Virtual reality (VR) is the future of propaganda. It’s also the present of propaganda: In China, members of the Zhongshan Communist Party are already being supplied with VR headsets by Xijian, one of the country’s biggest augmented reality startups. Thanks to these headsets, users can experience the “Guidelines of the Chinese Communist Party” in three dimensions and with animated graphics, rather than merely read them. If they take the same headsets to Zhongshan City Museum, they’ll be able to see a virtual Chairman Mao Zedong hover out of his own statue and shoot off a number of stirring aphorisms.
The VR and augmented reality (AR) industries are booming in China, and given that the Asian nation is a one-party state, it’s not surprising to learn that other firms besides Xijian have been emerging to create propagandistic content extolling the virtues of the Chinese Communist Party, all the while exploiting the added sensory powers of VR/AR. However, if you were to assume that VR propaganda is and will be restricted to China or any other authoritarian country, you’d be wrong. Because as the burgeoning VR sectors in the United States, the U.K. and other western nations reveal, virtual reality is shaping up to become the globe’s propaganda medium par excellence.
“It’s already being used by the U.S. military to recruit new members using virtual reality simulations of combat and flying,” affirms Michael Ludden, writing via email.
Ludden is a VR and AR expert, as well as the Principal Augmented Reality Product Advocate at the Bose Corporation, and his observations are borne out by recent news. For example, the U.S. Army partnered in May with advertising agencies McCann Worldgroup and OmniVirt to release a VR-based game for recruitment purposes. In it, members of the public (i.e. potential recruits) get the chance to experience “what it’s like” to be in the Army, with the game presenting them with four missions. As associate creative director at McCann, Jonathan Springer, said at the time, the key ingredient here is “immersion.”
“We wanted to create an experience where users can naturally engage with the soldiers around them and hear stories that trigger immersive missions, allowing them to see, hear and feel what it’s like to be a U.S. Army soldier,” Springer said in the accompanying press release. “All the content had to be completely immersive and interactive to truly make you feel like a U.S. Army soldier.”
Given that this recruitment-oriented game presents only a partial view of life in the Army and doesn’t delve into the experience of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s justifiable to call it “propaganda,” even if you could also argue that it’s not as heavy-handed as any Chinese equivalent.
In fact, as Ludden also points out, the use of new, digital media by the U.S. military for recruitment and self-promotion purposes already has a long and storied history, so it’s highly likely that virtual reality will be increasingly harnessed along propagandistic lines by U.S. armed forces.
“There are rumors that the military has been silently exerting influence in video games for decades now,” he says, “and I expect that to increase in VR since it’s much more of a one-to-one physical test of doing certain combat related and flying activities.”
It’s not only the U.S. military that has turned enthusiastically toward the power of VR, since its British counterpart has also been doing much the same thing over the past few years. Back in 2017, it rolled out a VR recruitment experience in collaboration with production house Visualise, which made use of Samsung VR headsets and which reportedly increased recruitment by 66 percent. This rise testifies to the power of VR in shaping positive responses in people, responses which potentially circumvent our critical and rational faculties.
“VR allows content creators to present a ‘world’ that appears real, in which real memories will be created, and that has powerful implications for affecting the mind’s association with certain concepts and situations,” says Ludden. Ominously, he adds that virtual reality “essentially grants software developers low-level access to our instinctual/lizard brain and can fundamentally rewire our responses to stimuli and situations in the world — for better or worse.”
This is a point worth repeating, since some experts argue that the propagandistic potential of virtual reality will be blunted by our awareness that we’re wearing VR headsets and are being fed manufactured content. As with every other media, this may be true, but the novelty of VR lies in how it induces physiological and psychological effects in us comparable to those produced by lived experience, irrespective of any background consciousness of artificiality.
“For instance, film or television or a video watched on a tablet may convey sounds and sights captured from the ‘real world,’ but when we interact with these media we are almost always aware of their artificiality,” writes leading VR researcher Jeremy Bailenson in his 2018 book, Experience on Demand. “But VR engulfs us. When we use even the most basic VR, we slide occluding goggles over our eyes and cover our ears with headphones, overriding our two primary sense systems with simulated digital signals [….] When this is done right, our brain becomes confused enough to treat these signals as reality.”
