What is a psyop and why are right-wing conspiracy theorists obsessed with them?

EAST HARTFORD, CT - MAY 30: An American flag waves in the wind as the Connecticut Army National Guard Aviation Unit fly one CH-47 Chinook and two UH-60 Blackhawks for a flyover during the performing of the national anthem prior to the NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Championship game between the Cornell Big Red and Maryland Terrapins on May 30, 2022, at Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The word “psyop” gets thrown around by right-wing conspiracy theorists like hay in a barn, but what does the term actually mean?

The word, short for “psychological operation”, originally only had military-specific applications but has recently been co-opted by right-wing pundits to promote various ludicrous conspiracy theories.

According to Google Trends, interest in the phrase remained consistently low from 2010 to 2019, but jumped in usage from 2020 – during COVID-19 – and seemingly peaked at the beginning of this year.

One of its most prominent uses in search queries is alongside phrases such as “pandemic”, seemingly referring to baseless claims that COVID-19 was either fake or manufactured.

It was recently used in a wildly conspiratorial post by former chief advisor to Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, who accused the entire trans community of being a psyop perpetrated by “deluded and/or evil people.”

Despite its misuse by fringe social media conspiracists, the term does have a legitimate history and there are several examples of government-backed psyops.

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A history of real government-led psyops

Psyops are synonymous with historical phrases such as “political warfare” or “military information support operations”, although the most popular modern term is “psychological warfare”.

The earliest known use of the term psychological warfare dates back to the 1930s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It means any attempt by a government to psychologically demotivate their opponents or sway public thinking through tactics such as propaganda.

Although psychological tactics between warring factions and nations stem as far back as historic feuds between ancient warlords, and are prevalent in hundreds of historically significant military campaigns, including those of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, the modern definition generally dates back only as far as the First World War.

With the proliferation of mass media and international news organisations, governments began distributing propaganda domestically and across various significant war fronts to help in their war efforts.

Four Vietnam soldiers sit on top of an APC while crossing the Vietnam border.
Psyop tactics were notorious during the war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. (Getty)

The First World War Allies were notorious for dropping threatening leaflets, or fake postcards from captured comrades, over German trenches during the 1914-18 conflict. It is believed that almost 26 million leaflets were dropped by the UK alone.

Similar tactics were used during the Second World War by the Nazis during the British and French evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940. The Luftwaffe, the German air force, dropped thousands of leaflets telling troops they were surrounded and urging them to surrender.

Probably the most infamous use of these psychological tactics was during the Vietnam War. The US even begun creating battalions specifically to enact psyops against the Vietcong. Operation Wandering Soul involved engineers played eerie music and sounds to demoralise opponents and persuade them to defect.

These tactics ensued after fighting had ended in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and were used as a way to try to destabilise countries and, occasionally, prepare for invasion, such as when US forces moved into Panama in 1989.

How right-wing conspiracy theorists use the term psyop today

As the US developed ways to implement psyops in the 21st century, including the use of music as a method of torture against prisoners in Afghanistan, various incidents involving officers and government institutions tampering with news organisations and social media came to light.

In 2000, CNN and NPR admitted having let five psyop battalion officers intern at their headquarters during the Kosovo War a year or two earlier.

While the army’s psychological operations battalions are prohibited by law from manipulating the US media, this and several similar stories gave way to an onslaught of conspiracies that the US government and army are using the tactics to manipulate public opinion.

Fringe conspiracy theorists have claimed that climate change and the 9/11 attacks are psyops used by the government to influence the US population.

While these theories remained fairly fringe during the 2000s and 2010s, psyop theories broke into the mainstream at height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wild claims that the virus was manufactured or simply didn’t exist swamped social media and gave birth to several conspiracies that the lockdown was part of a government hoax.

Since then, the term has boomed in popularity among conservative pundits, including Fox News host Jesse Watters who uses the word often.

Jesse Watters on the set of a Fox News show.
Jesse Watters is known to use the term psyops on his Fox News show. (Getty)

It has essentially become a catch-all term for anything that right-wing pundits don’t like or think should be disregarded, to the extent that the term has begun to lose all meaning.

Todd C Helmus, a senior behavioural scientist, told The Washington Post: “It has connotations of malign influence, so it’s a scary word they can use to negatively brand the things they want to negatively brand.”

Electric cars, video games, cartoons, vaccines, and even Taylor Swift have been branded as psyops by right-wingers, who offer little to no justification for their wild claims.

With the proliferation of anti-trans rhetoric, the term has now been appropriated by anti-LGBTQ+ pundits, such as boxer-turned-influencer Andrew Tate, who purport that the trans community does not exist and that it is a psyop designed to weaken men.

Tate recently claimed that YouTuber Mr Beast was part of a psyop with trans friend Ava Kris Tyson, alleging that they are part of a covert mission to force children to accept transgender people.

Branding things as psyops, experts say, can be used to justify bigoted beliefs without any critical evidence and to help populist beliefs – a political stance in which a vaguely defined “us” is threatened by a group or class of people – flourish in the mainstream.

These theories can grow and spread because they “don’t really need to have any evidence”, said Mike Rothschild, the author of Jewish Space Lasers: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories.

“The problem with these conspiracy theories is that they [although] sound crazy to begin with, they gain legs, and people will continue with them, and there will be people [who] believe it because there are always believers.”