Over on one of my favourite blogs, John Michael’s Greer ecosophia, the topic of propaganda came up this week. I had been taught about propaganda in high school English class and, having taken a natural liking to the subject, it’s been a hobby of mine ever since to pick apart the techniques of propaganda that are used in the media and by politicians. From a couple of remarks I’ve seen, it seems that high schools in the USA also used to teach their students how to recognise propaganda but this doesn’t seem to be taught anymore. That’s a real shame because in the last couple of decades our exposure to propaganda has escalated massively with the information technology revolution. Everybody now carries a (potential) tool of propaganda in their pocket with them at all times. We are more connected than ever and therefore more exposed to propaganda than ever. Therefore, now more than ever, we need to know how to spot propaganda so as to defend ourselves from it. Given that this is a subject in which I have a strong interest, I thought some posts which describe the tools of propaganda may be a valuable exercise and will certainly be fun to write. In this series, I’ll write a short description of a propaganda technique in each post with examples from current media/political discourse. And I’ll include an exercise for the reader to complete each time. It’ll be just like being in school. Propaganda School.
But before we get to the specific techniques, we need to define the meaning of propaganda that I will be using.
Propaganda is a dirty word these days. But it was not always so. The etymology of the word relates to propagate and its history begins with the Catholic Church where it was used to denote efforts to spread the message of the Christian faith. The negative connotation entered the culture after the world wars. Governments had engaged in substantial propaganda operations during the wars as a way to win public support for the war effort. This included notoriously manipulative pictures, videos and articles aimed at demonising the enemy. The general horror of the wars and in particular the notion among some soldiers and members of the public that governments had deceived them washed off on the word propaganda and sticks to it right up to this day. Propaganda now means to be misled and misinformed by authorities. It is mostly reserved for particularly egregious examples of misinformation used to justify drastic action while the more mild, everyday types of propaganda have come to be called fake news. Prior to that there was the concept of ‘spin’ which was popularised in the Blair-Clinton eras.
The modern meaning of propaganda thus has distinctly political overtones. Being misinformed by another person would be simply called deception. But propaganda implies an agency or institution in a position of power. Again, this was not always so. George Orwell, using the old meaning of propaganda, once argued that all art was propaganda, not because the artist was in a position of power, but simply because the artist was conveying a message. Just like with the original Church meaning, it was not required that the message be deceptive, only that there was a message. For Orwell, the conscious intentions of the propagandist were not strictly relevant but they are in the modern meaning. For us, propaganda is a message given with, at best, intent to shape a worldview and, at worst, intent to deceive and mislead. If you write a novel which portrays a used car salesman in a flattering light, you aren’t engaged in propaganda. But if you’d been paid by the Australian Used Car Salesman Association to write the book, then you are. Thus, a key meaning of modern propaganda is the intent with which it is delivered.
Orwell’s invocation of art as propaganda is interesting in another way because, for us, propaganda does not belong in the refined air of high literature but in the grubby appeal to the baser elements of human nature. Propaganda should play on the emotions and in particular the negative emotions of fear, anxiety and hatred. A well-reasoned, logical, scientific paper appeals to the rational faculties while a movie reel showing the enemy in an unflattering light appeals to the emotional faculties. You can deceive with the scientific paper (although it would be harder to do so). But it’s the mass media that constitutes the primary medium through which modern propaganda is channeled.
Finally, there is the issue of who is responsible for propaganda: the propagandist or the audience? Implied in the modern usage of the word is the notion of a kind of all-powerful manipulator who makes the public dance like puppets on a string. The reality is that the audience tells the propagandist what they want to hear to a large extent. The propagandist has some wiggle room to shape the audience’s views but is constrained to a large extent by what they will accept. This was always true, but the advent of social media has shown beyond doubt that the public are very willing participants in the game of propaganda. In fact, much of social media discourse consists of the most base forms of propaganda imaginable and is for that reason quite a distasteful sight to see. In theory, the peer-to-peer communication afforded by the internet could have led to an explosion of new ideas and worldviews. In practice, it hasn’t. Arguably the public discourse has become even more polarised and one dimensional in the age of the internet. What we have seen is that the audience itself will regulate the discourse. The propagandist may provide the initial seed but it is the audience that will tend the plant and defend it from attack.
