How Propaganda Works
by Bob Wallace
"Once you base your whole life striving on a desperate lie,
and try to implement that lie,
you instrument your own undoing."
- Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death.
It's not hard to understand how propaganda works. You don't need a college degree, or to even to read any of those thick textbooks everybody hates. Everything relevant can be explained in one not-particularly-long article. And, I guarantee you, you must understand how propaganda targets you, to immunize yourself against the attempts.
Propaganda works by appealing to our most base, animalistic instincts. It does not appeal to our better nature, although one of the purposes of it is to convince us it does. It pretends to appeal to our reason, when in fact it appeals to our most primitive emotions. There is good reason for this: perception travels through the emotional brain first, to the rational brain last.
Specifically, propaganda works by appealing to three things: emotionalism, tribalism and narcissism.
I just mentioned perception travels first to the emotional brain, then the rational brain. This happens to everyone, including people who con themselves they are the most rational and intelligent of intellectuals.
As for tribes, we share with every nearly every animal in the world the instinct to form tribes, arranged in a hierachy, with a leader. We are group animals. The fact we look to a leader to take care of us is one of the most firmly established principles in psychology (if you don't remember anything else, remember that).
When anyone transgresses the taboos of a tribe, they can, and often are, ostracised or even expelled. An example? Say some people oppose a war. What happens? They are often called cowards and told to leave the country. Who hasn't heard the insult, "You're a coward! If you don't like it here, get out!" People who say such things think they're being patriotic; in reality they're acting like animals. Emotional, irrational, herd animals, prone to the fear and flight activated by propaganda. Individuals think; groups do not, and cannot.
Narcissism is our inborn tendency to see everything as grandiose or devalued, good or bad, with nothing in-between. It's why nearly every tribe in the world -- and nations are just tribes writ large -- called itself "the People," "the Humans," "the Chosen," "the Motherland," "the Fatherland," or "the greatest nation on earth," relegating everyone outside the tribe to a devalued non-people, non-human status (aka "collaterial damage"). No wonder it's so easy to kill the outsiders -- they're just not quite human.
When you combine those three concepts, you have the basis for all propaganda. If a leader of a tribe tells the people their goodness is under attack by insane, evil people who want to destroy them, they will react just like animals and attack. The Nazi propagandist Herman Goering noticed all you had to do to get people to march off to war is for the leaders to tell them they were under attack, denounce protestors as traitors exposing the tribe to danger, and the people would slander, ostracize and expell the protestors, and then tramp straight off to be slaughtered. He said this technique worked in every country of the world.
The Bush administration used exactly this technique to start two wars. Essentially they told the public that our goodness was under attack by insane and evil people who wanted to destroy us. See how it works? Tribalism, emotionalism, and narcissism.
Supporter of the war responded by attacking protestors as traitors -- trying to expell them from the tribe -- and marching off to war. It's altogether too simple, and too easy.
One man everyone should know is Edward L. Bernays, the American disciple and nephew of Sigmund Freud. He was for all practical purposes the founder of modern propaganda techniques.
Bernays despised most people and regarded them as his inferiors, especially because of intellectual or social claims. (See how it works? I just appealed to your emotions, and convinced you Bernays was attacking you. You fell for it, right?)
Bernays not only pretty much founded modern propaganda techniques, but was also the father of modern PR. Although, you could say they are same thing, and that there's really no difference between them.
In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Bernays wrote, "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country…"
Remember that quote. Burn it into your memory. Bernays thought people should be ruled by an extremely small elite, who should manipulate them through propaganda. That means you. People who believe in the wonders of government, and that it is their friend, should think twice about it.
In another book, In Crystallizing Public Opinion, Bernays wrote how governments and advertisers can "regiment the mind like the military regiments the body." This can be imposed, he said, because of "the natural inherent flexibility of individual human nature," and suggested the "average citizen is the world's most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts. His own 'logic-proof compartments,' his own absolutism are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction."
Bernays also thought "physical loneliness is a real terror to the gregarious animal, and that association with the herd causes a feeling of security. In man this fear of loneliness creates a desire for identification with the herd in matters of opinion."
Bernays claimed that "the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word…In making up its mind, its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader. This is one of the most firmly established principles in mass psychology." What Bernays called the "regimentation of the mind" is accomplished by taking advantage of the human tendency to self-deception [logic-proof compartments], gregariousness [the herd instinct], individualism [exalting their vanity] and the seductive power of a strong leader.
Bernays also expressed the opinion people "have to take sides...[they] must step out of the audience onto the stage and wrestle as the hero for the victory of good over evil." This also means appealing to our narcissism, our inborn tendency to see everything as either good or bad, with little or nothing in-between.
He also noted the need for people to feel as if they belong to something larger than themselves. Again, this also means appealing to our narcissism, such as people claiming they belong to "the greatest nation on earth."
When people consider themselves as part of the Humans (by whatever name they call themselves), they exalt themselves. Still again, those outside the tribe are non-people, "collateral damage."
"Mental habits create stereotypes just as physical habits create certain definite reflex actionism," Bernays wrote. "...these stereotypes or clichés are not necessarily truthful pictures of what they are supposed to portray." Perception is everything, the truth matters little or not at all.
Now, let's boil all this down and see what we have:
Mass Man, the herd, cannot think, and is instead ruled by its feelings. The herd will look to a leader to save it. The best way to accomplish this is for the herd to feel it is under attack. The herd will draw together, expell those who see the truth and protest, and then march off to war.
The full quote from Hermann Goering? "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
Tell the herd they are the Humans, or the People, or best of all, have God on their side. Paint their enemies as insane and evil. Again, this is appealing to people's narcissism, the tendency to see everything as either good (us) or evil (them). Evoke paranoia and hysteria in them by convincing them the insane evil ones want to conquer and destroy them. What will happen? You can get them to march off to war by the millions, just as Goering noticed. The truth doesn't matter, only the manipulation of perception.
To make it as simple as possible, everything that is needed for a successful propaganda campaign can be summed up in those three aforementioned words: emotionalism, tribalism and narcissism.
We con ourselves we are so advanced. In reality, the human race is stuck in One Million Years BC, except there's no Raquel Welch in a two-piece fur bikini.
I forgot -- there is one another component to sucessful propaganda: keep repeating the message over and over.
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