During the last decades of the Soviet Union, technocrats in Moscow managed to prop up the failing regime by telling a story. They knew that the economy was falling apart, but they refused to admit it. Instead, they hired propagandists to convince the public that everything was still going according to plan, that the Soviet Union was stable and eternal. Their aim was to distract people from the complexities of the real world to prevent mass confusion, panic, and dissent from breaking out. Of course, everyone secretly knew that this story was false—an illusion devised for the sake of political control—but they went along with it anyway. They chose to accept the illusion as real, because the truth was simply too difficult to swallow. Alexei Yurchak refers to this effect as “hypernormalization” in his book about the paradoxes of life in the USSR, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. In a state of hypernormalization, reality no longer matters—all that matters is the story.
At first glance, these tactics seem foreign to those of us who live in Western democracies. We associate them with opaque, totalitarian states. But in fact, the tools of propaganda are routinely used even by governments in North America and Europe. The United States, for instance, has a long history of deploying “perception management” strategies to shape public reactions to everything from domestic legislation to foreign wars, with varying degrees of success.