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Stella Morabito: The Impulse to Conform and Astroturf Mobs Versus Organic Protest

[FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW] “It doesn’t matter what your politics are. People want friends. People want family. They want strong relationships. Nobody wants to be lonely. And that’s why what I call the ‘weaponization of loneliness’ is so effective.”

In this episode, I sit down with Stella Morabito, a senior contributor at The Federalist. She’s a former CIA intelligence analyst who studied the psychology behind Soviet Union propaganda.

“It doesn’t even matter how fringy an idea is. If you keep injecting it into public discourse over and over and over again, you create this cascade of public opinion. And people will go along with it, primarily for reputational reasons,” says Ms. Morabito. “It all depends on who speaks … and who remains silent.”

We discuss her latest book, “The Weaponization of Loneliness: How Tyrants Stoke Our Fear of Isolation to Silence, Divide, and Conquer.”

“People aren’t terrorized as easily if they have strong bonds of relationships. And that’s why the private sphere is such a target—has always been such a target of tyrants and authoritarians, because that’s where our power lies … That’s where we get the strength to deal with so much of what comes at us in life,” says Ms. Morabito.

We also discuss the impact of social media and new technologies on society, and how they further serve to isolate people from strong bonds and deep relationships with others.

“With these technocratic devices … it feels as though we’re … being nudged into a kind-of virtual solitary confinement,” says Ms. Morabito.


Interview trailer:

Watch the full interview:



Jan Jekielek: Stella Morabito, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Stella Morabito: Thank you. It’s really great to be here.

Mr. Jekielek: Stella, viewers of American Thought Leaders know I talk about the megaphone, a mechanism that is used to manufacture perceived consensus in society, something that has profound importance in all the social dynamics that we’re seeing today. But prior reading your book, I didn’t understand how that worked. Now I do, and you know what I’m talking about. Why don’t we start there?

Ms. Morabito: Thank you. Again, it’s really great to be with you, Jan. I love the show. The megaphone is propaganda combined with political correctness to create an illusion of unanimity and consensus. How does this work? Why do so many people fall in line with it and how do the people pushing a propagandist narrative get away with it? These are the two questions that have really been driving my purpose in writing this book, The Weaponization of Loneliness. The way it works really is that all human beings without exception have a hardwired need to connect with other people.

We really can’t survive in isolation, and the flip side of that is a primal fear of ostracism. Those who apply this megaphone of propaganda and political correctness operate the machinery of loneliness that triggers this conformity impulse, this need to obey whatever we perceive as a consensus, even if it’s not really the consensus. That in a nutshell is how I believe it works.

Mr. Jekielek: I didn’t realize how powerful our need to belong is, and how it could actually be a central organizing principle. It’s not necessarily obvious that this would be such an important thing.

Ms. Morabito: Right, and it’s instinctive. We’re aware to a certain extent that maybe we don’t want to say something because we’re afraid of being judged or rejected if we think it goes against the grain and is politically incorrect. This hardwired impulse to conform is definitely related to our need to belong and our intense fear of ostracism, because we can’t survive in isolation as human beings.

That works within us. It has a huge effect on civil society, especially if people keep falling in line with a narrative or a megaphone that only creates an illusion of consensus, when the consensus isn’t really there, and when people aren’t really talking to one another because they’re fearful of saying the wrong thing.

This affects people on every level, and of course, children are highly suggestible to this. It can be operated by tyrants of all stripes, for example, a toxic boss or a cult leader like Jim Jones. For your viewers who might recall, in 1978, he convinced almost a thousand people in his cult in Jonestown, Guyana, to commit what he called revolutionary suicide. It’s an extremely powerful, but natural impulse.

The only way around this is to have strong relationships that you can fall back on in the private sphere of life where you have family or really good friends. Because people have a private sphere of life and private relationships that they can fall back on is why the private sphere of life has become such a target for tyrants and totalitarians, and has always been. That’s why the Communist Manifesto in 1848 had that proclamation which abolished the family as a big part of its agenda.

Loyalties on a personal level are very threatening to those who want to achieve power, social control, and social engineering. I felt these dynamics had not been explored deeply enough. That’s why I wrote the book, The Weaponization of Loneliness, because that’s what it amounts to—weaponizing our fear of being alone, and threatening loneliness upon us if we don’t get with whatever program the totalitarian wants us to focus on.

Mr. Jekielek: With the way our technology has developed through social media there’s an illusion or perception of community which often doesn’t really exist. It’s like it feeds some of that impulse, but it doesn’t provide this private sphere of life, which you say is so critical.

