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Reflections on Propaganda And The Media

June 7, 2012

After writing my last post, I decided to take a break from my mathematics and physics studies to do a little research into propaganda.  It’s one of those topics that I’m always thinking about as I read the news.  It’s one of my favorite subjects to study.

I’d like to briefly discuss the different techniques of propaganda, but before we do so, I want to discuss a book I’ve been reading — Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.   Though it’s a bit old (1988), it’s an excellent book.  The book discusses how the profit motive operates within corporate owned news sources, leading to distortions and editorial biases which favor profits over informing the public.  After reading the book, I sometimes wonder if a reliable news organization can even exist within the capitalist framework.

The main problem is that mass media organizations are privately owned and ultimately exist to earn a profit.   They cater to what’s in the financial interests of the owners.  And how do they earn money?  Very little revenue is generated from sales and subscriptions so most all their income comes from advertising.

Now think about that for a minute.  We live in a democratic society which depends on an informed public to operate.  Ostensibly the mass media exist to inform us on relevant issues, yet they’re heavily biased toward what advertisers need to sell their products.  In truth, the actual news is secondary.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what’s wrong with this picture.  There’s no way they can be objective.

You also have to deal with sources.  A great deal of news comes from the same places – Washington, the Pentagon, big corporations, and so forth.  These become “routine” sources and they make it easy for big media to gain exclusive coverage of big events.  Non-routine sources struggle for access, ignored by arbitrary gatekeepers.  You have to play ball.

So what happens if one of your journalists discovers massive environmental degradation at the hands of various industrial plants, owned and operated by companies which advertise on your network?  Nothing.  They simply don’t cover it.

Or what if you discover massive wartime atrocities being committed by the government somewhere overseas and wish to run the story?  Well, any time you criticize power, you run the risk of losing exclusive government sources which is very important to your revenue stream.  Also, companies like GE, who own a large swath of all media sources in existence, have complicated relationships with the military industrial complex as they are suppliers of weapons and technology.  Why are they going to criticize a war they’re making huge profits from, even if it’s a total waste from the public’s perspective?

So basically any sort of journalism that challenges real power is off the table.  As Chomsky notes in the book,

The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.

– Noam Chomsky

There’s more to consider.  As you try to inform the public, you quickly run against a sort of public opinion inertial resistance.  They act as their own conformity enforcer.  If you run stories they’re not comfortable or familiar with, you get all kinds of complaints, lawsuits, letters, and so forth.  That’s oftentimes not good for the advertisers.  The complaints don’t have to come from the viewers either.  Could you imagine a guest exposing the misdeeds that take place on Wall Street, immediately followed by a T. Rowe Price advertisement during the commercial break?  They don’t want that.  They have products and services to sell and the last thing they want is an angry audience in a combative mood.  So they set stipulations saying that their advertisements can only run to certain types of programming.  Trying to please both the audience and your advertisers leads to a very bland, white-washed, sanitized, empty coverage of everything.

Eighty percent of the news is written for uneducated, everyday people.  Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Mel Gibson’s latest homophobic rant — anything that grabs attention yet doesn’t challenge any real power.  You have to remember that they’re ultimately about selling advertising and their “news” programs are akin to entertainment, it’s just in a different format.  If they can’t keep you entertained and interested, you’re going to change the channel.  So we get a lot of sensationalism, violence, and other things which draw primal attention.  The narrative of right vs left is played up almost like a sports game and viewers across then nation tune in to see how their team is doing.  We get our play by play analysis from pundits who treat us like we’re insiders, giving statistics for how public opinion is shaped, and what tactics each party is using — all while shaping opinion during the process.

A sound reasoned analysis of our world shows that war, violence, and crime are the lowest they’ve ever been in human history and are likely to decrease in the future.  Read Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels Of Our Nature.  But you’ll never get that sort of perspective from the paper because that peaceful talk is boring.  If it bleeds it leads!  That’s what sells newspapers and gets people viewing your program.  You need to create a sense of danger and convince them that you’re the only voice in the wilderness warning about the upcoming storm.

