Cognitive Warfare: Imperialist Psyops, Social Control, & Making Reality Malleable

Rainer Shea 
Since capitalism reached its highest stage, the stage where the imperialist countries export capital in order to perpetuate their dominance, the bourgeoisie have been aware that this system is crucial for more than merely gaining profits. It lets them project social control. Within the core imperialist countries, where capitalism’s most brutal and extreme forms of exploitation have been foisted onto the populations in the exploited world, the ruling class engineered a dynamic where the imperial center proletariat’s conditions made it relatively pacified. Poverty has always existed in these countries per the design of capitalism, but the wealth gained by imperialism has been at least partially distributed among their citizens. Which has kept their living standards high enough for them to not carry out proletarian revolutions, like was the case for the proletarians in colonized countries like China or in feudal empires like czarist Russia.

During the mid-twentieth century, when the imperialists expanded their neo-colonial grip over the Global South, this relative prosperity for those within the countries benefiting from imperialism reached its greatest heights. Scandinavia, Europe, Australia, and even the new central imperialist power the United States adopted social democratic policies for some time. But when capitalism reached a stage of crisis where it could no longer afford to keep the welfare state, and neoliberalism was implemented, the internal social cohesion that imperialism had gained was put into jeopardy.

For the last half-century, inequality has been growing throughout the entire capitalist world, with the proletarians in both the exploiting and exploited countries experiencing ever more severe poverty. Those within the core are now in a similar level of poverty to that of the peripheral countries prior to when neoliberalism was imposed. This importing of the conditions traditionally associated with the “Third World” has produced unprecedented radicalization in the places that benefit from the Global South’s subjugation. After neoliberalism’s financialization led to the start of a long depression in 2008, the masses in the imperial center have responded by coming to like capitalism far less. Four in ten Americans now favor capitalism more than socialism, with the majority of young people among them holding this view. Their conditions have changed their consciousness, in accordance with the rules of dialectical materialism.

The ruling class hasn’t been able to stop this radicalization, but the continued existence of imperialism still gives the ruling class routes towards preventing it from turning into revolutionary mass mobilization. These routes center around the fact that the growing poverty the masses in the imperialist countries are experiencing is less severe than is the case for the Global South. Whereas the impoverished population in the U.S. amounts to around one half, with some within this half arguably only being considered “near poverty,” in Haiti the rate of unambiguous poverty has jumped to around 60% according to the official estimate. Prior to the Covid-19 era, the populations in exploited countries like Haiti were starting from a far more destitute point than the U.S. population, and have therefore been even more vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic destruction.

It’s this continued divide between the proletarians within the core and the periphery that gives the ruling class an opening for breaking international revolutionary solidarity among the core’s masses, even as these masses grow ever more deprived. The empire must maintain the illusion that the lifestyles of those within the core are basically as good as they used to be—or at least convince the masses that whatever deteriorations in conditions they’ve experienced aren’t worth worrying about. Subconsciously, they’re meant to see themselves as superior to their counterparts in the exploited countries, and to see their meager imperialist benefits as the status symbols which signify this superiority.

To do this, the ruling class both conceals the actual U.S. poverty rate—basing reports off of deeply outdated criteria for poverty—and propagates intense national chauvinism. No amount of deprivation, state violence, or social ills within the imperial center can offset the ideology of American exceptionalism, at least among those irrevocably absorbed by the imperialist orthodoxy. Whatever contradictions the U.S. and its partnered imperialist countries take on are considered trivial compared to this bloc’s ostensible purpose: to expand and safeguard “democracy” and “human rights.”

On its own, this idea is self-evidently hypocritical. The country with the largest prison population, history’s greatest record of supporting dictatorships, torture of arbitrarily detained “War on Terror” prisoners, notoriously abusive police, the world’s most intrusive surveillance state, and exceptionally inhumane labor policies even among the other imperialist countries seemingly can’t represent human rights. But the narrative makes sense when provided with context that makes it appear plausible. This context being that Washington is the lesser evil among infinitely worse regimes, which can only be countered through the perpetuation of a liberal “democratic” empire. It doesn’t matter that the “facts” behind this context are entirely fabricated.

China, Russia, the DPRK, Iran, Bolivia, Venezuela, Syria, Belarus, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Cuba, and all of the countries which too closely align with them or share their trait of national independence, are continuously targeted with atrocity propaganda. The most severely vilified among them, which are currently China and the DPRK, have been pummeled with propaganda to a point where merely mentioning them in the imperial center brings feelings of solemn disquiet—or more commonly, xenophobic ridicule. They’re seen as the modern versions of Nazi Germany, regimes that commit incomprehensible crimes against humanity. Their democratic systems and socialist living standards development are totally discounted. The only emotions Americans are supposed to feel towards them are fear and hate.

