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"Lessons from History: Defeating Disinformation by Learning From the Man Who Deceived Nazi Germany"
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“Lessons from History: Defeating Disinformation by Learning From the Man Who Deceived Nazi Germany”

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According to research, approximately thirty percent of Americans believe that the recent presidential elections were tampered with, despite contradictory evidence. Additionally, there are many who believe that the “deep state” has plans to bring in immigrants to vote against “true Americans” in future elections. In Russia, the majority of citizens defend the Kremlin’s actions in their aggressive invasion of Ukraine. When Ukrainians try to inform their relatives in Russia about the cruel atrocities occurring, they often hear the same propaganda being repeated, such as claims that the atrocities are fabricated or necessary in order to showcase Russia’s power.

Across the world we see the growth of propaganda that promotes an alternative reality where black is white and white is black, and where truth is cast away in favour of a sense of superiority and ever more murderous paranoia. How can we defeat it? It’s easy to despair when fact checking is rejected by the millions who don’t want to hear the truth in the first place; when worthy journalism that preaches the virtues of “democracy” crumples in the face of suspicion, seeded purposefully for decades, that the media are actually “enemies of the people”.

We are not, however, the first generation to confront the challenge of authoritarian propaganda. And as I looked for past experiences to inform our own, I discovered a British second world war media operation that managed to engage huge audiences who had been loyal to the Nazis and undermine their faith in Hitler’s regime. If we think reaching people in “echo chambers” today is tough, think about how hard it was to persuade Germans to trust the people who were literally trying to kill them.

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This campaign was led by Sefton Delmer, who as head of special operations for the Political Warfare Executive, created dozens of radio stations, newspapers leaflets and rumours, all intended to break the spell cast by Hitler’s propaganda by fair means or foul. He employed stars from the German cabaret scene, soldiers, surrealist artists, psychiatrists, forgers, spies and dissidents from across occupied Europe. Ian Fleming and Muriel Spark lent their talents to Delmer’s operations. According to declassified UK government files, which have been unearthed and organised by the historian and archivist Lee Richards, around 40% of German soldiers tuned into Delmer’s stations. The SS ObergruppenfĂŒhrer of Munich complained that Delmer’s stations were among the top three in the city and were causing complete havoc. Goebbels was dismayed by how effective they were.

Delmer was interested in more than just the abhorrent ideologies of Nazism. He recognized similar patterns not only in Germany during the 1900s, but also in Britain during World War I. His efforts during the war offer valuable insights for our current times.

Delmer, the son of a prominent professor of Australian literature at Berlin University, spent his childhood in Germany, where he became fluent in the language. During this time, Australia was under British rule, and Delmer embraced the idea of being British. However, his identity was questioned when he was just ten years old, as he was bullied for being an “enemy schoolchild.” Later on, when he moved to England in 1917, he faced a different type of bullying for seeming too German, a result of the hate and hostility towards Germany during the war. He adopted the role of the perfect English schoolboy, a cover-up for his true identity. Upon reading his memoir, it is clear that his bicultural upbringing led him to believe that all social norms and expectations are mere performances. For him, propaganda is successful when it provides individuals with a role that satisfies their need to belong and be loved or hated. This realization also made him acutely aware of the human desire to belong to a group. Delmer’s longing to fit in and be perceived as “truly British” stayed with him for the rest of his life, even as he became an imperial nostalgist and performed an exaggerated version of Britishness.

The powerful impact of propaganda and the desire for belonging impressed him when he witnessed Hitler’s success. In the 1920s, Delmer rose to fame as a journalist for the Daily Express in Berlin. He received exclusive access to join Hitler on his campaign flights throughout Germany, where adoring crowds praised the leader. Hitler created a sense of being a part of a larger group, a Volk, which resonated with many people amidst the confusing changes of the early 20th century. As the old social order crumbled, individuals found a sense of identity and purpose by becoming members of the Nazi party or SS. These roles provided emotional fulfillment, granting people the opportunity to submit to a strong leader while also feeling strong and superior themselves. They also allowed for a way to externalize negative feelings and justify mistreatment towards others. Some psychoanalysts believed that Hitler and other speakers at rallies offered people an outlet to blame external factors for their personal insecurities and flaws. In this way, orators like Hitler are able to silence the inner critic within us by projecting it onto others.

Sefton Delmer broadcasts to Germany in 1941.

