What Harry and Meghan Can Teach Us About Information Warfare
Their new Netflix series is a master class in how to launch a counterattack on false narratives. We can learn from them.
I’m an Anglophile. I admit it. I chalk it up to some sort of Stockholm syndrome double whammy because I’m Indian-American. Naturally, this extends to a love-hate relationship with the British monarchy. I’ve binge-watched every season of The Crown, listened to the five-part “You’re Wrong About” podcast on Princess Diana, and actually sat through the entire Netflix screening of Diana: the Musical. To help you understand the level of commitment that last effort entailed, here is a sample of what I endured (CRINGE ALERT: THIS CANNOT BE UNSEEN):
Yes, that was Prince Charles breakdancing. Watch it again if you have to, it’s difficult to process the first time. I won’t judge.
Anyhoo, this is all to say that I was (obviously) not above watching Netflix’s new docuseries, Harry and Meghan. I had only briefly tuned into their royal wedding and occasionally got some glimpses of their royal dramas on Twitter, but I didn’t know a whole lot about the couple. Basically, I was the perfect target audience for their series, which is — and I’m speaking here with my scholarly hat on — essentially a white propaganda piece intended to sway hearts and minds to their side. (If you’re not taking my course and interested, I cover this concept in Class 2 — it’s not necessarily a bad thing.) Whatever you want to call it, it worked, at least on me: I left the series convinced that the British monarchy is a dysfunctional and exploitative institution that crushes dreams and breaks souls. (To be honest I already believed that from watching The Crown, but this sealed it.)
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Part of the reason the series was successful is that it employs some effective counter propaganda techniques. This isn’t surprising, considering that Prince Harry is one of fifteen commisioners on the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder, which recently released a study on misinformation. As we head into a Republican-led House, potential indictments against Trump, and another presidential election, the conservative propaganda machine is about to kick into full gear. Regardless of what you think about Harry, Meghan, or the British monarchy, it’s worth taking note of following lessons on how to give truth an advantage in our own information ecosystem.
1. Don’t Engage, Expose
More than debunking specific narratives, Harry and Meghan is really about exposing the inner dynamics of the royal household’s relationship with the British tabloid press. In fact, even if you aren’t interested in the series, Episode 3, which reveals the system of the “Royal Rota” — a symbiotic relationship in which the tabloids provide favorable coverage of various royal “principals” in exchange for dirt about other members of the household — is a fascinating glimpse into how outlets profit from disinformation and propaganda. Later episodes demonstrate how these narratives are then amplified by a small network of social media accounts, oversaturating the information space.
The description of the Royal Rota reminded me of what Columbia Law Professor Yochai Benckler (and co-author of Network Propaganda) calls the “propaganda feedback loop.” The propaganda feedback loop describes the interdependence between conservative U.S. media, political figures, and the public that creates a siloed media “bubble” completely detached from reality. (The palace relationship isn’t very different than the “propaganda feedback loop” diagram below, if you replace “politicians” with “royal household” — though with a less polarized media market the public audience is likely less siloed than in the United States.)
Understanding how the system operates is the first step in countering it, and what Professor Benckler notes is that this type of system is asymmetrical and resistant to traditional forms of truth-checking and self correction. In particular, Benckler observes that in covering the narratives coming from such a system, remaining “neutral,” as traditional media norms require, advantage the propagandist. “The problem is when the reality is that one side is lying vastly more than another,” he says, “neutrality becomes complicity.” Instead of trying to provide “balanced” coverage of crazy narratives, exposing the tactics being used to hoodwink the audience can make those exposed to it more resilient.
2. Get Into the Battle
The surest way to lose an information war is to not fight it. Michelle Obama’s maxim that “when they go low, we go high” is all well and good, but unfortunately “going high” often involves dismissing false narratives and conspiracy theories as not being worthy of coverage. As with neutrality, silence merely cedes ground to the adversary. Harry and Meghan eschews this route in favor of affirmatively telling a story that can compete against existing narratives.
This is an important lesson in combating conspiracy theories coming from the far right. The goal isn’t to convince people whose minds are already made up — they aren’t likely to change. Rather, as Professor Benckler has observed:
It's important not to confuse the people who exist purely inside the right-wing mega-media ecosystem and all Republican voters. To the best we can tell from surveys, it looks like it's about half to 60% of Republicans -- which is to say somewhere between 25% and 35%, or between a quarter and a third of the American population in general -- exists in cult-like isolation in a right-wing media ecosystem. Then there's the roughly quarter to 20%, or maybe it’s as few as 15%, who have half of a foot inside the Fox News universe, but also attend to more mainstream media. And those seem to be the most important audience to try to persuade, and explain to them just how wacky and different Fox News in particular is, relative to anything that should count as journalism.