Ms. Morabito: Absolutely. What we’re now headed towards feels like technocratic totalitarianism, where you have new communications technologies and the ability for surveillance like we’ve never had before. You can read about different things like kill switches on vehicles, where if you are viewed as having broken the law you can have your vehicle disabled. These kinds of technologies that are being developed are all about social control and they all seem to attack our private sphere of life or those conversations, those relationships from which we get our strength.

Vaclav Havel wrote the essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” in 1978. He pointed out that our power really comes from the hidden sphere of life, the hidden sphere that totalitarians can’t quite get their hands on. But they want to get their hands on it. If they think that controlling information is really important, the first thing they’re going to do is make sure that whatever we say to one another, even one-on-one, is controlled somehow. That’s always how totalitarian systems work.

Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned propaganda plus political correctness equals the megaphone. Political correctness is an amorphous thing, but as you were saying just now, it’s a method of speech control.

Ms. Morabito: Absolutely. In fact, in my book I discuss the machinery of loneliness. It has three main components, and I would add those to the megaphone. The three main components are, first, identity politics, which serves to erase us as individuals and classify us and pigeonhole us according to victim status or oppressor status. Second, political correctness, which is a process that induces self-censorship. It’s a process where one-sided propaganda can control what is discussed by injecting that fear of rejection for saying the wrong thing.

There is identity politics and political correctness. What’s the third component? The third is mob agitation; the mobs we see on social media, and also street mobs like Antifa. It can be human resource department bureaucrats. It can take many different forms, but the mobs all serve to enforce political correctness, identity politics, and of course, the propaganda that’s driving their agenda forward.

Mr. Jekielek: When I think about political correctness, it’s about fear of reprisal. You have said it’s not just fear of reprisal, but it’s also fear of rejection.

Ms. Morabito: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: Actually, the fear of rejection might be greater. I don’t know why that didn’t dawn on me, but it’s obvious the moment you say this. It’s because we don’t want to admit that we fear rejection.

Ms. Morabito: Exactly. Yes, that’s true. We want to feel like we’re strong, and we’re able to withstand these kinds of social pressures, but these social pressures are very natural and very powerful. In fact, I’ve felt them, and that’s why I wrote the book because it puzzled me. It bothered me that so many fringe agendas are held up as just basically conventional wisdom.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s what I was going to say. These are concepts that are absurd on their face if you sit down and think about them for a moment. But if you don’t sit down and think about them for a moment, you just roll with it. That’s what I have noticed in my own thinking.

Ms. Morabito: Yes, a lot of people are in that mode. That’s partly why I wrote the book to build an awareness of these dynamics and how they operate within us and throughout all of society. How we behave or how we express ourselves, whether we know it or not, has an enormous impact on the perception of public opinion. Whether we speak or don’t speak about something affects where public opinion goes. Then, you end up with public policy as a result of that public opinion.

One of the most incredible things about the power and the naturalness of that fear of ostracism is that you can see it not just in those examples I gave of a cult leader or toxic boss or a world-class dictator, but you can see it even here in America. U.S. senators are susceptible to it. They will turn on their principles if they think that they will get that extra pat on the back. Nobody is really immune to it, especially if they haven’t thought about it.

Mr. Jekielek: Just a few days ago, one of our producers brought, The Spiral of Silence, to my attention, which you mention in your book. Can you explain this to us, because unfortunately, the author is no longer with us? What is it, how does it work, and how is it related to this manufacturing of perceived consensus?

Ms. Morabito: The Spiral of Silence is a book about public opinion. The full title of the book written by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1980 is, The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion–Our Social Skin. She was a director of the Public Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. She was observing the elections in the Federal Republic of Germany, free West Germany at the time. There were two main parties there, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.

She noticed how unexpectedly you would get a shift in the election that made no sense based on the public opinion polling. That’s because people remained silent about their views on if they were going to vote for Christian Democrats. They didn’t want anybody to know, as it was considered politically incorrect at the time. She noticed that. Part of the model was looking at those examples, but it applies today. They called it the shy voter phenomenon when Brexit passed 52 to 48 percent in the UK. Of course, the 2016 presidential elections here came out in a way that nobody expected.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s the manifestation. But how does it work?

Ms. Morabito: As people shut up about what they believe, or lie about what they believe in order to avoid ostracism, that affects public opinion polling. But we don’t think about those things. We assume that people are just going to say what they believe when they’re asked a question by a pollster, but this is not true. As Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann said, “It all depends on who speaks, and who remains silent.” That’s public opinion.