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Today, those who spread propaganda exploit the same human desires. In a world where economic, social, and technological changes are happening quickly, it can feel comforting to be part of a large, angry group. Online communities based on conspiracy theories are particularly effective in creating a sense of belonging through shared knowledge and purpose. These platforms also give individuals a sense of purpose in a confusing world, whether it be as a member of a group like the Proud Boys or a “patriot” participating in the storming of the Capitol. Social media, with its emphasis on self-identification, only adds to this performance. Additionally, the appeal of “strongmen” is still prevalent. Whether or not one believes in psychoanalytic theories, narratives of grievance are effective – from Trump’s campaign to Make America Great Again to Putin’s promise to restore Russia to its former glory.

Delmer was disappointed with Britain’s response to Nazi propaganda when the second world war began. He believed that the BBC German Service and the Station of the European Revolution, both aimed at a German audience, were only reaching those who were already against the Nazis. These stations, much like modern media outlets, saw themselves as promoting democracy and liberal beliefs, but were in fact stuck in an echo chamber of similarly thinking individuals.

Delmer’s goal was to reach and connect with audiences who had been influenced by the Nazi party. He wanted to expose the weaknesses that separated them from the group. His initial attempt involved creating a pirate radio station with a controversial German officer referred to as “Der Chef”. This officer, who was also a racist patriot, shared scandalous tales about the corrupt behaviors of Nazi officials and openly criticized their sadomasochistic practices. This provocative content attracted listeners and challenged societal taboos of insulting Nazi figures. In a clever and indirect manner, it highlighted the psychological appeal of submission and domination that drew people to nazism.

Instead of creating moral and “logical” content, Delmer aimed to disrupt the Nazi’s control over people’s most powerful and aggressive impulses. He then used propaganda against the Nazis: “Our narratives contained characters such as mayors, district leaders, and local group leaders,” he stated. “We smeared them with a disgustingly negative reputation, just like how they had smeared the Jews.”

Delmer’s goal was not to substitute one aggressive movement for another. Instead, he aimed to estrange individuals from Nazi propaganda by taking it to the point of absurdity, as he conveyed to the king when he shared his work. This was not pure satire – the intention was for people to genuinely believe that Der Chef was a legitimate soldier hiding within German-controlled territory. Satire alone cannot always weaken a leader’s hold on their followers: comedians who ridicule Trump or Brexit may entertain their own viewers, but might not necessarily sway the opposing side.

Delmer recognized the importance of getting people interested in things that they care about, rather than trying to force them to care about what you want. This is a valuable lesson that Ukrainian information fighters have been putting into practice during their conflict with Russia. In Ukraine, there are many individuals such as advertisers, hackers, activists, and journalists, all striving to connect with Russian audiences.

The individuals purchase advertisements on Russian websites featuring pornography and illegal movie streaming, or utilize telemarketing software similar to that of marketing campaigns. They discovered that promoting content with strong moral values was not successful. Through making large amounts of phone calls to Russians, they found that about 80% would end the call within 20 seconds if it involved discussing war crimes. However, only 30% would end the call if it focused on their own personal interests, such as taxes for supporting areas newly acquired by Russia.

Despite Delmer’s initial radio station being successful and even considered the most popular in Germany, the Nazis soon discovered that it was a British venture. They publicly exposed and criticized it as a prime example of deceitful British propaganda. This serves as a cautionary tale from Delmer’s efforts. The creation of “sock puppet” media, which presents itself as something it is not, can have negative consequences.

As Delmer expanded his involvement in the war, he changed his approach. Instead of disguising his station as a native German military station, he launched his most ambitious station, Soldatensender Calais, still imitating a German station but now incorporating broadcasts of speeches by Nazi leaders, music, and the latest news and gossip from the front to reveal the lies and inequalities faced by soldiers. However, the intention was not to trick listeners into believing it was a Nazi station anymore – this time, the audience was meant to be aware of the deception. As explained by Delmer’s colleague Peter Wykeham, the station aimed to “(i) provide a convenient explanation for German customers if caught listening, and (ii) allow them to justify their questionable behavior to themselves”. Despite knowing that it was run by the British, German listeners still chose to listen to the station and trust its content. Today, we often criticize the fact that people only trust media that align with their social group. So how did Delmer successfully execute this plan?