We all know that news should be more than entertainment though.  I’m not saying it’s all entertainment.  It’s a very serious thing.  People want and need to be informed to make good decisions.  They know the future direction of our country is based on how they vote.  But we live in a sea of  half-truths, misinformation, and lies.  Though we’re rarely directly lied to, important information is often withheld and leaving us to draw the wrong conclusions.  Other times we’re presented loaded messages which tap into primal aspects of our brains, evoking visceral emotional reactions instead of well thought out, reasoned opinions.

I’d like to discuss these sorts of techniques and how they’re used within the mainstream media.

Ad hominem attacks

Ad hominem attacks are a big one.  That’s when they attack an opponent as a person instead of addressing the arguments they bring up.  The biggest one I notice is sex scandals.  The overall idea is, “Don’t listen that scumbag, he was messing around with prostitutes!”  People are so emotional about sex and it also grabs people’s attention.  We evolved to gossip about the sex lives of those around us, primarily so that women could be notified of which men would properly raise and provide for their children.  It’s an instinct which served us well in hunter gather tribes but it’s exploited in the worst possible way by people in power.  The mass media will even run unconfirmed stories on sex scandals, their only source being some prostitute who claims such and such happened.  Who knows what’s true and what isn’t, but it doesn’t matter.  It was a character assassination attack.

Repetition and simple slogans

Repetition of simple slogans, over and over is very effective.  The mind is a funny thing.  If you hear the same thing, over and over, from different sources, many people will start to believe it, no matter how absurd.  Republicans have mastered this technique far better than Democrats.  It’s almost as if they meet in some backroom and say, “Ok, here’s the simple slogan to repeat for the next few weeks”, and then BAM!  Every Republican on every news network is saying the exact same message.  And believe me, it’s effective.  People flip to one channel and hear the message, flip to another channel and see another person saying the same thing.  The next day they hear yet another person saying it.  A thought then creeps into their head, “Everybody’s saying this.  It must be true.”

Generating Fear

Fear is a big one.  When people are afraid they search for someone who knows what’s going on.  They run into the arms of authority who sits there waiting, ready to mold their minds and tell them exactly what needs to take place.

Authority

Referencing authoritative figures, or even pretending to be authoritative is very effective.  You can oftentimes convince people that you’re an authority on a subject just by the way you present the information and frame the debate.  I once watched a documentary where a skilled comedian and actor went into a scholarly academic conference at some university and gave a talk to professors, totally B.S.’ing an entire talk for over an hour.  He was given a standing ovation at the end and they didn’t even realize that everything he said was nonsense.  But the guy sounded and acted like a professor.  “Studies indicate….”, “Recent research reveals…”, “Initially we were surprised to find…”, and so on.  All you have to do is make up some B.S. organizations and have them publish crackpot research, and then while you’re delivering your news story have the little frame pop up, “The so and so group finds that [fill in whatever support you need for your argument to be more believable].”  Very few people will actually look into it and those that do can be marginalized and derided.

Using Moral Terms

If you can convince people that somehow your position is the moral highroad, or that it’s what Jesus believed, or what God wants, you won’t even have to justify yourself.  I find it utterly bizarre that capitalism has been associated with Jesus and Christianity.  That’s how effective these techniques can be.  Big business has manipulated uneducated people into thinking the Christian message somehow is synonymous with American patriotism and free market capitalism.  Jesus disciples formed a communist commonwealth.  Read the book of Acts.  Jesus preached against violence, told us to pray for our enemies, and pleaded with us to take care of the poor and the sick, but then evangelicals are manipulated into thinking our middle-eastern wars are holy wars and that universal healthcare will undermine America as we know it!

Bandwagon Approach

The bandwagon idea is basically, “Everybody else believes this, you should too.”  Bill O’Reilly uses this one practically every night.  “The #1 name in news 10 years running!”   Somehow just because a lot of people watch his show, he must be right.  He oftentimes insults guests like Bill Maher of Jon Stewart by making derisive comments like, “Of course nobody is watching you…”  He’s quite brilliant at using the bandwagon tactic and people don’t even realize that it’s a form of manipulation.

Celebrities And Successful Beautiful People

The other day I saw that Eva Longoria was brought onto Obama’s campaign team.  Now why would they do a thing like that?  She’s obviously not a brilliant stateswoman, known for her work on law, politics, and economics.  What’s her role?  Besides being a Latino (a very important and key demographic), she’s the beautiful, happy, successful woman so many people want to be.  And if she supports Obama, and she’s happy, beautiful, and successful, maybe you too can be happy, beautiful, and successful by voting Obama in for a second term!

Fate

You’ll oftentimes hear rhetoric about “destiny” and “providence” in political speeches.  What’s this about?  It’s to convince you that this is meant to be and fighting against it is futile.  If you go against this, you’re just wasting time.  It’s inevitable.  Just go with it, and if you don’t like it, there’s nothing that can be done anyway.  Historically this has often been used in conjunction with the “will of God”.  Same idea.

We Are The Champions

It’s very important to convince people that they’re going to be on the winning side.  A lot of effort goes into making things look easier than they really are.  Before a country goes to war, the propagandists work to make it seem as if we’ll take down the foreign army in a few short weeks and our sons and daughters will be back home in no time, bathed in patriotic glory, heroes who saved the world from an evil regime.  Of course things don’t work out as planned, months turn to years, and the public starts to get tired of the war.  The state department’s new job is to create propaganda telling people that “retreat would be cowardly”, and that we have moral obligations to get the fragile infant democracy up and going.  Regardless of whether or not this is true, it’s quite convenient for the military contractors and suppliers who make a fortune during wartime.

Black and White Reasoning

A lot of people like to think of everything in simple black and white terms.  “You’re either for us, or against us…”  There’s no other option.  President Bush used this tactic when speaking of the War on Terror.  You were either with him in supporting his wars or you were with the terrorists.  It seems almost comical until you see millions of people around you lapping it up and repeating it like little mindless unthinking recording devices.

Religions also use black and white thinking as well.  You’re either a Christian or an unethical barbaric heathen incapable of any moral and ethical judgement.  How can you have ethics without God?  Even theologians like Augustine saw that God can’t be good unless goodness existed independent of God, but don’t tell them that.  It’s more of a tribal, emotional reaction.  A “one of us” or “not one of us” kind of thing.

Pavlovian Conditioning

Pavlovian conditioning is used all the time.  Ever wonder why Fox News shows clips of marching armies and nuclear missiles launching every time Iran is mentioned?  That’s because they want you to associate the two ideas together.  The process is simple:  repeat, repeat, and repeat, and eventually the associations are made, even if not explicitly mentioned by anyone, or even written on screen.  They then can claim, “We never said that…”, but they implied it in other ways.  Very slimy tactic.

Cognitive Dissonance

The mind doesn’t like to exist in a state of ambiguity.  If you’re skilled enough, you can use cognitive dissonance to your advantage.  Say the public hates a politician but loves something else, like the space program.  People probably noticed this one on my blog.  Newt Gingrich started talking about setting up a moon colony and pursuing an ambitious space program and my eyes lit up!  Though I don’t care for most of Newt’s ideas, boy do I love space.  Cognitive dissonance kicked in.  My brain was like, “Ugh, I don’t really care for Newt but I love space and now Newt is talking passionately about space and science research.  How can I hate him now?”  I knew what was going on, but even still, I went from not liking Newt at all to being neutral about him.  Politicians can also use actors and celebrity endorsements to their advantage.  They may not care about a politician but they love Alec Baldwin, and when he endorses Obama many people who didn’t care before may start to think positively of Obama.

Common Sense And The Common Man

And don’t forget the “common man” approach.  Sarah Palin loves this one.  Good ol’ hard-working American patriots like her and her family.  A lot of people believe in common sense, and if you can convince people that the views you’re advocating taps into that common wisdom, that carries a lot of punch.   I don’t believe common sense exists.  If our education system taught different values, as people grew up they would absorb a totally different “common sense”.  Good intuition is a byproduct of how well you’re educated and can change over a person’s lifetime.  A well educated and informed public will have common sense, but not otherwise.

Flag Waving

The worst thing about Sarah Palin is how she equates her conservatism to patriotism.  I saw her on Good Morning America and she made a seemingly innocent remark, “You need to have more patriots on here!”, implying that people of an opinion other than hers are somehow not American.  It’s very divisive and isn’t fair.  It’s irresponsible to even give her a national mouthpiece, but she’s good looking and charismatic.  That goes a long way on television.  Speaking of flag-waving, Sean Hannity uses this one over and over and over.  He has the “Great American Panel”, every transition between commercial breaks is the American flag waving, and even his desk is covered in American flags.  Oftentimes when he’s talking, a digital American flag is waving in the background.  This taps into a tribal emotion of community.  I get emotional when I think of community and family because I love my hometown, my parents, my teachers, my schools, and so forth.  That’s what that flag represents, and when it’s waving in the background as an opinion is being expressed, cognitive dissonance ensues.  I may not like the message but I want to love my country.  The tactic uses Pavlovian conditioning, your bonds to community, patriotism, and many other tactics all in one.

