Techniques of Propaganda
Whenever there’s breaking news, the coverage can become a topic in its own right. Mainstream and fringe media alike get labeled as spreading “propaganda.” Meriam-Webster defines propaganda as:
“the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.”
In the political sphere, we can think of propaganda as having three levels. From mild to extreme, there’s marketing, spin, and what I think of as true propaganda – the deliberate use of falsehoods to raise fears and deceive.
Note that propaganda can often take on the guise of logical fallacies, which are tricks we can use in everyday conversation without realizing it.
Let’s take a look at these three levels and then discuss some improved rationality in rejecting propaganda initiatives.
The website advergize.com lists seven principal propaganda techniques used in marketing:
Bandwagon Propaganda — “Everyone else is doing it, so you should too”
Card Stacking Propaganda — Highlighting good information and leaving out bad
Plain Folks Propaganda — The product (or politician) is for people just like you
Testimonial Propaganda — If a celebrity likes it, then you should too
Glittering Generalities Propaganda — “Best,” “great,” “new and improved”
Name Calling Propaganda — “Socialist,” “stupid,” or “patriot,” “war hero”
Transfer Propaganda — Invoking something revered like Jesus or the U.S. (Can also be negative, like comparing someone to Hitler or Satan)
These are mild forms of influence, but they work. The politician running for office is standing next to an American flag for a reason, just like they are having a burger in a small-town diner or wearing a miner's hat.
The term “spin doctor” was first coined by the New York Times in 1984. This was when news outlets first started interviewing partisans on each side of a political debate in “spin rooms.” The concept of these news outlets is allowing viewers to reach a decision about a candidate or issue by hearing the partisan spin of all sides. This isn’t unlike a courtroom proceeding with a prosecution and defense each arguing their point of view.
Yet spin is very different from a courtroom: the spinners have no requirement to tell the truth. They can bend their statements or be so selective in their information that the audience is not properly informed.
Spin uses many similar techniques to common marketing and advertising methods, but with highly selective and, therefore, misleading information.
It is much more heavily biased than traditional marketing and advertising.
Here’s a unique example. A woman in California sent then-Senator Harry Reid information about a common ancestor named Remus Reid, who served time in prison and was later hanged for horse stealing and train robbery. Senator Reid sent back this biography of his great-great-uncle:
Remus Reid was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to government service, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.
Most spin is not as whimsical and requires great care in deciphering.
The techniques of full-on propaganda go beyond spin by increasing the levels of deception and vitriol. Wikipedia has a listing of over fifty propaganda techniques. Some of these, with examples, are:
Appeal to prejudice — “Immigrants are rapists and murderers”
Demonizing the enemy — “Liberals are communists in disguise”
False accusations — “People are saying he fathered a child with a prostitute”
Half-truth — “It gets cold every winter, so climate change is fake news”
Name-calling — “Lying Ted,” “Crooked Hillary”
Non sequitur — “We have a strong economy, so we must recycle our trash”
Whataboutism — “Who cares if Putin is a killer since we’re not so innocent ourselves”
Beyond these methods, I’ve also observed several of my own.
Counterbalancing. If one side is receiving attention for possible bad behavior, then that side must find a related set of accusations for the other side. The Mueller investigation has brought indictments against Trump associates, but there are counterbalancing albeit weaker allegations that a warrant for surveillance was improperly issued.
Distort, then criticize. This technique takes a position of your opponent, changes it into something else, and then rails against the new thing that is not the opponent’s actual position. One example is the accusation that “The Democrats want open borders.” which is untrue by all accounts. The distortion will potentially resonate with some voters more than the actual situation.
Fear. Fear goes hand in hand with other propaganda techniques. The propagandist attempts to foster an “us versus them” environment by tapping into existing fears and expanding on them, often using soaring rhetoric. This approach can be particularly effective toward political conservatives, since studies have shown that conservatives by nature are more attuned to fears than liberals. Effective use of fear is often coupled with how to assuage that fear, namely by aligning with the propagandist who may claim that “only I can fix it.”
