What is Propaganda? (Part 2)
So hopefully, now that we saw a brief overview of a fairly successful effect of Propaganda in part 1, we have convinced ourselves that, at least feasibility, there exists some form of Propaganda in America. The next question is, once you are aware that it exists, how the fcking hell is it even possible? People are not stupid, I am not stupid, you are not stupid, so how is it possible that we can be fooled to such an extent? I mean no one is talking about wild conspiracy theories, no one is talking about shady government figures watching our every move and brainwashing us with some advanced technology (Although with the recent NSA revelations… ).. what we are talking abut with Modern Propaganda is a far more natural thing, a thing that is fairly easily established by logic and fairly easy to prove with facts. So here, in this post, I want to give a brief, and probably boring but necessary, history of US propaganda.
If anything, I would recommend reading two books to start off as a fairly well established way to look at propaganda: 1) Media Control by Noam Chomsky, and 2) Propaganda by Edward Bernays. The first one lays the ideological groundwork necessary to read the second. The second is a not a book about how to fight against and identify Propaganda, not in the sense we think… it is actually a book written by a famous Propagandist that is basically a “how to,” advocating the need for efficient propaganda. It is like reading a book not meant for you – the working stiff. It is instead a book meant to be read by the elites – the ones who use propaganda on us.
It has lots of self-justification and lot’s of arguments saying how basically we, the masses, are simply too busy and incompetent to be bothered with things like governing ourselves. As such, we need Propaganda and the elites to decide for us. It is, in a large sense, a relatively dry read, but one that I find very interesting. Interesting because it reads like a manual for kings that peasants are not supposed to read. In that it is written in the mentality that Propaganda is good, and here is why we should use it. In order to understand why this is, we have to look at very brief history of US Propaganda.
Propaganda started basically in world war 1. The US needed to convince it’s populace to go to war, and they did not want to go to war. So what did the government do? They basically, and I am simplifying this heavily for the sake of brevity, hired a bunch of advertisers to talk about the evil “German Menace.” You can look up all the old WW1 government advertisements advocating for war – all of them sort of hilariously awful in their infancy. Yet, we all know advertising works, or at least we all should know it does, so it should come to no surprise this did work. The constant message of the evil menace worked. So in the beginning, there was little difference between Propaganda and simple deceptive Advertising.
The problem was… that.. well.. it worked. The fact that it worked meant that big businesses took notice and wanted to use it for themselves. The fact that this worked meant that the government was bound to use it again when it wanted to do something that the populace was not wanting to do. So with that success, came demand. With that demand, came the advent of the “public relations” council. Where corporations and the government would simply hire people like Edward Bernays – whom at the time was well known in those circles for being an effective propagandist – to study the public and find ways, using psychology, to influence their opinions. That is basically where Propaganda comes from… it just came from the natural need for big business and the government to influence public opinion on a massive scale when it got in the way of what they wanted to do.
Now, most of us would say that there seems to be nothing wrong with this. So what if major corporations and the government want to influence public opinion? What is the difference between that and say, you or I trying to influence public opinion to pass laws that help us?
Well you know what is funny about this opinion? Edward Bernays, in his treatise on how to do Propaganda effectively, argued the same exact view point – within the first few pages nonetheless! In a remarkable display of cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning, Bernays lays out this same exact objection to imply that there is absolutely nothing immoral about using his methods of Propaganda. That anyone in their right minds would want to influence public opinion, and thus Propaganda is not only necessary, but essential for democracy! Keep in mind these are the words and arguments of perpetual huckster, so we need to be mindful if such an argument actually logically works. But, before we get to why this point of view is naive – or if you are Edward, a clever defense of Propaganda by a Propagandist – let us dig into the origins of Propaganda some more.
So, after world war 1, the demand for “public relations” grew, and with that demand also came a demand for a methodology or industry practice. What does this mean?… Well it means that if corporations and the government is ganna pay you a ton of money, they want guarantees that it is going to work. In order to do this, big business and the government routinely sponsored studies done on how to influence public opinion (even in modern psychology today, a lot of research and insight comes from studies companies funded to look into how to effectively advertise to you and me). With that, there came a rush of new research on how to effectively influence public opinion. What they discovered, is that the best way to do this is not just directly attack the customer, but also use social forces to do so. So if they wanted you to smoke, they are not just going to tell you to smoke, they are going to tell your doctor to tell you smoking is healthy, and they are going to pay celebrities to smoke in public. Then naturally, you are going to decide to smoke, unaware of the social influences that played a role in that decision. This is advertising 101 for us, but back in the day… this was a huge breakthrough.
