Imagine a society. Every member of the society is indoctrinated in different ways by

  1. their parents,
  2. the education system,
  3. media and
  4. friends.

One can think of this society as a collection of

  1. idea senders (when people or media send their opinions on other people),
  2. idea receivers (when a person gets a "signal" from someone else and believes it) and
  3. repeaters (when a person believes an idea imposed on him or her by others and then starts to spread it, thinking that the idea is his/her own).

Let's assume there is some widespread view of the world.

One could build a story around a small group of people changing the dominant view of the world by

  1. sending the right amount of signals (some new idea) to
  2. the right people (those, who are most open to new ideas) and
  3. in the right intensity.

I've been breaking my head, how one could estimate these things. Then, I thought that there must exist some literature on these topics since there were several examples when large numbers of people voluntarily (without any physical coercion) did things, which ran against their interests, such as

  • the rise of the National Socialism in 1930es Germany (including the astonishing fact that many otherwise intelligent Germans bought the Nazi slogan along the lines of We need to defend our country, therefore we have to invade Russia),
  • collapse of the Soviet Union without the resistance of its citizens (even though the majority of them were against it) and
  • the 2004 Orange revolution in the Ukraine (lots of Ukrainians believed that the politicians, which came to power in 2004 would be less corrupt than their predecessors - from everything I know from Ukrainians, these hopes never materialized and the new rulers were more, not less corrupt than the old ones).

There were also experiments, which suggest that a group of people can be manipulated into a behaviour they wouldn't choose other wise (e. g. the Stanford Prison Experiment).

If I wanted to build a world, in which a small group of people imposes its views on the majority, what theoretical frameworks and/or books could I use as a starting point (to mak it more or less realistic) ?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ To open the conversation, I have found most ideas which have these brainwashing characteristic are not simply repeated. Each person translates the idea slightly differently, and begins sending that version of the idea. This has a remarkably large effect because you're no longer just trying to create a simple amplifier. You're trying to develop a feedback circuit that rings at exactly the idea you want it to. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    May 26, 2015 at 20:06
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I think you're making the flawed assumptions that humans are rational, intelligent, and inherently good. $\endgroup$ May 26, 2015 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ The conversation is being monitored by BB $\endgroup$ May 26, 2015 at 21:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Why do you assume that your examples are of people acting against their interests? Aren't you just assuming that they must think exactly like you do? Take the Nazis, for instance. Lots of people want an excuse to think they're superior, and a scapegoat on which to blame their problems. Many people could easily see their own short-term profit under the Nazis, and had no great reason to think they wouldn't eventually triumph... $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    May 26, 2015 at 21:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The Soviet Union example seems different from the other two: "collapse" implies that you don't have a choice. Acceptance of inevitability isn't the same as actively working towards a goal, and only requires you to recognise that you can't stop a process - you can still dislike the fact it's happening. $\endgroup$ May 27, 2015 at 4:53

4 Answers 4


I read a lot about manipulation and mass media a long time ago, some of the things I remember:

  • It is usually to try to present your POV as a new idea, rather than backing an old idea.

    When you talk to someone, it is easier to sell them a "new" idea than to make them changing an already existing idea. People will often use any argument they can find (or even, will just plain ignore opposite arguments) in order to confirm their bias. If you want to introduce your ideas, make them new (this is called the Goebbels effect, IIRC).

    Even if the idea is old, presenting it in a new form may improve its chances.

    An example I read about was people encoraging somewhat racist audiences to read science-fiction. When the issue was, v.g., "black vs white", people had an already defined position; but in a "martian vs human" context, could be more positive to the concept of collaboration between intelligent beings.

  • Do not force the idea, but stablish the agenda. All decisions in these days have pros and cons (otherwise, there would be no need for decision). Raising taxes provides better public services, but limits people freedom to use their money. So, instead of getting in a discussion about if funding public service X is worth Y tax (were either side has arguments for and against), just state the "principle" that is more important ("A nation cannot succeed without good public services" or "the government should not take away private property"). More about this in P.F.Lazarsfield's studies about the role of newspapers in elections in Elmira.

  • Ideas are communicated through opinion leaders. Usually only a small % of the population is actively promoting new ideas, but those talk to other people and help changing their views. Note that the term leader can be missleading, an opinion leader could be a teacher or a office director, or a janitor who just knows what arguments ring a bell to the people he talks to. Mass media is mostly effective in communicating the ideas and arguments to those opinion leaders.

  • In time of crisis and/or social change it is easier to introduce new ideas. If there is stability, you will likely be surrounded by lots of people who think similarly to you; if you express interest in new ideas they would disincentivate you from changing your opinon1. In times of crisis and changes people are more isolated so they are more susceptible to the mass media.

1: I do not mean that they coerce you, but if you tell, say, your usual friend about the new idea and they do not become convinced, most probably you will begin having some doubts about it.

