What is Propaganda? (Part 3)

by Mr.Ellipses

Let us start with an analogy that I think will be helpful. You have two people. One is a king, the other is a peasant. The peasant is not happy with the king, and as a result is making this known to anyone who will listen. He goes around the kingdom talking about the King and saying that the King is a bad person and that someone should do something about it. He does this all the time, so much so that everyone in the kingdom, even the king himself, is aware of the peasant’s constant complaining – this goes on for years. The king, in turn, does the same to the peasant. One day he starts talking about how bad he thinks the peasant is and that someone should do something about it. This goes on for a week or two, and after that we find that someone actually did do something about it… they killed the peasant.

We ask ourselves two questions 1) If the king and the peasant had identical actions, why did the results differ so much? 2) If the King knew his actions would yield a radically different result, and expected it, does the king have a higher responsibility than the peasant to not engage in similar behavior?

We should know the answers to both these questions really easily. The Kings actions had different results because he is the king – he has power and influence, obviously so, that the peasant does not have. The peasant can say anything he wants, but because he has very little to no power, nothing much will come of what he says. The King on the other hand, rules the land with influence and anything he says, no matter how small, has a large impact radius.

The second answer is also relatively easy to think about. When you have that much power and influence, that means that you have to be that much more careful with how you use your power and influence – a mistake from the powerless will do nothing, a mistake from the powerful means everything. The idea that because actions  are identical, they have the same moral standing is outlandish – no one thinks that. A child can bully another child and while it is wrong, it is not as wrong if, say, a teacher is bullying a student – the actions may be identical but the different power structures at play mean that one action (the teacher’s) is on a different moral standing.

What does this have to do with our definition of Propaganda? Everything.

If you look up the dictionary definition of Propaganda you get something like this: “information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view” (from Google)

Now, if this was the case, that means that, technically speaking, anything that is misleading and used to promote a political point of view is effectively Propaganda. That sound right to you? Not to me.

I mean, let us say a conservative friend of mine is trying to convince me that Abortion is wrong. He makes up some argument and is filled with holes is misleading information – scare tactics, you name it. So under the dictionary definition my friend is using propaganda on me? Let us say that an advertising company is trying to sell me a car and the ad is misleading… they are using propaganda on me too? Let us say that the Union is arguing for better minimum wage, and they use some bad argument… they are making propaganda now? If you are Edward Bernays, you would argue that yes, this is all Propaganda and as such nothing is wrong with it at all!  Yet we are not the propagandist Bernays and neither are we fools…

None of those examples would actually be called propaganda – we know this already. My friend is just a fool, and maybe a liar or misinformed. The ad agency are thieves and liars, and the Union in question are just jack asses – because you do not have to lie to make a good argument for raising the minimum wage. Any of these words are a better fit than the dictionary definition of Propaganda. In fact, I dare say, when people use the word Propaganda, none of them actually mean that “any misleading argument that promotes some view.” That is not  what they think of as propaganda.  When we talk about Propaganda, we mean something a bit different.

I mean this just goes to show you that… when you are trying to create a framework and define some sociological/political phenomenon, dictionary definitions are always going to be insufficient. No one should analyze sociological phenomenon using the barest dictionary definitions, that would just be a disaster and is just silly. Rather, like most sociology and study of human behavior, we need to quickly skip over simplistic dictionary definitions and instead find a way to explain such phenomenon in a more complete form so that the definition actually adds to an understanding, rather that creating confusion like the one above.

So it seems to me, and I bet to you all, that Propaganda is not just some form of deceptive argument promoting some political view. It is more than that. When we say the word Propaganda, what we think of is big governments and big corporations paying a lot of money to influence our opinions on a massive scale. The more money they have, the more resources they can obtain, and the more likely they are able to shape public opinion. The rest of us, the poor… do not have such luxuries, and our words can not reach a wide audience, not without depending on collective bargaining.

If you try to label Propaganda as an individual making a deceptive political argument (one that you may not be fond of), then that just makes the word lose all meaning. Then, any time someone shares a political thought with you that you think is garbage, you can just say.. “you are the one really using propaganda… Ha! ha!” I mean, I sht you not… people actually say this to each other all the time. It is really foolish, and part of the reason I made this post. I was trying to figure out why people would take such a foolish position, then thought I should flesh this idea out more. If anything, I want to cement the point that… Propaganda is not some dude on the interwebs promoting his political opinion deceptively, it is a much bigger social force than that!

You see, we think of propaganda as derogatory – which would explain why some use it as an insult to shutdown a conversation that we do not want to have. Yet, really, when we say Propaganda… we usually think of the government or a corporation doing something scummy and underhanded, not individuals with no power or influence. Now, I agree that Propaganda is derogatory and it should be defined as such. For example, if the government or corporations wanted to argue a point of view fairly and truthfully, we would not call it Propaganda. A truthful and fair argument is pretty much the opposite of what we consider propaganda, instead we think Propaganda is made up of unfair half truths, lies and underhanded schemes. Propaganda gets us to agree to things we would never agree to, if we had all the information.

Now, what we also, almost always, connect to Propaganda… is politics. If a large corporation concentrated on selling you candy bars and used illicit techniques, we would not call this propaganda… but if the Koch brothers, are using their money and power to sell the idea of a “free market” to the american people using misleading information.. we would, correctly, call this propaganda. So we see now that, when we talk about Propaganda, it has to be in relation to politics.

