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The propaganda machine, and how to deal with it


EDWARD Bernays (1891-1995) was the nephew of the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. During the First World War Bernays was a member of the influential US Committee on Public Information, a public relations organisation whose aims at that time were to finagle the approval of the American people for the participation of the United States in the 1914-18 conflict.

In his book Propaganda, published in 1928, Bernays wrote: ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.’

Bernays was obviously a brilliant propagandist in his own right. Many were seduced by his ideas. Whether he believed all he said is an astute question, because any particular item of propaganda doesn’t need to be true or false. It just needs to be effective. If it works, use it. If it doesn’t, ditch it, and try something else. This is the defining characteristic of propaganda: its naked expediency. Propaganda steps in where truth and honesty, for one reason or another, are deemed insufficient or unsuitable. It’s worth pondering: under what circumstances must the plain, unvarnished truth be circumscribed?

If Bernays was the Father of Propaganda, then Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) was its enfant terrible. Goebbels became Minister for Propaganda under Hitler in 1933, and he controlled all output in Germany of radio, newspapers, cinema and theatre. Goebbels’s Principles of Propaganda is readily searchable on the web. It’s quite a list. Nineteen main headings with plenty of a, b, c (and sometimes d) sub-headings. One might be tempted to conclude that he was completely mad, but Germany was at war. Every technique had to be marshalled to achieve victory.

Goebbels’s propaganda was directed not just at the enemy but at the German people themselves. Propaganda for domestic consumption (the ‘Heimatfront’) was designed to create ‘ein optimales Angstgefühl – an optimum anxiety level.

Most notorious, of course, was Goebbels’s technique of creating a hate-group on to which frustrations and responsibility for disaster could be heaped.

Generally speaking, a propaganda campaign is set in motion when difficult societal adjustment is required or desired. It aims to cajole, but by hook or by crook. It uses ambiguity, diversion, emphasis, obfuscation, omission and selectivity, with a teeny touch of the truth thrown in, to appear reasonable and convincing.

In Britain in the Second World War ‘Dig for Victory’ was a harmless, possibly even useful piece of propaganda. It was a polite way of saying: ‘Prepare for food shortages, especially meat.’ It was therefore a ruse, in rather the same style as handing in your old pots and pans so that they could be melted down into Spitfires and Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons . . . no, I don’t think so either. Propagandists hold the propagandised in rather low regard.

The characteristics of propaganda are as follows:

Propaganda should be dogmatic and without nuance: ‘Goebbeldegooks are good; people who reject Goebbeldegooks are bad.’

Propaganda should tell people what they want to hear. A suggestion that seems to meet a need will be more readily accepted than one that does not meet a need: ‘You’ll be a little lovelier each day.’

Propaganda should be abstract, and not concrete or easily tested. Doubt and uncertainty will help the propaganda take hold, and make it difficult to refute: ‘Loose lips sink ships.’

Propaganda should fit in with prevailing systems of beliefs and frames of reference, not clash with them: ‘We all want the best for our families.’

Propaganda should profess the moral high ground, claim to be the majority opinion and instil unease in any who disagree: ‘Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?’

Propaganda should capitalise on the need of people to identify with or be in harmony with one another: ‘Let Us Go Forward Together.’

Propaganda should be attractively presented, palatable and difficult to miss or ignore.

Propaganda must be repeated regularly.

Propaganda must be disseminated by celebrities and authority figures.

Propaganda should use distinctive, easily remembered phrases and slogans. It is also beneficial if a touch of urgency can be added: ‘Quick! Take Beechams Powders!’ ‘Watch out, there a Thief about!’

Propaganda ‘works’ only if you believe it and act on it. Here is a test of your propagandability. In the fifties and sixties, in some toy shop windows (and sometimes even hardware stores) a tap was suspended from a piece of string. The tap poured forth water from its spout into a bowl. How long did it take you (no cheating now) to realise what the set-up was?

Because propaganda isn’t ‘true’ in the true sense of the word, it tends to be rather unstable. Events and developments can highlight inconsistencies in the narrative. Therefore propaganda needs to be fluid, and change tack periodically, so that it doesn’t reveal itself as too transparently ridiculous.

Of course it is monumentally useless, if you are facing real problems, to pay heed to propaganda. You will never be able to sort the wheat from the chaff; never be able to put two and two together. Nothing will make sense; no effective decisions will be possible. You will start to believe in absurdities, becoming like the members of a cargo cult, who fruitlessly construct wicker control towers and grass landing strips to guide down the hoped-for aeroplanes to bring succour.

When propaganda is wielded we are in trouble. We are not cattle to be prodded. Some of us are morons, to be sure, but some of us are decidedly not. It is disheartening in the extreme to realise that those in positions of authority view us in such a way. In any case, authority does not equal excellence. Excellent minds are exceptional minds. If we are facing exceptional problems, we need excellent minds to help solve them. Propaganda does not call them forth. It shuts them out. Solutions arise from the untrammelled, free exchange of information. Worthwhile, honest information does not shun criticism or debate. Propaganda finds criticism intolerable. Debate is abhorred. Critique and scepticism are branded as ‘denial’. The canny and the unscrupulous seize the controls. Independent thinkers are sidelined or weeded out. Quislings and sub-standard minds collude and gain prominence. The merely stupid jump on board. The intelligent see the illogicalities and idiocies and quietly recuse themselves. The stupidity is then unrestrained, and escalates exponentially in accordance with the formula: SF℠ – the stupidity of the few to the power of the stupidity of the many.

If you are on the receiving end of propaganda, you can consider the following measures (the list is by no means exhaustive):

1. Detach yourself from the sources of propaganda to the fullest extent possible. Read newspapers critically. Watch television sparingly: ‘programming’ really does have two meanings! Be alert to the subtle and not so subtle prods, hints and menaces. You are not required to think. You are required to shut up and agree.

2. Unless you are very sure of what you are doing, take no irreversible decisions, sign no documents, or part with any money, based on information which is blatant, self-contradictory, counter-intuitive, fear-mongering, high-pressure, illogical, incomprehensible, insistent, nonsensical, uninvited, unprecedented, unusual or too good to be true.

3. Never move against yourself. Never stand in your own way. Eliminate all traces of self-contempt.

4. Avoid crowds, herd behaviour and Groupthink. Choose your associates carefully. Mercilessly jettison anyone who is detrimental to you. Do not listen to them. Do not try to convince, help or save them. Be prepared to stand alone. Accept the dismay, isolation and considerable inconvenience of DISSENT.

5. To all who can sense impending doom, listen to your instincts and take action while you still can. Spend time with the people you love. If you have young children whom you judge to be at risk, move them to a place of safety. If there is something important that you have been meaning to do, but have not got round to doing it, do it NOW. Make a detailed will, just in case the worse comes to the worst.

6. Above all, do not be afraid. Be of good cheer. Trust yourself. Value yourself. We delude ourselves that we control the course of history by our own efforts. There are a million and one ungovernable influences operating in everyone’s life. There is no one button to push.

You can view Goebbels’s list here.

Recommended reading: Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.

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Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik (pseudonym) was a student of psychology in the seventies, before ditching it to work in television.

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