Mr. Jekielek: It creates a situation where the people are not being open and hiding that fact, but that phenomenon itself affects the overall public opinion.

Ms. Morabito: Absolutely. As Havel said in, The Power of The Powerless, you don’t necessarily even know what your neighbor thinks or believes unless you’re able to have open conversations. In a totalitarian system, those conversations are suppressed. You may be surrounded by people who agree with you, but you don’t even know it, and that’s the irony of it all.

Mr. Jekielek: Political correctness. We’ve been talking about it for decades as something that’s significant, and as something that’s impacting behavior. Why does it have such a profound impact on our social discourse now?

Ms. Morabito: The way I see political correctness is that it’s really a form of agitation. Political correctness serves to suppress ideas that are not in agreement with the general narrative. In order for that to work, you need to have a near media monopoly for that to be most effective. Because if people are exposed to different media that are respected, they’re more able to have real discourse.

What happens when you go against the grain on any of the issues that are promoted by that media? Pop culture plays a huge part in this. You have influencers today who are like idols, or screen idols. People just want to identify with them and live vicariously. Robert Nisbet, who wrote, The Quest for Community, called it pseudo-intimacy. That also plays into the weaponization of loneliness.

What happens when people want to be associated vicariously with these figures? Maybe a sports figure, media figure or movie star comes out with a political view, then all of these forces are working together. With academia and all of the institutions captured by these narratives, people then feel that the consensus is overwhelming. A lot of people will go along with it and will even shut up about what they believe. They’ll start just going with the beliefs that are presented to them, whether they believe them or not.

They just accept them through osmosis. To go against that is extremely painful and difficult a lot of times, especially if you’re in a group. I talk about the conformity impulse. I give an entire chapter to the conformity impulse and how obedient we tend to be until we see other people who are willing to stand up.

Mr. Jekielek: We don’t like to admit that we’re conformists, even to ourselves. You cite a number of these experiments that were done in the 1960s where there is this perceived conformity and everyone seems to agree, even though the researcher knows they don’t. The perception is there. But the moment one person stands up and says, “Hey, wait a second,” the numbers change dramatically. It takes that first person through the gate to break the spell.

Ms. Morabito: Yes. The first one that I mentioned was Solomon Asch in the early 1950s, and the better-known Milgram was actually a student of his. He had these experiments that had to do with matching up the length of a line, “Here’s a line this length. Tell me which of these three lines matches this.” You get a 99 percent accuracy with 99 percent of the population, and it’s a trivial question. But the subject was surrounded by eight or nine collaborators who would all give the wrong answer at a certain point.

The subject was having to publicly declare what the correct answer was, and quite often up to 40 percent of the time they would not. This was like 60 to 70 years ago. They would not be able to give their correct answer. There was nothing political about it, and nothing controversial. It was just that social pressure of having to give the correct answer when everybody else was not. He thought he must be wrong, but he didn’t know why.

He thought, “I’m just going to go along because I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb.” A variation of the experiment showed that when that subject was given a partner out of the eight or nine other collaborators who agreed beforehand with the correct answer, conformity dropped like a rock. Then, if you’re in a group and one person speaks up, and then, someone else says, “Yes,” and then, there’s another person, that breaks what Asch called the illusion of unanimity, and what you call the megaphone, this illusion of consensus. It’s the same thing. It’s just really fascinating.

Milgram, of course, was a student of Asch. There’s a great movie on Milgram and Asch called, “Experimenter,” that your viewers might be interested in. It was just really fascinating how they turned out. He was trying to figure out if Americans could be as brutal as the Germans were in Nazi times. This is 1961, and they were having the Eichmann trial in Israel at the time.

He had these experiments where one guy would be an actor. They would have the fake shock machine. The subject was a guy who had to give the questions to the learner, and if he got an answer wrong, he would shock him up to a certain voltage. It was all fake, but the subject didn’t know that. The actor would yell, “You’re killing me!” He found that it was really shocking, for lack of a better word, how many people were willing to go all the way, just to be obedient to authority.

He called that the agentic state. Just as during the Nuremberg trial, the excuse was, “I was just following orders.” The subject would just follow the orders of the experiment administrator, who initially would be Milgram, and it was later replicated by someone else. It was taking your personal responsibility and relinquishing it to the agent who told you to go ahead and continue. That was really interesting. I have a long footnote in there about the whole issue of the ethics of the experiment. But it was an interesting observation on human behavior.

I looked at Noelle-Neumann’s, The Spiral of Silence, and all of these conformity observations and experiments that really inform us about our behavior under social pressure. We need to become a whole lot more aware. You’re right, Jan, nobody wants to consider themselves a conformist.

