Evil Geniuses, #FakeNews, and Why You Aren't Free

Approximate Read Time: 23 minutes


What does freedom mean to you?

This question might conjure up any number of responses or emotions. You might be tired of discussions about freedom. A part of me certainly is. Freedom is a buzzword in the Western world right now and I suspect it has always been a buzzword in the United States - constantly finding its way into every political discussion and social debate. We, Americans, love freedom. Even more so, we hate the feeling or the notion that our freedom is being trampled on. This article is not political, but I have news for you: you are far less free than you believe and you are entirely complicit in this lack of freedom.

What is Freedom?

Before we can begin this discussion, we need to establish what true freedom is. We can’t work to achieve or protect an abstract idea. When we fail to point at what we want we will either make no headway or move with the stream of external forces around us.

Much like the idea of “success,” most people fail to create or ever think about what freedom means to them. We all agree that “freedom” and “success” are good aspects that we want to pursue in our lives. But we fail to create a personal definition of what these mean. To me, freedom is a major part of success, but your definitions may vary.

If your mind leaps to any one of the hot-button political issues of the day - gun control, abortion, marriage rights, etc - when you consider what freedom is, I urged you to dig deeper. Yes, one of the primary jobs of any political system is to establish a balance between providing for the collective good and protecting individual rights, but laws and politics do not affect your day-to-day life as much as the pundits suggest they do. The extreme positions on both sides of the aisle and the purposefully inflammatory volley back and forth that consumes our attention force us to pick a side and perpetuate the conflict. These are themselves, forces that trample on our freedom. If you agree with everything (or nearly everything) that your pundit, network, or publication of choice has to say, you are probably not trying very hard to form your own opinions.

So again, free from thoughts of religion, politics, wars, laws, or your neighbor, what is true freedom to you?

True Freedom

Freedom is a mindset before it ever involves any external factors. We are fortunate to live in the most free and open society in history. Sure, it’s not perfect or as free as it could be, but we don’t have to worry about oppressive governments, tyrannical dictators, marauders at our door, or domestics attacks from foreign powers. We are free to think, believe, and behave however we want as long as we do not hurt anyone. Given all of this freedom, why are so many people are following paths that they hate, trapped in cycles of constant over-consumption, and feel a general lack of autonomy in their lives?

“Everything’s amazing, but nobody’s happy.” - Louis CK

The reason that so many people love to talk about freedom in the national political conversation is that, deep down, they do not feel a sense of personal freedom in their own lives. They know that they lack the discipline and value structure to achieve real freedom. Attributing this lack of agency and self-control to laws and political forces makes for a far easier pill to swallow than the reality that they chose their current state by living at the whim of their emotional impulses. The tendency to point to external factors rather than the role that they hold in their own life is the precise reason that they do not feel free.

Forget the talk of the Constitution and “God-given” rights. True freedom is agency. It is the power to choose as you wish, not what is simply easy, comfortable, or “normal.” Freedom is also the discipline and intentionality to follow through on these choices. It is acting in accordance with your values, doing the things that matter to you and resisting the forces that can pull you from your path.

Freedom is mastery over your emotions. It is rising above your reactive potential, emotional eating, TV binging, smartphone scrolling, and incessant buying as a means to seek fulfillment. It is acting like an adult. In other words, freedom is exploring your thoughts to establish what is most important to you, and then, to the best of your abilities in each moment, following this value structure above all else. This requires intentionality and an ongoing examination into yourself. But it also requires rules, boundaries, and systems to build your values into healthy action.

Edward Bernays, Snapchat, and “Fake News”

Before we can talk about the role that we play in creating our freedom, we need to examine the forces that constantly seek to chip away at our agency. The best plan of attack is to know and understand your enemy - or something like that.

While I’m sure that we’ve had tricksters and con-artists since the dawn of humanity, the modern-day story of mass manipulation and social control begins with Edward Bernays. Bernays is a character so hyperbolic that he seems more of a comic book villain or a Bond movie evil genius than a pivotal player in American and world history.

