the place, it involves music and singing as well as meaningful political engagement —  becomes a model of resistance in the United States up until today. 

In Chapter 3, "Advertisements for Disenfranchisement," you deal with psyops in recent elections, once again with some earlier stage-setting. What do you have to say that is often missed by other people who've written about this?

This is probably the part of the book where most people will be familiar with the territory, about what now gets called Russian election meddling online during 2016, and of course this continues up into the present. Now we have AI election meddling and that kind of thing on social media. One thing I like to point out is that a lot of that so-called meddling, a lot of the propaganda that came in 2016, mostly from Russia, came through the form of buying ads on Facebook. So it goes right back to the early history of psyops in the United States, where we see people coming out of the field of advertising, coming out of public relations, and going into psychological warfare as a profession. That relationship between advertising, propaganda and psyops continues to be very relevant today.

In Chapter 4, "Bad Brains," you distinguish between military psyops and culture-war psyops, which "have two goals: convince your audience that some of their fellow citizens are the enemy and convince the enemy that there is something deeply wrong with their minds." A prime example of that is the culture war focused on the brains of Black people, particularly the resurgence of discredited "race science" in the 1990s with the publication of "The Bell Curve." How does the psyop perspective help to clarify what's going on?

Part of the idea for this chapter came from a comment that N.K. Jemisin, the science fiction writer, made a number of years ago, that white supremacy is a psyop. I just thought that was a great observation and incredibly true. What we see with the "Bell Curve" psyop is a strategy that goes all the way back to the Indian wars where you have a psyop aimed both at your adversary and also your allies. Because remember, the "last Indian" myth is intended to convince white settlers that it's cool to go take over other people's land, because they're gone. But it's also intended to undermine the morale of Indigenous people by telling them they don't exist. 

The Ghost Dance "was an incredibly effective form of resistance because it was a story of Indigenous survival. It was a story that Indigenous people told to each other, and it was incredibly threatening to the U.S. government."

So the same idea comes into play with the "Bell Curve" myth, which is that it's aimed mostly at white people. It's intended to convince white people that Black people are mentally inferior, and therefore it's no big deal if they don't have Black people as colleagues or it just makes sense that there are few Black people in professional, middle-class technical or scientific jobs. It's calling on the ideas of race science, eugenics and social Darwinism to reassure white people that programs aimed at diversifying workplaces, diversifying science, diversifying astronauts, whatever area you like, those efforts will never succeed because there are these groups — including Black people — who are inherently biologically inferior. So that's the psyop as it works for white people. 

Black people know this is a lie, so it doesn't really work as well aimed at the Black community. But to the extent that it does work, it's about undermining people's faith in their ability to be heard or taken seriously. If you're Black and you are in, say, the field of science — which is an area that I write about a lot — and there's this myth out there that Black people have inferior intelligence, it makes it three times harder to get taken seriously in the field. It becomes yet another barrier to success. But because it's a myth, a story, it's very diffuse. It's hard to go to the HR department and say, "People are treating me like I'm dumb." That's not the kind of complaint that gets taken seriously. So it's a very effective psyop at undermining Black excellence. And it's been very harmful. It's the story that approaches people, gets into their face and says, "Sorry, you think you're thinking great thoughts, but actually you're not." So it's a perfect way of of undermining Black sovereignty and Black ideas. 

In Chapter 5, “School Rules," you write about the effectiveness of calling someone a criminal, especially one as odious as a pedophile, and the long history of that attacking the LGBTQ community, particularly in and around education. How does that illuminate what's taking place right now? 

This is one of the most relevant chapters in terms of the contemporary culture war because we are in a phase where politicians like Ron DeSantis or any number of other hard-right leaders are calling LGBTQ people "groomers," which is just the modern word for what in the '50s was called "sex deviants." It's a class of criminality: A groomer is someone who's trying to molest children, trying to engage in child sexual abuse. 

So again, it's the oldest trick in the book. It's a psyop that works against LGBTQ people, but also is aimed at non-LGBTQ people, at straight people, to convince them that there should never be LGBTQ people in any organization that they're in, particularly if there are children around. It convinces straight people that LGBTQ people are beyond the pale, and it works to undermine the effectiveness of LGBTQ people on the job. It is a way of terrorizing queer people. So many teachers and librarians who are queer right now are receiving death threats. People have had to quit their jobs because they're being harassed so much, because this idea that you're a child sexual abuser brings out that kind of mob mentality, people showing up at your door with pitchforks. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

It's a very old psyop that goes back to the 1930s. J. Edgar Hoover, who was director of the FBI for many years, coined the idea of the "sex criminal," by which he meant anyone who is LGBTQ. And whenever you have a myth that goes back three or four generations, it's easy to reawaken it, because people feel like they've heard it before. So it may be incredibly clichéd to try to demonize LGBTQ people by calling them criminals, but it's a formula that's worked over and over. Ultimately the goal is to make LGBTQ people unemployable. It means taking away people's ability to survive.

In the next chapter, "Dirty Comics," you start to turn the corner and tell a much more upbeat story. This is the story of William Moulton Marston, the creation of Wonder Woman and its continuing impact, surviving through the 1950s comic-book panic up through today. What lessons does this chapter have about how to fight back? 

The Ghost Dance reimagines the land that the United States is on as decolonized. It's a beautiful utopian myth, a powerful one. Wonder Woman is also kind of a decolonization story. It's a story about a world where women have as much or more power than men, politically, intellectually, socially. Wonder Woman was invented by William Moulton Marston, who was a psychologist and a feminist. He says overtly in many places that he considered Wonder Woman to be propaganda, that we needed a female hero who was also peace-loving. She was not just a strong woman, she was antiwar in many of her incarnations. He, I think rightly, believed this character would provide hope to women who were being told to stay in the home, who were being told that their brains were inferior, just the way Black people have been told. 

