Propaganda: A Political and Cultural Tradition

Propaganda (n): information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view; also: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.

Propaganda, misinformation and disinformation have been tools for influencing public opinion and action for centuries. Propaganda is traditionally associated with governments, but can come from private companies or non-governmental organizations. The line between propaganda and public relations has become thinner and many of the techniques are similar. Generally propaganda differs from persuasive argument in that it could use a variety of dishonest techniques to achieve a goal, including:

    • distorting or cherry-picking facts to support a narrative
    • unjustifiably vilifying a group for a political purpose
    • venerating a group or leader to gain unjustified support
    • using linguistic tricks to associate target concepts or people with positive or negative connotations
  • withholding relevant facts or context in order to support a narrative

In this article we will explore how propaganda is used and the tools that exist to help you strengthen your resistance to it in order to decide your own opinions and better understand those of others.

Propaganda posters from WWI show dehumanization and brutish depictions of the ‘enemy’ as decided by the propagandist. 

The Dangers of Propaganda

Historical propaganda may seem terribly insensitive and laughably obvious today, but the core methods of propaganda have not changed much since WWII, in fact they have become more sophisticated in how they deliver their messages, and the tools available to deliver them. In addition, the creation of online communities and click-refined, self-learning advertising can amplify ‘echo chambers’ by isolating people into mental worlds with information that supports an underlying narrative, as well as put them in contact with others who live in similar echo chambers.

Echo Chamber (n): a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system. Analogous to an acoustic echo chamber where sounds reverberate in a hollow enclosure. 

The dangers of having populations living in isolated groups that not only see the world entirely differently, but are manipulated by powerful interests in order to support agendas have been demonstrated by history many times. At best, many of these efforts get people to support agendas or make purchases that are not in the best interest of the propagandized group, and at worst dehumanize other groups to the point where violence, war, or inhumane treatment of the “other” group becomes acceptable or desirable – legitimizing everything from unequal treatment to murder and genocide. In order to avoid repeating the dark moments of history we need to understand how propaganda is used, and how to immunize ourselves from it.

Basic Methods of Propaganda

1. Supporting a narrative above all else: the most telling sign of propaganda is either using disinformation or cherry-picking information to support a narrative, while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Some events or statistics could actually be true, but if a conclusion is drawn without ever or nearly never presenting evidence that disproves a trend it’s probably being used to sell a narrative.

2. Dehumanization of an ‘other’ group: many political and economic problems have a complex variety of causes or factors. Simple answers are often easier to digest, especially if they are personified by a group that looks and/or acts dissimilar to the propaganda target group. These groups could be people with different racial or ethnic backgrounds, immigrants from one country to another, rich or poor, educated or uneducated people, etc. People within these groups are often presented as characatures, often cartoonish or simplified personas that are easy to dismiss or blame for a broader phenomenon. Often the propagandist will cherry-pick isolated incidents that are in line with the desired persona in order to support a desired narrative. If the facts don’t support what is being presented, or the trend is minor in nature, the group is probably being dehumanized to support a narrative and agenda.

Examples from current events could include:

  • Most immigrants are violent and causing a majority or disproportionate amount of crime (see FBI statistics to the contrary)
  • All rich people are immoral, lazy, and exploit the poor
  • All poor people are lazy, ignorant, and deserving of exploitation
  • All Republicans or Democrats are stupid sheep, and their leaders are all seeking to destroy our country

3. Veneration of “great leaders”: all people are flawed human beings with nuanced personalities that have positive and negative aspects. Deifying or over-idealizing leaders as super-human in some way legitimizes their power for better or worse. These often include stories of exceptionalism, pure intentions for seeking power (when actions may not support these assertions), dismissal of serious wrongdoings, or over-attributing positive trends to the leader.

4. Over-idealization of “regular people”: often propagandists will seek to pander to populations in order to make their policies appear beneficial to groups and gain support for their agendas, regardless if the agendas actually benefit anyone who could be in an income or cultural group defined as middle class, regular people, down home, working folks, main street, etc. This appeal to emotion and approval by association is widely used.

5. Stereotyping, name-calling: although this method may sound childish, it remains an effective method to build positive or negative associations with people, policies, or products. Modern examples include:

  • T-rump: meant as a derogatory term to associate Donald Trump with the word ‘ass’ and establish his character as a bafoon with liberal audiences
  • Crooked Hilary: used to cement a perception of corruption about the presidential candidate, and put her on the defensive, without having to explain the complexities of the accusation
  • All or most people of the millennial generation or younger are “Snowflakes”.
  • All or most people who voted for Donald Trump are Nazis or fascists. Anecdotal or selective information is used to support this stereotype.

6. Strategic word choice and word associations: words have meaning, and so naming an issue in a certain way can frame the concept in the reader’s mind in a desired way.