It’s because of this power that VR is likely to be used increasingly for propagandistic purposes, and as anyone familiar with the modern history of propaganda could expect, it won’t only be governmental agencies using it to propagate partial and potentially misleading information. Providing a more mundane example, Ludden says, “the travel industry has begun embracing VR to give prospective tourists a taste of foreign places — only the best of them, of course, which could be considered misleading but, practically, is marketing.”
It’s not just the travel industry, but the fast food, automotive and insurance sectors (among others), all of which have begun using VR or AR in some capacity to promote their wares, something which often indirectly promotes the more abstract and propagandistic idea that consumerism itself is an existentially fulfilling way of life. And moving away from consumption, charities and even National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have now turned to VR to promote their respective missions, with NASA’s development of a VR-based documentary being predicated on the assumption that virtual reality has more power to convince the public than other media.
Of course, while most VR-focused experts acknowledge virtual reality’s potential, they’re also generally in agreement that, given the immature state of the industry, it will be some time before it’s used en masse for propagandistic purposes outside of places like China.
But even if you might be forgiven for assuming that this eventuality is still a long way off, and that the United States could never produce VR content as on-the-nose as a floating Mao Zedong, the U.S. has already witnessed the beginnings of something very comparable: In 2017, the Obama White House released a celebratory virtual reality tour of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, while in June 2018, First Lady Melania Trump announced the launch of a similar VR tour app, which is now downloadable from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
But despite such pioneering forays, Marco Delvai is one of several VR experts who believes that virtual reality as a mass medium of propaganda is still several years off. “While it’s undoubtedly true that any content or message delivered through VR tends to stick onto the human brain much more effectively and more deeply than, let’s say, a traditional non-immersive technology (like a TV or mobile phone screen), I see a couple of important technical hurdles preventing this from becoming a real threat,” Delvai tells Truthout.
Firstly, he observes that the sale of VR headsets “to the ‘general’ public has been much slower than expected,” with anything from 4 million to 8.9 million devices estimated to be shipped by the end of 2019, according to various estimates. Secondly, it’s likely that only a percentage of these are regularly used by their owners at the moment, thereby reducing the scope for these owners to be exposed to any kind of propagandistic content. Thirdly, the current market is deeply fragmented, with apps, media and software accessible for headsets almost exclusively through the proprietary app stores of the respective manufacturers.
“In this scenario,” Delvai explains, “anyone willing to seed propagandistic messages at scale, would face a very tough challenge from a technical point of view.”
In other words, the underdeveloped state of the virtual reality market means that, despite its power, VR-based propaganda just wouldn’t have enough reach at the moment for it to rival the effectiveness of TV, cinema, video games or print media.
“For all the above-mentioned topics, I believe that if any propaganda will take place in VR it will be restricted to the Chinese market and delivered only via Chinese hardware manufacturers accepting to host those messages into their store fronts,” Delvai concludes. “I don’t forecast this to be a real issue at least for the next 10-15 years.”
Still, 10 to 15 years isn’t really a long time in the grander scheme of things. Seeing as how every medium of communication ever invented has been used as a channel for propaganda, it would be naive to suppose that VR won’t end up being used to disseminate biased news reports, films produced under the supervision of government agencies and tendentious public service announcements. Because it’s more powerful than previous media, and because it can manufacture experiences that produce many of the physiological and psychological effects of real experiences, it’s likely to have a much bigger impact on society when it does eventually become mainstream.
At a time when social media is being vilified for opening up the floodgates to “post-truth” content and “fake news,” the all-but inevitable emergence of large-scale, open platforms for VR content is something that individuals, groups and society more generally should be preparing for even now.
Critical thinking and digital literacy need to be cultivated, while technology also needs to be developed for verifying the sources of VR-based media, as advocated for by Niko Eiden, the CEO of Finland-based VR company Varjo. “Trusting the source of any digested information will be perhaps more important than the content or the form of how it is consumed,” he tells Truthout, “but on the other hand, we have today great tools that can be deployed to ensure content comes from a trusted source and that it hasn’t been modified.”
Because without such adaptation, we could find that the growth of VR tightens the screw of 21st century propaganda even further, adding to the already insidious effects of certain content available through TV, the internet, print and social media. In many ways, propaganda aims to construct a “virtual reality” of perception and beliefs, and as such, its coupling with VR would appear to be a match made in heaven. Hopefully, we can teach ourselves to be aware that, sometimes, it’s actually a match made in hell.