Thursday, September 15, 2005

Propaganda vs. getting the message out

I wanted to respond to something the Thinker said in passing about why Republicans have had an edge in the last couple elections. I don't think it's useful to call the right-wing noise machine a purely propaganda outfit. Though there's certainly a lot of lying and misdirecting going on at Fox news and Rush Limbaugh, that's not the reason why they've achieved so much. In short: they have done a good job of arguing for their conservative goals and ideals.

I don't mean to imply that they have good arguments - far from it- but there is something persuasive to having someone on the radio or television arguing for a policy or perspective every single day. People can relate to it and even if they don't agree with every little thing Hannity says, they tend to appreciate his perspective and subconsciously pick up the prejudices of the host.

From radio and television, people get a sense for that conservatism is cohesive and makes sense even if they don’t agree with it. This is especially important when you compare it to the Democrats main way of getting the message out: Candidates and office holders. While I appreciate Obama just as much as the next guy, politicians doesn’t have the freedom to take an unpopular stance just to be intellectually honest like a talk show host does.

I suppose this is all a roundabout way of touting liberal blogs, Air America, and vast Left-wing conspiracy. That’s one of the reasons I blog: to help people understand that liberals aren’t want Rush Limbaugh says we are, that liberals have an honest cohesive set of ideals and morals, and that we have a real plan for America.


Thanks for picking up on my comment Tommaso. Let me expand just a bit more about what I think propaganda is.

Most people believe that propaganda is synonymous with lie. It isn't. In fact the best propaganda is very truthful, but it provides no reasoned or experimental support for its points; so people have no way to verify its truth or falsity without a great deal of individual thought or research - skills the public school systems in our country rarely impart.

I define propaganda as information (argument, images, colors, sound, etc.) intended to manipulate people's behavior or beliefs. It may be true or false, but is always designed to bypass reason and invoke a knee jerk reaction. Repetition is certainly a common propaganda technique designed to convince people that a position is true because everyone seems to say it is. (Most people still determine what is true or false by what others say is true or false, not by a reasoned or experimental analysis.)

What I like most about your blog, and why I like to post here, is that it is not propagandistic (by my definition anyway). You (and most other posters) tend to think through issues and apply reason to knotty problems - not always, but more often than most.

If you want to know more about my thoughts on propaganda, click on my moniker below. I've linked it to the section of my web site I've set up devoted to the issue.
A clarification:

When I wrote above that the best propaganda was usually true, I meant that specific details are usually true, but that the overall impression the message intends to leave may not be.

For example, a classic propaganda technique is called card stacking (or cherry picking). With this technique, the propagandist selects items that support his argument, ignoring those that refute it. The untutored recipient is left with the impression that the argument is true, because the evidence presented for it indicates that. There may be quite a bit of evidence to the contrary, but they'll never see it - especially when the noise machine blasts the cherry picked evidence from every available outlet.

In cases where the evidence presented is false, and there is no equivalent opposition noise machine to point that out, most of us (who have never been trained to rationally or experimentally evaluate the information in our environment) will never know it.
I've just been listening to today's broadcast of Fresh Air on NPR. Terry first interviews Chris Mooney, author of the newly published Republican War on Science. She then interviews Robert Walker, a retired GOP congressman and one of W's campaign science advisors.

Mooney lays out a very convincing case to show how Republican propaganda casts doubt relatively settled science like that on evolution and global warming, while attempting to claim research consensus on issues they favor (where none exists) like Missile Defense.

Walker propagandizes relatively effectively - listen carefully.

You can listen via the internet by following the link I've attached to my moniker below.
I've just re-read the post you put up this morning.

Your description of what the right does in presenting cohesive arguments is, by my definition, very good propaganda. What makes it propaganda rather than another type of persuasion is the fact that it is manipulative. They know what they believe, and they want you and me to believe it too. They aren't out to discuss anything, for that means excepting the possiblility that you and your partner might end up moving to a third position different from where either of you began.

