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Paranoid Posting

Psyops on TikTok

Hailey Lujan is big on TikTok. With blue eyes, chestnut brown hair, and a preternaturally symmetrical splatter of freckles, she’s not unlike many twenty-one-year-old influencers—save for the fact that Lujan is a psychological operations specialist in the U.S. Army. In most of her videos on TikTok, where she has over seven hundred thousand followers, she pouts adorably in full camo somewhere on the JFK Special Warfare Campus at Fort Bragg. In one, Lujan pets a YF-6000 stealth unmanned vehicle as if it’s a precious puppy. In another, she dances inside an army bunker while offering lip-contouring tips to the Sex and the City soundtrack.

Lujan may seem like most Gen-Z influencers on the lucrative side of surveillance capitalism’s commodity chain, one of the lucky few whose penchant for self-promotion swept them from suburban banality into viral celebrity. But while she has spent some of her newfound social capital partying in Vegas penthouses owned by political moguls—including Donald Trump Jr.—she hasn’t quit her day job as an expert in audience analysis and information dissemination on behalf of the U.S. empire. Her personal brand blends military pin-up aesthetics with the post-irony of a Gen-Z art-school dropout, all broadcast in the paranoid syntax of covert military operations. When Lujan isn’t posing with night vision goggles and guns, she posts provocative selfies interspersed with CIA and FBI logos with captions like: “No one is immune to propaganda.”

In recent months, Lujan’s sudden virality has stoked conspiracy theories that she is a DoD-sponsored troll, created to bolster recruitment numbers amid near-record low enlistment among Gen Z. But whether or not this is true, Lujan reveals how the army benefits from America’s influencer economy. The military is not just relying on cute e-girls to attract chronically online Gen-Zers to the armed forces (although it’s also doing that). Influencers like Lujan help the army stoke ontological crises across the internet in a bid to consolidate its own authority.

Psyop is an informal noun, an abbreviation of psychological operations, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “military activities that involve trying to influence the enemies’ beliefs and state of mind.” The first official U.S. military psyop unit was founded during World War I, but psychological warfare was not on most Americans’ radar until the 1940s, when agitprop filled up the world’s skies and airwaves. During World War II, Allied troops dropped pornographic flyers depicting “foreign workers” having sex with blond German women over Axis soldiers on the front lines in hopes of disheartening the enemy. Signal operations specialists broadcast disinformation heralding American victory over Axis powers across South Pacific airwaves. Although tactics varied widely, operatives were united by a three-pronged mandate that reformulated military struggle as one big public relations campaign, as per a declassified OSS memorandum:

1. Demoralize, deceive, and otherwise hamper the tactical activity of enemy troops.

2. Break the will to win or resist of the enemy inhabitants of enemy territory.

3. Inform, assure, inspire, and guide friendly inhabitants of occupied territory in their cooperation with our objectives and forces.

In the years immediately following the war, psyops became an integral component of military conflict. “The struggle between communism and freedom is a struggle of ideas,” then-presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower said in the fall of 1952, pledging the United States would use “every psychological weapon available to us.” A burgeoning national security state did just that. By 1964, allegations swirled of an “invisible government,” which journalists David Wise and Thomas Ross described as “a massive, hidden apparatus, secretly employing about two hundred thousand persons and spending several billion dollars a year,” all functioning “quite apart from the traditional political process.”

Tech users seem resigned to the fact that everything they consume online is propaganda.

Retired Sergeant Major Herbert Friedman, a psyop specialist and historian, describes this history in more banal terms. When we spoke on the phone in April, he compared his twenty-six years in psyop roles across the army (he first enlisted during the Korean War) to the rising ranks of an influential advertising agency. “It’s not some kind of magic,” he insisted. “You take a bunch of smart kids with backgrounds in publicity or advertising and languages, kids with some IQ and some brains. . . . You give them print media—and today digital media—and you use them to slowly break down the enemy” by, essentially, distorting their conception of reality.

Friedman has devoted his retirement on Long Island to researching psyop missions from World War I through the early aughts, an era of American history when influence operations became a metonym for military conflict. He tells me he has written well over a hundred blog posts and articles on the subject. “Sometimes the army is calling me and telling me to take stuff down because this material is secret. But I leave it up. Everyone knows this stuff anyway,” Friedman said. He’s not exactly wrong: the dark side of twenty-first-century psyop missions are somewhat well-documented thanks to press leaks and human rights investigations. Psyop soldiers were caught desecrating the corpses of Taliban fighters, on call at CIA black sites to refine torture techniques, and in photographs at Abu Ghraib. But so much of this activity remains redacted, including the intricacies of the more than a dozen “secret wars” the United States has waged abroad over the last twenty years.

Secrecy is consequential. Timothy Melley, a theorist of American culture, writes that the birth of a sprawling national security state during the Cold War turned the operations of the U.S. security apparatus into public secrets—defined, per Michael Taussig, as “something that is generally known, but cannot be articulated.” Among the American public, it is open knowledge that most of U.S. foreign policy and military activity is classified and carried out covertly—today many of the 2.8 million Americans with security clearance work in seventeen different agencies devoted to intelligence operations funded by a cumulative budget of $93.7 billion. But unless entry-level employees continue to spill secrets on gaming servers, it is impossible to openly discuss how this enormous expenditure of resources is used. And so, Melley has written, public debate surrounding security state operations unfolds within a covert sphere—a speculatory realm where, because nothing can be verified, rumors and conspiracy theories spread like a virus.  

