We’re bombarded with persuasive messages on a nearly constant basis, sometimes by paid advertisers and other times by groups looking to forward their own interests. The entities behind these messages all have the same idea in mind: Convince the audience to agree with the message presented and adopt it as their own belief, thus rejecting the viewpoints of the “other” side. Often, these messages are referred to as propaganda, a term used commonly to describe deceptive persuasive techniques. Historically, however, true propaganda hasn’t been full of outright lies or deception, as many people believe. Rather, it’s the statement of facts and beliefs with the intention of influencing a particular audience, trademarked by the omission of any details that might persuade the audience to the other side.
Of course, there are many people who believe that a failure to mention important details is as bad as an outright lie. And there are probably just as many who champion the other side — those who argue that an informed public should research both sides of the story, instead of taking one side’s word as the truth.
Propaganda has been around for many centuries, although the term itself wasn’t coined until Pope Gregory XV established the Congregation of Propaganda in 1622. The pope created this group for the express purpose of trying to win back Catholics who’d taken up the Protestant faith during the Reformation. Missionary work was nothing new, of course, but people began to realize the possibilities associated with “spreading the word.” The technique became widely used not only for religious conversions but also for political and wartime public persuasion purposes.
Propagandists use a variety of techniques to communicate messages and influence others.
A commonly used technique is name-calling, which takes its cue from playground behavior. Often, this technique is utilized to divert attention when someone is trying to avoid answering a question or providing hard facts. Name-callers frequently use labels like terrorist, traitor or hypocrite. They also utilize negatively charged words to describe ideas or beliefs, including radical, stingy and cowardly.
The bandwagon technique encourages the viewer or listener to join the crowd by aligning with the most popular, successful side of an issue. This type of persuasion, often used in religious and political propaganda, plays to the human desire to be on the winning team.
Glittering generalities are very common in political propaganda. Glittering generalities combine words that have positive connotations with a concept that is particularly beloved. Few people are willing to denounce any idea that purports to defend democracy or preserve freedom. The idea is that by using these terms in tandem, people will accept them as they are and avoid looking for supporting evidence. Other words used commonly in this technique include liberty, dream and family.
Card stacking is the presentation of only the details, statistics and other information that impacts public opinion positively. In other words, the bad stuff is left out entirely. Experts maintain that although the information that’s presented is usually true, this type of propaganda technique presents a lopsided and unrealistic viewpoint that is dangerously deceptive. Card stacking is often used in political campaign advertisements.
The plain folks technique is designed to get ordinary citizens to identify with a political candidate or other figure that they otherwise may have nothing in common with. For example, many politicians come from prestigious backgrounds and sport hefty bank accounts. However, they often present themselves as humble people with ordinary lives by doing “ordinary Joe” activities in public, like hunting, fishing or kissing babies.
Propaganda based on fear is designed to scare people into choosing sides. Often, worst-case scenarios are presented of horrible things to come if a particular action isn’t taken. Special interest groups use this technique to encourage people to avoid behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol and driving recklessly.
The transfer technique is more subliminal (operating on a subconscious rather than conscious level) than the other techniques we’ve discussed. Using this method, a group or person attempts to align themselves with a beloved symbol in an effort to transfer the status of the symbol to the cause they represent. Some people see parallels between propaganda and subliminal messaging, in which images or words are presented too quickly or abstractly for people to consciously recognize and process them. This method is really more common in advertising than in propaganda, although some political ads utilize subliminal messaging.
Many other propaganda methods exist, but they subsist on the same basic principles as the ones listed above: Manipulate the message to portray an issue or person in the most favorable light possible, and when necessary, make the opposing side look shabby in comparison.
According to Vanderbilt University professor Mark Wollaeger, the use of government funds to push propaganda has been illegal in the United States since 1951. But it wasn’t until 2005 that the George W. Bush administration signed the “Stop Government Propaganda Now” bill into law. The bill was created due to some outright acts of propaganda committed by government agencies, such as paying television reporters to skew their messages. The bill requires all audio and printed press communication releases to state clearly the government agency that funded its creation and dissemination. Under this law, it’s illegal to manipulate the news media financially.
Propaganda laws and regulations vary from country to country, and some nations have no formal propaganda policies at all.
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