Psychotechnologies of Influence

I think that most people are unaware of the extent to which their beliefs and their daily choices are shaped by advertising and public relations, and the deceptive and manipulative  psychotechnologies they frequently employ. We’re so inundated every day by symbols and messages crafted by professional persuaders that their influence is largely invisible to most people. We’re all targets of corporate social engineers, and there wouldn’t be so many advertisements if they weren’t effective.

The “Father of Public Relations,” Edward Bernays, was a government propagandist during World War I. After the war, realizing that propaganda had peacetime applications, he re-named it public relations, and wrote the rulebooks for a new profession: the public relations counsel (in the sense of “legal counsel”). Bernays was a nephew and confidante of Sigmund Freud, whose teachings about subconscious influence were combined with the techniques of propaganda in such books as Crystalizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928).

Bernays wrote about “the possibilities of regimenting the public mind” and “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” The practitioners of this new science of influence and persuasion, he wrote, “constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” Over the last century the propaganda industry (advertising, public relations and political consultancy) has become an indispensable part of both commerce and politics. You may never have heard of Edward Bernays, but he was one of LIFE magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of the Twentieth Century.”

Persuasive messages and campaigns that rely on logic and facts aren’t propaganda. Propaganda aims at the gut, not the brain, using deceptive and manipulative techniques to influence and persuade. The techniques of propaganda aren’t the only weapons in the arsenal of the propaganda industry. Rhetorical devices, symbol manipulation, heuristics, and psychological learning theory – specifically classical (Pavlovian) conditioning and operant conditioning – are among the psychotechnologies  of influence and persuasion utilized by propagandists. I’ll write about some of these tricks of the trade in Part 2, but I’ll first  name and describe the classic techniques of propaganda. Most of these techniques were identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, a public interest group in the thirties whos stated goal was to “teach people how to think (independently), not what to think.”

Probably the most common propaganda technique is assertion: stating an opinion as if it were a fact. Assertions range from outright lies to cleverly-worded messages with no objective factual basis. If you qualify a stated belief with “I think,” “it seems to me,” or “in my opinion,” it’s not propaganda. President Reagan’s famous  statement that “government is the problem” is a classic example of assertion. Another of the most frequently used propaganda techniques is ad nauseam – the endless repetition of assertions, slogans, or advertising jingles. A phrase attributed to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, is that “a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth.”

Transfer is a term for creating an association, positive or negative, between two unrelated things. (From a psychological point of view, transfer involves classical conditioning.) Using an American flag as a backdrop for a political message is an example of positive transfer. A background visual of burning stacks of money is an example of negative transfer. Bandwagon suggests that we should be on the winning side and avoid being left behind with the losers: “Everybody knows that’s the truth” or “for those who think young.”

Other propaganda deceptions include lies of omission, card-stacking, and distortion, where facts are cherry-picked to promote the message, and any contrary facts are omitted or misrepresented; or involving an insidious mixture of facts and outright lies; or half-truths, where facts are blended with assertions. Glittering generalities like “national honor” and “best country in the world” are subjective and have no objective basis for definition. Name-calling attempts to reduce a person to a label. With ad hominem, the messenger is attacked, to distract from the message, i.e. “You can’t trust anything he says.” Testimonial and appeal to authority attempt to link  the message with an admired person or authority, whether Abraham Lincoln  or “nine-out-of-ten dentists.” Celebrity endorsements  also fall into this category.

Simplification and pinpointing the enemy offer simple explanations for complex issues and propose a culprit for an identified problem, as in Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews. Appeal to fear and stereotyping also belong to this cluster of techniques – favored by demagogues and xenophobes – and are self-explanatory. The black & white fallacy is also related: if you’re not with us, you’re against us. There’s no middle ground.

The result of a successful propaganda campaign  is ignorance or deception on a mass scale. If this post has stimulated your curiosity  about psychotechnologies and corporate social engineering, I’ve written a book about it: Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything – available in paperback online, or as an e-book.

