Truthiness and Tribalism as Political Weapons: Fear, Cognitive Hacking and the Strategic Use and Abuse of Extra-factual Information



Kelly Greenhill, Tufts University

Date and Time

February 13, 2020 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


William J. Perry Conference Room
Encina Hall, Second Floor, Central, C231
616 Jane Stanford Way, Stanford, CA 94305

Livestream: This event will not be live-streamed or recorded.


Abstract: When U.S. Senator Arthur Vandenberg famously told President Harry Truman that he’d have to “scare the hell out of the American people” to secure support for the coming Cold War, Vandenburg was tapping into a tried and true tradition of strategically cultivating fear to influence attitudes and change behavior. While this tactic has a long history of use, strikingly little has been written on precisely how, why, and when it actually works. In this talk, Professor Kelly M. Greenhill offers just such an explanation. Drawing upon findings from her next book, Fear and Present Danger: Extra-factual Sources of Threat Conception and Proliferation, Greenhill describes how and why cognitive and psychological biases can be triggered and strategically manipulated as means to political and military ends.


Greenhill further explains why actors engaged in this particular kind of cognitive hacking frequently eschew fact-based arguments in favor of “truthier” alternatives, such as rumors, conspiracy theories, propaganda, fiction and so-called fake news, sources she collectively refer to as “extra-factual information” (EFI). She identifies the conditions under which policymakers and the public tend to find EFI-infused threat narratives persuasive, and, drawing upon a wide array of historical examples, show that while information content and delivery platforms have changed, the underlying mechanisms that make this tool such an effective instrument of political influence, and EFI, such a useful handmaiden to it, have not. Greenhill highlights the implications of historical cases for our contemporary, EFI-saturated political environment and what current trends may portend for the future.


Speaker’s Biography: Kelly M. Greenhill (PhD, MIT) is a professor and Director of International Relations at Tufts University and Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Greenhill has published four books, including Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy (winner of ISA’s Best Book of the Year Award); Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict; The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics; and Coercion: The Power to Hurt in International Politics. Outside of academia, Greenhill has consulted for the US government, UN, UNHCR, World Bank and Ford Foundation and worked as an analyst for the U.S. Defense Department.