Words are tools of war; specifically, cognitive war. And these tools effectiveness in gradually changing perceptions about Jews over the long term, and thereby ramping-up Jew-hate slowly and inexorably, rests on their systematic deployment. Antisemites use this approach precisely because it enables them to alter people’s decision-making abilities. Individually or collectively, the latest cognitive science research shows, people are susceptible to being manipulated and, in some cases, radicalised. The Pittsburgh synagogue massacre is only one instance where the weaponizing of narrative leads to violence. With the use of words, language, and rhetoric, as the foundation for this to occur, many people, it appears, can be ‘mind-hacked’.
But strangely, to date, the study of mind-hacking both to appreciate this method of antisemitic attack, and as a means to fight back against the onslaught it presents, has been overlooked by those battling Jew-hate. Here considered, therefore, are several mind-hacks, reasons for the worldwide Jewish community’s inertia in battling them or employing them, and how an organised, consolidated response to Jew-hate can be developed using such psychological methods strategically.
Mind-hacks in use
A mind-hack is any technique used to affect an individual’s mental state or cognitive processes such that they behave in ways reflecting someone else’s agenda. While mind-hacks may not be obvious at first glance, possibly the most famous application that’s come to light has been to affect US presidential voting behaviour in 2016, as a recent PBS documentary showed.
In the context of antisemitism, however, one way to identify these techniques is to look at what is being used against Jews (Myers, 2021a). At the same time, it should be remembered that these cognitive-based mind-hacks are often linked or used in combinations in order to make information extremely ‘sticky’ (that is, unforgettable), which is the aim. As such, antisemites have a variety of mind-hacks to choose from.
A favourite is ‘response baiting’, where fake facts or online memes, sometimes used jokingly or ironically, are employed to generate attention and produce heated conversation. As with the use of ‘sound bites’ (such as: Israel is an apartheid state or Israel stole Palestinian land), it’s not about truthfulness, but about creating a sticky memory for fake information amongst those drawn into any engagement. Moreover, even if there was some element of truth in a bait, any context has been stripped away by over-simplification.
These mind-hacks rely on the ‘continued influence effect’ and are foundational for those with an agenda: the more they cause a fact to be repeated – fake or otherwise – the ‘stickier’ it becomes in their target’s mind. It is a psychological effect strengthened through the ‘principle of fluency’; meaning that previously encountered information is easier for the brain to process and reinforces memory. These cognitive effects increase people’s susceptibility to false memory formation. And with such lies familiar when met again, a sense of truthfulness develops around them, researchers Daniel Effron and Medha Raj (2019) highlight, so that even if the information is known to be incorrect, it feels less unethical to share. Indeed, such sharing happens all the time on social media.
Another technique is related to the severity of ‘response baiting’ and involves the making of a statement designed to bait by shocking. If you followed former President Trump’s missives on Twitter – before he was banned from the site – you’ll find he used the technique to great effect to raise his fan base.
A reason ‘outrageous statementing’ works is because it appeals to parts of our brain, such as the amygdala, that are involved with processing novelty. And when something novel is presented to us, as neuroscientists Vincent Costa and colleagues (2014) have shown, the neurotransmitter Dopamine, associated with reward anticipation, increases; a slight high that the brain wants more of. The more outrageous, therefore, the more novel.
We can go back centuries to see ‘outrageous statementing’ in operation to affect the masses against Jews. Not least, across Europe, where the medieval church slurred whole Jewish communities by repeatedly insisting that the Jews killed Jesus, while at the same time fomenting multiple blood libels, as well as creating a pervasive narrative associating Jews with the Devil. As history shows, these lies had horrific consequences. But we don’t have to go back that far. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent comment suggesting Hitler had Jewish ancestry easily fits that category.
‘I could be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood. [That Zelensky is Jewish] means absolutely nothing. Wise Jewish people say that the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews.’ (Sergey Lavrov, quoted by the BBC, 2nd May 2022).
Infuriated responses understandably came from leading figures in Israel: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett; Foreign Minister Yair Lapid; the head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial Dani Dayan; and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel. While internationally, similarly irate responses came from figures such as: UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis; and the German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner, Felix Klein.