Unrigging the System

This will be my first post on a political topic, because of its importance. Like many other citizens – Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents – I believe that the political system is rigged, and is no longer “of, by and for the people.” Two weeks ago my wife Maria and I attended the second annual Unrig Summit, in Nashville. Last year we attended the first Unrig Summit, in New Orleans. The movement seems to be gaining momentum, and there have been legislative victories in several states since the first summit. The movement’s primary goals are to get Big Money and the corruption it enables out of politics, and to hold elections that are free and fair. (One presenter said that the country suffers from “electile dysfunction.”) Regardless of political affiliation, the attendees were united in their conviction that allegiance to country supersedes allegiance to political party. All of us who believe in democracy need to unite, to unrig the System.

In successive rulings, the Supreme Court has decided that (1) corporations should have the basic rights granted to actual persons under the Constitution, that (2) money, in the form of political contributions, is a kind of free speech, and that (3) there should be no limit to the amount of “free speech”  rich donors could contribute to political campaigns. The latter ruling is known as Citizens United, and can only be overturned by a constitutional amendment.

To me, the reasons for Citizens United are absurd, because it makes “free speech” quantifiable – a concept that had never occurred to me before. By law, rich people now have more free speech than the rest of us. This isn’t what our Founding Fathers intended in establishing the right of free speech. There are several national organizations dedicated to overturning Citizens United, including Stamp Stampede. I stamp all of my paper money with the message “Corporations aren’t people. Amend the Constitution.” Each bill I stamp will likely pass through dozens of hands, promoting the message that corporate personhood is a legal fiction that should be abolished. Corporations can’t serve time in jails and prisons, let alone be executed, if they break the law. Why should they have all of the constitutional rights that citizens enjoy? Why do giant corporations need to be protected from the rest of us? It makes no sense.

Another continuing threat to our democracy  is gerrymandering – as well as other voter manipulation/suppression schemes. Both Democrats and Republicans have used gerrymandering to allow politicians to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. It’s necessary to  re-apportion voting districts every ten years, after the census, as populations change in many districts. The question is, who decides how districts are re-apportioned? Does the dominant party in each state get to re-draw the lines, in ways that benefit their candidates? Or do the people in each state get to decide, via bi-partisan citizen re-districting commissions?

True democracy depends on free and fair elections, and anyone who seeks to skew elections to benefit their party either doesn’t understand or doesn’t trust the democratic process. My fears that we’re already an oligarchy (ruled by an elite, as in Russia), rather than a true democracy, were stoked by the passage of Citizens United. We haven’t been a true democracy for very long. Women weren’t enfranchised nationally until 1920, and Jim Crow laws disenfranchised millions of African Americans until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Plutocracy is a form of oligarchy, and I believe that we’re already being ruled by the rich, and not by the electorate. The rich have an army of lawyers and lobbyists in Washington that far outnumbers our elected representatives.

Re-claiming (or establishing) true democracy in America isn’t a partisan issue. A solid core of citizens on both the Left and Right advocate unrigging a rigged System. So, how do we go about undoing decades of political corruption, financed by the rich? First, we have to overturn Citizens United, and to establish that corporations don’t have all the rights of actual people. Then we need to close the revolving door between serving as a legislator, and then becoming a high-paid lobbyist for special interest groups. These days, too many people enter  politics with the goal of enriching themselves. Private gain is antithetical to public service, and our national legislators need to stop depending on special interests and powerful individual donors to finance their re-elections, if our democracy is to survive.

All it takes for oligarchies to thrive is ignorance and/or indifference on the part of the electorate. Since the rich control the popular  media, the average citizen is influenced by “invisible” propaganda/PR campaigns that exist to promulgate ignorance on a mass scale. Orchestrated ignorance leads to public indifference, or to antipathy toward the targets of the propaganda campaigns. Back in 1920, Walter Lippman coined the term “manufactured consent” to describe how the electorate can be manipulated into political impotence.

We the people can establish/re-claim true democracy if we have the information and the will. We’re facing a daunting opposition from the plutocrats  who are currently calling the shots, but I believe that it’s not too late to unrig  the System. Check out the Unrig Summit website if you want to find out more about the movement. (Jennifer Lawrence moderates one of the panels.) You can watch all of the plenary sessions in their entirety, get inspired, and get an idea of what you can do to help restore democracy in the United States.  I especially recommend the Saturday morning plenary session, which starts with a stirring oration, and introduces some of the movers and shakers in the movement, who are getting things done in their home states.

 

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.