I was in a bar near Harvard Square when I first heard about AgitProp. In front of me was a former KGB propaganda operative who had defected to the west and disclosed how the Soviet Union funded political groups to sow confusion.
A portmanteau of Agitation and Propaganda, AgitProp’s goal is to shape public policy by manufacturing conflict, creating the illusion of consensus, and marginalising dissent.
It does this by agitating within the discourse on every topic, thus creating the expectation that some people in the conversation are “good”, and some people are “bad”. It subverts discussion, and turns it into a trial. The agitator then performs an appeal to authority, citing authority figures from clusters of self referential academic fields. These will be fields you’ve never heard of before, but sound legitimate. They will all cite each other, using their own buzzwords, and will attempt to discredit, silence or deplatform anyone outside of their bubble. A modern alternative to this is the appeal to institutions like celebrity and corporation. (“Ben and Jerry’s agree! There must be critical mass”)
It then establishes clear camps of those who are “good”, and those who are “evil”, by way of slurs, demonisation and false equivalencies. At this point they have their champions, as people fall over one another to wear the newly minted crown of virtue.
Then, through the fear of ostracism from the group, it manufactures the illusion of consensus. People are left with the choice of either siding with those who are doing the slandering, staying silent or being slandered themselves. The illusion of consensus leads one to assume that it’s not just the slanderer, but their friends and their families who feel this way. Their apprehensive silence appears to echo this sentiment.
Occasionally one may be let back into the fold by way of public capitulation, or via struggle sessions, which simultaneously confirm their allegiance to the ideology, and reinforce the notion of “moral rightness” and universal consensus to the ideology.
That consensus DOESN’T actually exist. It’s generally a small group of far right or far left agitators working to shepherd free thought into the dark channels of their narrow political rhetoric. These conversations appear organic, but once you can identify them, they all essentially follow the same structure laid out by the 20th century designers of AgitProp tactics.
One way I’ve found to identify AgitProp is by asking the agitator to offer a specific and actionable demand. If they aren’t able to offer anything you can act upon, then they aren’t interested in solving the issue and are just interested in using your emotions as a vehicle for their propaganda. This is generally true whether they’re the agitator, or just another hapless node.
Traditionally, the ultimate aim of AgitProp is to ensure continued and exaggerated unrest within a society, ultimately necessitating some form of violent revolution - thus evolutionary/incremental/actionable efforts are torn down in favour of heightened agitation. It’s why we can’t seem to get action on basic things like access to education in rural Australia, or a carbon tax. These actionable items represent, to the agitator, a move AWAY from the point of revolutionary criticality.
It’s very successful, it’s used by both sides of the political spectrum, and it makes up 90% of the news and politics.
As I ordered another vodka, I asked the KGB operative what the solution was to these tactics. He laughed and said it was simple -
DON’T BE A SUCKER
The US counter propaganda team even made a newsreel to teach the public: