The current exhibit at the British Library in London is titled “Propaganda: Power and Persuasion.” It is a fascinating tour through the uses of propaganda – for good and evil – in the 20th and 21st centuries.
For most of us, we see or hear “propaganda” and instantly think of it in negative terms. In truth, it simply means attempting to “propagate” an idea, hence the term. As a result, it can be used to incite war or fight disease, foster unity or stir discrimination.
As the exhibit demonstrates, governments and national institutions have been “the most prolific and expert users of propaganda as they strive to validate and justify their actions, build support for their aims and influence the behavior of populations.”
Yet the advent of the internet and the accompanying social media has made propaganda available as a powerful tool in almost anyone’s hands – for good or ill. But let’s consider its most common use:
So with that in mind, courtesy of the exhibit, here is a “user’s guide to basic techniques” to look out for:
1. Establish authority. Link a person or idea with existing symbols of power and authority, which people understand and are comfortable with. The use of appropriate symbolism can generate deep psychological resonances.
2. Exploit existing beliefs. People are much more receptive to messages that build on attitudes and beliefs they already hold dear. This technique plays on class, cultural, religious and national stereotypes.
3. Appeal to patriotism. Play up nationalist sentiments and emphasize benefits to the nation.
4. Create fear. In a state of fear your audience is more likely to believe you. The technique is particularly effective if you play on existing anxieties and prejudices against people, groups or behaviors to create scapegoats.
5. Use humor. Making your audience smile or laugh can make powerful people, countries and ideas seem less threatening and even ridiculous. Humor is particularly useful if you are politically weaker than your opponent.
6. Imply everyone agrees. The desire to fit in is a strong one and many people will go along with the crowd. Combine with apparent plain speaking, an appeal to the “average” person, and deliver in a style which suits your audience.
7. Disguise the source. Carefully plant stories and facts so that they come from an independent source your audience trusts. They will have less reason to question the messages you are spreading.
8. Hammer it home. Decide on your message and stick to it. Saturate your audience, repeating it in as many different media as you can mobilize. Constant repetition will overcome initial skepticism.
9. Make false connections. Start with an uncontested statement and link it with something more controversial. Many people will not notice that there is no logical link between the two. Alternatively link a person or idea with a more general truism, either good or bad.
10. Be selective about the truth. Control how and when information is released. Ensure only stories that support your position are reported. Where an event is controversial, make sure only facts and testimony that favor your interpretation are heard.
11. Establish a leadership cult. Encourage the population to think their leader is solely responsible for all successes. Eventually people may come to believe that their personal fate and that of the nation is inextricably bound up with that of the leader. For advanced practitioners only.
Feel like you may have been on the receiving end of a few of these?
There’s a reason.
James Emery White
“Propaganda: Power and Persuasion,” The British Library, 17 May-17 September 2013. Accompanying book: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion by David Welch.