Edward Bernays is the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology. Bernays used this connection to both master his uncle’s discoveries and gain influence with prominent figures. Bernays would go on to have a far greater impact on the world than his famous uncle while remaining perfectly obscured from the spotlight. He is now considered the “father of modern advertising and public relations.”

Bernays understood that en mass, people are irrational and subject to what he called “herd instinct.” He made no secret of his belief that with an understanding of crowd psychology, any skilled manipulator could control the population to whatever ends they desired. He did not stop at the level of abstract belief, he put his understanding into practice. While he may have been a certain type of genius, his powers for manipulation and social control were available for hire, no matter how unscrupulous the buyer.

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In the 1920s it was considered poor taste for women to smoke, especially in public. The American Tobacco Company hired Bernays to boost their sales to women. Bernays began with a campaign that promoted the idea of thinness as the ideal for feminine beauty (yep, another social trend that traces back to Bernays). The campaign urged women to smoke instead of eating. He next tackled the taboo of women smoking in public by hiring women from the growing feminism movement to smoke at the 1929 Easter Sunday Parade through New York City. He controlled the media coverage of the event and had the women’s cigarettes called “torches of freedom” to link them with female empowerment.

Bernays’ influence extends far beyond mere social trends in the United States. In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz became the first democratically elected President of Guatemala. He soon passed several new laws that weren’t particularly friendly to the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita), an American corporation that owned over 80% of all the privately held land in Guatemala. Arbenz’s new policies would take back large portions of uncultivated land that had previously been taken from Guatemalan citizens and seeded to the UFC by a previous dictator. Even though the policy would pay the UFC twice the value that their taxes claimed for the land and it only applied to land that was uncultivated the UFC, took matters into their own hands. They hired Bernays.

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Edward Bernays began a misinformation campaign against the new Guatemalan government to portray it as communist, despite it being the first democratic administration. His campaign worked so well that it convinced President Eisenhower and the newly-minted CIA, both with a very hard stance against communism. The CIA organized operation PBSUCCESS, a plan to overthrow Arbenz and install someone more sympathetic to US interests. The operation was approved and funded by President Eisenhower in August 1953.

These are only the two most glaring examples of the incredible power that Bernays discovered and wielded without regard. It is easy to imagine that Bernays might have had good intentions at the time and that only through the lens of history can we call his actions evil, but this is not the case. His own words from his 1953 book, Propaganda tell the entire story.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ...We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ...In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

While we all still feel Bernays handiwork every time we eat bacon and eggs (yep, another Bernays project for the Beech-Nut Packing Company to boost bacon sales in the 1920s), his true legacy lives on in his theories.

The most pernicious present-day practitioners of what we could call the “Bernays method” - leveraging psychology principles for mass manipulation to drive profit - are social media companies and app developers. Social platforms and other popular apps use their knowledge of human psychology and the modern understanding of brain neurochemistry to attract as much “in-app” or “on-screen” time as possible. Through their use of tactics like gamification, optimized colors and animations, daily streaks, social integration, algorithms that boost the most inflammatory content, and incessant notifications we now see frightening statistics about social media and phone use.

A 2016 study polled teens and their parents about their phone use. 78% of the teens and 69% of the parents reported that they check their phone hourly. When asked if they felt addicted to their phones 50% of the teens said yes, as did 27% of the parents.[1] My instinct says that these numbers are actually much higher than what people self-report and, regardless, the numbers have almost certainly increased since 2016.

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I suspect that your instincts tell a similar story, but we don’t need to speculate to see how severe the problem is. Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former Vice President of User Growth, said at a conference at Stanford:

“This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other. I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that shit. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit.” [2]

A few months prior Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook betrayed their initial intention similarly at a conference in Philadelphia.

