How a virtual dictator can change even the strongest of minds
By Emma Cottenie
Stef Audenaert (23) is a free-spirited young man with his own strong opinions. He looks at things critically, and often wonders if that’s the way they’re supposed to be. He enjoys a lot of freedom at home and never needs to justify his actions. Until last year, when he took part in a social experiment called Dictator, that was broadcasted on Belgian television.
The only thing Stef knew in advance, was that he was joining a social experiment that would run as a reality show on VIER, a Belgian TV channel. It wasn’t until the first day of the experiment that he knew what was going on: he and seven other youths were to live in a dictatorship for eight days. The winner of the experiment could take home 20.000 euros, but no one knew how the winner would be chosen.
“In the beginning the experiment seemed very unrealistic”, Stef says. “But although we knew that we would only be there for little more than a week, the dictatorship soon began to feel real.”
Obstinate no longer
Before the experiment started, Stef didn’t describe himself as sensitive to propaganda. “I usually expose that kind of messages very easily and oppose to them. That’s why, if I would ever encounter propaganda in my own society, I would turn against it and do the exact opposite of what is asked. I always stick to my own ideas”, he said back then.
From the very first day of the experiment, the group was submitted to propaganda messages from the dictator. “At first, I didn’t think it affected me. I was very sceptical towards the dictator, and so was the rest of the group. But apparently, a few days of brainwashing changes even the strongest of minds”, Stef says.
“When watching the show when it aired on television, I was startled by my own evolution. I could see myself bending to the will of this virtual dictator and turning into an egocentric person”, Stef testifies. “I ratted out my friends, played the game in favour of myself.”
The atmosphere in the group had changed as well. “We didn’t trust each other. Even though we knew we were being manipulated, we promptly did anything that was asked of us, like baking cookies all day long or ironing the same sheets over and over again. The propaganda was very hard to oppose to, since we could be punished or even thrown out of the experiment if we didn’t obey.”
“I was amazed by how a fake dictatorship could have such impact on a group of young people with strong personalities. Although I believed that propaganda would never influence me, it did.” The experiment has changed Stef’s views on propagandistic messages. “I think I’m better prepared to deal with them now. If I would ever live in a country that broadcasted governmental propaganda on a daily basis, I would just stop watching television. Or leave that place all together.”
For more information about the experiment: www.vier.be/dictator
Photo credits: ©VIER