About books, I read a selection of short studies in Spanish, I do not recall its title or even if the selection was originally in English (the studies were). It included, among others:

  • P.F.Lazarsfield studies in Elmira
  • an study about the Goebbels effect
  • an study about some WWII-era US soldiers who were shown "The Battle of Britain" film and were asked later their opinion about the course of the war.

You should look into memetics, both fact and fiction. (There is a neat science fiction roleplaying game about a heavily memetics-influenced future.) Wikipedia should give you the real-world links.


Steven Alan Hassan's BITE Model of Mind Control comes to mind.

"...mind control refers to a specific set of methods and techniques, such as hypnosis or thought-stopping, that influence how a person thinks, feels, and acts. Like many bodies of knowledge, it is not inherently good or evil."

Hassan's model has been applied cults, human traffickers, and terrorist organizations like ISIL. It can be accomplished by both destructive and non-destructive means.

The BITE Model:

  1. Behaviour Control
  2. Information Control
  3. Thought Control
  4. Emotional Control

So far I think it's been the most scientific approach to studying effective mid control or brainwashing.


Emotion: Fear, Hatred, Uncertainty, Distrust, Ridicule

This is the absolutely necessary component for brainwashing people. It must be prevented that people could make a neutral observation, an accurate accessment of the current state, a balanced decision and finally a coldly thought out rational judgement.

All species have made an important observation during their lifetime: You can have a good or bad life, but death is always irrevocably fatal. For this reason alone (and it is a good reason) any threat which could cause or lead to this result is much more negatively viewed than its counterpart. If we have a drug which kills in 10% of cases and gives unbelieveable bliss in also 10% of cases, a solid majority of humans would not take the drug. So you need to have some boogeymans which press the red button in the brain. You could lose your job, you could lose your friends, you could lose your wife, you could lose your life. Don't make trouble, it is not worth the effort.

Fear is nice, but how do we get fear? Easy: Your fear is legitimate, there are people out there who wants to get you !! Yes, you! There are people out there who hate you for no reason at all and every, really every action they do is born out of malice.

There are terrorists out there who kill innocent people on purpose for their heinous deeds. They have no similarity to heroic freedom fighters who fight for a worthy cause. We must support the free-loving people under the totalitarian dictatorship of our enemies, but naturally if our enemies are having insurgency groups in our allied states, we need an authoritarian government to deal with it. Rogue state Syria with its ruthless ally target small, little children with barrel bombs. US forces and their coalition in contrast do literally everything to avoid casualties, if a bomb randomly goes off the mount and hits randomly a building with faceless people inside, it is a terrible, tragic unintended accident.

Distrust and uncertainty, ridiculing
While the former emotions try to inhibit a rationally guided response to situations and people, the decision process itself can be targeted. Everyone knows that you are unable to make and defend a correct decision if you know nothing about the situation, so if you want to brainwash people, you must inhibit the possibility to get this information in the first place.

So you must poison the well. Give conflicting information. Invent own sources and erm, "remove" the original sources. Attack people personally that they are liars, make love with prostitutes and kick dogs, do not spare any mud for your sling. If some negative information comes up, it is always propaganda from (insert current enemy and irresponsible person here). Have a battery of "experts" ready who dismiss claims and ask for a "balanced picture".

If something could be very serious, try to turn it into a laughing matter. Use "conspiracy theory, bullshit, ridiculous, nonsense" and don't spare absurd comparisons.

Mass effect (No, not that game) and conformity.

Persons are such social animals that it is very, very hard to escape social constraints. If you have enough persons, you can put such enormous pressure against single persons that they accept even absurd statements.

The observed love for uniformity in environment who want brainwashed people is not without reason. First, people who do not like or distrust the brainwashing message will be rebellious and therefore easier to identify and handleable. Second, the longer a person remains in a group with a conforming opinion, the more it will reaccess his personal view to the new information (This is the reason ideology likes to divide persons from their friends and family or even turn them against their former circles). Third, the leaders themselves errornously begin to assume and search evidence that their brainwashing really turned all of their people (This is the reason dictatorships could not stop to meddle with election results to increase them up to 99% instead of a more plausible 60% which would still give them the power).

Stop your opponents from acting (Infighting, loss of social cohesion)

One reason which seems to be often neglected in the rise of dictatorships is the loss of social cohesion. In the years before the fatal year 1933 there were severe street fights between communists, nazis and civic parties, each having their own strongmen. Trump came to power for the very same reason: An intense dislike between the US left and the right which seems to have deepened to hatred. In this case the public is more open to extreme views; especially because the divided groups are living in the very own filter bubble of news which only confirm the own worldview and are not able to review their opinion in discussions with the conflicting group.

Left groups are known for such severe and pointless infighting and split-ups that this was parodied by the "Judean People's Front" against the "People's Front of Judea". The joke is so wonderful and sad because it hits exactly the spot; people are often more hostile to potential allies instead of the real ideological enemy.


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