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ That means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments … It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators – me, Mark [Zuckerberg], Kevin Systrom on Instagram, all of these people – understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.” [2]

While the veil of impartiality and good intentions has finally been lifted from our social platforms, it remains, at least for many, over our mainstream news outlets. “News” programs in the US (and to a slightly lesser extent in the rest of the Western world) have drifted so far from objective reporting that we cannot call it journalism anymore. All that’s left is propaganda with a light sprinkling of honest and productive editorial. Editorial plays an important role in the political and social landscape, but only if it’s focused on facts and offering genuine solutions.

Tweets and sound bites of what others are saying about a particular issue do not constitute news. If the “news” that you watch reports on how other networks are covering a story or use phrases like “the other side wants you to believe that…”, that is not news, it’s editorial. And it’s not even good editorial. If the pundits are more concerned with criticizing a particular group rather than proposing a useful path forward, they betray their true intent - to harden their viewers into a viewpoint rather than providing facts or advancing the conversation.

This serves only to divide the country. The chasm between the sides of our political spectrum has grown so vast that it is nearly impossible to converse across it. The only option left is to hurl grenades. To illustrate this change, I’ll borrow an analogy from one of my favorite thinkers, Eric Weinstein. The political spectrum used to look like a gently-sloping roof. It was easy to balance in the middle and the slope was mild enough that a person could easily hold a position left or right of center. It was easy to move about the spectrum and you could see everyone else standing on the other side. We were all still standing together. Now we have a steep A-frame that slides everyone to either far right or far left and makes it extremely difficult and precarious to attempt to navigate a central position. The peak of the roof is so steep that we can no longer see the people standing on the other side. This is not good and our “news” networks are leading the charge to create and deepen the trend. They are businesses that depend on viewership. They have learned that tactics that divide will deepen their fanbase. Tuning in is no longer about getting the news, it is a pep rally for your team. You enjoy their increasingly derisive rhetoric not because it informs you, but because it stirs up your tribal tendencies.

Studies show that political tendencies are becoming the primary factor for choosing the relationships in our life. A Pew study found that inter-race marriages have grown from 1% in 1960 to 12% in 2013. The same study found that religious intermarriage has seen a similar rise from 19% in 1960 to 39% in 2015.[3] Yet we’ve seen a division grow along political lines. A Stanford study looked at 146 million voter registration records and found that in 1973 54% of marriages were between partners of the same political leanings. By 2015 this number had risen to 74%. This held even in politically diverse zip codes, suggesting that people were choosing based on political reasons and it was not just a consequence of proximity to similarly-minded people. From 2016 to 2017 (after an extremely divisive election), eHarmony reported the rate of people listing their political views in their profile tripled amongst its 30 million users.[4]

This growing divide serves no one. The mainstream news story makes it seem that there’s no one left in the middle. The social pressure and human need for connection are driving everyone to one of the extremes.

And The Worst Part Is…

While the confessions of a propaganda mastermind and silicon valley executives are chilling, they don’t tell the entire story. We have an obvious history and on-going battle with forces that attempt to monopolize our attention, dictate our decision-making and buying patterns, and manipulate our political and social opinions. Even though some of these forces have grown to the level of a dystopian Hollywood blockbuster, they have not (and cannot) cross into the realm of total control. Most people have not only embraced the Standard Model but have willfully yet unknowingly deepened their captivity. But, you still have a choice. You still have your agency.

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The first step to reclaiming your freedom is to acknowledge that you’ve been complicit in giving it away. There might be plenty of sources constantly snatching at it bit by bit, but you’ve largely handed it over willingly. Before you begin to let yourself fall into denial and justifications, let me tell you that you are not special. You are not immune from the pull of these forces and neither am I.

You can be irrational, make emotional decisions, and fall into many other patterns of “wrong” thinking. You can be dogmatic, close-minded, prone to group-think and mass hysteria. And you are not alone.