Lies and Deceit

Sometimes politicians just outright lie.  Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman were just outright liars.  Santorum was saying that European countries with universal healthcare euthanized old people when they got in the way.  Obviously it was false, but he got away with it, which says a lot about the mainstream media.

Feelings Of Joy And Euphoria

If you can create any sort of feeling of bliss and euphoria you can use that to your advantage.  A politician can appear on a late night comedy show and if they can make some good jokes and get people laughing and having a good time, you’ll win some points in your favor.  A neutral person will begin to like you and if someone disliked you before, they might actually change their opinion.

Half-Truths

Half-truths are used a lot.  They say things that are true but don’t properly convey the full scope and depth of the problem.  Bill O’Reilly used this technique on Richard Dawkins and people seem to think he “won” the debate.  O’Reilly basically said, “Oh, so you scientists aren’t sure how it all began?  You don’t know everything?”  and Dawkins obviously conceded, because he’s honest.  But how can any scientist know EVERYTHING.  Sure we don’t know everything but that doesn’t mean we don’t have good theories which the evidence points us toward.  We have different different degrees of certainty toward different things.  We have just as much evidence to prove evolution as we have that the Earth orbits around the sun.  We have the same degree of certainty in both cases.  99.9% of biologists believe in evolution.  This isn’t even contested, but he skillfully framed the debate in a way to make his viewpoint seem much more appealing than it should be.

Loaded Labels

Labels are often used, such as “liberal” and “conservative”.  Pundits and politicians like to build up narratives around those terms until they become loaded.  Then you attach them to somebody and BAM, you get associated with all kinds of baggage.

Controlling The Debate Format

With television you can control the format of the debate and this gives you a lot of power.  You’ll notice that people are only given a short moment to present their argument.  In that situation, about all you can do is give one of the canned replies.  But notice, if you say something complicated and not generally accepted, you’ll have to go to great lengths to justify your position.  Bold claims demand a lot of evidence.  However, you’re not given enough time to justify any complicated position different from the typical narratives.  If you do present such a view, you’ll be labeled as a cook and you won’t have any time to defend yourself.  And of course if you don’t, prevailing ideas are never challenged.  It’s dangerous to go on television news programs and submit yourself to their debate format.  It’s a system that’s setup to maintain the status quo.

Love Bombing

A powerful technique that cults often use is called love bombing.  What you do is isolate the people from all other forms of emotional support, and then you shower the person with love until they’re deeply attached to you.  You then become all they have and the only person they trust.  Then you can exert control over them.  Glenn Beck seemed to use this tactic to some degree.  He was always warning people that everyone else was lying to them.  Only trust Fox News!  He seemed to work toward creating his own little world with his viewers, isolating them from critical thought and other viewpoints.  I didn’t watch his program enough to be sure of this though.  From the clips I saw sometimes I wondered if he was attempting to do this though.

Name Calling

We’ve all seen name calling.  I can’t stand it.  We’ve all heard every name and insult hurled from both sides.  It gets old.

Vagueness And Confusion

Remember Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan?  “Change we can believe in”  What does that mean exactly?  It’s a blank check.  What sort of change do you desire?  Well, that’s who I am!  I’m your man. I’ll make it happen.  Vote for me.  It creates a positive emotional response without defining exactly what’s going to be done.  It can be used in a negative context as well.  “Terrorist”.  Define clearly who these terrorists are.  I mean, after all, we can be thrown indefinitely in jail without a trial if we’re labeled as one.  It’s pretty darn important that we define clearly what constitutes a terrorist.  I notice conservatives like to vaguely label people socialists as well.  Sometimes I don’t know whether they’re just stupid and don’t know what socialism even is, or they’re cleverly using the negative association against their enemies.  It’s hard to tell sometimes.