"Ron DeSantis and any number of other hard-right leaders are calling LGBTQ people 'groomers,' which is just the modern word for what in the '50s was called 'sex deviants.'"

I call Wonder Woman a "culture bomb" to recall some of what we talked about earlier with the actual bomb, how the atomic bomb was really key to the effectiveness of Cold War psyops. But you can also have a culture bomb, like Wonder Woman — and Wonder Woman could not be stopped. The character was so popular that DC Comics never wanted to get rid of her because she was such an audience favorite. 

One of the things that gave me pleasure in writing this book was that I got to interview Vita Ayala, who is a comic book writer and editor. They live in New York, they're Puerto Rican and they grew up thinking that Wonder Woman was Puerto Rican, because of how she dressed and she uses Spanish sometimes. So they were telling me when I interviewed them, "You know, at one point my mom finally told me, 'Honey, she's like a Greek myth.'" 

But I think for people like Rita who are now comic book creators and editors in their own right, Wonder Woman has remained a symbol and she's a changing symbol. She can be a force for feminism, she can also be a force for women of color and for reimagining different kinds of women in different ways, how women can take power in the world.Vita Ayala worked on a Wonder Woman comic that basically had a theme of abolishing prisons, and it's a great new way of thinking about Wonder Woman's pacifist nature, and how Wonder Woman would never want there to be prisons. So Wonder Woman as a culture bomb is testimony to how effective a story can be, just the way the Ghost Dance was for Indigenous people in the 19th century all the way through today. 

In Chapter 7, "History Is a Gift," you introduce the U.N.'s three-step post-conflict peacekeeping process: disarm, demobilize, reintegrate, and apply it to psychological warfare. Most importantly, you write that reintegration involves "a process of rebuilding our history so that it reflects the perspectives of everyone who lives in the United States." Can you describe what this means, with the example of the Coquille tribe in Oregon?

This is part of the book where I am trying to think through what it means to undo a psyop. So I wanted to revisit the scene of the crime in the 19th century, where the U.S. government is not just stealing land from Indigenous nations, but also terminating the status of many tribes that had been recognized. These termination programs  took place throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, where the government would decide that a tribe or nation didn't qualify for recognition anymore. They would lose their sovereignty, they would lose land, they would lose their special relationship with the government, and that could be crushing. This is economic and social and cultural destruction. 

Jason Younker, who is a Coquille chief, told me this incredible story about one way a psyop can be undone, which is by creating a publicly accessible archive of historical documents showing the history of the Coquille and the Coos tribe and several other tribes in southwestern Oregon. When he was a scrappy young grad student, studying anthropology at the University of Oregon, the Coquille chief at that time said "Listen, you have to go be an anthropologist and help us find information about the history of our tribe," because they had been terminated and they did not have status in the eyes of the government. 

His tribe had a story that the reason why they had lost status was that there was a map that representatives of the government had made showing where the Coquilles' traditional land was, but the map had been lost. Without that map, they couldn't prove to the government that they deserved tribal status. So he and several grad students and their professor got a small grant from the Smithsonian and National Archive in Washington to look for any documents that anthropologists working with the War Department had stored about the Coquille tribe. Because the U.S. government believed there would be so little information, they were like, "We'll make free copies of everything that you find." 

So they went in and they found 60,000 documents, including the map that had been lost, which showed very clearly the Coquille ancestral lands in southwest Oregon, the Coos lands, a bunch of other tribes around there. So Jason Younker said to me, "You know, I've had this weird experience of having been terminated and recognized all in the same lifetime." The government had denied his existence as a Coquille person, and then had acknowledged it, and now they have this incredible archive which is housed at the University of Oregon in Eugene, which proves their existence. So there's nothing like having receipts. To me, it was a great story about undoing, just in a small way, part of the horrible damage that has been done to Indigenous tribes. It's a small thing, but I think it really matters. It's psychologically very powerful.

The last two chapters go further into the topic of creating peace. Tell us about what that means — creating psychological peace instead of war?

Part of creating psychological peace now is about reinvigorating a public sphere where people are able to listen to each other. That can be very technical, if you're talking about social media or social platforms. We need groups of people who are devoted to trust and safety, who are labeling misinformation, who are keeping tabs on abuse and trying to prevent abuse, not because they are partisan but because they want people not to be mobbed and drowned out. 

I conclude by talking about how we need a new mental model for the public sphere. I offer the library as a model, because I think the library is a perfect example of a place where you can go, you can be in community, you can learn many perspectives, whether they are propaganda or history, and no one is trying to shove it down your throat. You're able to go and learn and make your own decisions. Librarians are there to help you answer questions — not to give you answers, but to give you the tools to answer those questions. Right now, we imagine the public sphere sphere as a theater of war, and I want to recommend that we start thinking about it as a library, where we listen to each other and no voice is louder than another voice, and we do reach disarmament and peace and we learn to negotiate again. 

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer? 

I think the most important question is, how do we find communities of people where we can have open debate and discussion without psyops, without violent threats, without lies? I think we're all working on that now, we're trying to find those spaces. I think part of the breakup of social media into these smaller areas is about that, trying to find places where we can have conversations. There's all kinds of new news sources coming into existence, often worker-owned cooperatives like 404 Media, like Defector. I think that's where the hope lies, is places where we can disagree, we can argue, but we don't lie and threaten each other.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Annalee Newitz Authors Books Cordwainer Smith Intelligence Interview Propaganda Science-fiction