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Thirty percent of Americans claim, despite all evidence to the ­contrary, that the last presidential elections were “rigged”. Millions are sure that the “deep state” is plotting to import immigrants to vote against “real ­Americans” in the future. Meanwhile in Russia, the majority of people claim that the Kremlin is the innocent party in its brutal invasion of Ukraine. When Ukrainians call their relatives in Russia to tell them about the atrocities, all too often they hear their own kin parrot the Kremlin’s propaganda lines: the atrocities are faked, or false flags, or necessary in order to impose Russia’s greatness. 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. 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 Obergruppenführer 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’s interest, however, went beyond the uniquely nasty realm of nazism. He saw the same patterns at play throughout Germany in the 20th century as well as in Britain during the first world war. And his wartime work has many lessons for us today. The son of an Australian literature professor at Berlin University, Delmer grew up in Germany and spoke the language fluently. Australia was a dominion of the British Empire at the time, and Delmer was seen, and wanted to see himself, as British. He was 10 years old when the first world war broke out, and was bullied for being an enemy schoolchild. When he came to England in 1917, he was bullied for seeming too German, a consequence of what he described as “our British way of working up to a real crescendo of hate and fury towards the end of the war”. He would learn to play the perfect English schoolboy. But reading his memoirs I felt this bicultural childhood left him with the sense that all social roles are exactly that: roles that are there to be performed. Propaganda is successful when it gives people a satisfying part to play: someone to be, to love and hate. It also left him with an awareness of how deeply we all need to belong to a group – Delmer had found it painful to be an outsider, seen as not properly British. Until the end of his life he would remain an imperial nostalgist, performing an almost caricatured version of the Britishness he longed to be part of as a child. It was the performative aspect of propaganda, and the simultaneous need to belong, that struck him when he observed Hitler’s success. In the 1920s, Delmer became a star reporter for the Daily Express in Berlin. He gained behind-the-scenes access on Hitler’s election flights around Germany, where adoring crowds saluted the führer. Hitler gave people the sense of being part of a huge mass, a Volk, which appealed to many after the confusing changes of the early 20th century, when the old social order had been upended. He also gave people roles to play when the old ones had vanished: in the confusing cabaret of Weimar Germany, where identities were in flux, you knew who you were when you became a Nazi party member or an SS man. These roles were emotionally satisfying: they allowed people to submit to a strong leader, and feel strong and superior through him; they also allowed them to feel the victim, which in turn legitimised anger and cruelty to others. Some psychoanalysts who observed the rallies believed these grievance narratives gave people the chance to blame external forces for all the things they didn’t like about themselves. Orators like Hitler make us feel we can crush the voice inside of us that tells us we are not good enough, by projecting it on to others. Today’s propagandists play on the same needs. In a time of rapid economic, social and technological change it can be comforting to be part of a large, angry crowd. Online conspiracy theory communities are particularly effective at pulling together a sense of being part of a group with a secret knowledge and mission. Such media also give people a role to play in a confusing world: as a Proud Boy or a “patriot” storming the Capitol. Social media, where you are encouraged to label who you are, only exacerbates this performance. Meanwhile the allure of “strongmen” has never gone away. Whether you buy into the psychoanalytic theories, the grievance narratives work – from Trump’s crusade to Make America Great Again to Putin promising to get Russia back off its knees. When the second world war was declared, Delmer was dismayed by Britain’s efforts to counter Nazi propaganda. He felt that the BBC German Service was simply preaching to converted anti-Nazis. So was the other German language station the British ran, the Station of the European Revolution, which still held out hope for a democratic uprising in Germany. Much like media across the world today, which see themselves as supporting democracy and liberal values, these stations were trapped in what we sometimes label an echo chamber of like-minded people. Delmer wanted to break through and engage audiences that had come under the sway of the Nazis, and find the cracks that split them from the party. His first effort claimed to be a pirate radio station, hosted by a foul-mouthed German officer known simply as Der Chef. This racist patriot spewed stories about the scurrilous activities of Nazi officials, ranting about their sadomasochistic orgies. This pornography helped lure in listeners and broke taboos about insulting Nazi officials. In a more subtle way, it dramatised and mocked how nazism tapped into the psychological allure of submission and domination. Rather than produce moral and “rational” media, Delmer wanted to undermine the Nazi’s monopoly over people’s strongest, most violent urges. Then he turned the propaganda back on to the Nazis: “Our stories were peopled with Burgomasters, District Leaders, Local group leaders,” he explained. “We spread over them a slime of obloquy as foul as that which they themselves had spread over the Jews.” Delmer’s aim was not to replace one violent movement with another. Instead, he wanted to alienate people from Nazi propaganda by, as he explained to the king when he presented his work, pushing Nazi propaganda “one step further into the ridiculous”. This wasn’t quite satire – people were meant to believe Der Chef was a genuine soldier hiding somewhere inside German-held territory. And satire doesn’t always do much to undermine the hold a leader has on his followers: satirists who mock Trump or Brexit might make their own audiences feel good but don’t necessarily reach the other side. Delmer understood the need to engage people around their own interests rather than what you might like them to care about, and this is a lesson Ukrainian info warriors have been learning in their war with Russia. Ukraine is full of advertisers and hackers, activists and journalists all trying to reach Russian audiences. They buy ads on Russian pornography sites and bootleg movie portals or use cold calling software more familiar from marketing campaigns. Early on they found that “moral” content didn’t take off. When they made mass telephone calls to Russians, they found that some 80% would hang up during the first 20 seconds if the calls were about war crimes, but only 30% hung up when the call focused on their personal interests, such as a special tax they had to pay to support Russia’s newly occupied lands. But though Delmer’s first