But the responses of those individuals, however accurate in their critique and condemnation of Lavrov’s comment, would have limited effect. Because they were dealing with a classic mind-hack using ‘outrageous statementing’. Lavrov’s comment wasn’t designed to be factual, it was designed to shock. And it achieved that goal. As to why it was used, we can conjecture it was a message to Israel not to alter its fairly neutral stance and even think about becoming more active in their condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as NATO countries have. And that Russia has the power to make life very difficult for its Jews; the Kremlin, Lavrov was possibly indicating, can ramp up Jew-hate very easily.
Whatever the purpose, Russia’s President Putin is understood to have called Naftali Bennet and apologised (though Russia later reported no specific apology). Nevertheless, this brings us to another frequently used tactic: to make an untrue statement – in this case about Jews – then later say it was incorrect and retract it. At least from Israel’s perspective, Lavrov and Putin did exactly that between them. However, once an outrageous statement is made, the above types of mind-hack kick in. Hence, because the comment was intended to be sticky (and received significant media coverage), any apology, real or perceived – and particularly without reinforcement by repetition – had far less impact (as it had far less media coverage – an apology was not exciting news): The damage had already been done.
Poor responses are missed opportunities
How then should Lavrov’s statement have been responded to? There was nothing wrong with the comments made by leading figures; they were rational responses stressing truth. But as a mind-hack, a rational response is insufficient. At the very least, the same tactic could have been deployed to strategically affect Russian sensibilities, with narrative used to, as it were, return fire: to shock. The platform to reach millions was there in the media furore. But leading figures representing world Jewry or its interests failed to grasp the opportunity.
They are not alone. Equally poor at controlling the narrative about Jews when interviewed on television or other media, are journalists, not to mention Israeli diplomats, both senior and junior, in addition to spokespeople, keyboard warriors and Holocaust educators. Without a doubt they all have good intentions. Yet they miss the cognitive techniques being used against them – and which they should be reflecting back, offensively. Time and again when faced with difficult questioning they will try to give facts, truthfully. But their opponent is playing a different game – using, for example, repetition of a list of unverified ‘atrocities’ (Israel kills Palestinian children or Israel commits genocide) (the repetitive soundbite changes every so often to keep it fresh). Or indeed, repeating an age-old trope about Jews updated for the modern age where it can escalate on social media (everybody knows Jews control the music industry or Israel caused Covid-19).
For those in the media spotlight what needs to be understood is that their opponent’s tactic is not to put across a rational argument but, instead, is calculated to appeal to those consuming that media episode, where the viewing, hearing, or reading of fake facts is designed to be sticky. As psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky and his team showed in a 2012 study, rather than listening to truthful explanations, people will tend towards information easier to digest (a headline, meme, soundbite, or comment), even if knowing it might be fake. Stickiness therefore occurs regardless of genuineness because it is information requiring less cognitive processing (ie less critical reasoning) in passing to memory.
It’s up to interviewees to avoid being on the backfoot and to alter the narrative of Jew-hate immediately when confronted with it using their own mind-hack. As the more a lie is allowed to feature in repeated media instances, the more it embeds in the public consciousness.
Interfering with the spread of hate: fight the mind-hack not the lie
Mind-hacks are effective because they access people’s innate biases. These biases are then seeded (and watered) by those with an agenda. That seeding particularly occurs when extremists prey on the susceptible: those prone to having their biases increased – the disenfranchised, those who feel powerless, those with negative childhood influences, the envious, or whatever else is an issue for a particular person. The list basically encompasses most people, which is likely why, as the UN Special Rapporteur recently found, ‘antisemitic attitudes have also seemingly grown more prevalent among people who do not hold extremist views, and… increasingly normalized’ (United Nations, 2022, p.1). And with social media acting as an echo chamber, in concert with other media, hate spreads.
Of course, it’s impossible to address every susceptible person’s grievance. Indeed, it has to be accepted that there are always going to be people who, irrationally, hate others. And even if by some miracle it was possible to address every grievance out there, fake facts are sticky – remember! Hence, you couldn’t easily change those people’s outlook about their target of hate simply by exposing them to the truth. What you can do is, armed with a knowledge of the dynamics of mind-hacking, interfere with how they spread that hate.