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Delmer utilized all available research tools to gain insight into his target audience’s perspective. He consulted with partisan groups in France for updates on military football results and details about officers’ vehicles. By installing secret microphones in prisoner of war camps, Delmer’s team was able to gather the latest slang and grievances of soldiers towards their superiors. To accommodate the immense amount of notes collected, a special storage unit was built for Delmer’s archivist, Max Braun, a former leader of the Social Democrats in the Saar region. With their thorough research, Delmer and his team were able to predict when German towns would be attacked by the RAF, allowing them to warn soldiers and their families in case their loved ones’ street was hit. They also reminded soldiers of their right to take leave and assist any family members affected by the bombings.

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Currently, it is significantly simpler to comprehend the concerns of individuals, even in restricted communities. You can refer to publicly available research on corrupt procurement practices within local governments, conduct sentiment analysis of social media, or utilize secure messaging applications that enable direct communication with individuals in high-risk regions. The primary focus is to always comprehend and cater to people’s situations. Delmer did not speak condescendingly or lecture, but rather he empathized with the soldiers and made them feel like part of a community that prioritized their interests over those of the Nazis.

However, just as significant as the content of the broadcast was the act of tuning in. The radio program presented itself as Nazi propaganda, but recognized that its listeners were aware of its true nature. These individuals tuned in because they sought the emotional and physical refuge of pretending to believe in the propaganda. Unlike Goebbels’ goal of mesmerizing and blending individuals into a tumultuous crowd, this program required listeners to consciously and independently choose to engage. Delmer’s other forms of media, such as his leaflets advising how to feign illness and desert the front, similarly empowered individuals to take control and be active. Instead of succumbing to the roles imposed on them by Nazi propaganda, Delmer encouraged people to create their own identities.

Our thoughts and actions hold as much weight as our beliefs when combating dangerous propaganda. Often, individuals are easily swayed by conspiracy theories when they feel powerless and seek explanations for the world around them. This can lead them to gravitate towards dominant figures who offer a sense of control. However, the solution is not simply providing information and evidence. It is addressing the root issue of feeling powerless and encouraging individuals to reclaim their sense of agency.

What conclusions can we draw from the conflicting nature of Delmer’s actions? Leaders and promoters in democratic societies utilize troll farms to spread hate and cable news to promote conspiracy theories, targeting audiences based on their most deep-seated grievances and promoting cruelty. To keep up, we must create a new wave of democratic media with a similar aim, but with different principles. This must be done on a large scale.

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Initially, this form of media must align with the emotional influence of autocrats. Those opposing propaganda must produce their own intense narratives, YouTube personalities and utilize all of the various mediums available in today’s society.

They do not have to conceal their origin similar to Der Chef, but they may have to provide a suitable façade for people to watch securely, especially in a hazardous dictatorship. However, they must explore the inner workings of our deepest desires. Consider the contrast between a cult leader and a therapist. Both delve into individuals’ unspoken anxieties and desires. The cult leader and authoritarian propagandist utilize this understanding to foster dependence on their authority. On the other hand, the therapist aids individuals in gaining more control and self-awareness.

In order to succeed in our struggle against Russia, we must prioritize the needs of our audience and view media as a form of social service rather than simply a means of delivering information. This means targeting and engaging with individuals and groups who are critical to our war effort, such as munitions workers and soldiers. Unlike in the past, it is now easier to gather evidence on their interests and motivations. For example, recent leaks from Russia’s military exposed their leaders’ dishonesty about front-line casualties. The goal is not to absolve these individuals, who may have committed war crimes, of their actions, but rather to use media to sway them towards disobeying orders and ultimately aid in winning the war.

In order to combat propaganda in polarized democracies, it is imperative for media outlets to cultivate a sense of community. This can help prevent malign information from becoming dominant and give opportunities for audiences to become engaged. Instead of relying on a strong leader, this community should empower individuals to take action on their own. Several small initiatives are already leading the way in this approach. For instance, Hearken is an internet platform where users can share suggestions for media coverage, reducing the influence of distant editors and prioritizing local concerns. Another platform, vTaiwan, uses an algorithm to find common ground on divisive issues and develop policies based on that. While these projects are currently small and experimental, they have the potential to make a significant impact if scaled up.

Sefton Delmer presented both positive and negative lessons to us. However, the most important one is his belief that all social roles are a performance. We have the option to either conform to the roles dictated by propagandists, which makes us reliant on them, or we can create media that encourages individuals to engage and participate.

It is not possible to force others to accept “the truth” if they are unwilling, but you can ignite their interest and motivation to value factual information.

Source: theguardian.com