The new propagandist was no mere snake oil salesman. No longer, did he simply lie and scheme customers with pretty words and fast talking. No, the new propagandist was very much an academic who studied things like crowd psychology, and social forces. Instead he became aware of the fact that instead of informing the public to persuade them directly, it was much easier, but also way more expensive, to exploit social forces and use flaws in our psychology to influence us in one direction or another. What he found out was the the more someone did not know they were purposefully influenced in one political direction, the more effective such forcing became – with that came the necessity of subterfuge. They also figured out that if you keep the public largely ignorant of all the relevant facts they are easier to push in one direction – so keeping people ignorant of facts that do not side with you, becomes very important in maintaining your influence. In that sense, propaganda quickly evolved away from simple advertising and instead became something very dangerous.
So now with a whole new scientific field to lay a foundation on, and lots of money coming in to “public relations council,” a huge industry was born. Then around, WW2 that industry put its new tools to use and really kicked up the propaganda to motivate US citizens to be pro-war. WW2 Propaganda was so successful, that the posters used on the public are considered works of art today. It was around this time that Edward Bernays, becoming a wealthy man, published his manual “Propaganda.” With that, the advertising industry as we know it today, was born. This guy was the pioneer in Propaganda and most people who work in public relations or advertising are greatly influenced by his work.
The next revolution in Propaganda did not happen for quite some time. Instead throughout those years, the word Propaganda became a very bad word to use. No one who used its methods, called what they were doing Propaganda anymore – at least not in public. Instead, we get huge companies investing massive amounts of money into scientifically investigating advertising techniques.
It was not until those same marketers were hired by the government to promote political agendas, that Propaganda became what it is today. Modern propaganda took a big leap during election of Nixon. The first time Nixon tried get himself elected, it was an abysmal failure… he had a massive public image issue. So, quite naturally, he hired a couple of marketers and what the marketers figured out was, essentially, that people do not vote on issues, instead most of them vote on personality. Nixon had none, so they got to work on giving him a new public image and bingo.. he got elected. This success spurned a big trend in politics. Now, every politician was hiring some sort of consultant to work on his image and get him elected – and these consultants had to be well versed in marketing. With that came an arms race, and since politics was always dirty, things got out of hand fairly quickly. Every American citizen complains that politicians hardly ever talk about issues anymore, they just spit out generalities.. well there is a reason for this. If everyone was trying to exploit the fact that we as a people vote more on personality than on issues, than that means politicians are going to shift away from issues and instead talk about personalities. The person who stays on the issues, is then out gunned and “honest politicians” – as if they ever existed – never get a chance to run for real. In time, these consultants become so ingrained within the institution that after the elections.. they were routinely hired to work in the administrations they helped get elected. The rest.. is history.
Modern Propaganda today is such a well oiled machine that most of us, and I include myself, won’t even notice when it is acting on us. In fact, instead of calling Propaganda by its real name – one of the successes of Propaganda is our inability to call it as such – we call it Marketing, public relations, advertising… anything but Propaganda. The only way Americans can actually spot Propaganda is to look outside our system and see it happen when other countries do it – see when they do it, it is propaganda, when we do it.. it is just “influencing public opinion.”
At this point, if you are normal, you should be sufficiently confused. Am I saying that advertising is basically propaganda? That anything the government or major corporations do to influence us to buy something or push an issue is propaganda?.,.. isn’t that unfair and unrealistic? That under my definition of propaganda, basically, any method of influencing public opinion is propaganda?
Well… while Propaganda and Advertising/Marketing have very close ties in their origins (as you can see in my summary of the history of Propaganda), I am not saying they are the same (even if their disciplines coincide on occasion). For sociological reasons, Propaganda is something a bit different from your average marketing and different from Bernays original definition of simply influencing public opinion.
Here is the thing, Propaganda by its very nature is a hard thing to encapsulate. It is rather an amalgamation of different social forces pushing in one politically motivated direction. I have yet to give a concrete definition of Propaganda because: 1) People do not believe it exists in America, or that it is insanely effective in America 2) If you do not know the history of Propaganda you will reject the definition off hand 3) A dictionary definition of Propaganda fails to suffice when it comes to capturing the entire sociological phenomenon we are attempting to describe.
In part 1 of this post, I put up an argument for point 1. In part 2 of this post, I gave a very brief history of Propaganda and gave it’s very natural progression, which highlights point 2. In part 3 I am going to give a more concrete description of the social framework of Propaganda.