The Weaponization of Language

Just a quick note to help people, particularly the Media in the United States, to better understand what it means when language is weaponized—and especially what it means in the context of connected digital communication networks. While these techniques have been refined over many years in Russia and the former Soviet Union, they are somewhat new to mainstream American politics. This is not to say that these techniques haven’t been used over the years, but generally they’re employed around the edges. It hasn’t been possible, until recently, to move them to the center of a political communication strategy.

Certain tools are designed as weapons, for example: guns, knives, clubs, brass knuckles, bombs, poison gas. Each of these tools is specially constructed to inflict a certain kind of harm on its target. Now here’s another list of tools: a cast-iron frying pan, a fireplace poker, a baseball bat, a car, a brick, and an electrical current. Each of these tools has a proper use—a set of uses that humans understand through habit. All of these non-weapons have been used to commit murder in some mystery novel. Part of solving the mystery involves a detective envisioning an ordinary tool expressing its potential as a deadly weapon.

When language is used as a weapon—it’s deployed to inflict the maximum possible damage. The usual response to language used in this way is to say that it is neither true nor proper. While this may be a reasonable approach to language used to communicate, it has no effect on language when used as a weapon. It’s the equivalent of saying that the blow inflicted by a frying pan to the head of the victim was not a proper use of frying pans.

Much of the effectiveness of advertising is due to the frequency with which it is broadcast. If you see or hear an ad ten times a day for three months, it’s likely you will remember it for the rest of your life. Most of us can recite ad copy we heard in our childhood even when the product has long since disappeared from the shelves. To maximize the effectiveness of weaponized language, it must have high frequency. In political campaigns this is usually accomplished through producing negative attack ads and buying lots of radio and television time.

In the age of cable news and connected digital social networks, another strategy is possible. An attack is constructed that will harm the target using metaphors, statements and images. In itself, this isn’t enough to assure the attack will be retweeted frequently and universally (by all sides) throughout cable news, newspapers and social media networks. Two elements must be added to the attack, the first is that it should be demonstrably false. This will cause many media outlets to rebroadcast the attack, and then explain why it is false. If the attack is on the veracity of the media itself, many will discount the explanation. The second added ingredient is that the attack must break with ordinary decorum, it must cross a moral line. This causes many media outlets to rebroadcast the attack and explain why it is immoral. Each of these media responses is the equivalent of decrying the improper use of a frying pan in committing an assault.

The media becomes complicit in the attack because it serves as the force multiplier that maximizes the harm. That’s how “playing the media” works. And as the media chases its tail on obviously false sensational headlines, it loses its credibility on the serious investigations it’s doing. When a President has immunity through Republican majority in Congress, a free press is needed more than ever. The attacks on the media have escalated and the media seems blind to its own role in amplifying the harm that is done.


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