Taking all these things into consideration, the definition of propaganda I will use is: a message spread from an institution or representatives of an institution to the wider public with the intent of shaping their worldview.
This definition is broad and covers both the more extreme and more subtle forms of propaganda. However, in this series of posts, I will be concentrating on the more subtle forms. The reason is because I believe these have not received the attention they deserve. Much has already been written about the more obvious forms of propaganda such as governments misleading the public in order to go to war or the manipulation of the subconscious which forms the backbone of modern advertising. What I haven’t seen is a focus on what you might call the everyday tactics of propaganda used mostly in the media and by politicians. These techniques are so common that most people wouldn’t even notice they are there. That’s what makes them effective. This series of posts will be about those subtle methods. Because they are so subtle, learning how to spot them can also be quite a lot of fun. At least, it is for me. I’m quite aware that a lot of people take the news very seriously these days. I do not and it’s probably worth briefly explaining my position so that the tone of the subsequent posts is clear.
My first assumption is that what is in the media simply isn’t that important. Do you remember the media predicting the GFC before it happened? What about the rise of Trump or Brexit? What about corona? Me neither. Most of the important things that are really going to change your life don’t appear in the media until they have already happened. The media does not predict events, it exists to provide post hoc rationalisations for those events. In doing so, it appeals to human vanity and makes us think we know much more than what we really do.
Secondly, I don’t take the media that seriously because I don’t take my own opinions seriously either. The reason for that is because, for most of my opinions, I have never made any real effort to verify that they are true. Opinions are mostly just things we’ve picked up along the way, often based on information provided by the media, which we otherwise wouldn’t have thought twice about.
“Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them.” – Descartes, Meditations of First Philosophy.
What was true for Descartes back then is just as true for all of us now. We have all kinds of opinions, most of them fed to us through propaganda, that we simply have never even tried to verify. For that reason, we should view even our own opinions with a deep scepticism let alone the opinions of organisations who have a vested interest in promoting certain ideas. There are a few things in life that I know well enough to know for sure whether something that was written about it in the media is accurate. But most of the time I don’t know enough to be able to judge. In that case, my preference is take everything with a grain of salt. To be highly sceptical rather than highly trusting.
The final reason to take a light-hearted attitude to the media is because most of what is in the media is simply not important. The media feeds primarily on people’s fear of missing out. People like to be informed so they can seem smart. The media also helps to smooth over everyday interactions with others by providing shared topics for conversations. These might be useful functions in the social sphere but, as items of knowledge to be used to as the basis for action, they are of dubious value. The truth is, we don’t really need to know most of that stuff. Take two weeks to completely remove yourself from all news and see if it makes any difference to your life. My guess is that it won’t. Most of us these days consume far too much news and other propaganda. It is bad for our mental health in exactly the same way that consuming too many french fries is bad for physical health. The best way to address that is to cut down on your consumption. The second best way is to turn propaganda consumption into fun. Having a basic understanding of how the media is trying to manipulate you allows you to filter out the stuff you don’t need and just get down to the basic facts. Once you learn the tricks and can spot them, you can triangulate between different sources of propaganda and start to see who is pushing what agenda. That will give you a better understanding of what is really going on because propaganda is really a battle for control of the public opinion. Think of it like sports or music: if you understand the rules, you’ll enjoy it more.
That’s what this series of posts is about. The idea is to make you, the reader, more attentive to the tricks of propaganda. This can not only be a bit of fun but also has the practical advantage of making you more immune to those tricks and better able to form an independent view of the world.
All posts in this series:
- Propaganda School: Introduction
- Propaganda School Part 1: Guilt by Association
- Propaganda School Part 2: The Passive Voice
- Propaganda School Part 3: Editorialising the News
- Propaganda School Part 4: Headlines and Taglines
- Propaganda School Part 5: Anchoring
- Propaganda School Part 6: Metaphor
- Propaganda School Part 7: Predicting-the-Future
- Propaganda School Part 8: Appeal to Authority
- Propaganda School Part 9: Buzzwords
- Propaganda School Part 10: Lies, damned lies and statistics
- Propaganda School Part 11: Revenge on the Nerds