As polarized as our media ecosystem appears, there is a sizable chunk that hasn’t made their minds up yet — but they can’t be persuaded if no one is presenting an alternative.
3. Change the Debate
The Harry and Meghan series challenges the entire system of royal media coverage. In doing so, the show recharacterizes the debate to move beyond petty personality differences and instead sheds a spotlight on previously unquestioned assumptions about the palace’s relationship with the media. Reframing the controversy this way contextualizes the debate on the couple’s terms and places the institution in a defensive position with regard to its public relations practices.
Their approach is an instructive one for the current “culture wars” waged by the right. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post has argued that these are winnable — if they can be turned into a liability for their proponents. Currently, the reactionary posture to right-wing culture war narratives — typically with Democrat (out-group) outrage and shaming — play into the propaganda feedback loop by confirming and solidifying Republican (in-group) identity. Changing this dynamic involves reframing the issue altogether. For example, instead of engaging with undefinable, catch-all terms like “wokeness” and “CRT,” it would be more effective to articulate the assumptions these controversies are based on — that teaching empathy and tolerance, or offering a full accounting of America’s past, for example, are not worthy goals — and force the culture warriors to defend these positions.
4. Question the Framing
Harry and Meghan brings the receipts in their condemnation of the British media. One particularly damning sequence is a montage of side-by-side differential tabloid coverage of the same behaviors by Meghan and her sister-in-law, Kate (like how they cradled their baby bump, and, no joke, their love of avocados). As frivolous as it sounds, they present a convincing picture that biased framing has impacted public perception.
We have seen this phenomenon play out in the never-ending “Hunter Biden’s laptop” saga: The “Twitter files” is framed as a scandal about the media not covering what the right claims is a scandal. But according to Professor Benckler, this is a classic conservative propaganda play:
Repeatedly what we see is that right-wing media are trying to work the ref. They're trying to come up with stories, many of which have a tiny little source of proof in them, and then a lot of crazy conspiracy. And they replicate it and they say it again and again on multiple sites. And then they start complaining, ‘Why isn't the media covering this? The media is political because it's not covering this.’
As we head into what will likely become a congressional
hearing circus show about this supposed media conspiracy, it’s worth questioning this framing and confronting the story head on from other angles. This piece, for example, revisits the timeline to recall why the media was reluctant to cover the story, and this one looks at the laptop story as “the most invasive data breach imaginable.” (I’ll be doing a deep dive into Hunter Biden’s laptop narrative after the New Year, so stay tuned.)
5. Leverage Platforms
The British tabloid press is not an insignificant player in the pop culture media ecosystem and one that has significantly more reach and power than Harry and Meghan have as individuals. What the couple understood was that to compete with this system, they had to find a way to compensate for this disparity and reach their audience where they already are — a digital streaming platform was a perfect vehicle. We are seeing a similar effort on a global scale with President Zelensky’s use of Telegram — a social media platform owned by seemingly sketchy Russians which has become a preferred platform for Russian propaganda — to counter Russia’s efforts and communicate with 1.5 million people daily.
I’ve written about information asymmetry previously and the need to upend norms to effectively counter false narratives. Correcting for this asymmetry also requires competing with the volume and dynamic of the right-wing media ecosystem, which is fast and prolific, as Professor Benckler describes:
And it's that difference: not the supply of crazy stories; they exist on the left and the right, not even the excitement of people on the left and the right to share on Facebook the craziest story. It’s that dynamic of the top media repeating, confirming, accrediting and recycling…. That can only happen through a committed propagandist effort by the most viewed and the most trusted form of media on the right, which is Fox News.
This means thinking outside the box finding new ways to saturate the information space with truthful information. Take, for instance, a fact-based narrative like the January 6 Committee’s 845-page final report. This material is unlikely to trickle to the “undecided” public in any detail (Mueller’s report was half that length and we know how that one fared). One possibility is to break down and repackage this material into digestible formats for today’s audience (especially young audiences) and saturate information spaces beyond TV. (The clips of prominent Republicans alone, like Bill Barr and Ivanka, admitting that there was no voter fraud ought to be enough to go viral on platforms like Tik Tok.) A message doesn’t do much good if it’s no one is receiving it.
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Those are the big, meta takeaways…which isn’t to say there isn’t any fluff in the Harry and Meghan series. There is — and I won’t blame you if you can’t bring yourself to watch it. But, keep an eye on these two: The rogue royals may know better than anyone how to go up against a well-oiled propaganda machine.