But you can also learn to see these forces for what they are and do your best to rise above their pull. You can learn to think about freedom and well-being as internal journeys, not beholden to the world around you. When we think about our freedom as internal and self-derived, we are far less likely to seek fulfillment through tasty treats and new gadgets or outsource our public opinions and political viewpoints to the pundits and “news” networks with the most compelling outrage tactics.

Politics can lead to sweeping changes. Advertisers will always try to create “need” for their products. Apps will continue to entice your focus and attention. But at IHD, we think about freedom a little differently. Those external forces are what they are and we cannot control them. But we can control how we react to them, how willingly we allow them into our lives, and how we protect the aspects of our freedom that we do control.

When we develop the aspects of ourselves that lead to true freedom, we build the strength and tools to resist outside pulls and follow our path. You will never be perfect, but you can arm yourself for the best defense of your freedom. There are four types of freedom that we need to develop - the four pillars to create a strong foundation for an empowered, free life. Freedom of movement, freedom of time, freedom of influence, and freedom of self.

Freedom of Movement

You need to move your body. Everyday. In new and challenging ways. Period. Your mind and spirit are not separate from your physical body. They are so intimately connected that you cannot hope to lead an awesome life without a healthy relationship with your body. Humans have understood this for centuries. Socrates says it best, "No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training...what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable."

Your body is the only tool that you have to interact with the world. Everything you wish to achieve in life - intellectual or spiritual pursuits, work projects, relationships, everything - passes through your body. You cannot hope to be your best, in any aspect, if your body is not capable.

This doesn’t mean that you need to be a world-class athlete, have a six-pack, spend hours in the gym, and eat like a monk. But it does mean that you need to prioritize your physical health every day. When we do not feel at ease mentally or emotionally, we often just need to treat a physical symptom. In many ways, we never really progress past infancy. When babies cry, we never assume that they are depressed or feeling existential turmoil. We assume they are hungry, tired, restless, or they just pooped their diaper. Your issues are often just as simple.

Your psychology follows your physiology. Your mental and emotional sense of health and well-being can feel off simply because of a physical symptom. To alter your mental state, simply stand up to stretch, take a short walk, get some fresh air and sunlight, do some light exercise, or drink a glass of water. You can completely transform your mood, productivity, and sense of wellness with an intense bout of movement, a cold shower, breathing exercises, or meditation.

When we build a deep relationship with our physical body we build a pathway to communicate with our deeper self. In other words, eating well, exercising, and learning to breath are the gateway to the other aspects of self-mastery. We have to start with the body.

For this reason, daily movement is one of the three IHD Core Habits. We’ve built the 30x30 challenge around these three core habits, and thus each day begins with a short, daily movement practice. If you are looking for a way to begin your movement practice or grow your understanding of physical training, we recommend the 30x30 challenge to get you started.

Freedom of Time

We could also call this freedom of attention, freedom of focus, or freedom of our choices. It’s the most practical facet of freedom and the area that we notice the greatest improvement to our daily lives. We all feel the pull to check our phones, watch YouTube, procrastinate, respond to email, clean the house, and do nearly anything other than our essential tasks. The greatest way to feel free is to develop control of how you spend your time and where you direct your focus.

Reclaiming freedom of time requires discipline. However, do not confuse discipline with willpower. You will still need to develop the will to resist temptations in the moment, but the most disciplined people do not simply have superhuman willpower. They understand that willpower is a finite resource and they use systems and structures in their life to spend their willpower in small but effective doses.

“Discipline equals freedom.” - Jocko Willink

You need to create structure in your life that dictates how you spend your time. These structures set healthy choices and productive habits as the default option. If you rely on your ability to make healthy choices in the moment, you set yourself up for failure and drain your precious reserves of willpower. But, you can design your environment, your schedule, and your relationships around your values for health, productivity, and mental focus.

To set post-workday exercise as the default option you could:

Pack a gym bag the night before and set by the door. Place it in the front seat of your car, rather than the backseat or trunk. Choose a gym between your house and office.