They aren't interested in anything like that. They want to convert or demolish you. Like SmashT, they want to win - take no prisoners win.

What attracts people to such people, I believe is the certainty, simplicity and repetitiveness of their message - their propagandistic (manipulative) message.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sorry for the double post. The first one didn't appear once I published, so I redid it, published that one, then saw that the first was there. Tommaso, feel free to remove one if you want.
Maybe liberals, such as yourselves, just talk too much.
"Since that's the case, their arguments can be simple and repetitive. It is this simplicity and repetition that attracts so many. It also makes what they do propaganda rather than just getting out a message."

Come on, your sides arguments are simple and repetitive, too. Give some dum bslogans to the poor people in the inner city and they'll follow a rich jerk liek John Kerry. It's just that you guys are horribly ineffective at getting out your simple slogans, which is rpetty damn sad.
I think that if you're going to define propaganda as broadly as you do, Thinker, I might be in favor of some for Democrats. As it is, I wouldn't consider propaganda someone who just lies or just makes bad arguments. To me, propaganda has to have some type of top-down structure. I wouldn't consider Ruch Limbaugh propaganda just becuase he's a popmous windbag who lies a lot of is extremely partisan. Fox news on the other hand is a a corproate entity that seeks to bolster one political party without reguard to what they actually do when in power. It's notthat Fox news just happens to have biased newscasters and opinion jounralists - they are shoosen that way regaurdless of the ratings they bring in.
Ha Thinker. You better be careful or I'll start charging you per post! Seriously though, you should consider starting a blogspot blog. It's easy to do and you could dount on at least one fan.

Back in the day we had some more liberal bloggers and it used to be fun to rally back and forth between each other's blogs. Nowadays, commenting is a lot like bear-baiting.
Tommaso wrote, "To me, propaganda has to have some type of top-down structure."

I basically agree, propaganda is organized; and an entire industry now exists to train politicians, business leaders, and others wanting to move large audiences to take an action or embrace a point of view.

As best I can tell it began under the Democrats when Woodrow Wilson set up George Creel's Committee on Public Information to sell a reluctant public on the value of fighting what we now call World War I, but was at that time christened the Great War and the War to End War. The members of that group, most notably Edward L. Bernays, went on to found what we now call the Public Relations industry.

The Democrats in the 30s and 40s under FDR did a better job of embracing the lessons Bernays taught. Although by the 1950s Republicans too started working with advertisers, and Eisenhower was elected with a great deal of help from them.

For the most part, political propaganda was restricted to campaigns for elective office and war until the late 1970s. At that point, stinging from Nixon's loss of the Presidency as a result of the Watergate affair, a group of wealthy rightwing Republicans led by William Simon and Richard Mellon Scaife began funding the development of the rightwing think tanks that laid the groundwork for the organizations that produced the perennial propaganda campaigns with which we now live.

Unfortunately, the Democrats are a bit late coming to the party. They early recognized the value of propaganda campaigns in promoting candiates and wars, but are only just now coming to realize the necessity of the sort of permanent campaigns pioneered by the right.

Alternet posted a piece this morning detailing how the right wing machine has been attempting to find the right message to deal with W's image problem after Katrina. You'll notice that pundits and bloggers are an integral part of the effort. Rush Limbaugh and the others do not exist in a vacumn. They shape and are shaped by the other parts of this machine. Once the focus groups, polls, etc. tell them what is working, they all sign on, showing us the full power of the noise machine in action.

For those interested in the history of the development of propaganda in the 20th century, I recommend a 2202 BBC documentary series, THE CENTURY OF THE SELF. It is not readily available in the US or on the Internet, but those wanting to read about it can follow the links from this Google search.

This may shock you, thinker, but (most) bloggers do not receive orders, listen to focus groups, or coordinate campaigns. There really are people who think the way they say they do.

I don't disagree with you, most of us really think/believe what we say we do.

