Propaganda is management of the masses. Yet the term generally has a negative connotation, associated with regimes. A common misconception rests on the assumption that propaganda is only labeled as such when coming from an ominous source. When a seemingly benevolent government, corporation, or entity uses it, it loses its negative connotation, taking on a new name, regardless of the identical methods employed. Propaganda is a series of techniques, methods, and arguments used to move people to action, and most importantly, it functions the same across the board.
Jacques Ellul’s book, Propaganda (and consequently the inspiration and catalyst for this post), argues that most people are easy prey for propaganda because of their firm but entirely flawed conviction that it is composed only of lies, and that, conversely what is true cannot be propaganda. Truth, however, is the foundation of propaganda that operates within many different types of half truths, limited truths, or truths out of context. With truth as the underlying factor it lends credibility to otherwise unfounded claims. Once a truth is established and accepted, the inventions associated with propaganda are merely embellishments stacked upon it – the original idea already exists so the embellishments are conceivable, and such propaganda is likely to influence.
Another basic misconception that makes people susceptible to propaganda is the idea that it functions only as a means to change opinion; yes this is a goal, but a limited one. Much more importantly it aims to intensify existing trends. In his “Four Idols” Bacon posits that there is a tendency for people to believe what they want to believe (among several other ideas which will be scattered throughout this post), and taken in conjunction with Ellul’s theory on propaganda, when such information is provided people act on it, buy into it, follow along, ultimately allowing the thread of preexisting information to deftly mutate into newly formed beliefs. Before delving too deeply into the consequences of such mentality and methodology of how it is created within people, I will go on a tangent that will help elucidate the fundamental susceptibility to mass media. And yes, propaganda works via mass media, even when not used for commercial purposes.
I digress to propose that propaganda cannot work without education. This is a complete reversal of the widespread impression that “education is the best prophylactic against propaganda.” It is not. In fact, education may be considered a prerequisite for propaganda, or pre-propaganda. Such ideas are intrinsically tied with the a similar error in logic that directly relates education with intelligence, or better stated places education as the false cause of intelligence. Education expands intelligence, feeds off of it, and is expanded by it, but one can simply exist without the other. Education in and of itself simply conditions the mind to behave in certain ways, most of which are conducive to indoctrination.
Formal education is founded in the accumulation and distribution of vast amounts of information which the educated mind is trained to organize into categories of “facts.” Thus those formally educated (independent of their intelligence levels) are the most susceptible to propaganda. While intelligence, and power of discernment, are prophylactics against propaganda, education by itself is predisposition to it.
Those lacking both of these traits (formal education and intelligence), do not require propaganda, which is a complex web of information not reliant upon any one method of dissemination; their beliefs are fragile at best and a simple message will suffice. And it is precisely those educated, but not necessarily discerning individuals that propaganda is aimed towards for several reasons. They absorb the largest amount of secondhand, unverifiable information on a regular basis, they feel compelled to have an opinion on every important issue of their time, and thus easily succumb to opinion offered to them by propaganda on all such indigestible pieces of information, and lastly, they consider themselves capable of judging evidence for themselves. Such people literally need propaganda, making it all the easier to be managed by it. Keeping in mind that propaganda at its most basic level is believable exaggeration, and that people will believe what they want, it is not difficult to perceive how susceptibility to propaganda develops and what comes of it.
Propaganda is a psychological instrument that not only has a very specific purpose, but when used correctly relies on a series of precise maneuvers. The process of propaganda is fascinating due to its meticulous methodology and intricate innerworkings. The diffusion of information is only a small part of this process, and tracing it through its many steps, including the preparatory ones, paints a rather gripping picture of its complexity and its power.
