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FT 27/2/2013 The Bitcoin Personality Cult Lives On

How to handle bad news, by public relations guru and propaganda expert Edward Bernays from his book Propaganda (1928):
The counsel on public relations must be in a position to deal effectively with rumours and suspicions, attempting to stop them at their source, counteracting them promptly with correct or more complete information through channels which will be most effective, or best of all establish such relationships of confidence in the concern’s integrity that rumours and suspicions will have no opportunity to take root.
A single factory, potentially capable of supplying a whole continent with its particular product, cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda, with the vast public in order to assure itself the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable.
Keep that in mind, as we attempt to rationalise the response to recent news that Bitcoin exchange MT Gox has collapsed, accompanied by reassurances from the community’s biggest names that none of this impacts the potential of Bitcoin itself.
For it was Edward Bernays who first observed decades ago that mass production had changed the marketplace so fundamentally that companies would forever be reliant on propaganda to create demand where there was none. He termed this process “manufacturing consent”.
Bitcoin’s power, for obvious reasons, relies more than most on this process. Without mass manufactured consent, Bitcoin is nothing.
Bernays didn’t see any of this as sinister, mind you. In a free market, he argued, propaganda was simply a tool for competitive big business, whose goal was always to get bigger, more powerful and more monopolistic. If one particular company or faction’s propaganda came to dominate too much, there shouldn’t be anything stopping another from offsetting or countering that propaganda with their own propaganda.
Modern democratic capitalistic society, in other words, was geared towards propaganda wars. A constant battle over hearts and minds, so much so that — for the most part — we have become completely oblivious to the conditioning we are exposed to.
Up for grabs (for the most effective practitioners, at least) are the trappings of guaranteed demand, profit and power.
It isn’t entirely Wild West, mind you. Some degree of regulatory oversight exists. Though, of course, it’s focused mostly on differentiating fact from fiction, or prohibiting propaganda that encourages self-destructive behaviours or products (such as tobacco), a consensus itself ironically achieved via offsetting propaganda efforts — lobbying and campaigning — of more ethically or socially minded groups. Nevertheless, none of this stops expert practitioners from exploiting society’s base desires, lusts and wants to serve their needs irrespective of the ethics.
Hence why it’s still acceptable to indoctrinate children with detergent adverts in between cartoons. Having kids pester their parents to buy this or that isn’t seen as exploitative, it’s seen as clever marketing.
But what Bernays also noted was that propaganda was most effective when it focused on validating or furthering the causes of particular social groups. i.e. when it helped to align the interests of business with politics.
Back when Bernays was writing, of course, the gateway to manipulating public opinion was restricted to a small group of PR practitioners and propagandists due to the costs associated with gaining access to mass market media.
Today, however, the internet — and social media in particular — has changed that completely. The propaganda industry has been disrupted to the same degree by social media as conventional business was disrupted by mass production processes so many years ago.
Anyone with a Twitter account has the means to become a successful propagandist.
The greatest shift is that most propaganda is no longer dominated by corporate interests striving to command our hearts and minds so that they can sell us more products. Propaganda is instead being used by us to sell ourselves to our peers.
Whereas old style corporate messages pandered to our ego by convincing us that this or that product can make us project a better version of ourselves, today we can jump over that entire process thanks to the many direct outlets for heavily manipulated self projection.
Propaganda crowded out
But, while the universalisation of propaganda may have provided ever more of us with these awesome propaganda tools, it has also debased its worth. Attention span, after all, is finite. Millions, if not billions, of voices (both private and corporate) now compete against each other to influence public opinion on a daily basis.
Think of it this way. Proctor & Gamble isn’t competing with Pepsico for your attention span anymore, it’s competing with the pictures and videos of cats, food and holidays posted by your nearest and dearest. What’s more, the more corporations try to butt into the private propaganda space, the more we grow to resent them. This is because personal propaganda is far more powerful and engaging than corporate propaganda could ever hope to be.
In that context, the traditional strategy of pandering to our egos — mostly by promoting the ethos that this or that product can make you the person you want to be — simply doesn’t do the trick anymore.
We don’t need unnecessary “aspirational” products to make our ego feel good. We’ve got online tools to propagate and project whatever image of ourselves we want to. We’ve got apps that photoshop our spotty faces. Apps that help us turn home videos into Hollywood quality movies. Apps that allow us to engage in oneupmanship. Apps that help us eat less, not more.
And just like conventional propagandists before us, we have no qualms about doctoring our photos, being liberal with the truth or glossing over reality in a bid to enhance the image it presents to those it’s seeking to influence or coerce.
True, corporate interests are still trying to harness the power of private propaganda for themselves. But — in the new open propaganda war — that means getting people to associate their own narcissistic self-promotion with their products. That’s a big ask, given that time spent promoting products is less time spent promoting yourself, and your online desirability.