The question is where do those thoughts originate. The value of effective propaganda is that the recipient believes that the thoughts and actions s/he takes really are his/her own. And, because of the development of information technology, one doesn't need to go to meetings or seek out ideas - they are literally "in the air".

If you want to explore that concept, track down an out-of-print book - Snap, Crackle and Popular Taste: The Illusion of Free Choice in America by Jeffrey Shrank
I guess the question I was asking is "who is they?" Who watches the polls and focus groups, and then spreads these ideas in the air?
Beetle asked, "who is they?"

Good question Beetle.

Names that spring immediately to mind:

1) from the political world are individuals like Karl Rove, Frank Luntz, and James Carville;

2) from the business world are the market research firms and major ad agencies.
And these ideas get to (e.g.) bloggers via...?
Beetle asked, "And these ideas get to (e.g.) bloggers via...? "

Via the plethora of mass media to which we are all exposed every day - TV, radio, mass mail, billboards, newspapers, ....

If you're really interested, take a look at some of the work Frontline producers have presented to answer questions like yours. The sites I've linked below allow you to watch the programs online. They also provide access to written program transcripts.

Karl Rove: the Architect

The Persuaders

The Merchants of Cool
Oh, Beetle, in case you're most interested in the nuts and bolts of modern political propaganda, and don't want to wade thru the transcripts and videos I linked above,
read the transcript of the full interview with Frank Luntz from THE PERSUADERS.
I don't suppose you have, say, abstracts, or summaries, or some such? Because glancing through some of those doesn't really say a whole lot other than "people who want people to believe them say things that make people believe them."

The idea that, because other people have tried to convince you of something and influenced the way you view things, your ideas are no longer your own, seems like a rather silly way to view the world. What would it take for someone to have her own ideas? Complete sensory deprivation?
Beetle asked, "What would it take for someone to have her own ideas? Complete sensory deprivation?"

Absolutely not. All it takes is the ability to identify information as it comes in, then to know how to evaluate it.

A major problem is that it is not just a drop or two here and there. We are bombarded constantly, making it impossible to evaluate everything. The first step has to be identifying those things that are important - worthy of an investment of time and thought. Then one has to learn how to conduct rational and experimental evaluations. All of these are things that most of us are never taught. In fact, it is usually the opposite, we are taught to memorize and accept what we're told. People who ask penetrating questions are usually put down immediately and brutally.

It doesn't help that the propagandists are aiming for knee-jerk responses - or "emotional" ones as Frank Luntz claims in the interview I linked, and as his mentor Tony Schwarz (the Democratic consultant) wrote about in his book THE RESPONSIVE CHORD. Most of us believe that our feelings (wants, desires, etc.) are definitely our own, and can't imagine that can be planted; so we don't usually even bother to ask where they come from.

Anyway if we can learn or train ourselves to recognize when we are about to take an important step, then ask what information in our environment has been encouraging the action we are about to take, then rationally evaluate the content of those communications; we will do a lot better than we do now.
What would it take for someone to have her own emotional response, then, as opposed to what you call a "planted" response?
Beetle asked, "What would it take for someone to have her own emotional response, then, as opposed to what you call a "planted" response?"

Ah, that is a very interesting question. I don't know that I've ever really thought about it before.

Except in mental illness, where emotions are triggered by imbalances in brain chemistry, I guess an individual emotional response is triggered by some sort of interaction with the environment (music, reading, discussion, seeing or hearing something, etc.). If that is true, then interacting with a propagandistic message would be just another environmental trigger. The difference being that the propagandist is intentionally attempting to solicit the emotional response, whereas in other situations they are more of a byproduct.

If it is not a contradiction, maybe one has to reason about one's emotions - is this feeling reasonable given what I know and have experienced, or is somebody just pushing my buttons?

I'm afraid that may not be the best answer to your question, but it is the best I can do at the moment. I'll think more about it though.
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