Propaganda School Part 1: Guilt by Association

One of the primary functions of propaganda is to create in-groups and out-groups. Almost by definition, propaganda is meant to be consumed by an in-group which is the ‘us’ while the content of the propaganda is about the out-group ‘them’. The in-group is not explicitly stated but rather implied by editorial position and the demographics of the viewership. This was once a lot of more obvious than it is these days. For example, it was once the case that there was a newspaper specifically target at different segments of society, often a particular class of people. The newspapers in Britain still have some of this old fashioned delineation to an extent and there are still a lot of different newspapers in circulation there. Thus, a reader of The Spectator is expected to share certain views as are readers of The Sun and of The Times and so on. In the same way, a viewer of Fox News in the US is expected to differ ideologically from a viewer of CNN.  

Given an implied in-group, propaganda then must define the out-group who are going to be portrayed in a less than flattering light. One of the primary ways to do this is to invoke the association fallacy and more specifically guilt by association. That is, the propagandist takes an individual or group that they want to define as the out-group and associates them with a label, stereotype or image that is negative. One of the more common ways this is done in modern propaganda is to call somebody ‘right wing’ to distinguish them from an implied in group that is ‘left wing’. If you want to make the portrayal even more negative, you call them ‘far right’ and if you want to go nuclear you call them ‘fascist’. The same dynamic exists for right-leaning in-groups where the nuclear option involves calling somebody from the out-group a ‘communist’.

Just flat out calling somebody a nasty word is, however, a little crude. That kind of thing might be acceptable on social media but not in the professional media where things must be done with more subtlety. Let’s have a look at that more subtle method now courtesy of a recent article in the Deutsche Welle (DW) English edition.

As an aside, the DW will probably provide a large amount of content for this series of posts containing, as it does, a large amount of juicy propaganda. Surprisingly, the DW is the government funded media outlet in Germany. It might as well be funded by Davos billionaires as its editorial position is that of the globalist elite. Therefore, one of the primary out-groups for DW is any kind of populist politics which threatens the prestige and power of the globalists. During the corona event in Germany a group that sort of fits that description appeared out of nowhere. They call themselves the Querdenker (‘lateral thinkers’) and have been organising protest rallies. Let’s have a look at an article about one such rally.

The article we’ll be looking at can be read here – https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-germany-braces-for-violent-anti-lockdown-protests/a-55513848

One of the counter intuitive things about the massive increase in propaganda in the last couple of decades is that it’s never been easier to verify facts for yourself. Naturally, the Querdenker have their own website. They look like an interesting group and claim their members include “artists, musicians, lawyers and doctors.” This seems to be true from their videos, which include a singer singing a song to the crowd at a protest. You can have a look at the website here. Even if you don’t speak German, you can get some kind of feel for the type of people who represent the Querdenker. They look pretty normal to me. Another German newspaper, the FAZ , reports on a university study that finds the Querdenker to be an “amorphous and complex” movement.

Sounds pretty cool to me. I’d love to see more mass demonstrations by lateral thinkers. I’d like to go to one myself but where I live we are not allowed to demonstrate at the moment. In Germany, the courts have ruled it unconstitutional for the government to extinguish the right to protest, something that should give all Australians pause for thought given that our government and our courts have ruled the other way.

In any case, it seems that the Querdenker are a diverse group of people who simply disagree with lockdowns and forced mask wearing. This shouldn’t be a great surprise as, at least in my experience, opposition to corona measures cuts across the usual political boundaries. Two examples from Australia stand out in my memory. One was a folk singer from Byron Bay and another was the wife of a famous football player. Hardly the usual suspects when it comes to dissenting political viewpoints. However, both were duly mobbed on social media for expressing their opinion.

Given this background, how does the DW portray the Querdenker to their readers? They do it using guilt by association and there are three primary groups that DW wants to associate with the Querdenker as we can see in the following quote:

“On the streets, the Querdenker movement (and associated demos by smaller groups) has been marked by an unlikely alliance of far-right and far-left fringes, as well as a handful of conspiracy theorists.”

Note the phrase marked by. This is an example of the passive voice. Another prime technique of propaganda that we’ll look at in a future post.

