Propaganda School Part 5: Anchoring

Most techniques of propaganda also have a concomitant form as a cognitive bias or even a logical fallacy. There was an idea that was popular about a hundred years ago that, if all these biases were removed and only strictly logical information produced, then all propaganda, bias and fallacious reasoning would go away and we would live happily ever after in a reasonable and rational utopia. That’s not going to happen for a variety of reasons that are too long to go into here. The best we can do is simply be aware of our biases and the biases we are being invited to fall into when consuming propaganda.

One bias that is invoked all the time in propaganda is anchoring bias. Anchoring bias occurs when we allow an ‘anchor’ to skew our judgement on a particular matter. Often the anchor is the first piece of information we receive but it can be any other piece of information to which we give unjustified importance. As with other general cognitive biases, anchoring bias is not just seen in propaganda. It is a technique that is also used by skilled negotiators. Let me give an example from my experience so we can see how it works.

In China, as in most Asian countries, it is expected that you will haggle about the price of an item you are thinking about buying at a flea market. In fact, it is considered bad manners not to haggle. This is something we westerners have almost no experience in and so we tend to make very clumsy moves in such a negotiation. I never really got the hang of haggling. However, I was fortunate on one occasion to see an expert form of negotiation and also a classic example of overcoming anchoring bias.

I was on a work trip to China. An Indian colleague and I were walking around a flea market. He wanted to buy a trinket to take home to his wife and spotted a piece of jewelry that he thought she would like. We stopped at the stall and he asked the woman behind the table what the price was. She said it was 200 yuan. That was the anchor – the initial price from which all further negotiation will take place. If it was me, I would probably have counter-offered with 75 yuan. The stall holder would then probably say 150 yuan and we would end up somewhere in between. As a naïve westerner, I would get the experience of feeling like I had negotiated well and the stall holder would get probably ten times what the item was worth. Win-win.

But on this occasion the stall holder was negotiating with an Indian. If my experience is anything to go by, the Indians take such negotiations even more seriously than the Chinese. In India it is common to negotiate a price even in a regular shop and the negotiation ritual can be incredibly elaborate. One negotiation I witnessed on a trip to India, which was exhausting even as a spectator, lasted more than an hour and included several cups of tea and plates of sweets during which time various store clerks tried to offer me several other items that I didn’t want. So, I wasn’t that surprised when my Indian colleague approached the negotiation with the Chinese stall holder very differently than I would have. Her initial price, remember, was 200 yuan. He counter-offered with 5 yuan. She pretended to be outraged at this grievous insult to her intelligence and reputation (a common negotiation tactic) but, rather than play along, my colleague simply turned and started walking away. The stall holder, knowing she had one last move in the game, shouted out “10 yuan”! My colleague turned around, pulled 10 yuan from his wallet and the sale was made at 5% of the initial price the stall holder had set.

Technically, anchoring bias occurs whenever you allow your judgement to be skewed by one piece of information. Usually, this is the first piece of information. In this case, the first piece of information was an offer of 200 yuan. My colleague simply ignored that and made an offer based on what he thought the item was really worth. This is the best way to get around anchoring bias. In a negotiation, or in propaganda, your judgement is being skewed by information that somebody else gives you. If you have your own independent source of information and understanding, you become more or less immune to the tactic.

To a certain extent, the power and influence of the media is almost wholly predicated on anchoring bias because as readers we don’t have independent access to alternative sources of information. You can verify this for yourself. Every now and then a media story comes along which is about something that we have intimate knowledge about. Usually, this is something related to our job or it can be an event where we were an eyewitness. We read the article and marvel at how badly the journalist got the story wrong. Then we go to the next article and read it as if it is the truth. Of course, that article is just as wrong as the previous one, the only difference is we don’t have our own anchor from which to make sense of it. If I’m reading about the latest goings on in some exotic location on the other side of the planet, I won’t know whether the paper is skewing the information. This is less true in the age of the internet where the information for us to make our own judgement is usually out there waiting to be found. But most of the time we are reading the news precisely because we don’t want to spend the time and energy to verify the facts. We are outsourcing our understanding to others.