Mr. Jekielek: I’m going to read something that I found so compelling. You wrote, “Propagandists can also cultivate a bandwagon effect simply by dictating one narrative while shutting out all others. People tend to fall in line. There’s a conformity impulse at play, which is often triggered and promoted through a bystander effect. When witnesses to social punishments such as shunning, humiliation, or firings due to wrongthink remain silent, they do so to avoid that suffering themselves.”

“The conformity impulse and the bystander effect work in tandem to produce mass compliance with the policies of oppressive regimes. Both are propped up by propaganda that directs the psychology of the masses, especially through popular culture.” The reason I’m reading this right now is we’ve just encompassed a lot of what we just talked about in these few pithy lines from your book.

Ms. Morabito: Thank you. Yes, I think we did.

Mr. Jekielek: How did you bring together these disparate areas of interest? Please tell me about your background.

Ms. Morabito: I’ve been observing these social dynamics ever since I was a child on the playground. I’ve been an observer of these kinds of things that didn’t really make sense to me as a teenager. In college, I would see these same patterns. For example, I worked for a while between undergraduate and graduate years as a departmental secretary in the social science department at the university where I got my degrees.

You could see how the faculty there would swarm to get one member denied tenure or fired. It was the same process, trying to get their political opponent shunned and degraded and demonized. In fact, I didn’t mention that demonization is the common denominator of all of this. That’s what people are afraid of, and I’ll get to that a bit more in a minute.

I got my graduate degree in Russian and Soviet history, and that just tied it all together, especially studying Stalin’s reign of terror where people were so fearful of being considered an enemy of the people. It created a mass hysteria where there was finger pointing even when someone hadn’t done anything against the regime or said anything. People would start accusing others just because they were fearful of being accused themselves. They wanted to be the good guy who turned them in, even if their neighbor was totally innocent of whatever it was.

It’s a mass hysteria that you saw in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. You would see it in all these radical utopian revolutions going back to the French Revolution and earlier. This is a roundabout way of giving you some of my background. Then, I went on to work at the CIA as an intelligence analyst focused on the Soviet Union. Specifically, I spent quite some time doing media analysis and propaganda analysis, and a lot of that was open source.

You could read Pravda and all this one-party state propaganda. There were a lot of these crazy ideas, and of course, the population had no other narrative. I saw that, and I thought more and more deeply about why an entire population, a majority, can be controlled so easily by a really minuscule minority. Of course, they’ve got their apparatchiks, and their whole apparatus through the bureaucracy to prop them up.

That’s my background. I observed these things even after I left to raise a family. Now, I have been a senior contributor for the Federalist for 10 years, and I’ve been mostly writing about these psychological manipulations and the cult mindset and groupthink. These are the things that fascinate me the most, because I think that’s a common denominator of why we are where we are. When people shut up about what they believe or they lie about what they believe, this has a really negative effect on civil society.

Mr. Jekielek: You’re bringing up something very fascinating, which is the distinction between organic protest and mob protest.

Ms. Morabito: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: They’re actually formed differently, which I hadn’t really thought about. Sometimes you have protests, and they can either turn into a mob, or be something against the mob. But there’s actually a very different way a mob can be deliberately formed. During the Cultural Revolution in China the red guard deliberately formed these mobs that would go out and destroy the four olds. You detail that quite a bit in the book. Please tell me about this distinction. How can you even tell what you’re getting yourself into when you’re seeing a protest, because there are a lot of legitimate protests to be had.

Ms. Morabito: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: At the same time, there’s also a lot of mob activity, and it can be difficult to differentiate from a true protest.

Ms. Morabito: Right. The main difference between what I call the AstroTurf mobs and legitimate organic protests is that these AstroTurf mobs like you have with the red guard during Mao’s Cult Revolution and Antifa today—they’re not on the same scale, but it’s the same dynamic—those are often in line with the propagandistic narrative. The distinction also has to do with the level of risk. When you’re in line with the media monopoly and the propaganda, you can feel pretty safe.

Remember that march that all these women had after the Trump inauguration, there was no fear there. They had Hollywood stars and everyone involved in it. But if you look at Prague Spring of 1968, or Hong Kong in 2019, or Tiananmen Square in 1989, those people were acting on principle. They weren’t organized, and they weren’t protected at all. They did these things at great personal risk and many of them paid for it. But that’s really the distinction, and that’s how you can tell.

Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. From what we saw at that time, the march around Trump’s inauguration and the protests around that, there were a lot of people genuinely afraid for their lives.

