“Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy”, read the front page headline of Sunday’s New York Times. Bit by bit, mainstream American consciousness is slowly coming to terms with the death of the thrilling conspiracy theory that the highest levels of the US government had been infiltrated by the Kremlin, and with the stark reality that the mass media and the Democratic Party spent the last two and-a-half years monopolizing public attention with a narrative which never had any underlying truth to it.
The question still remains, though: what the hell happened? How did a fact-free conspiracy theory come to gain so much traction among mainstream Americans? How were millions of people persuaded to invest hope in a narrative that anyone objectively analyzing the facts knew to be completely false?
The answer is that they were told that the Russiagate narrative was legitimate over and over again by politicians and mass media pundits, and, because of a peculiar phenomenon in the nature of human cognition, this repetition made it seem true.
The rather uncreatively-named illusory truth effect describes the way people are more likely to believe something is true after hearing it said many times. This is due to the fact that the familiar feeling we experience when hearing something we’ve heard before feels very similar to our experience of knowing that something is true. When we hear a familiar idea, its familiarity provides us with something called cognitive ease, which is the relaxed, unlabored state we experience when our minds aren’t working hard at something. We also experience cognitive ease when we are presented with a statement that we know to be true.
We have a tendency to select for cognitive ease, which is why confirmation bias is a thing; believing ideas which don’t cause cognitive strain or dissonance gives us more cognitive ease than doing otherwise. Our evolutionary ancestors adapted to seek out cognitive ease so that they could put their attention into making quick decisions essential for survival, rather than painstakingly mulling over whether everything we believe is as true as we think it is. This was great for not getting eaten by saber-toothed tigers in prehistoric times, but it’s not very helpful when navigating the twists and turns of a cognitively complex modern world. It’s also not helpful when you’re trying to cultivate truthful beliefs while surrounded by screens that are repeating the same bogus talking points over and over again.
Another study titled “Incrimination through innuendo: Can media questions become public answers?” found that subjects can be manipulated into believing an allegation simply by exposure to innuendo or incriminating questions in news media headlines. Questions like, for example, “What If Trump Has Been a Russian Asset Since 1987?”, printed by New York Magazine in July of last year.
You can understand, then, how a populace who is consuming repetitive assertions, innuendo, and incriminating questions on a daily basis through the screens that they look at many times a day could be manipulated into believing that Robert Mueller would one day reveal evidence which will lead to the destruction of the Trump administration. The repetition leads to belief, the belief leads to trust, and before you know it people who are scared of the president are reading the Palmer Report every day and parking themselves in front of Rachel Maddow every night and letting everything they say slide right past their skepticism filters, marinating comfortably in a sedative of cognitive ease.
And that repetition has been no accident. CNN producer John Bonifield was caught on video nearly two years ago admitting that CNN’s CEO Jeff Zucker was personally instructing his staff to stay focused on Russia even in the midst of far more important breaking news stories.
The science of modern propaganda has been in research and development for over a century. If you think about how many advances have been made in other military fields over the last hundred years, that gives you a clear example of how sophisticated an understanding the social engineers must now have of the methods of mass manipulation of human psychology. We may be absolutely certain that there are people who’ve been working to drive the public narratives about western rivals like Russia, and that they are doing so with a far greater understanding of the concepts we’ve touched on in this essay than we have at our disposal.
The manipulators understand our psyches better than we understand them ourselves, and they’re getting more clever, not less.