Regular readers know and occasional readers will find that I use this term a lot.   So perhaps we ought to be clear on what I mean by it and why I think it is an important focus of attention.

A quick bit of history.  The term “propaganda” gained its modern derogatory connotation particularly as a consequence of Germany and Russia’s organized control of media and communication techniques during and after WW2.  Previously, the term had been used, with far less negative connotation, mainly in the sphere of Public Relations and marketing as a synonym for those activities.  Marketing wunderkind, Edward Bernays, wrote a book on his profession in 1923 which was titled “Propaganda”.  But a passage from that book points in a direction which would soon become relevant to peoples’ concerns regarding the mis-uses of the sort of techniques Bernays and others were developing:

In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons – a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million – who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses…who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.  (p. 9-10)

Had Bernays and other early PR people not been successful, this wouldn’t seem so worrisome.  But they were.  Bernay’s could take on the challenge of increasing cigarette sales by targeting women (who felt a social inhibition against smoking in public) and significantly increase the number of women who changed their behavior – and their thinking.  Further, as his passage suggests, he managed this through manipulating the existing media of the time and, importantly, through manipulating people’s ideas and emotions through techniques which, in part, slid in beneath the level of consciousness (Bernays was Freud’s nephew).   Of course, charismatic individuals and populist leaders of any stripe have often intuitively understood some of these things and have manipulated groups – for good or ill – likely for much of human history.  But the modern commercial world facilitated the theorizing/testing of such techniques as an area of study and technical development. 

If such techniques were applicable only to the marketing of goods and services (“blondes have more fun” to sell hair dye) our concerns would likely be minimal.  But the totalitarian regimes of the last century instructed us as to how destructive propaganda can be to the general good when it is applied in the political sphere.  Bernays later found himself in an uncomfortable position when it was reported that Goebbels’ library contained Bernays book.

Still, propaganda can be put to good uses.  It can be used to inform and to encourage people to do positive things in their communities even if those people aren’t fully cognizant of how or why they’ve just become encouraged.  And then there’s the question of what constitutes “good”.  For an acutely debated modern example…is the good represented by a fairly unfettered free market or a more restricted one?   Such questions aren’t simple and are debatable.   

Now, one could say, quite sensibly, that liberals and conservatives both engage in propaganda.  But to use the term to describe what one does but not the other would make the term essentially meaningless.  That sort of shallow and partisan framing is what we have to avoid.  The ‘who’ is irrelevant.  The ‘how’ is what is important here.  

We can’t ignore the realities of what did take place in Germany and Russia (and elsewhere, but we’ll use those two as exemplars for now).  So what can we identify in those cases that will help us isolate when our own communities and our own discourse stands in jeopardy of such mis-use, with all the negative consequences that can follow?  How do we, in short, spot the ‘bad guys’?  There are two pretty dependable indicators.

First, the propaganda that marked those regimes was littered with falsehoods.  So. to the degree that political figures (or others working in support of political figures/parties) lie, or tell half-truths, or distort the facts, or hide the facts…they get a check in the ‘bad guy’ box.  They don’t want you to be aware of the truth of things.  They wish you to be stupider.  That’s a necessary consequence.  (That’s also why totalitarian types tend to attack education, particularly universities).  

Second, they tend to promote hatred or ill-feeling towards some internal or external target (or both).  And the means they use to do this will be appeals to emotions rather than to rational considerations and processes.  If you aren’t afraid, you almost certainly aren’t being successfully propagandized.  Their reasoning will be sloppy and their language laden with negative suggestions and personal attacks.  Likening people or groups to animals is common.  They won’t provide evidence or that evidence will be of a very poor quality.  Their rhetoric will be notable in the common use of logical fallacies (ad hominem attacks, straw men, etc).   

That’s quite brief, but I think it catches the most useful means for each of us to defend ourselves from the types of people and interests which do the community little good and can do it much harm. 


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