  • Obamacare – associating the legislation with a president unpopular with conservative voters, vs. The Affordable Care Act, which associated the legislation with making healthcare financially accessible for Americans
  • Undocumented workers vs illegal immgrants – focusing on the worker and production vs focusing on the method of entry in the U.S.
  • Barak Hussein Obama – associating the president’s name with islam and a convicted murderer Iraqi leader (Saddam Hussien) vs. Obama or Barak as a more friendly or personal name use
  • Publicly funded vs taxpayer dollars – the former focusing on community resources, and the latter conveying people’s money being taken

7. Message repetition: in order to get people to remember a message en masse, the message must be repeated regularly, even if it is dishonest. Advertisers know this phenomenon very well, and “retarget” messaging to ensure the target group has not only seen but remembers the information. This can be used to help people achieve positive ends like remembering phone numbers and value propositions of helpful products and services, along with how to survive and help others in an emergency situation. It can also be used to make people believe something that is not true, establish an emotional association with a target concept or person, or simply gain “mindshare” in the target population’s minds.

8. Isolation of the group through distrust of all other sources of information: often members of cults are propagandized to believe that only information provided by one or a small number of sources can be trusted (usually the one that supports the narrative). This works to not only limit the information the target receives and shape their opinions, it also builds unreasonable distrust of people with opposing views or sources of information, and limits the target’s ability to fact-check or hear dissenting debates that would help them reach a more reasonable conclusion.This method is often accompanied by a sense of superiority above all other groups, without significantly more research or information, just a belief that others are ignorant (and a desire to not be seen as the same by the ‘in group). Of course the crowd is not always right (and may itself be propagandized), but being able to talk to people from various crowds helps a person to form their own opinion, and one that is more likely to be closer to the truth.

9. Using logical fallacies: For example, a strawman is a deliberately weak argument or opponent presented to simplify the argument and make the protagonist appear superior. The most common form of this in news is the panel debate where a token opponent (liberal, conservative, supporter or detractor of target policy) is presented to represent the ideas of the opposing group, when the individual has been selected because of their extremist or obviously misinformed views. This is also used in news articles through anecdotal reports of individuals acting bizarrely or violently, when the vast majority of the group they are proported to represent does not.

How Can We Avoid Being Propagandized?

Reading through this list, one may see examples of these techniques used in benign or even positive ways, such as advertising and for raising awareness for charities and non-profits.  But it is important for people to understand if they are being manipulated or given dishonest information,whatever the end or outcome, versus someone just trying to convince the reader to see a point of view. By understanding these techniques, one can make the choice to be persuaded – to donate to a worthy cause, join a campaign for the betterment of people’s lives, or debate an issue with eyes wide open and using facts, logical arguments, and listening to relevant points on the opposing side, instead of arguing one’s point without considering additional information or questioning one’s assumptions.

Best practices for avoiding being propagandized include:

  • Ask yourself what the narrative is that is being pushed: how are news stories, memes, and information being used to support a narrative that may not be true?
  • Fact-check: seek the truth before believing or sharing a story that seems outrageous, and seek it from various sources or perspectives
  • Respectfully engage people with opposing viewpoints: don’t just seek to win the debate, seek to understand why they believe what they do, so you can better understand why you hold your opinions and beliefs, and find out the truth
  • Beware of pandering and perfection: question the motives of those in authority when they wax poetic about ‘the people’ or themselves – they may be trying to sell you something you don’t want by stroking your ego, appealing to emotion, or making themselves look better than they are
  • Seek information from a variety of sources and perspectives: this will keep you aware of what others are saying and expose you to new ways of looking at issues
  • Know the policy, and the person: don’t base your support of a policy on liking the person who proposes it – look into the policy itself, look at the history of the person proposing it, and don’t be afraid to read various types of analysis
  • Question an argument or stereotype that seems ‘too easy’: if you think you may be seeing a strawman or characaturization, seek outside opinions to see why people believe something that seems so obviously indefensible. Even if you still find it indefensible later, you will have a better foundation to argue your point.
  • Always see people as human beings above all other labels: history is unfortunately littered with atrocities that have been committed against people because they were perceived to belong to an inferior group. Ask yourself – in 200 years, will that group label still matter? Irish, Africans, Tutus, Italians, Aboriginals, Jews, Aristocrats, peasants, infidels, Muslims, Christians, and many more have been dehumanzed, discriminated against, and some even exterminated because they were seen as inferior. How did the people who committed these dark acts come to this conclusion? There are many potential reasons that have been cited and believed (many of which stem from assumed truths that have since been dispelled), but none of them have justified what people, human beings were put through. We can achieve change without atrocity and violation of human rights. Seek to solve the problem, and create solutions – because you don’t create the future you want by hating the one you don’t want. Instead you create the future through creating it, working hard, and collaborating with others to achieve it.

Spectrum Report seeks to give you the tools to inoculate yourself from propaganda; with news spectrum, fact checking, and AI-based emotional sentiment analysis. Visit the Museum of International Propaganda, or learn more here and let us know what you think in the comments below.