To do that, there is much insightful research to draw from. We know, for example, that educating people with facts in order to debunk, though it has a place, also has limitations (see the advice provided in The Debunking Handbook 2020 by Stephan Lewandowsky and a range of experts in the field). But educating about how to detect disinformation, a process social psychologist Sander van der Linden and colleagues (2017) call ‘prebunking’, helps ensure disinformation doesn’t become sticky in the first place. Aimed at the right groups, the approach could ‘inoculate’ against the spread of Jew-hate. But once disinformation has become ‘stuck’ in a person’s cognitive outlook education has little impact. It explains the tendency of White Supremacist groups to inculcate children (and especially teenagers) into their conspiracy-laden worldview about Jews (see, for example, on ‘the great replacement’ theory).
We know that the mind likes mental shortcuts. Significantly, they are instrumental in the flourishing of conspiracy theories, highlights social psychologist Daniel Jolley (2022) of the University of Nottingham. One shortcut, he describes, is the mind’s ‘proportionality bias’. People can experience difficulty processing big, random events they can’t explain (frequently because there is no easy answer). For example, the death of Princess Diana in an ordinary car accident, which doesn’t gel with the perceptions of some about her as a larger-than-life figure. So, explanations are sought that are big enough, yet simple enough, to confer some kind of order on such events. Often, only a conspiracy theory provides that proportionality. Indeed, scientists know a considerable amount about how conspiracy theories function and how extremists deploy them.
We know how radicals, to disseminate hate, link online and offline worlds; one reinforcing the other. Social scientist Mason Youngblood (2020) of the Max Planck Institute puts it like this: ‘Both social media usage and group membership enhance the spread of extremist ideology’. It’s a mechanism that’s been observed in a variety of extremist areas. For example, Youngblood goes on to say that, ‘online and physical organizing remain primary recruitment tools of the far-right movement’. Similarly, it’s a mechanism used by anti-vax groups as well as extremist misogynists. Going undercover online to seek out fanatical women-haters, Laura Bates showed how it’s not a simple link between online-offline worlds but there’s a structure in that combination, an ecosystem, through which people are drawn to the extremist mindset, recruited, and used as foot-soldiers by a small number of pathological, or just plain avaricious, individuals. Her conclusions echo those of Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis (2017) who find groups, such as the alt-right as well as the ’manosphere’, responsible for manipulating social media and driving conspiracies.
The main way to stop this particular mind-hack is to sever that online-offline link before those with malevolent intent can force hate to flourish. And to that end, we also know a considerable amount about how social contagion works – that is how behaviours and emotions are transmitted between individuals or groups.
Overall, what this all means is that it matters far less what the reasons for antisemitism are (or historically were) than how its messaging diffuses amongst the general population. Using mind-hacks offensively, however, this spread of Jew-hate can be interrupted.
Why have mind-hacks been overlooked?
With mind-hacking the reality why hasn’t the Jewish community responded to this specific behaviourally-based onslaught? Several reasons can be discerned for this inertia, and that, in effect, leaves the Jewish community’s flank exposed to attack. The following are four to think about:
1. Siloing: Consider the thrust of some of the most important current offensives against Jew-hate: forcing social media companies to take down antisemitic hate sites (eg YouTube videos by Pakistani hate preachers), the backing of UK legislation such as with the Online Safety Bill, or pressing for the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in universities. Their level of success aside, these, and other offensives, all help in addressing the spread of Jew-hate as it arises. And that’s the point; such offensives, however vital, tend to help address specific antisemitic events, case by case, and in the process ignoring our enemy’s unifying purpose of mind-hacking to slowly change the narrative about Jews and Israel. Meanwhile, Jew-hate mutates into different expressions (recall how a convoy of Palestinian supporters drove through London in May 2021 shouting ‘F**k the Jews, rape their daughters’). And in whack-a-mole style, the worldwide Jewish community attempts to deal with such mutations and their fallout.
In meeting these unpredictable attacks, offensives, by their nature, are separate, limited, and lack a cohesive integrated (and top-led) widescale strategy. ‘Siloed thinking’ is inevitable. Management science depicts siloing as occurring when related groups begin acting independently (divisions, say, within a company), each developing their own special character and way of conducting themselves. Similarly, amongst academics (including those working on antisemitism) the cross-fertilisation of ideas is often difficult to achieve, largely because these individuals stick within their domains of expertise.