station was a success, with some sources in Europe even claiming it was the most listened-to station in Germany, it didn’t take long for the Nazis to work out that it was the British who were behind it. They began calling it out publicly, using it as an example of how dastardly the British propaganda was. Indeed, here is one (of many) negative lessons from Delmer’s work. Then, as now, creating “sock puppet” media – media that pretend to be one thing but are actually another – can backfire. As he expanded his war work, Delmer changed tactics. When he launched his most ambitious station, the Soldatensender Calais, it was still dressed up as if it were a native German military station, combining broadcasts of speeches by Nazi leaders with music and the latest news and gossip from the front that demonstrated all the lies and inequalities soldiers faced. But the aim was no longer to dupe the listener into believing this was a Nazi station – this time the audience was meant to be in on the act. As Peter Wykeham, a colleague of Delmer’s, explained, this station would “(i) afford our German customers an excuse if caught listening, (ii) enable them to justify this dubious activity to themselves”. Yet even though German listeners knew perfectly well the British were behind the station, they listened to it and trusted it. Often today we lament that people only trust the media that represent their social tribe. So how did Delmer pull it off? Delmer used every research tool at his disposal to understand his audience’s world. Partisan groups in France provided the latest scores from military football matches and information on the cars officers drove. Secret microphones installed in PoW camps picked up on the soldiers’ latest slang and complaints about their higher-ups. A special storage space had to be constructed for the volumes of notes held by Delmer’s archivist, the former leader of the Social Democrats in the Saar region, Max Braun. Delmer’s team had early knowledge of when the RAF would strike a German town so they could warn soldiers if the street their loved ones lived on had been hit and remind them of their right to take leave and help relatives caught under bombardment. Today it is so much easier to understand what people care about, even in closed societies. You can look at open-source research into corrupt procurement by local government, do sentiment analysis of social media, or use secure messaging apps that allow you to talk directly to people even in the most dangerous areas. The key is always to understand people’s conditions, and be useful to them. Delmer never talked down or lectured – instead he understood the gripes of the soldiers and made them feel part of a community that looked after their interests better than the Nazis. But just as important as what was broadcast was the experience of tuning in. Here was a radio programme pretending to be Nazi, which understood that its listeners knew that it wasn’t, and whose listeners tuned in because they needed the emotional and physical safety of play acting as if they thought it might be Nazi after all. If the principle of Goebbels’ propaganda was to try to entrance you, to dissolve you into the loud, angry crowd, then here was media that required you to make a series of autonomous, conscious steps to engage. Delmer’s other media, such as his leaflets to help you feign illness and defect from the front, were also designed for people to take control and be more active. He encouraged people to invent roles for themselves rather than play the ones forced on them by Nazi propaganda. How people think and act can be just as important as what they think when undermining the most malign propaganda. People are most susceptible to conspiracy theories, for example, when they don’t feel they have any agency or influence over their lives and rely on conspiracies to explain the world. Many are drawn to “strongmen” when they feel they can’t take back control over their lives. The real antidote to this is not plying them with facts. It’s helping to fix the underlying lack of agency. So what can we draw from the strange, contradictory experience of Delmer’s deeds and misdeeds? Dictators and propagandists inside democracies use hate-spreading troll farms and conspiracy-spewing cable news; target audiences according to their deepest grievances and encourage cruelty. To compete we need to develop a new generation of democratic media with the same focus, but with different values. This needs to be done at scale. First, such media has to match the emotional power of authoritarians. Counter-propagandists need their own visceral dramas, YouTubers and the whole spectrum of today’s channels. They don’t need to hide their provenance like Der Chef, though they may have to give people the necessary “cover” to watch safely if in a dangerous dictatorship. But they do need to delve into the operating theatre of our darkest desires. Think of the difference between the cult leader and the therapist. Both dig into people’s unspoken fears and needs. The cult leader, like the authoritarian propagandist, uses that insight to make people dependent on their power. The therapist helps them to become more empowered and self-aware. Second, we need to be much more attuned to the needs of audiences – think of media less as dispensing information and more as a social service. We are, by the looks of it, going to be in a long struggle with Russia. Now is the time to start investing in media that engage the parts of society that are critical to their war effort: workers in munitions factories or, most obviously, soldiers. It’s much easier than in Delmer’s time to obtain evidence of what they care about. Last month there was, for example, a large leak of documents from Russia’s military that showed how the leadership lies about losses on the front. The aim is not to make these people, who are often involved in war crimes, “good” – it’s to help win the war by getting them to disobey their orders. Third, such media need to nurture a sense of community, especially in polarised democracies where there is still a chance of displacing malign propaganda before it reaches total dominance, and where there are audiences up for grabs. Instead of experiencing power through a strongman, this community needs to empower people to act for themselves. There are many small initiatives that already pioneer this. Hearken, for example, is an online platform where users can help media choose which topics they should focus on, taking power away from aloof editors and grounding it in local needs. vTaiwan is another platform whose algorithm helps people find solutions to polarising issues by identifying common ground on which to build policies. Such examples are tiny and experimental, and need to be scaled massively. Sefton Delmer had as many bad lessons for us as good. But the most fundamental one is related to his sense that all social roles are somehow performed. We have a choice. We can either play the role prescribed by propagandists – which makes us dependent on them. Or we can invent media that welcome people into a relationship where they become active players. You can’t shove “the truth” down people’s throats if they don’t want to hear it, but you can inspire them to have the motivation to care about facts in the first place.