Like how contradictory thinking is required to see the U.S. as a pillar of freedom despite all evidence to the contrary, one needs to embrace cognitive dissonance to accept these claims about the empire’s adversaries. The fact that the stories about human rights abuses within these countries appear only when Washington starts having a geopolitical interest in subduing them isn’t seen as evidence that the stories aren’t trustworthy. It’s either seen as a coincidence, or as further evidence for their veracity; if the empire whose purpose is to safeguard liberty has begun having trouble with a country, this must mean that country has violated its people’s freedom. That the drive for profits could be behind Washington’s actions isn’t usually considered. And if it is, this corporate drive towards subduing entire nations is rationalized as a noble goal, consistent with the free-market fundamentalist dogma about profits being the top priority. All anti-interventionist arguments are preemptively negated.

When Washington starts targeting Venezuela only after the Chavistas come into power, and not when the country’s previous government was driving its people into poverty through neoliberal austerity, this is rationalized as consistent with Washington’s image as the champion of humanitarianism. When the U.S. condemns Nicaragua as a dictatorship at the same time that it considers Colombia a “democracy,” despite Colombia’s extreme neo-colonial repression, this is seen as logical. Lies, hypocrisy, and all other foul play on Washington’s part are dismissed as implausible, however much sense they make in the game of international politics. And when it becomes undeniable that Washington has engaged in these activities, they’re rationalized as the unavoidable facets of war.

These rationalizations work because no one who’s been conditioned by the imperialist narratives even thinks about such matters so deeply. The empire’s inconsistent behavior is never rationalized through directly addressing its hypocritical actions, or engaging with the arguments of the anti-imperialist movement, but through ignoring them. They’re ignored by training oneself to view Washington’s targeted countries, and therefore the regional and global issues which surround them, through a highly selective lens. When one thinks of China, they can’t think about the country’s unprecedented achievements in poverty reduction, but about the propaganda stories of forced Uyghur labor. When one thinks of Cuba, they can’t think about its exceptional healthcare system, but about its characterization in the media as a “dictatorship.” And so on.

As capitalism’s crises intensify, this learned dissonance is being used to employ ever greater feats of rationalization. The USA’s globally unsurpassed pandemic death toll isn’t seen as evidence of the socioeconomic system’s fundamental dysfunctionality, but as a kind of natural disaster that can’t be avoided. If neoliberalism has made society unable to carry out effective quarantines, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives for the sake of profits, the reaction from the free market orthodoxy is indifference. Because capitalism now can’t continue to exist without foisting ever greater amounts of its crises onto the lower classes, any consequences of this arrangement are seen as acceptable. It’s the same reasoning that foreign policy elites use to justify the millions of deaths that U.S. sanctions cause; any policies which advance the interests of capital are portrayed as worthwhile.

These ideas aren’t conveyed explicitly, but through cutting the public off from facts that contradict them. Military and intelligence officials classify information which negatively reflects upon Washington and its allies as dangerous. This is an informational warfare strategy that goes beyond categorizing realities which expose imperialism’s contradictions as untrue. They do this when possible, but the sheer proportions of the violence, corruption, and exploitation that the U.S. empire creates are far too big for them to be completely categorized as fictitious. So they’ve created degrees for how much these facts should be acknowledged by U.S. psychological operations facilitators, and established different operating procedures for how to deflect from the given information.

In the framework put down by the Pentagon’s intelligentsia, “fact-free” goes against “objective truth.” “Fact-inconvenient” information is “details that, by implication, un­dermine legitimate authority and erode the relationships between governments and the governed.” “Fact-perilous” information is leaks that come out “exposing highly clas­sified, sensitive, or proprietary information that can be used to accelerate a real loss of tactical, operational, or strategic advantage.” “Fact-toxic” information is “exposed in the absence of context,” and therefore “fatally weakens foundational security at an international, regional, national, or personal level.” They elaborate that “Indeed, fact-toxic exposures are those likeliest to trigger viral or contagious insecurity across or within borders and between or among peoples.” The media doesn’t use these terms when obfuscating knowledge, but these terms make up the framework within which the obfuscation takes place.

In accordance with the malleable nature of how the empire views facts, a given piece of information could at any moment switch from one of these categories to another. When whistleblowers revealed that the National Security Agency spies on all U.S. citizens, this idea went from being regarded as “fact-free” to being “fact-perilous.” Should the empire succeed in its effort to silence the whistleblowers through terror, and to censor or stigmatize the facts they’ve uncovered, this fact will be brought towards the realm of the “fact-inconvenient” and “fact-toxic” categories. It will become obfuscated and buried enough for the narrative managers to make it irrelevant in the popular consciousness. The narrative portraying Wikileaks and Julian Assange as Russian assets—and therefore justifying Assange’s torture—have already made it far easier for information to be devalued in this way. When any fact can be dismissed as foreign propaganda, it can go from truthful to “fact-toxic”—or any of the other categories that the narrative managers use, including “fact-free.”