Siloing may be understandable given the need to react to varied attacks, but it prevents an integrated, multi-pronged response. Indeed, the behavioural aspect is frequently overlooked. Having good but separate intentions cannot underpin the strategic combatting of Jew-hate. The offensive needs to be broadened and consolidated.
2. Over-intellectualisation: Jews may value education but the development of an intellectual outlook may produce a tendency to see a problem through an analytical lens; and where it frequently becomes the default position. The difficulty is that Jew-hate is not a result of a rational mental process, and so cannot be subjected to an academic analysis as a means of solving the issues generated. Mind-hacks do not use an intellectual mechanism but effect, more directly, people’s emotions.
In other words, if antisemitism specialists seek to fight Jew-hate by trying to understand it (or through relating experiences of Jew-hate, as bad as they might be), they are inevitably playing a different game to those using mind-hacks on the broader population as the foundation for growing a hostile narrative against Jews. Bari Weiss’s book is an example of this disjunct. Her work provides an excellent account of the way antisemitism manifests from the Right, the Left, and radical Islam. Though, it is not, as the title offers, actually about ‘How to Fight Antisemitism’.
You cannot intellectualise Jew-hate – and certainly you can’t challenge it by describing its effects or its origins or, in fact, studying evil. This isn’t to dismiss these aspects; they, like various focuses of ‘critical antisemitism studies’, are important fields of research, and we need to know the things they tell us. But we shouldn’t be confused about what that knowledge can ultimately achieve. Because in order to fight antisemitism something additional is needed: it is necessary to interrupt how mind-hacks are employed by Jew-haters and thus how their enmity is spread. In doing so, the trick is to focus on that, scientifically and objectively, and not become diverted by the colour represented in intellectual deliberation.
3. Sunk cost: A ‘sunk cost bias’ is a behavioural tendency to continue an endeavour – even if there’s evidence it’s not effective – once an investment of money, effort, or time, has been made. It’s a psychological bias that characterises how people often can’t let go of a lost cause and move on – or indeed, where they, as the saying goes: pour good money after bad. Hence, the real metric for assessing whether a practice is worth pursuing is to see positive results. But if Jew-hate is escalating then the possibility must be faced that what is currently done to challenge the problem is, at the least, insufficient.
From a sunk cost perspective, questions can be raised: Are people wedded to a particular course of action in this fight against Jew-hate despite contrary evidence? Are resources used to best effect – or is there a favouring of a biased offensive based on the subjective opinions of communal leaders? Is increasing investment made but ineffectually (as suggested by the 20X question. See: Reut Group and ADL, 2017)? Do ‘experts’ have ulterior motives: maintenance of a professional or academic role (or silo), or a continuing dogmatism about antisemitism being fought a certain way? Is there a tendency to believe that the best method of tackling Jew-hate, for example, is by education and we shouldn’t change tack?
In contrast, as Deborah Lauter, Executive Director of the New York City Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes stressed in a recent Jerusalem Post article, ‘We recognize that there is not one way to fight antisemitism and hate. You have to adopt a multifaceted approach.’
4. Lack of PR: Another strand in a failure to respond to mind-hacks affecting the Jewish community, and thereby inadequately altering antisemitic narrative, concerns public relations. Ironically, many of the PR profession’s techniques are essentially mind-hacks to influence mass public opinion. And armed with those techniques, products, people, groups, political parties, abstract ideas, and more, all become items that can be promoted as a brand. Yet PR expertise seems better leveraged by our adversaries rather than by the Jewish community itself (see Myers, 2021b). Indeed, with PR highly effective, as Edward Bernays established in the early 20th C, why isn’t it leveraged more by Jews to combat antisemitism? The idea being to take the battle – and the mind-hack – to the enemy, rather than the other way round. Complacency? A feeling we can never win? All of the above perhaps and much else. But without effective PR – as our enemies have learnt to be masters of – change in public perceptions about Jews and Israel cannot be promoted.