Lujan enlisted in 2019—the February of her senior year at Zeeland West High School in Michigan—and shipped off to basic training that same July, just shy of her eighteenth birthday. When asked why she joined the military in an interview with the Betaverse podcast on YouTube last October, Lujan shrugged. “All the obvious reasons most other people join: free college might be nice and, you know, whatever. . . . But also, my whole life has been pretty chaotic. And I just like to keep that going.”

My entreaties for an interview went unanswered, but that conversation provides a snapshot of Lujan before she became an internet personality. She sits cross-legged on a bedspread, wearing an oversized red and white softball T-shirt, intermittently vaping while petting an adorable spotted pug. Her tone is disaffected, yet slightly insecure. At first, Lujan admits, her ideological commitments felt at odds with a military environment. “For the first like, year and a half or two years I hated it. Not necessarily because I knew much about politics or anything, but I was questioning like, am I part of a terrorist organization?” She recalled wondering, “were we all super patriotic . . . are we all just like blindly fascist?”

Lujan gradually changed her mind. “I got so bored of people calling me a war criminal/terrorist just because of the uniform I wear,” she posted on Instagram stories a few months later. “I just can’t help but wonder what those people would do if their dreams of disbanding the military came true. . . . I’d rather take some pride in the place I come home than being overrun by China or Russia.”

Lujan’s popularity demonstrates how America’s military establishment is waging its own information warfare.

Today, Lujan eagerly mines her ties to the covert sphere for all they are worth. She mostly portrays herself as a cute prophet capable of influencing entire populations, foremost her fans. In January, she partnered with Weapons Outfitters to release a calendar titled “The Fucking of Hearts and Minds: A Twelve-Step Operation.” The cover features Lujan in a black leather bra, holding a shotgun, and pointing suggestively toward the viewer. That same month she launched SikeOps, which markets limited-edition Lujan merchandise like Tic Tacs shaped like bullets and iron-on patches announcing, “You’ve just been fucked by psyops.”

While there are many breeds of military influencers—from National Guard recruiters to infantry lifestyle gurus—Lujan might be the only psychological operations soldier cashing in on a booming influencer market. Still, her content bears a striking similarity to prior recruitment strategies blasted by the U.S. military. In May 2022, the Special Operations Recruiting Battalion released a recruitment video titled “Ghosts in the Machine.” “Have you ever wondered who’s pulling the strings?” the film asks over a manicured reel of special ops forces gallivanting around the world with automatic weapons. More akin to an abbreviated psychological thriller, the film seems to promise that those who enlist will gain access to a trove of secret knowledge that will allow them to separate fact from fiction.

It may seem strange that the DoD is telling Americans to distrust all official narratives in a bid to bolster its popularity. Yet we’ve entered the age of “psyop realism,” as Günseli Yalcinkaya writes in Dazed, in which we are all “targeted individuals under the shadowy control of the Influencing Machine.” Rather than seeking alternative sources of media unmarred by government or corporate influence, more tech users seem resigned to the fact that everything they consume online is propaganda. A riff on Mark Fisher’s capitalist realism, “the widespread acceptance that there is no alternative to capitalism,” psyop realism affirms its conditions of possibility by acceding to the ontological crisis of our post-truth era, a time where the terms of reality are interminably up for grabs. It is a condition that oozes, in the words of Jak Ritger, “a pervasive paranoia of all politics and deep distrust of authority.”

American culture has long been marked by hallmarks of psyop realism, namely rampant conspiratorialism and suspicion of political authority, with former military personnel at the vanguard of high-profile movements. Bill Kasings was a U.S. Navy Officer who worked as a technical writer for one of the rocket manufacturers for NASA’s Apollo Mission before he published the wide-reaching tract We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle in 1976. Bo Gritz, a Vietnam veteran co-founded a survivalist community and paramilitary training center, ran for vice president, and often claimed the United Nations was bringing about an apocalyptic New World Order. Korey Rowe was an infantryman in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s when he helped produce the 9/11 truther series Loose Change that went viral among veterans.

The real novelty of “psyop realism” is that the military is now proudly aggravating American conspiratorialism across social media. Perhaps this is in response to the heightened visibility of racist paranoia throughout the armed forces. FBI infiltrated far-right chat rooms and Facebook pages reveal QAnon and Great Replacement Theories swirling across bases named after Confederate generals—including Lujan’s Fort Bragg. Chronic Trumpism among the military’s ranks has some retired generals worried that the 2024 elections will yield a successful coup attempt. Sowing deep-state intrigue through official and unofficial channels, from recruiting videos to influencers, helps the military maintain its dominance over an American public.

“Conspiracy theories are ways to explain power structures in reassuring ways,” Melley told me, “ways that make us all feel like we too have this insider knowledge.” In recent years the military has made a show of trying to clamp down on conspiratorialism within its troops; last November, for instance, Tulsi Gabbard lectured psyop students at Fort Bragg on the threat disinformation posed to democracy.

“The starting assumption of conspiracy theory—that ‘there’s something they’re not telling us,’” Melley posits, “seems an accurate description of the U.S. national security arrangement since the Cold War.” But Lujan’s unredacted stardom crystalizes a new orientation by inviting a new generation in on the game.

Uncensored by a military establishment scrambling to maintain preeminence, Lujan fans the flames of conspiratorialism by reassuring her followers the deep state won’t hurt them if they help pull the strings too. Political pundits like to blame the breakdown of democratic norms on disinformation operations propagated by bad actors. Yet Lujan’s popularity demonstrates how America’s military establishment is waging its own information warfare. There’s another word for when we cede authority to the coercive power of the armed forces. But the head of the Fourth Psychological Operations Group puts it differently: “A big part of psychological operations is creating persuasive media,” he says, it’s “what our world is, what our craft is.”