It only requires 30 seconds to put a set of clothes in a bag and place it near the door. A gym bag in plain view in the front seat is a reminder and sets the expectation for your workout. Choosing a gym that you will have to drive past on the way home further reminds you of your workout and removes the boundary of an extra or out-of-the-way trip. These are incredibly simple changes that set exercise as your default option at the end of the workday. You will still need small amounts of willpower to pack your bag and go to the gym rather than driving past. But you will need far less than deciding in the moment to work out over heading home to relax.

Willpower is overcoming the momentary emotions for ease and comfort to do what you truly know is best. You have very little negative emotions about committing your future self to a workout than you do about overcoming the pull of the couch at the moment. Learn to apply small but targeted applications of willpower to set health patterns as the default.

You can use a similar strategy to eliminate distractions and temptations from your life. I leave my phone on airplane mode and across the room while writing. I still feel the urge to take a break and watch YouTube or open Instagram, but I know that I’m far less likely to check it if I cannot see it or hear it. This is the modern-day version of Odysseus lashing himself to the mast of his ship, knowing that he was powerless to resist the Siren’s song. I’ve made a focused and distraction-free environment the default and require far less willpower to follow my desired pattern.

I’ve outlined many other areas of how to use choice architecture. We have also built these topics into the 30x30 challenge. The program outlines the science behind habit formation, environmental design, and change psychology to help you create systems that ensure appropriate engagement with your essential tasks while lessening the pull of external forces.

Freedom of Influence

We have all heard the saying that you are the average of the five people closest to you. Five people is a bit arbitrary and this extends to far more than just people, but the sentiment is completely true. You are what you eat.

You are a product of your habits, patterns, and decisions. And although you could make any change that you want regardless of what you consume, you can stack the deck in your favor by shaping the influences that surround you. We judge the morality, the health, and “goodness” of our actions by comparison. There is no universal standard of what it means to live a good life. Much less is there an objective measure of how you can live your best life. You get to decide who you want to be, and you are responsible for making that happen. You need influences that inspire those standards and people, media, and peer groups that expect you to uphold them.

Growth is never easy. Building the projects or patterns in your life that you truly value requires hard work. You can pave the way for these journeys with the right influences. And, you shoot yourself in the foot with the wrong influences. At IHD, we call the process of shaping your influences and consumption habits “feeding the right wolf,” based on a Cherokee legend about nourishing the better half of your nature.

We do not have the luxury to control every interaction with people, media, and advertisements. But we have to use the areas that we can control to give ourselves nourishing influence rather than influences that normalize and justify unhealthy patterns. You might not be able to change your co-workers or your selfish extended family, but you can read books, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, watch documentaries and YouTube videos, and follow people online who feed the positive side of your nature. Regardless of where you live, who you are related to, or what your job entails, you can create a sphere of influence that inspires you to grow, take control of your health and freedom, and be generally awesome.

We aim for IHD to be one of those influences for you. Every article that we publish aims to help you grow. We maintain our resources page as a collection of videos, books, and podcasts that we find tremendous value in. We’ve created the 30x30 challenge to be the ultimate form of nourishment to change your life.

Freedom of Self

The final aspect of true freedom, these are the ways that you subconsciously stand in your way. I mentioned above that you (and I) are prone to emotional reactivity, irrational thoughts and behavior, dogmatic thinking, herd mentality, and a nearly infinite list of other “wrong” ways of thinking. This is where we address those tendencies.

First, we will never mature beyond these traits entirely. Hoping or expecting to do so is unrealistic, and itself, a severely irrational thought. However, with practice and intentionality, you can learn to spot these patterns as they arise and correct for them as best that you can. This is difficult but there are some ways of understanding yourself that help with this process.