These categories were laid out in the context of a project, undertaken immediately following the political upheaval in 2016, to plan for the further manifestations of U.S. imperial decline. The report detailing the project came out at the same time that Obama signed the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, which leaves an opening for the government to covertly target anti-imperialist sources—including domestic sources—through a new agency called the Global Engagement Center. The GEC has assisted with the intensified censorship that tech companies began to carry out after 2016. That year’s intelligence claims about “Russian interference” created narrative precedent for this internet crackdown. And the censorship naturally made it easier for the narrative managers to hide the inconsistencies that emerged within these reports about foreign meddling. The empire had created a self-reinforcing psyop.

By that point, the Pentagon was willing to acknowledge that Washington’s global influence was rapidly declining, if not outright collapsing. But as soon as the imperialist tacticians recognized this, they recontextualized it in a narrative that they invented by necessity, and that they’ve since expanded upon. They made the report’s subject matter itself into a “fact-toxic” piece of information by portraying it as a relatively trivial detail within a larger story. This story being that U.S. capital, despite the unraveling of its geopolitical support system, will survive for as long as revolutionary consciousness among the masses is sufficiently suppressed.

In 2020, following the further escalations of tensions with China amid the pandemic, a report sponsored by NATO elaborated on this idea. It concluded that cognitive warfare now has importance equal to that of sea, land, air, and cyber warfare. Here U.S. imperialism’s decline didn’t even have to be mentioned for its role behind the report’s conclusion to be understood; it was simply implied that the circumstances have intensified the need for the minds of the masses to be influenced. In the new era of warfare, it explained, conflicts are increasingly decided by which side is able to sway the popular sentiments.

U.S. military statements have since repeated this intention for perfecting cognitive control, with the context of these statements pertaining to the prospect of Washington becoming involved in a total war scenario. Their focus on the lower-level conflicts that Washington is already fighting with its adversaries also serve to justify this pivot towards psychological warfare. In the age of imperial decline, the mere presence of countries that challenge the empire is seen as sufficient reason for the propaganda tactics that are now being directed towards the empire’s own people.

The militarization of brain science and the innovations in social media micro-targeting are merely tools for better utilizing propaganda methods that the empire has been improving upon for generations. During the War on Terror, and especially during the last decade’s new cold war, the empire has been importing the psyop methods that the CIA has long used to sow chaos and counterrevolution around the globe.

Following the hybrid war that Washington launched against Syria, and shortly prior to the coup that Washington carried out in Ukraine, the U.S. officially legalized domestic covert propaganda, making it easier for these and other cold war maneuvers to be sold to the public. The country then saw an unprecedented takeover of the media by government channels for war propaganda. More than ever, the U.S. population is exposed to stories designed to illicit emotional responses which pertain to geopolitical issues—whether these emotions are anger towards the designated enemies, manufactured empathy for the supposed victims of the governments Washington vilifies, or excitement about the few acts of imperialist violence which the media can manage to pass of as being worthy of celebration.

Those moments when the propaganda demands elation for U.S. atrocities—like the strikes against Syria for “gassing its own people”—are so rare because overwhelmingly, the narrative managers simply conceal Washington’s military actions. Things like the drone strikes against civilians, the torture of war prisoners, the starvation sanctions, the occupations of formerly colonized countries, the death squads, and the carpet bombings fall under the “fact-inconvenient” label, or under the “fact-toxic” label depending on whether they can be spun as being reported out of context. Unlike Washington’s backing of terrorist groups, false flags, manufacturings of atrocity propaganda, cyber-based sabotage of electrical grids, or covert assassination attempts, these transgressions can’t be denied, and put under the most preferred “fact-free” category. So they have to be perpetually erased from the public’s consciousness.

This erasure is done not just through the censorship, but through the cognitive framing devices that the empire conditions its propaganda targets to constantly employ. By frequently manufacturing atrocity stories about the designated enemies, and by insidiously reinforcing American exceptionalism, the cognitive warfare of the CIA and NATO primes its victims to block out information that contradicts the official narratives. By convincing the imperial center’s people that they must reject all facts which they’re told are foreign propaganda, or else the war for liberal “democracy” will be lost, the narrative managers have created a population that polices itself.

This is the purpose of all of the contradictory beliefs that the propaganda demands the people to accept: conditioning a malleability of the mind, where the official narratives can be accepted without question. As NATO’s 2020 report assessed, the purpose of cognitive warfare is to “turn everyone into a weapon.” In its war to keep imperialism intact amid the system’s growing contradictions, the empire’s main tools are not military operations, at least not yet. They’re the people themselves.

Rainer Shea: Exposing the lies of capitalism and imperialism. Subscribe to his newsletter on Substack.