Yet, what is the difference between a lying huckster and a lying government or corporation? If they are both committing the same actions, then can’t we call both of those actions propaganda? I am going to say no. In fact, I am going to say that Propaganda is always top down, not bottom up. Meaning that unfair/deceptive arguments are only classified as propaganda when people/institutions with power – multinational corporations and governments – use them on people without power – us. Propaganda is not when people without power – you and me – use deceptive arguments. I mean, if you have no power, then you actually can not even use propaganda on the scale necessary for it to work, because your message will never get through to that many people, and you wont have enough capitol to finance Propaganda on the large scale required.

This does not mean individuals can not spout points they got from propaganda campaigns, they can, but we would classify these people as citizens under the influence of propaganda. I think the distinction, while subtle, is essential. If you say to a guy you do not like, that what they say is propaganda… it is a kind of empty claim. More than anything, it is just meant as causal insult or synonymous for “I do not believe what you are saying.” Yet, if you say to an individual that the points they are sharing are points that have an origin in specific propaganda campaigns, this is no longer an empty claim. Now you have to go about showing that this is true. You actually have to point to a specific propaganda campaign, and show that their claims have a strong origin in corporations or governments lying to the public. I think this distinction is needed, it avoids people just mudslinging empty insults when they have deep political differences.

Well, let us back track a bit from this point. If your first instinct, when I said propaganda can only be done by people/institutions with power, and not done by individuals without power… that this is that a hypocritical stance… we need to look at this objection more carefully so that I can convince you that this is the only way to effectively label propaganda for what it is.

The reality is that we make this kind of distinction (someone with power and someone without) all the time. So it should be easily accepted. We just have to go back to our analogy. We already know that the amount of power someone has changes the moral standing of their actions, and as a result the amount of responsibility they have to not commit such actions. I can tell a lie in public, and it is bad, but when a presidents tells a lie to the american people… that is on a different moral level. We naturally categorize actions differently depending on how much power one person is holding over another. As we said before, a teacher hitting a student is a much bigger moral failure than a student hitting another student. A teacher hitting a student is a different category of wrong precisely because the teacher is in a more powerful position; catching the president in a direct lie is a way bigger deal than catching me or you in one. It matters not the child’s actions are identical; it does not matter if lying is common in everyday lives (When you are leader, you should not go around lying to the public so boldly. Obama can not say “Well everyone lies” when caught in a lie about say… how many civilians he has killed in drone strikes. That would be absurd.) It is that same reasoning that allows us to rank unfair/deceptive arguments and schemes as propaganda when powerful institutions use it – government and corporations – and not rank them as propaganda when powerless individuals use it – me and you.

Finally, from what we learned in our mini history lesson. Propaganda is not just someone lying to your face selling you snake oil. Oh no, what we saw in the origins of modern propaganda is that its central aims are not to argue with you directly, but rather to use psychological tricks to influence your opinion. Advertising and snake oil salesmen have always been around, but the propagandists is something new… and they are new because they use scientific research and try to exploit natural flaws in human psychology to influence our opinions unfairly. Propaganda is trying to avoid informing you and letting you make a rational decision, rather, it wants to influence you in other ways – that you may not even be conscious of.

So with this, I think we can lay out a rather solid check list that can help us identify some social phenomenon that we would classify as Propaganda.

1) It has to be in relation to politics. So we draw the line between regular advertisements and Propaganda.

2) It has to be done by major elite players in society. The powerful in this society would be mega corporations and the government, and probably even major universities, down to the public education system as an institution (if you wanted to argue it. Some people do because the way American History is taught in schools) This is so that we can draw the line between some crazy dingbat and people/institutions with real power. Propaganda only matters because institutions with power wield it effectively.

3) Telling the truth and presenting all the facts is the exact opposite of Propaganda. Propaganda as we know it today, is done purposefully so that we, the people, can not obtain all the facts. It works to keep us uninformed so that we simply follow what the powerful institutions wish us to do. In this sense, Propaganda is synonymous with lies, not truth.

4) Modern propaganda is more than just coming up with an underhanded argument. It involves a huge effort on the propagandist to influence public opinion on a massive scale without letting the public know it is being influenced to such an extent. This requires a lot of money and political/social capital, thus it makes sense with point 2, that only major players in society can actually use propaganda. In this sense, Propaganda involves some sense of planning, subterfuge, massive resources, and  an understanding that you can convince the public on a massive scale not through argument, or attempting to inform them, but through exploitative psychology.

Those four points combined, I think, accurately let us map what propaganda is, and it will also allow us to perhaps even spot it before it influences us. Given that we have a pretty solid foundation of what propaganda is… we can begin to understand that the statement, “Propaganda exists in America and it influences us”… is not an outlandish claim. It is, in fact a rather dull one, one that most of us already believe. Yet, in order to at least have a fighting chance in stopping this sort of influence over us, we need to look at the techniques and mechanisms of successful propaganda. Once we understand it’s mechanisms, we can finally be ready to be on guard and minimize it’s social influence.

In the last part, part 4, we are going to dig in deep and really look at the methods of Propaganda in a detailed and analytic fashion.When I get around fleshing out the details, and it will take a while, I will post part 4.