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.

 

Mental pollution, Part 1

This post is one of my occasional departures from my usual subject matter. Instead of writing about human growth and psychotherapy, I’ll be sharing some thoughts and information about the polluting of our mental environment. My second published book (my  first was a Peace Corps memoir) is Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything (iUniverse, 2015). I received the iUniverse “Editor’s Choice” designation, and Kirkus Reviews wrote: “An illumination and critique of a commercial culture that distorts reality for gain…. In this brief but smoldering tract, a psychologist deconstructs contemporary advertising…. (a) competently written, highly readable primer on how the culture came to this awful point.”

I think that most Americans, asked if their behavior was influenced by propaganda, would deny it. If you think you aren’t influenced by it, you are either adept at recognizing propaganda techniques and other psychotechnologies of influence when you see them, or chances are you are influenced to some degree without knowing it. The most effective propaganda is invisible to most people; that’s how it works. Whether or not something is propaganda isn’t a matter of opinion. Propaganda seeks to influence and persuade people in the guise of informing them. The intention to persuade doesn’t make something propaganda, if the means of persuasion are logic and facts. It’s the use of identifiable deceptive techniques that distinguishes propaganda from information. The propagandist’s art is to make you think you know something to be true or accurate, even if it’s not. Propaganda techniques are important tools – along with rhetorical devices, heuristics and behavior modification techniques – of the propaganda industries: advertising, public relations, and political consultancy. I’m not saying that all advertising and public relations campaigns use these tools, but they’re so pervasive in the popular media that they’re invisible to most of us.

A few years ago, I set out to discover the relationship between public relations and propaganda, only to find that they’re practically identical. The “father of public relations” was a man named Edward Bernays. Although he was one of LIFE magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of the Twentieth Century,” his name isn’t well known outside of the propaganda industries. A government propagandist who worked to persuade the public that the U.S should fight in World War I, after the war he reasoned that propaganda would also successfully influence mass behavior in peacetime. But because propaganda  had gotten a negative reputation, for his purposes he re-named it public relations, and founded a new profession: the public relations counsel (as in legal counsel). In his 1928 book Propaganda he wrote about an “invisible government” of social engineers, which he called “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.” When I discovered Edward Bernays, I knew I had a book.

It’s been estimated that the average American will be exposed to over seven million commercial messages over the course of her lifetime. Who is immune to this daily barrage of persuasive messages, crafted by experts in the molding of mass behavior? Mass persuasion has become an applied social science, with its research, polling and focus group activities. Advertising, public relations and political consultancy wouldn’t be multi-billion-dollar industries if they couldn’t deliver results. Perceptions are often more important than facts in media campaigns designed to persuade consumers and voters.

Effective advertising works, whether you’re selling vitamins or cigarettes. A major reason obesity has become a major public health problem in America is that we’re constantly bombarded with ads for unhealthy food. Children are especially susceptible to this form of persuasion. Public relations firms refer to massive stinking pits of excrement on hog farms as “lagoons” and there’s such a thing, we’re told, as “clean coal.” Attack ads and slogans have largely replaced issue ads in political campaigns, because they’re effective in influencing  voters. I believe that we’ve become a Propaganda Society, and that our democracy can’t survive on a steady diet of propaganda. The result of a successful propaganda campaign is orchestrated ignorance on a mass scale. As I suggest in my book’s subtitle, advertising and public relations have changed everything: diet, medicine, law, education, sports, popular culture – you name it!

The antidote to the infotoxins in our mental environment is education. I’ll present some of the propaganda techniques and other psychotechnologies of influence in a future post. They need to be taught in public school, to immunize young people from the social engineering of the corporate state. If you want to learn more about our Propaganda Society and what we can do about it, check out Ad Nauseam, available online in print and e-book editions. You can read my basic thesis in the sample on my Amazon book page.

I’ll close with words from one of my favorite Bob Marley songs, “Redemption Song”: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.”