Be first. Human psychology indicates that the first piece of information that we hear tends to have a high influence, despite later information that might modify or correct it; this is known as “anchoring bias.” So the first media report or news article tends to carry more weight than what comes next. Additionally, the first accusation by a candidate about their opponent tends to be stronger than the opponent’s reply. Especially if you are a liar, then being first in accusing your opponent of lying can be effective. The opponent’s reply of “he or she does it, too” will be seen as weaker than the initial attack.
The most significant propaganda techniques have been saved for last. They are the Big Lie and Repetition.
The Big Lie. The Big Lie is based on the idea that something that appears outlandish must be correct because the liar would not have the audacity to say something so extreme unless it was true. An early writer described the effectiveness of the Big Lie in influencing the general population this way:
It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and continue to think that there may be some other explanation.
-Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf (From RationalWiki)
Repetition. Repetition can be closely associated with the Big Lie. If the same information is heard many times, then the public at large will tend to accept it as true. When our current President uses the term “witch hunt,” it tends to confirm in some people’s mind that there is, in fact, a witch hunt. To many, the criminal indictments and publicly-known evidence do not overcome the repetition.
Going back in time, the repeated statement by Nazis that Jews were responsible for all the problems in Germany after World War I grew in force the more it was repeated. The technique was described in Hitler’s Mein Kampf as follows:
[T]he most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.
Will the Bad Actors Win?
Notice that the descriptions of the Big Lie and Repetition reference Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. The intent is to reinforce that propaganda is harmful and undesirable, and in truth, I’m using the technique of negative transfer to do this! For many, the evils of full, deceptive propaganda will be obvious, but the political climate today in many circles has become “the ends justify the means.”
Lying, cheating, and other immoral conduct would have sunk political candidates in the past. Now, these actions appear to be accepted under the false idea that everybody does it. And America’s moral fabric continues to slip downward, in part assisted by the very people who have been concerned about exactly that.
What’s worse, there is a contingent of voters who have been infected by propaganda and are fine with this. They are consumed by dislike for the other side. We see evidence of this in the classic Trump soundbite
"I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."
This is an exaggeration but has an element of truth – some will support him regardless of the level of controversy.
On the other side, I see some of my liberal friends not caring to actually evaluate the issues, but merely content to align their support based on gut reactions of “Democrats good, Republicans bad.” Both sides of this polarization appear to prefer intense political warfare, with its associated harm to our country, more than they want actual progress, which is made by balancing competing concerns.
The solution to this may lie in the political middle, as well as those who are able to climb back from a propaganda infection. I suggest a renewed emphasis on honesty and fair play. If dishonesty is punished – in the voting booth and otherwise – and if honesty and straight talk are rewarded, politicians, pundits, and the media will react.
America could benefit from a renewed commitment toward honesty and a straightforward presentation of the issues because there is merit to many positions of both traditional Democrats and traditional Republicans.
If we once again hold our politicians to a high moral standard, then we would place a big negative on the scorecard of the candidate and associates who engage in shady behavior. We would place a big plus on the scorecard of the candidate who maintains honor and decency.
For the media, we would insist on a straight presentation of the news, turning off the TV when slanted opinion is disguised as news.
There is one critical caveat, however.
News outlets must be as clear as possible when a statement by a politician or pundit is obviously false or based on deception. That is a way that we voters can properly adjust our scorecard.
If politicians and others have to depart from facts and sound reasoning into propaganda to convince people of their point of view, then that point of view must be deficient. Much of politics involves the emotional reaction of voters, but common sense and evaluation of whether a viewpoint appears correct should not be abandoned.
PropagandaCritic.com provides additional information about how to spot propaganda and overcome its influence.
Regardless of whether you believe in conservative or liberal principals, a responsible citizen has an obligation to seek legitimate and correct information. As Americans, we need to stand for rewarding those who are honest with us.
We must strongly discourage – through our voices, our media viewership and our votes – those who would deceive.