Propaganda’s power to provoke action is directly contradictory to the belief that it cannot create anything within people. Psychological manipulations do not markedly alter a person’s firmly established opinion. A reflex, or urge towards action cannot be created out of nothing as if the individual were an empty ground on which anything could be built. Also, even when the urge is somehow created it cannot be used to make an individual act in just any direction; the individual cannot be manipulated as if he were an object. In other words, the propagandist cannot go against what is in an individual, and must first recognize who he is functioning on – sentiments, stereotypes, current tendencies, opinions, etc. Essentially the propagandist must understand the social constructs and symbols that express different attitudes among the population he is reaching. People do not exist outside of culture and society, so the whole must be penetrated to reach each individual.
Further, propaganda is not a cookie cutter factory of rhetorical strategies to haphazardly plug into any situation. It varies by circumstance. Consequently it must accordingly adjust as circumstances change. Hence the earlier assertion that it is often primarily geared towards those formally educated and thus capable of handling an influx of changing information, categorizing it along the way. When a propagandist uses popular beliefs to attack his target audience, the propaganda becomes more potent. This is why war specifically usually leads to an onslaught of propaganda. In war, “neutral” exists only in theory. Everyone picks a side, and this divides people who are more than willing to believe the worst of their enemies; when propaganda facilitates this, it is easily, and often unquestionably, accepted. War is one example. Propaganda exists everywhere.
The fear of isolation, or alienation, is paramount for propaganda, as it is dependent upon the individual’s need to integrate into mass society. Broadcasts via different mediums offering a chance for unity and integration hand the individual an opportunity for personal development and participation in important events; consider a common thread of mass appeal to most situations: a sense of belonging. Propaganda feeds off of this, and bolsters it by creating a sense of belonging through a separation between “us” and “them.” The self emerges as an identity with those like minded, and the individual who feels he must make sense of the situation and take a stance will quickly do so. As such people unite their opinions are validated by the others in the group who share the same ideas. In this sense, once propaganda is initiated, it self perpetuates.
So, when choosing a side (and it must be noted that people do not consciously choose sides, but are automatically segregated once they become part of the masses), the separation of self and other becomes of utmost importance. The values and principles that propaganda instills emerge as an extension of the self, and consequently forces everyone else into the, albeit ambiguous, role of the other. Once this is done, the propagandist is no longer concerned with making evident his own opinions as it can be inferred that his target audience already shares in his ideology. Instead propaganda must obfuscate itself in such a way as to make its own desires appear to be those of the public.
In order for propaganda to successfully move people to action it must create pseudo-needs, offering a specific course of action that will lead to pseudo-satisfaction. So once the need is established and the people feel that fulfilling this need will provide some sort of relief, the logistics of arriving to this need become flexible – they will do whatever it takes. It is within this gap, between the need and the fulfillment of the need, where propaganda can easily step in to alter a course, suggesting action that will aid in the achievement of whatever goal, or need the people have. Propaganda is now working with and for the masses since blatant contradiction is the surest way towards failure. If a plan for action arose out of nothing, or if it was offered against popular belief, people would guard against it, and become more firmly founded in their beliefs, feeling threatened by an outside force. Propaganda works from within.
A second and equally intrinsic part of a propagandist’s agenda, alongside creating faux needs and satisfactions, is to simultaneously address the individual and the masses. If propaganda is aimed only to reach the individual, besides the fact that such an endeavor of wining over one person at a time would take entirely too long, it would also be ineffective due to the isolated nature of each person, resistant to outside pressures. However, propaganda aimed at the masses would likewise lack effectiveness, deprived of the immediacy and intimacy of connecting with the individual. Therefore propaganda must reach individuals enclosed in the mass. Hence the predatory nature of playing up the fear of isolation in order to ameliorate it through a false sense of belonging. This is generally how mob mentality arises, and once it is created, the need for evidence or rationale for actions is severely diminished. Propaganda works best when fewer questions are asked.
As stated earlier, propaganda works across multiple mediums simultaneously to produce an effect of complete submersion. Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium is the Massage offers a glimpse into the various forms available and the ways in which they may be used to deliver a message encased within socially significant symbols. However, since 1966 when the work was originally published, methods of communication and information exchange have been updated. Nevertheless Mcluhan in this work, among others, discusses mediums such as the newspaper and radio, along with their tie-ins to journalism.