Consequently, we will never know what resources we can actually access from the PR sphere and bring to bear to counteract mind-hacks unless this is explored. Indeed, many Jews already work in PR and have risen to prominent positions. Their skills need to be harnessed. But so far, the idea that a positive brand image of Jews should be fostered and marketed accordingly as part of the narrative-altering process has not found any real traction. Yet until PR resources support the fight against antisemitic narrative more powerfully, any offensive by the Jewish community (whether through legal actions, pressure on social media companies, or psychologically against mind-hacks, and so forth) will continue to be hampered.
From science to strategic counter-attacking
What an assessment of this field points to is that those at the forefront in the battle against antisemitism need to become aware of the blocks hindering them (such as siloing, over-intellectualisation, sunk cost, and lack of PR). Indeed, they have to see the challenge of antisemitism more broadly than has hitherto been the case. And the flipside of that is for these individuals to become more conversant with the ways in which mind-hacks are used against the worldwide Jewish community. It is, after all, a cognitive war to control narrative – and where violence towards Jews cannot occur without people first buying into that narrative; whoever initiates it and whatever the agenda they have. At the 2013 Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism, David Matas stated it like this: ‘War propaganda, hate indoctrination, and incitement to terrorism, inevitably precede acts of war, hatred, and terror.’ Once that narrative base is more fully appreciated and challenged, we can begin to fight back against the spread of Jew-hate with greater effectiveness.
Individual efforts to understand and combat mind-hacking used against Jews are crucial, though this can only ever have limited impact. To achieve a strategic offensive on a much greater scale, one important recommendation would be to establish a behavioural science unit. It’s worth noting that the British Government established such a unit (although they subsequently spun it off to run independently) for a variety of health-related tasks (eg to get people to eat healthier). It is therefore a valuable approach with precedent.
The mandate of a behavioural science unit for combatting Jew-hate should include:
- Consolidation (including the production of a dedicated data library) of the extensive – and expanding – knowledge base of research studies from the cognitive and behavioural sciences, as well as other scientific disciplines that are relevant (eg sociology, anthropology, computational science).
- Research into how narrative and mind-hacking are currently used against Jews, offline in the real world and on various media (including the structuring of ‘foot-soldiers’ actions within online hierarchies and across platforms, as well as the use of bots that automatically copy and multiply their rhetoric).
- Media monitoring and assessment to determine what the latest antisemitic (and anti-Israel) rhetoric is, what mind-hacks are being employed, as well as how they can be countered with appropriate, tailored responses – not knee-jerk reactions. There also needs to be a multi-lingual approach, as, for example, much of the current antisemitic rhetoric comes from Pakistan and Iran. So, Hindi and Farsi speakers are required at a minimum.
- Media training – for eg TV and social media interviewees – in handling and controlling narrative (in line with the latest media monitoring assessment). Every media appearance is an opportunity to raise the profile of Jews – not something to be leery of, and neither should any interviewee be susceptible to being wrong-footed – but preparation is needed.
- A free media hotline (to registered users) – similar to the above point, the purpose is to provide the latest media monitoring assessment to those going on media (but who don’t require training) about what they may be faced with, in order to decide in advance how best they might counter it.
- The establishment of greater links to PR organisations for ‘marketing Jews’ in a positive light (PR professionals should also be part of the unit).
- Strategic media counter-attacking using appropriate mind-hacks and other psychological tactics.
It’s about pushback. And defending ourselves and mounting a counter-offensive against those promulgating Jew-hate through their repellent discourse may be a big task but it is not impossible. Excellent work, in fact, is already done in some of the areas I suggest a behavioural science unit could cover – not least, dealing with internet companies when failing to stop hate speech. But compared to the ongoing and rising attacks against Jews from mind-hacks and other psychological techniques, their combined work represents a small-scale response.
A behavioural offensive of the type envisaged undoubtedly needs suitable personnel and resourcing; it needs so precisely because fighting antisemitism is a big task. But, given a behavioural and PR approach is what our enemies are already using to mind-hack people in different countries to hate Jews, we owe it to ourselves to at least match them.
With or without a large-scale response, the key to turning the tables with mind-hacks, and counter-attacking, is to focus more on fighting the spread of Jew-hate rather than just the antisemitic incident. To the present time, we have not; despite the worldwide Jewish community having the means and capability to do so. The science points the way.
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