Anchoring bias is also a favourite tactic of politicians whose job involves framing issues in their favour. A classic example of this was seen in my home town this year due to the ‘second wave’ corona outbreak in Melbourne. To give overseas readers a lightning overview of what happened, the corona numbers went down all across Australia once the international borders were closed in March. Almost every state got to almost 0 ‘cases’. Then, the numbers started to rise in Melbourne and they shot up to about 700 a day before the government implemented one of the longest and hardest lockdowns of anywhere on the planet which ended up lasting four months before numbers got back to around 0. This was obviously a huge political problem for the government of Victoria . Every other state in the country had got the numbers under control, but not us. There was a lot of political pressure put on the state Premier in particular for some mistakes made in hotel quarantine programs.

Therefore, our Premier had a strong vested interest in making the actions of his government look as good as possible. One of the ways he did this was the use of anchoring bias. Rather than compare the numbers in Victoria to other states in Australia, the Premier kept comparing them to numbers in Europe. Against the former numbers, his government looked incompetent, against the latter, it looked good. One specific example of this was the use of France as the anchor. Apparently France had a daily case rate of about 700 back around the same time that Melbourne did (July-August). By October, our Premier pointed out, France was now at 20,000 ‘cases’ a day while Melbourne was back to single digits. Therefore, he must have done a good job. Compared to France, Melbourne looked like a huge success.

As I mentioned above, the best way to defend yourself from anchoring bias is to have your own anchor or anchors, preferably ones that are based in reality. The reality in this case was that France and Melbourne were completely invalid comparisons. In France in July, people were free to do as they pleased, go on holiday and enjoy the summer months. In Melbourne, people were forced to stay at home with curfews and limited hours outside. Nobody was allowed to travel even outside the city boundaries, let alone to another state or country. France was not even trying to control its corona numbers while Melbourne was pursuing an elimination strategy. So, the Premier’s anchor was completely irrelevant. He was comparing apples to oranges. That didn’t stop it from working, however. Many people parroted the Premier’s claim and believed that Melbourne had done something special. They pointed to France as evidence for their belief.

That’s how anchoring bias works. To be on guard against it, we must be very wary about the first pieces of information we are exposed to on a subject. We should definitely be wary about comparisons that somebody else is inviting us to make. We should look for multiple sources of information from multiple actors. And we should use that unfashionable skill called thinking so that we have our own anchor against which to weigh information.

Reader Exercise

The corona event is a case of anchoring bias on steroids but in a specific and unusual way: there was no anchor!

Most members of the public had never given a single thought in their lives to viral disease and had probably never looked at a single statistic related to respiratory viral outbreaks. All of a sudden they were bombarded with graphs and statistics but completely failed to put those statistics into perspective. The media and the politicians failed to give the public any useful anchors. Whether that was done on purpose or because journalists and politicians also had no proper anchor is anybody’s guess. (Our usual choice between incompetence and malice).

Have a look at the following graph which is an attempt to put the corona event into a larger context. The author has inserted their own anchors to guide your understanding and has used Sweden as the overall anchor because Sweden was one of the only countries not to implement masks and lockdowns and therefore the data cannot be explained away by saying “yes, but if they didn’t lockdown the numbers would have been much higher.”

Consider what anchor this graph is using and how it changes your perspective on the statistics that are shown in the media. Do you agree with the use of Sweden as the comparison point? Do you think this framing of the issue is valid?

It is always good to have multiple anchors so that you can put any complex event into proper context. Try to come up with several other anchors about the corona event that would help put it in perspective. This can include the other statistics we are shown in the media as well as non-numerical and even non-scientific points of view.


This series of posts will be a lot more fun if reader can contribute. Feel free to post with any interesting stories of anchoring either from your own experience or something in the media.

All posts in this series:

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 –

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?


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:

Propaganda School: Introduction

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: