Information v. Propaganda

There’s a war going on in the media between information and propaganda. Propaganda has become so commonplace in our society that most people don’t seem to know it when they see it. The result of a successful propaganda campaign is  orchestrated ignorance on a mass scale.

Whether a message is information or propaganda isn’t just a matter of opinion or viewpoint. Information is based on facts, evidence and logic, and aims for the intellect. Propaganda relies on specific deceptive and manipulative techniques, and aims at the gut. Its purpose isn’t to inform, but to influence or persuade – often in the guise of information. Providers of information deal in facts and evidence; propagandists  care more about perception than facts. Here are some of the manipulative techniques used by propagandists:

Assertion is stating an opinion – or an outright lie – as if it were a proven fact. It’s not propaganda if you use a qualifier such as “in my opinion” or “I think/believe that ____.” Sometimes propagandists mix lies and opinions with half-truths, and even with selected facts that appear to support their message. Assertion is widely used in advertising, public relations, and political campaigns. Transfer is a term for creating an association. positive or negative, between two unrelated things. Using a giant American flag as a backdrop for a message is an example of positive transfer, whether you’re selling cars or candidates. A blown-up visual of hundred-dollar bills going up in flames, as a backdrop in a political attack ad, is an example of negative transfer. Transfer can be aural or visual, and is a staple of perception management.

Ad nauseam is the technique of incessant repetition. The phrase “A lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth” has been attributed to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Political slogans are designed to be endlessly repeated, and to lodge themselves in your mind.  Three related propaganda techniques are lies of omission, card stacking and distortion, where facts are cherry-picked to promote the message, and any contrary facts are omitted or misrepresented. Glittering generalities involves the use of emotionally-loaded phrases that have no objective basis for definition: freedom fighter, perfect union, best country in the world, master race.

Bandwagon suggests that we should follow the crowd, join the Winners, and avoid being left behind with the Losers. “Everyone knows” and “anyone with common sense knows _____” can be used to prop up just about any political opinion. Name calling attempts to arouse prejudice or antipathy, sometimes in the form of an unverified assertion (i.e. Joe Smith is a secret communist), or in the form of sarcasm and ridicule. A related propaganda technique is ad hominem, in which the messenger is attacked, in order to discredit or distract attention from the message. Propagandists are professional perception managers, and name calling and ad hominem are among their favorite tools for molding public perceptions.

Simplification and pinpointing the enemy offer simple explanations for complex issues. and target a culprit for an identified problem. Both techniques were used to devastating effect by the Nazis, to justify the mass murder of Jews. Slogans are usually simplifications. (BUILD A WALL! comes to mind.) A related technique is the black-and-white fallacy, which says that if you’re not for us, you’re against us – no middle ground or room for compromise. Appeal to fear/prejudice relies on stereotypes to fire-up emotions – notably fear and anger. Appeal to authority attempts to link its message with people viewed favorably by the target audience. That’s why you often see white lab coats on actors who endorse medical products and services, so they resemble doctors or scientists. It also explains why you hear that “nine out of ten dentists recommend _____.” Celebrity endorsements are a variant of appeal to authority. Even though we all know that they’re staged and scripted, we nevertheless tend to form a positive association between the product and the admired celebrity. If he uses that product, it must be pretty good.

In my book Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything, I write about how we became a Propaganda Society over the course of the twentieth century, and how propaganda is most effective when it’s invisible to the people most influenced by it. I also write about other “psychotechnologies of influence,” including rhetorical devices, heuristics and behavior modification. I’ll write about those in a future post.