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We’re entering an age of ‘psyop realism’, but what does that mean?

Psyop memes are taking over social media, in particular across post-ironic meme pages, where anti-establishment currents are supercharged

It’s 2am and I’m scrolling my Instagram feed when a meme comes up that reads: “The birds are CIA informants.” Haha. Tap, tap. The next one is a picture of Wojak in a tinfoil hat, facing an FBI agent. “Stop giving me your hardest psyops,” he says with an exhausted grimace. “You literally just have to take your meds,” the Fed responds. Haha. Tap, tap. “I have to be the most esoteric Fed in this group chat,” reads another, with an image of American occultist Manly P Hall and followers conducting a seance around a crowded table. Before I can swipe again, my Instagram crashes and I’m left staring at the screen, suspiciously.

From the rise of tin-foiled conspiracies to the creeping dominance of the algorithm, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that a spectre is haunting the net – and it’s steeped in online distrust and paranoia. Psyop memes are taking over social media, in particular across post-ironic meme pages, where anti-establishment currents are supercharged. In the mainstream, HBO Max’s new Velma cartoon has prompted conspiracy theories that it’s a right-wing psyop, while Fox News is convinced that the M&M girlies are a Chinese psyop meant to pedal candy-coated femininity. It’s not that we’re all collectively losing our minds, although it certainly feels that way. It’s more a reaction to our increased awareness of the propaganda and subversion that we are all exposed to every day. As the late Robert Anton Wilson said all the way back in 1980: “Anyone in the United States today who isn’t paranoid must be crazy.”

The influx of psyop memes can be traced back to an increased awareness of psyops more generally. Last May, the US Army’s 4th PSYOP Group released a recruitment video called Ghosts in the Machine, which went viral. The three-and-a-half-minute video opens with the question, “Have you ever wondered who’s pulling the strings?” followed by historical scenes of social upheaval from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Euromaidan riots. Besides the video itself appearing like one giant psyop, it pushed the idea that you, too, can be one of the ghosts pulling the strings. “Psyops work much in the same way as propaganda or advertisements, where information serves as a non-kinetic weapon intended to shape people’s attitudes and beliefs – ultimately creating more favourable conditions for an organisation’s objectives,” says David Noel, an internet researcher and army veteran. “The video sparked interest and spotlighted psyops, which existed as a vague concept in the public’s imagination.”

For example, the recent popularity of 9/11 memes shows a wider distrust towards official media narratives (‘9/11 was an inside job’). These include everything from the Twin Towers being replaced by giant Elf Bars, to the Queen’s face superimposed onto the towers as a London bus hurtles towards them – a hilarious ressentiment towards British and US imperialism. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re not immune to propaganda, and that content has the power to sway our thoughts, whether we’re aware of it or not. As consensus reality breaks down, and people turn to alternative media such as Instagram and TikTok, there’s an inclination to slip further into conspiratorial thinking, as atomised groups and filter bubbles encourage fringe ideas: was 9/11 actually an inside job? Was the moon landing staged?

“Governments, through the use of tactics like limited hangout, can subvert transparency by further confusing the public with plausible narratives: if everything is true, then nothing is,” Noel elaborates. “Instead of debating if something took place, we’re left to discuss how and why while ignoring the meta. This confusion makes it difficult for individuals to organise around a counter-narrative and much more likely to symbolically post into the void.”

Underpinning this is the idea that it’s impossible to imagine a world where we’re not constantly being surveilled by the Powers That Be, whether it’s through our phones, the algorithm or AI-powered virtual assistants like Alexa. When paired with raging social media addictions, these feelings of distrust and paranoia grow more intense: it’s not a coincidence that the panopticon meme peaked in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. As technology advances – Elon Musk is literally developing a brain chip that lets you see inside people’s thoughts – and even the most personal content takes on a glossy, search engine-optimised sheen that’s indistinguishable from advertising, we grow increasingly suspicious of the methods of control we’re subjected to on a daily basis.

From here, it’s easy to hop further down the rabbit hole and conclude that everyone is a Fed, everything is a psyop: “You are presented with information which you disagree with? Psyop. Someone tries to convince you of something? Fed. This is the direction that I see our world heading towards,” says meme admin @Okschizo. “Everyone becomes their own prophet. It is the decentralisation of ‘truth’.” In other words, we’re entering an age of ‘psyop realism’ (the belief that this paranoia will only increase, and it’s not possible to envisage a future without it – a spin on Mark Fisher’s famed capitalist realism). “[I can’t see a] future beyond a world of psyops,” says artist Brandon Bandy, whose exhibition Psyop Realism ran in New York last November.

Under psyop realism, we all become targeted individuals under the shadowy control of the Influencing Machine – a term originally used to describe the paranoid delusions of someone diagnosed with schizophrenia. In their book Anti-Oedipus, philosophers Deleuze and Guattari describe the ‘schizophrenic’ as someone who rejects capitalism and the codes and signifiers that order it, so it’s no wonder that schizoposting – an unfiltered approach to sharing information via unintelligible text walls, memes and videos – is so ubiquitous among the terminally online, whose anti-establishment content pokes fun at these systems of power. 

So, what happens next? Are the birds actually CIA informants? Is this article a psyop? As I reopen my Instagram I come across an image of a glitched-out Wojak that reads: “Please help me, it’s not a LARP anymore.” While the downward spiral into psyop meme-d unreality is tempting (and funny in an absurd-nihilist way), we mustn’t forget the reality of those actually playing puppeteer. 

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