Out of a crowd of tens of thousands, the DW has somehow picked out just these three groups which, in their own words, represent a ‘handful’ of those present. Just a coincidence? Not a chance. This is a prime example of guilt by association. The DW wants their readers to associate the Querdenkers with fringe political groups. It reinforces this in its choice of photographs to represent the protestors. The main photo at the top of the article features a protestor holding a sign mentioning “forced vaccination, 5G and “Connection of Humans – AI” (presumably signifying the ‘conspiracy theorist’ demographic) while further down the page there is a video of a man holding a nationalist flag who no doubt represents the ‘far right fringe’. The DW could have chosen photos of the speakers who actually represent the Querdenker. They could have chosen a video of the folk singer singing to the crowd about freedom. But they chose those photos.

That is how guilt by association works. The Querdenker look to be a fairly representative sample of the German population in general but the DW wants its readers to believe they are made up a fringe political groups and conspiracy theorists. It does that using text and photo. The right-wing association fallacy is very common in Germany due to the obvious historical connotation it has there. And, of course, conspiracy theorist is fast becoming the most overused phrase in English and pretty much denotes anybody who questions the government narrative. Ironic that it should get applied in a derogatory fashion to a group called the lateral thinkers who self identify as people who will question the dominant narrative.

Reader Exercise

Guilt by association works by either associating an individual with an undesirable group (eg. ‘he has been supported by far right groups’) or by using an undesirable individual to represent a group. The DW used the latter tactic by having the individual carrying a nationalist flag represent the Querdenker.

Photographs are one of the easiest and commonest ways to establish guilt by association. Have a look at this report from the Australian national broadcaster (ABC) about the US election and notice the photographs chosen to portray Biden and Trump supporters respectively. What associations is the ABC trying to create for Biden and Trump supporters? What does this say about the ABC’s editorial position on the two presidential candidates and their supporters?

Postscript

This series of posts will be a lot more fun if readers can contribute. Feel free to post in the comments with any juicy examples of guilt by association you find in the media.

All posts in this series:

4 thoughts on “Propaganda School Part 1: Guilt by Association”

  1. The ABC showed a picture of Trump supporter making a mean face, and a cute kid supporting Biden. The other pictures I saw didn’t seem to egregious. I didn’t watch the videos. The two main examples of guilt by association in the USA are associating conservatives with the far right, and groups like the Proud Boys. The left gets associated with Antifa. Even in the Ecosophia space, people associate the left with the “woke” by calling them wokesters. Depending on your beliefs, one may think a certain piece of propaganda is warranted. I guess you did say it’s up to the people who propaganda they accept. There is some I’m willing to accept (like wokester).

    BTW this is a really cool idea to blog about. Looking forward to seeing more.

  2. Hi Simon,

    This will most certainly be a fun exercise.

    I spotted this article a few weeks back: In Donald Trump country, Kathy has lost eight cars to rising tides caused by climate change. But it won’t impact her vote in the US election. The portrayal of the two people is quite interesting. And I did note that the environmental journalist was behind the wheel of a rather powerful looking boat which at a wild guess might just also be contributing to the problem that so vexes him. Hmm. And the photo of the flag… An old term you don’t much hear nowadays comes to mind ‘windbag’ or even ‘blowhard’. The photo appears to be an intentional act.

    We appear to be living in a target rich environment.

    Cheers

    Chris

  3. Hi Simon (again),

    Wow, the photos in the article were not appropriate. Perhaps it is just me, but I have a belief about people wearing their hair in buns – it’s like they have something to hide in there… 🙂

    Cheers

    Chris

  4. @ youngelephant

    Interesting. I think for most people the actual meaning is irrelevant. The words just function more or less like swear words. I saw a random funny video just a couple of days ago where a girl called a guy a fascist. He asked her to explain what fascism was she stumbled around trying to answer then ended up saying she didn’t know.

    @ Chris

    The ABC’s anti-Trump bias has been blatant for more than four years. Same as BBC and DW in Germany. Funny, I’d have thought there would be political pressure on state-funded media to treat leaders of other countries, especially democratic ones, with a modicum of respect.

    Btw- that article is a perfect example of another technique we’ll get to in due time: the non sequitur.

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