In our minds, no product is more important than ourselves. And that’s because the ultimate reward of propaganda, if used wisely, is the sort of hierarchal positioning that was previously only ever associated with dictator-level personality cults.
The best propagandists understand this. They understand that people will only promote a product if it helps them promote themselves at the same time. Yet herein lies a fundamental paradox.
As Caesar and Augustus knew only too well, a personality cult will never successfully penetrate public minds if it is too focused on itself. Conversely it needs to be masterfully disassociated from self promotion, and re-associated with altruistic value, humour, or benevolence. In Caesar and Augustus’ case it was only through publicly rejecting kingly power, that they were able to create a much more powerful empirical office to replace it.
A masterful slight of hand and example of misdirection.
Sophisticated personal propaganda campaigns can be differentiated from unsophisticated ones in exactly this way. The distribution of highly doctored selfies eventually begins to nauseate. No-one likes a narcissist or a megalomaniac. Meanwhile, too much association with high-end products or exclusivity meanwhile backfires with the “Rich Kids of Instagram” effect.
Today’s most effective propaganda consequently is the sort that inspires people to care about things other than themselves. It’s not aspirational as much as experience or ideology based.
Red bull was an early trailblazer on this front, disassociating itself almost entirely from the product in its marketing and focusing on fun, experience and radical individualism. The ads don’t sell the product, they sell a brand, which in reality is a social protocol for a different (more enjoyable) way of life. An ideology focused on experience not consumerism.
Which finally brings us back to Bitcoin.
As we noted before, Bitcoin can’t survive without manufacturing consent for its ideology. In the new open propaganda era that means getting as many people as possible to associate their own self-promotion with Bitcoin, and its success. What we’ve seen in the last few years, consequently, is one of the most sophisticated propaganda strategies ever deployed in this regard.
All the more impressive because it’s been portrayed as being fully grass roots in nature.
Yet, as we’ve already noted, no propaganda campaign can be successful in the long run if it depends too much on narcissistic self-promotion. The trick, consequently, is appealing to the personality cult desires of the masses, but at the same time making them appear somehow altruistic or socially minded.
As an ideology, Bitcoin captures and enlists minds by achieving that balance perfectly.The fundamental message of the movement being that its success empowers you, and with it everyone else.
It is, in short, the sort of propaganda more commonly associated with political indoctrination.
And yet the paradox is that it actually serves the old-fashioned corporate interests of those who understand, as ever, how to exploit the system’s followers to their own ends.
Just like Caesar, Bitcoin publicly rejects concentrated authority as a form of misdirection. It promotes decentralised authority just to disguise the real power grabbing that’s going on below the surface.
The aim is the same as always: forging guaranteed demand for a product nobody needs, but which will bestow profits and power on a concentrated few without you noticing, mostly by appealing to our collective self-centredness. Those few are early adopters, the dominant miners and more recently the corporate interests that were quick enough to figure out that in the new open propaganda era, manufacturing consent for products nobody needs is much harder than propagating an existing Emperor’s Clothes delusion and creating businesses that can profit from it.
The collapse of MT Gox and the insistence by the likes of Andreessen, Horowitz, Winklevoss and Keiser that this doesn’t somehow undermine the system, consequently, speaks volumes about the real power play going on within.
Their spin, of course, is that the collapse of MT Gox was an important learning curve for the Bitcoin community, and one which can empower it. MT Gox got too big too quickly, and was fundamentally corrupt from the outset. Its collapse now makes way for a more prudent, better run and more powerful business. A new era of self regulation.
Caesar’s death similarly did not make way for the reconstitution of the old Republic, but rather opened the door to an emboldened Augustus and the establishment of the extremely long-standing Roman Empire.
That the emperor system was tantamount to kingly tyranny, mattered very little to the Roman people. By that point they were so enamoured and indoctrinated, and so fed up of civil war, they couldn’t care less that the old tyrannical system was being re-created right in front of their eyes. Either that or they bought so wholeheartedly into the myth of a new era, they chose to ignore the obvious signs that it was simply the old system which they had once rejected being reformed.
A similar cognitive dissonance is currently going on within the Bitcoin community, which seems little bothered about the contradictions associated with on the one hand rejecting authority, government and regulation, and on the other hand embracing Bitcoin’s transformation into a system that regulates its wild west elements, defends the hierarchal elite it has established, and in some cases even calls for government protection of the fantasy property rights it itself has created.
In other words, all of a sudden the community has no issue with empowering a central organised authority, favouring an established elite, or subscribing to Too Big Too Fail.
Most people would say you can’t have it both ways. Unfortunately, if you’re a Bitcoin enthusiast it seems you’re immune to such contradictions. And if that says anything at all, it’s that the new type of propaganda is more powerful than we probably appreciated.
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