Association By Bad Logic

Another rather clever technique is to take something a bad group did, and then associate a person with that bad group by a faulty association.  This is best illustrated by an example.  Did you know that Nazi Germany had universal healthcare?  What, you believe in universal healthcare?  Well you’re obviously a Nazi!  Obviously that’s quite bad logic, but this technique is used all the time.  Universal healthcare has nothing to do with a lot of the other Nazi beliefs.  In fact, the Nazis tried to overturn the universal healthcare program but were unsuccessful.  A lot of European countries have universal healthcare without all of the other Nazi policies.

Oversimplification

For example, mainstream economic dialog is almost always framed in these  simplistic black and white terms of government involvement and whether or not regulations were in place, instead of actually getting into the details of how things work.  Any time a problem arises it’s either due to government bureaucracy or capitalist greed and a lack of regulation.  It doesn’t seem necessary to even discuss the details and the system’s inner workings.  If those details were discussed we’d see many shades of gray and that the issues are far more complicated.  Speaking of black and white, there are catch-phrases these people like to use as well, like, “There is no alternative to war.”  An educated person hears that and thinks, “What?  There’s all kinds of diplomatic alternatives.”  But we’re dealing with oversimplifications of complex issues.

Being Taken Out Of Context

We’re all familiar with quotes being taken out of context.  While this technique is popular, I more often see politicians claiming they were taken out of context when they weren’t.  A pundit will have them on their program and say, “We have you on tape taking this position, yet now you’ve changed your opinion.  Why is this?”  “No I never said.  My name’s Mitt Romney and I’m a man of steadiness and consistency.  Just ask my wife!”  “But we have you on tape…”  “You’re taking things out of context.”  Alright, whatever Mitt.  But there are times when people are taken out of context.

Rationalization

The human mind oftentimes has already made up its mind and when it wants something to be true, all it needs is a rationalization to justify its positions.   Bertrand Russell once spoke of this,

What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index to his desires – desires of which he himself is often unconscious.
– Bertrand Russell in Proposed Roads to Freedom

If someone is disliked, people will believe anything terrible said about them, true or untrue.  A racist will believe a black man is guilty before even hearing the evidence.  The opposite goes for someone who’s generally loved.  Charlie Sheen can do crazy amounts of drugs, say the wildest things, and lock prostitutes up in his bathroom yet people still love him.  As Bill Maher once noted on his program, people like who they like.  That’s all there is to it sometimes.  Religion also works on this principle.  A deeply devout fundamentalist can find a small fragment of wood on a mountain someplace and exclaim, “I’ve found Noah’s ark!”  Even if you carbon date it and show that it couldn’t be Noah’s ark, and that the ark wasn’t even big enough to hold all the different animal species much less the other requisite food and supplies, they’ll find other reasons to believe what they want to believe.  It’s almost hopeless to argue with them.

Red Herring and Diversions

If you’re a good orator you can use the red herring technique and go on some unrelated tangent, bring the story back around full circle and somehow convince people that you’ve justified your position when you really haven’t.  In my early days when I went into business for myself, I shared an office with a stock broker and he used this technique better than anyone I’ve ever met.  You’d ask him something and then he’d kind of start off on topic and then drift off to something unrelated, talk about that unrelated thing for quite some time until you forgot what you initially asked him, and then you’d leave the conversation thinking he answered your question when he really didn’t.  With this technique you can sort of pivot to a subject you’re more comfortable speaking about, answer strongly in the unrelated area, and then, if done right, leave them feeling as if their question was answered.

Slogans

Slogans and catch phrases are used a lot.  We’ve all seen those.

Attacking Straw Men

The straw man technique is a powerful one.  What you do is set up the illusion of having refuted a position by substituting a superficially similar position and refuting it instead without having addressed the original true position.  I see liberals doing this to libertarians all the time.  I’ve actually deeply studied a lot of the works of libertarian economists and when I read articles on sites like the Huffington Post, trying to discuss say Ron Pauls ideas, they’re attacking straw men.  His ideas on things like states rights and the role of government are far more subtle than what they’re made out to be.  I don’t always agree with Ron Paul but I don’t like seeing him misrepresented either.

For now that’ll have to do.  I hope you all have enjoyed my ramblings on propaganda and the mainstream media.

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