Radio, for decades was a far reaching phenomenon, and it arguably still functions in that capacity, even if to a lesser extent. The rules of evidence, however, as normally applied to journalism, are not wholly applicable to journalistic radio broadcasts. While there are dozens of ways of reaching people for purposes of propaganda, as far as technological means are concerned, radio has been around the longest. Written propaganda I will not touch upon here, as that would require several more blog posts – in short, it has been around as long as writing.
Yet for the purposes of propaganda, radio was a viable and successful means throughout the early 20th century, providing entertainment in combination with what may be regarded as news, or useful information. However the scrutiny of evidence found in print journalism (and I am not referring to certain modern newspapers that adhere to no such rules), was often overlooked when it came to radio. The rules of admission in regards to evidence were also obscured by the fact that radio never alleged to be a reliable source to begin with. There was a man on the radio, talking, and because he was on the radio he was imbued with a certain sense of credibility. It is unlikely that anyone at the time outright asked him his reasons for presenting certain pieces of information while discarding others. If this sounds familiar, it is due to the prevalence of this method of dissemination in modern society, where news forums promote their own agendas under the guise of news, facts, and under the premise of informing the public. The sole difference now is the number of sources in circulation. Total indoctrination through multiple mediums and via numerous channels is no longer a readily feasible task as too many people obtain their information from innumerable, and often unaccounted for sources.
Unlike most reputable journalists, who take what they do seriously, and believe they function like lawyers, asserting they are merely presenting evidence to be evaluated by the public, radio journalists present their own evaluation in a highly persuasive manner. The best description of this approach would be regarded as opinion. However, this does not mean this opinion is always their own. Just like the theorized and idealized version of journalists ferreting out the truth is often corrupted in real life, so too does the radio journalist report to someone, work for someone, and propels someone’s agenda (and I acknowledge that for the purposes of this argument I am taking a most cynical stance). Above all, unlike journalism, radio broadcasts are ephemeral. Rarely does anyone scrutinize them after hearing them once, giving leeway to the radio journalist to become his own editor, fact finder, and fact checker. Moreover, the publisher of the story, the radio station, also lacks direct supervision (the FCC is rather selective with where their close attention goes). Thus when an institution that large holds all the control over a report, the mutuality of any checks and balances extant within the field of journalism, even if only in theory, are disrupted, and facts and evidence can be distorted, producing propaganda in the largest sense.
Uses and types of propaganda are countless, and while I have briefly discussed several goals and techniques typically employed, this too is a limited exploration. I will end stating that propaganda does not garner significant attention in theory and scholarship because the methods generally used to measure propaganda are inadequate. One technique frequently used by researchers attempts to determine whether some propaganda instrument could change the opinions or prejudices of a group. Such results mean nothing because the process is flawed. This type of propaganda employs only modest means and is of short duration. A prejudice cannot be eradicated or created after only a few days or weeks of exposure to propaganda comprised of some pamphlets or films. Moreover, these experiments occur in a vacuum. The normal conditions under which propaganda takes place are in no way reproduced. There is no crowd effect, no psychological tension, and no interactions of individuals exciting each other. These laboratory conditions are the very opposite of propaganda. There is no participation in a general action, or tie to any organization. There is no call for action or any chance of engaging in any. The most efficient means of measuring effectiveness of propaganda along with the full spectrum of what it can achieve, therefore, relies upon the case study. It demonstrates the propagandist’s methodology while simultaneously presenting the outcome. Unfortunately the case study can only really be studied historically, by which point it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint which uses of propaganda were the most successful, versus those that were ineffectual.
Propaganda is management of the masses, and not relegated to any single medium, method, or establishment. It can be innocuous or perilous, but the real danger lies in its stealth and ability to more often than not go undetected. Perhaps, instead of trying to figure out which modes of propaganda work best we should just train ourselves to identify it while it is happening and proceed from there.