We use the analogy of a person riding an elephant down a path. The rider is your higher thinking, self-aware mind. The elephant is our unconscious, emotional side. The path is your environment that you can shape as we discussed above. Understanding how these two sides of your nature relate helps you to create a harmonious and symbiotic relationship between what Mark Manson calls your “thinking brain” and your “feeling brain.” They each have strengths and limitations. We’ve dedicated several lessons of the 30x30 challenge to understanding ourselves through this framework. This analogy is also a major theme of our free ebook, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery.

The final way to develop a sense of agency (and thus freedom) over your internal self is a regular gratitude and meditation practice. These are the third IHD Core Habit and conclude each daily video of the 30x30 challenge.

A gratitude practice can be as simple as pausing to reflect on what has gone well in your day or listing a few positive elements of your life in a gratitude journal. Five minutes or less can completely shift how you view the world and your place in it. Practicing gratitude reminds us of all that we have in our lives (for some reason an extremely easy thing to lose sight of). It helps us to shift from a fixed to a growth mindset and find inspiration in other’s achievements and positive attributes rather than jealousy or resentment.

Meditation is all the rage right now. It also has so many connotations to those unfamiliar with it. For me (and Shane), its all about practicing silencing your mental dialogue and developing comfort in quiet moments with yourself. Notice that I called it a practice at silencing your mental dialogue, not moments when you actually achieve it. While there are many traditional practices, mindfulness meditation is about simply noticing your quality of mind. It is not about creating a perfectly serene or focused state. You relax, focus on your breathing, and try to allow thoughts to pass just as easily as they arose. That’s it. Just observe.

Success in meditation (though it feels silly to even suggest that the notion of “success” even applies) is about how many times you catch yourself thinking not about how much time to spend free of thought. In other words, imagine you are walking down a path and distractions continually pull you off into the bushes. Meditation is not about walking a perfect line down the center, it is practice at catching yourself veering off and coming a back to center. It’s about the constant returning not about remaining at center.

Process aside, the practice is invaluable. It can be discouraging. I often feel that I’ve made no progress in the last 6 years. Other times, I know I have. You can move the needle with consistency. A meditation practice can help you become comfortable with yourself and with your thoughts. You will learn that your thought patterns and even your actions are not you - they arise from somewhere outside of your conscious control. You will also grow stronger at resisting your emotional reactivity. When we are in the throes of strong negative emotions, we say and do things to hurt others and limit our future opportunities. One of the greatest acts of service that you can do is to train yourself to overcome your emotional reactions. This is freedom.

Finally, meditation will nourish your growth in every other area. Breath work and training your mental state will put you in better communication with your physical body. Moments of quiet solitude help you reflect on the influences in your life and discover which are holding you back and which serve you. Learning to pause and consider your deeper values bolsters your confidence to shut out external pulls and follow your own path.

One Program to Rule Them All

A bit of an exaggeration, but that’s exactly what we sought to create with the 30x30 challenge. Shane and I know how the three core habits have changed our lives. We see the subtle and overt forces that pick away at our freedoms bit by bit, and we know the value in developing these aspects of freedom. We genuinely believe that when people work to understand themselves and nourish and protect their freedom, the world is a better place.

We designed the 30-day program around the three core habits: movement, positive influence, and gratitude and meditation. Each of the thirty-minute videos offers a short, guided workout, a lesson to introduce you to many different positive influences and ways of understanding yourself, and closes with a guided gratitude and meditation practice.

While each day follows the same general format, this is far from a prescriptive plan. We introduce you to habits and influences that will improve your ability to improve your own life. This program gives you tools and the expertise to use them in a way that suits your lifestyle and follows your values.

We are far from perfect, but part of our continued growth is offering this program of what we have learned so far. We are confident that the 30x30 will not only be an incredible month but continue to serve you for the rest of your life. We’ve included a workbook and a plan to help you continue growing after the initial 30 days with us.

The best way to get the 30x30 challenge is to become an IHD member. You will get access to all of the other current and future IHD courses as well as access to weekly webinars with Shane and me.


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