Ms. Morabito: Yes, because the propaganda really had that deep effect on those that were manipulated, obviously. I can’t speak for all these individuals, but mobs tend to be made up of people who are atomized and isolated. They don’t have strong familial bonds or strong bonds of friendship, although they may say they have them. But they become very fearful, and you can see that.

Mr. Jekielek: You talk about how this repeated exposure can create a consensus, because there’s so many different pieces. Again, I’ll go back to this concept of the megaphone. The megaphone has many different components that all seem to all agree with one another. There’s a susceptibility when that all-encompassing consensus seems to exist. You agree with the narrative and believe it to the point where you could fear for your life. I find this deeply disturbing.

Ms. Morabito: Yes, and dangerous.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s incredibly dangerous. But I find it hard to imagine how to protect yourself against that. If someone has been pulled into this, how can you communicate with them? They are operating in a completely different reality.

Ms. Morabito: That’s exactly right. Reality is what’s at stake. This is just my opinion, but I think that susceptibility is caused by isolation. It’s caused by atomization that is rooted in a lot of policies that actually serve to isolate; policies that promote family breakdown, policies that promote addiction, and policies that promote urban blight—all of these things are extremely isolating. Children can’t even learn the basics in school. I believe that ignorance can be isolating. All of these factors play into that.

When we reach an inflection point where you do have so many of these people who are so far gone, you’re right, you can’t really reach them. The real solution has to do with relationships of trust and social trust. How do you establish social trust when we’ve already lost so much of it? I talk about reaching out in the last chapter. It’s about becoming more aware.

When I talk about outreach, obviously you can’t do it with people who are really, really far gone, especially youth. It has to be people who are teetering in the middle. That’s how you reach out to people who are at least partly open to what you might have to say, or even open to a conversation. That can be harder and harder to find these days.

But we have to do it. We have to do what we can to turn this around. But you’re right, it’s very disturbing when you see that these people really do believe their lives are at risk, or the world’s going to burn up in five years. All of this stuff plays into that fear and that intense anxiety. It does nothing to promote a civil society, or to keep us healthy and able to talk with one another.

That’s what everybody wants. It doesn’t matter what your politics are. People want friends, people want family, and they want strong relationships. Nobody wants to be lonely. That’s why the weaponization of loneliness is so effective. It’s such an effective tool of tyrants. So many people have talked about or written about how the threat of isolation is used as a political weapon. Part of my goal was to put this all together in one place. Carl Jung, deTocqueville, Noelle-Neumann, and Robert Nisbet all talked about it.

Mr. Jekielek: And Hannah Arendt, of course.

Ms. Morabito: Yes, Hannah Arendt. She said that the goal of all totalitarians or all tyrannical governments is to bring about isolation because people aren’t terrorized as easily if they have strong relationships. That’s why the private sphere is such a target, and has always been such a target of tyrants and totalitarians, because that’s where our power lies. That’s where we get the strength to deal with so much of what comes at us in life.

Mr. Jekielek: I’ll read another thing you wrote, “Pretending to go along with the belief you don’t actually hold, creates a ripple effect.” You cite some of this work done around what are called availability cascades. Please explain this to me.

Ms. Morabito: Yes, and the opposite is also true. If you are willing to express what you believe, that creates a ripple effect in a very good way as well. But the negative side of that is what you don’t believe. The availability cascade is a term that comes up in an article co-authored by Cass Sunstein, who was Obama’s regulatory czar back in his second term, and Timur Kuran who is a social economist.

They explain that you can create the illusion of a consensus on just about anything if people are willing to shut up about what they believe or not express what they want to say. What I thought was really interesting, he said that it doesn’t even matter how fringy an idea is. If you keep injecting it into public discourse over and over and over again, you create this cascade of public opinion.

People will go along with it primarily for reputational reasons. Reputational is the term they use. I would say it’s that fear of ostracism and that need to connect, but reputation is all tied up with that. If you look at some of the absurdities that we’re dealing with today, that’s exactly what happened. There are certain issues that get injected time and again. I keep coming back to the transgender issue because that one is so fascinating.

In 2014, they came out with a big Time magazine cover and article, “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Then, Caitlin Bruce Jenner had that big Vanity Fair article, and he was a big star. He was an athlete. You had this intersection of popular culture and Hollywood, and a lot of academics piling on and injecting this idea into the public discourse over and over and over again. That’s really all it took. Then, people just said, “Oh, this is what I should believe.” TED talks were another part of it.

That is the availability cascade, and it has to do with a public opinion cascade. It doesn’t really matter what people really believe, it’s all about what they say they believe. Quite often, they say