Game of Cults: How Reflexive Control and Disinformation Undermine Mainstream Media

Controlling the narrative

A few articles back, I said I would share more about Russian Active Measures.

From Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin’s early writings, it’s clear that they thought capitalism was doomed through design. Intense competition and concentration of capital would result in a revolution.

Therefore, in the eyes of the Troika, there was no need to overthrow a capitalist regime. Demoralization would expedite its inevitable collapse.

The idea of Soviet spies stealing our secrets and agents setting honeypots to beguile our military and political leaders is more the stuff of movies than reality.

Indeed, there were campaigns to do so over the years, but when you follow the money and resources, far more Soviet covert operations were focused on disinformation and demoralization. If you don’t believe me, then listen to the words of an ex-KGB operative who used to do this same work.

Of course, the Soviet budget pales compared to what the US and its allies spent on disinformation, but the Soviets knew its true power and how to play a long game—a game they may be winning right now.

The current dictator of Russia, Vladimir Putin, grew up in the KGB, learning from the best. When it came time to establish power, he started at home with a spectacular disinformation campaign and reflexive control.


During the Cold War, much of Russia’s covert work was done through press organizations and the subversion or bribery of the press to create misinformation.

In July 1983, the Soviets planted a story in a small journal in India that AIDs might invade India, and the disease was the product of US experiments at Fort Detrick.

They waited…

Two years later, the Soviets ran stories citing the Indian report as a source.

Disinformation planting is the first part of the recipe.

Reflexive control

Reflexive control is one of the all-time greatest hits for the KGB. The idea is to set up information and events so that your subject purposely does something against their interests.

Putin used disinformation and reflexive control to solidify power.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia was in disarray, and Putin was trying to find his place in the new world order.

Enter Vladislav Surkov.

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Surkov had a background in public relations and had worked to craft Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s reputation as Khodorkovsky was scooping up old Soviet assets.

Putin saw Surkov’s talent for using propaganda and soon began working with him. In 2013, they began to craft a massive disinformation campaign around Putin’s play to remain in power.

Both men quickly realized that what everyone was seeking was what they, too, sought—stability.

That became the call. Putin is stability.

Now, he needed consensus, and this is where he mixed disinformation and reflexive control to get his enemies to do his work for him.

First off, they focused on creating a new government idea—one that was stable and perfect for Russia: a sovereign democracy. That’s code for autocracy.

To get consensus, they would first sow dissension.

This is a significant departure from old Soviet tactics. In the old days, the commies would fund only leftist organizations. They kept a focus on ideology.

In asymmetrical warfare and reflexive control, you create conflict. If the right is strong, invest in building a strong left. Suppose there are no fascists to fight, then make and fund the group. The idea is to create as many Us-vs.-Them relationships as you can and become the stabilizing and controlling force of all of them.

In no place has this been more detrimental than in Ukraine.

This is where Putin and Surkov applied the concepts of soft power and asymmetrical warfare externally to influence (via reflexive control) a country.

The Russian premise is they need to intercede to stop ultra-nationalists and save Russian separatists. It took years of steady effort and funding to create the exact organizations in conflict.

This is no longer just fake news like the Indian AIDs story, but real groups nurtured and funded by covert money to fight with each other and give Russia a reason to come in and stabilize the country.

This isn’t new.

Surkov and Putin did the same thing in Russia to solidify their power. They pitted Russian ultra-nationalists, the Orthodox Church, leftists, hardliners, and neo-capitalists against each other to highlight that Putin and sovereign democracy were the only way to stability.

One hundred years after the fall of the tzars and the rise of Leninist communism, what remains is powerful men using propaganda to control the masses and get them to follow their will.

All are driven by sentiment about their pseudo-environment and, in some cases, making this fabrication a reality.

Today, the scale to which a pseudo-environment can be created is vast and fast. Within minutes, social media can accomplish what used to take months or years.

According to a Facebook report obtained by MIT Technology Review, before the 2020 election, 140 million Americans monthly were exposed to Eastern Bloc troll farms. The sites were designed with a focus on polarizing Christian and Black Americans.

In the same study, Facebook also confirmed that this troll farm content is more likely to get comments and shares than content shared by regular Facebook users.

We have weaponized information for our enemies. Through shares and likes, unsuspecting users wrap this disinformation in a veneer of authenticity and pass it along to a friend. That share gives a lie social proof.

Just like Stalin, his cronies predicted democracy and capitalism would eat themselves alive with the help of their disinformation. Today, our politicians (every political party—Abrams, Clinton, Trump) who don’t like that they lost an election question its results.

BOOM, reflexive control! Get the leadership to question free and fair elections and take a jackhammer to the foundation of democracy.

That feeling you have right now of questioning everything and wondering how you’ll ever be able to figure out what the truth is puts you right where a guy like Putin wants you. That way, he’s left alone to continue exerting soft power.

How reflexive control and disinformation relates to your business

At this point, I understand that this article sounds more like a conspiracy theorist’s rant than a blog to help an author build a better business.

This stuff comes from a dark place, and I warned you that we would be going to these places.

I share this to give props to those who show virtuosity in the black hat tactics of persuasion and provide a word of caution that you may be susceptible to some of their tactics.

Two points directly affect authors.

Facebook is a bigger dumpster fire than you may have known. If this is your primary source of new readers, you need to think about how you can give people some sanctuary from all the nonsense there. Social media is mutating into its worst iteration. Driven by advertising dollars and the need to capture and sell attention, Facebook has become a potent disinformation weapon.

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Do you think it will ever take a path of redemption?

Part of your messaging today can take advantage of bringing stability to the chaos. Be the brand that delivers a place to retreat from the ill sentiment and rancor others are creating.

Be the Us to the Them of bad vibes.

Show your readers that you are building a place to connect and be with others who don’t want their attention abused.

Of course, the first question is: Where, if not Facebook?

Start there. If the ship is sinking, you must get those willing to be saved to collect on the upper decks. Help to gather your people there, then get them off the ship in an orderly fashion.

I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again: Do you want to be a sharecropper? If so, stay where it seems easier to cultivate on social media and sell indirectly.

Just don’t be surprised when you go down with the ship.

Finally, understand how powerful persuasion and propaganda are in getting a group to act. You need to accumulate an audience and get them to take concerted action to build more audience.

Audiences scale. Advertising, not so much.

If sentiment and emotion are strong enough to topple or stabilize governments, they can sell a book or two.

Think about how you can build a pseudo-environment that aligns with your brand and brings your story world into the real world. It shouldn’t be too hard now that you know both are fiction.

One more thing…

Protect your sanity. Understand that many people are trying to use these tactics on you, and you should question what reality they are trying to fabricate.

Here are some ways to defend yourself.

Just take a break. The FOMO of social media is a gamification technique to keep you engaged. You’ll get far more out of a productive week of no social media than with it. Both mentally and in business production.

Deconstruct your own beliefs. You’re more complex and nuanced than a trigger issue. Take the time to unpack your beliefs and the sources of your information. To what extent are you operating on the ideology you’ve been fed? Were your choices critically evaluated, or were they all reflexive control driven by others’ agendas? If you’re like me, you’ll see that 90% wasn’t of your choosing.

If you feel strongly about an issue, take the time to see it from the other side. Too often, we are focused on building up the defense to protect our pseudo-environment rather than looking to see if it’s a prison rather than a protection. Get to the point where you can comfortably argue the opposite of something you strongly believe in, and then see if you still hold those ideas as strongly.

Read: Using Rituals, Sacred Words, and Linguistic Spellcasting to Captivate Readers