Propaganda is a means of persuasion. It works by tricking us, by momentarily distracting us while the rabbit pops out of the hat. Propaganda works best with an audience that isn’t really paying attention.
Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister in Nazi Germany, once defined his work as “the conquest of the masses.” The masses would not have been conquered, however, if they had known how to challenge and to question, how to make distinctions between propaganda and reasonable arguments and reports.
People are fooled because they don’t recognize propaganda when they see it. They need to be informed about the various devices that can be used to mislead and deceive, about the propagandists’ overflowing bag of tricks.
It’s kind of insidious actually, when you think about it. Some of these politicians and media outlets are intentionally scripting what they say in order to sway our beliefs and illegitimately gain our support and their control over us.
It’s scary. We all really need to stay on our toes and be wary of pre-packaged propaganda when we see it.
Here are some of the common tricks propagandists use:
- Name Calling
This device consists of labeling people or ideas with words of bad connotation, literally, “calling them names.” Here the propagandist tries to arouse our anger so we will dismiss the person or their idea without examining its merits. Name calling is at work when we hear a candidate for office described as “foolish” or a “liar” or when an incumbent’s policies are denounced as “racist” or “reckless.” The point here is that when the propagandist uses name calling, they don’t want us to think, but merely to react blindly.
- Glowing Generalities
Glowing generalities are really just the opposite of name calling. Name calling uses words with bad connotations and glowing generalities are words with good connotations. While name calling tries to get us to reject and condemn someone or something without examining the evidence, glowing generalities try to get us to accept and agree with something without examining the evidence. Word that we may feel deeply about like, “justice,” “motherhood,” “the American way,” etc.
- If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em Appeal
This device tries to win our confidence and support by appearing to be a person like ourselves. This is evident when candidates go around shaking hands with factory workers (when they’ve never had a real job themselves), sampling pasta with Italians, fried chicken with Southerners, and so on.
- You’re the boss
This device entails “telling the people what they want to hear.” We all like to hear nice things about ourselves and the group we belong to. We like to be liked, so it stands to reason that we will respond warmly to a person who tells us we are “hard-working taxpayers” or “the most generous, free-spirited nation in the world.” Politicians tell farmers they are the “backbone of the American economy” and college students that they are the “leaders and policy makers of tomorrow.”
- Let’s get personal
When a propagandist uses this device, he wants to distract our attention from the issue under consideration with personal attacks on the people involved. For example, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, some people responded by calling him a “baboon.” But Lincoln’s long arms and awkward carriage had nothing to do with the merits of the Proclamation or the question of whether or not slavery should be abolished.
- Guilt or Glory by Association
Here an attempt is made to associate negative aspects of a person’s character or personal appearance with an issue or idea he supports. This device uses this same process of association to make us accept or condemn a given person or idea. In glory by association, the propagandist tries to transfer the positive feelings of something we love and respect to the group or idea he wants us to accept. “This bill for a new dam is in the best tradition of this country, the land of Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington,” is glory by association at work. Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington were great leaders that most of us revere and respect, but they have no logical connection to the proposal under consideration, the bill to build a new dam.
The process works equally well in reverse, when guilt by association is used to transfer our dislike or disapproval of one idea or group to some other idea or group that the propagandist wants us to reject and condemn. “Senator Smith says we need to make some changes in the way our government operates; well, that’s exactly what the Ku Klux
Klan has said, so there’s a meeting of great minds!” That’s guilt by association for you; there’s no logical connection between Senator Smith and the Ku Klux Klan apart from the one the propagandist is trying to create in our minds.
- Get on the Bandwagon
People choose to “follow the herd” for various reasons, yet we are still all too often the unwitting victims of the bandwagon appeal. Essentially, the bandwagon urges us to support an action or an opinion because it is popular, because “everyone else is doing it.” The problem here is obvious: just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t mean that we should too. Group approval does not prove that something is true or is worth doing.
- Faulty Cause and Effect
As the name suggests, this device sets up a cause-and-effect relationship that may not be true. Just because one thing happened after another doesn’t mean that one caused the other.
- False Analogy
An analogy is a comparison between two ideas, events or things. But comparisons can be fairly made only when the things being compared are alike in significant ways. When they are not, false analogy is the result. Analogy is false and unfair when it compares two things that have little in common and assumes that they are identical or related.
- Claiming the high ground
This occurs when, in discussing a questionable or debatable point, a person assumes as already established the very point that he is trying to prove. For example, “No thinking citizen could approve such a completely unacceptable policy as this one.” But isn’t the question of whether or not the policy is acceptable the very point to be established?
- The Only Two Extremes Fallacy
Linguists have long noted that the English language tends to view reality in sets of two extremes or polar opposites. In English, things are either black or white, tall or short, up or down, front or back, left or right, good or bad, guilty or not guilty. We can ask for a “straightforward yes-or-no answer” to a question, the understanding being that we will not accept or consider anything in between. In fact, reality cannot always be dissected along such strict lines. There may be (usually are) more than just two possibilities or extremes to consider. We are often told to “listen to both sides of the argument.” But who’s to say that every argument has only two sides? Can’t there be a third-even a fourth or fifth-point of view?
- Card Stacking
Some questions are so multifaceted and complex that no one can make an intelligent decision about them without considering a wide variety of evidence. One selection of facts could make us feel one way and another selection could make us feel just the opposite. Card stacking is a device of propaganda which selects only the facts that support the propagandist’s point of view, and ignores all the others. For example, a candidate could be made to look like a legislative dynamo if you say, “Representative McDonald introduced more new bills than any other member of the Congress,” and neglect to mention that most of them were so preposterous that they were laughed off the floor.
The best protection against card stacking is to take the “Yes, but…” attitude. This device of propaganda is not untrue, but then again it is not the whole truth. So ask yourself, “Is this person leaving something out that I should know about? Is there some other information that should be brought to bear on this question?”
The testimonial device consists in having some loved or respected person give a statement of support (testimonial) for a given product or idea. The problem is that the person being quoted may not be an expert in the field; in fact, he may know nothing at all about it. Using the name of a man who is skilled and famous in one field to give a testimonial for something in another field is unfair and unreasonable.
When celebrities endorse a political candidate, they may not be making money by doing so, but we should still question whether they are in any better position to judge than we ourselves. Too often we are willing to let others we like or respect make our decisions for us, while we follow along blindly.
“The cornerstone of a democratic society is reliance upon an informed and educated electorate. To be fully effective citizens we need to be able to challenge and to question wisely. A dangerous feeling of indifference toward our political processes exists today. We often abandon our right, our duty, to criticize and evaluate by dismissing all politicians as ‘crooked,’ all new bills and proposals as ‘just more government bureaucracy.’ But there are important decisions to be made, and this kind of apathy can be fatal to democracy. If we are to be led, let us not be led blindly, but critically, intelligently, and with our eyes open. If we are to continue to be a government ‘by the people,’ let us become informed about the methods and purposes of propaganda, so we can be the masters, not the slaves of our destiny.”
Thank you to Donna Woolfolk Cross and her piece, Propaganda: “How Not To Be Bamboozled,” which contributed to this article.
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