Cross-posted from FTAlphaville:
Morale-boosting military messaging intended to recruit and galvanise troops, while prompting patriotic goodwill with the public, is nothing new. Such techniques have been in play since war itself was invented.
In the 20th century, the military took advantage of the media of its day: broadcast radio, video and celluloid film. In 2020, it would clearly be negligent for it not to take advantage of the craze for musically backdropped micro-clippable content shareable on social media.
And the Azeri military has done just that. Take a gander at some of their greatest creations, starting with their latest release, described as Alkhanli and performed (according to Google Translate) by Nur Group.
Back in 2018, the Azeris also released this Top-gun evoking but equally Mamma Mia-channelling wonder hit:
The Turks have been at it too, though their creations have focused on the far grittier and arguably “cooler” style of rap.
Mind blown. Right? (Not literally, we hasten to add.)
But while it might be fun to laugh about it and share it on social media for the LOLs (yes, we stand guilty), there’s a serious consequence in doing so. On two fronts.
First, in the Azeri case, there is a deadly serious conflict with Armenia at the heart of all this over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s a conflict that goes decades if not hundreds of years back and is an incredibly sensitive matter, so sweeping in and promoting one side’s very military take via social media is probably not a good idea, especially if one knows little of the conflict itself. The latest news, as reported in the FT, is that both Armenia and Azerbaijan have declared martial law, blaming each other for the recent escalations. Actual conflict in the Caucasus region now looks to be looming, which given its strategic geographic positioning may have serious implications for peacefulness in the world.
The clips clearly soften the image of the Azeri military, and that is more than likely intentional.
The second point is more subtle.
Ten years ago all of the above would have been construed as far too cheesy to take seriously. Especially in the western world. But the latest TikTok craze has moved the zeitgeist on cheese, rendering an ironic coolness upon it. This has seen cheese sweep the system in 2020, adding a certain contemporary chicness to all micro-clippable positive-emotion evoking content.
That in itself is hugely important. Yes it’s morale-boosting at a time we all need a laugh. But there is a reason why the style has also always been incredibly popular with dictators and authoritarians. It is incredibly good at capturing hearts and minds, as well as inciting positive emotions that can sweep people up and make them do silly things they would otherwise not consider doing. Moody reality is much less effective at achieving such outcomes.
Cheesy content is also incredibly easy to produce.
This is probably why viral messaging that draws on all of these stylistic techniques is now all over the internet. And in some areas it’s being used in incredibly sinister ways.
The result is all our collective senses are being overwhelmed and we are all being being sucked into inadvertently supporting causes we might otherwise not agree with or haven’t even thought about.
Some of this stuff is easy to recognise as classic manipulation. Other bits not so much. Some of the most problematic content draws upon neurolinguistic programming (NLP) techniques, a favourite of cults and hypnotists like Derren Brown. These methods are actually far harder to recognise than you might appreciate. Once you get the knack for recognising them, however, you too will notice they are incredibly prevalent on platforms like YouTube.
Keep that in mind next time you slip into a two-hour long video that you just happened to click on because the headline promised to deliver some uniquely insightful or little-known knowledge that would explain all the madness in the world.
Be mindful it may never deliver. And that by the time you realise this, hours of your precious life — during which you could have been engaging with real people capable of giving real and relevant insight to your life — may have been lost. You will be none the wiser. And in the worst-case scenario, you may have even fallen asleep (and possibly been unwittingly programmed to love Azerbaijan, Trump, Putin, Greta, the Global Elite or even FT Alphaville).
What I find most intriguing is how much more professional this propaganda is than the social media to make benefit glorious nation of China, which was recently dismembered on social media for blowing up Alcatraz Island (a mock Guam) using recycled Hollywood clips:
For example, the Chinese video uses a short clip from the 2009 Transformers movie where a huge catlike robot is sent to Earth. But in the Chinese military version, it looks like a missile being directed at a target that eventually explodes. Some of the clips don’t show Guam at all, like the explosion from The Rock, which is set on Alcatraz, off the coast of San Francisco.
The use of Hollywood movies for the video, first spotted by semi-anonymous users on Twitter who claim to be based in Hong Kong, is particularly ironic when you consider the pro-U.S. and generally patriotic source material. The Rock and Transformers were both produced and directed by Michael Bay, who has an extremely close relationship with the U.S. Air Force, and the Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office specifically. Bay gives the Pentagon final say on his scripts and in exchange he gets to use military resources like fighter jets and warships in his movies.
What does that tell us about the real state of the “modernising” Chinese military?