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Bateson’s Schismogenesis as a propaganda tool

The concept of schismogenesis was developed by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1930s, to account for certain forms of social behavior between groups. It was built on Bateson’s experience as an OSS intelligence officer in South Asia. Bateson spent much of his wartime duty designing and carrying out “black propaganda” radio broadcasts from remote, secret locations in Burma and Thailand (Lipset 1980:174), and also worked in China, India, and Ceylon (Yans-McLaughlin 1986a:202).

The term “black propaganda” simply refers to a technique whereby an individual or group pretends to represent the positions of their enemy, and mixes a preponderance of facts with a careful seasoning of disinformation that will portray the enemy in a negative light. In this work Bateson applied the principles of his theory of schismogenesis to help foster disorder among the enemy. He helped to operate an allied radio station that pretended to be an official Japanese station: it undermined Japanese propaganda by following the official Japanese line but exaggerating it (in Current Concerns, No.17:2010).

Bateson’s communications research of local cultures under British colonial rule identifies two major weaknesses, undermining the system. The first one was the lack of communication upward from the local population to the colonial masters. The second one was the unwillingness of the colonial power to delegate self-government functions to the locals. Bateson suggested a three-pronged approach to remedy these two weaknesses: First, local society should be thoroughly analyzed to gain an adequate understanding of its workings; Second, a detailed analysis of local popular culture must be done – in South Asia’s case Bateson suggests a careful content analysis of Indian popular films – as a way of gauging popular sentiment; Third, and most importantly, America must learn from Russia’s successes in conquering ethnic minorities by praising and co-opting aspects of their culture – on this point he specifically suggests that it might be possible to co-opt some components similar to the symbolic capital that Gandhi has used so successfully; and finally, Bateson suggests that the postwar OSS be sure to continue with its wartime education programs for colonialist authorities.

The rather advanced technique of schismogenesis is used often in online discussion forums by trolls, supposedly planted by intelligence services or the editorial board itself. In Guardian’s war on Russia over Ukraine, for instance, schismogenic trolls like V_Poutine, havingalavrov and mastahputin were deployed.

Analogous to Émile Durkheim‘s concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity (see functionalism), Bateson posited a symmetrical form of schismogenic behavior that consisted of a competitive relationship between categorical equals (e.g., rivalry) and complementary schismogenesis between categorical unequals (e.g., dominance and submission). Bateson’s specific contribution was to suggest that certain concrete ritual behaviors either inhibited or stimulated the schismogenic relationship in its various forms. In his earlier formulations, Bateson tied the notion to that of ethos.