Public perception of psychological operations soured in a big way in the mid-1970s, when details of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program were first released, detailing a plot—more based in science fiction than science—to brainwash subjects using psychoactive drugs. Further revelations that the US had supplied Nicaraguan death squads with psychological warfare guides would not help that public relations problem.
A lot of the paranoia about psychological operations stems from “misapprehensions of what it is, what it is capable of,” says Tracy, who wrote one of the definitive books on the subject.
While there may be grandiose ambitions of changing “hearts and minds,” Tracy says, the actual effect of this work is more modest: “Really, what you’re looking to do is affect peoples’ decisions of what to do, and what not to do.”
In 1994, reports emerged of one particularly musical innovation from the Pentagon: During the Gulf War, the US military would boost morale by cranking up Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” when responding to Iraqi SCUD missile attacks, for example.
These techniques would later be adapted by the CIA to torture inmates captured in the War on Terror, a program now widely regarded as a complete failure.
What Makes a Good Psyop?
“Which is more effective: Tokyo Rose, in lovely, clear English, but … very much falsehood-based; or Voice of America and Radio Free Europe?” asks Christopher Paul, USMC chair for information at the Naval Postgraduate School, and a senior social scientist at RAND Corporation. He answers his own question: “You can also be effective and persuasive with the truth.”
In recent decades, the Pentagon has even tried to rebrand these operations with a more mundane, but more accurate, name—Military Information Support Operations, or MISO. The name hasn’t caught on.
Paul has spent years studying the effectiveness of psychological and information operations, particularly nefarious and covert propaganda efforts. Fears over how these techniques could be used against Americans are longstanding, he notes, and are exactly why this work is forbidden domestically.
“The Department of Defense has an influence capability,” Paul says. “But by statute, law, habit, authorization and permission: It is only ever pointed at selected foreign audiences.” Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, for example, are expressly prohibited from broadcasting to domestic audiences in the US.
Tracy and Paul agree that psychological operations work when they are targeted, clear, and—ideally—honest.
Paul points to the Russian effort to sway the 2016 presidential election. “Did it change electoral outcomes? No, not as far as we can tell, Did it cause or prevent conflicts? No, not as far as we can tell,” Paul says.
It was equally ineffective when the Pentagon tried it.
In 2022, social media companies identified a fear-reaching campaign, run by the Pentagon, to use dummy social media accounts to spread propaganda targeted at Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow. The effort prompted backlash, and led to a full-scale review of these operations. (That, seemingly, hasn’t prevented the Pentagon from piloting the possible use of deepfakes.)