Propaganda History

From capitalistManifesto


"Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” - Herman Göhring (NAZI)

No matter how big the lie; repeat it often enough and the masses will regard it as truth. [Undated 1948 "Democratic Party" speech]” - John F. Kennedy (NOT A NAZI)


By the 20th-century everyone needed to be literate. Because of the World Wars everyone needed a vote. But how could the world of nations resist the passing of wealth and power to the proletariat - either in some dystopia of communism or in violent revolution against privilege? Universal suffrage and universal literacy were the key objectives of the progressive movements. Both were conceded by the ruling class, grudgingly at first but willingly and without restriction once solutions to the disruption potential of a literate voting public had been found.

Universal literacy, a threat to social stability throughout the 19th-century, particularly in educating Labour to organize against excessive exploitation by Capital. The solution was propaganda. Universal suffrage was solved by atomization through propaganda working to intensify the population's worst instincts against their best interests in an arguably workable long-term natural order.

"Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man's rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. It may seem an exaggeration to say that the American public gets most of its ideas in this wholesale fashion. The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine.” - Edward Bernays, Propaganda


Some people naively associate propaganda with totalitarian regimes. Certainly, the Nazis, the Soviet and Chinese communists, and brutal dictators like Saddam Hussein have made heavy and sometimes brilliantly effective use of propaganda. But totalitarians may not need to be true masters of propaganda, since they often merely bludgeon people into at least apparent belief and acquiescence. It's in supposedly democratic societies with capitalist economies, where political consent and economic demand are manufactured, to use Lippmann's apt phrase, that propaganda has been elevated to truly high and insidious art form. Indeed, it seems to me that largely through propagandistic manipulation of the means of public communication and representation, the concentrated, self-serving powers that own so much of our politics and so much of our economy have succeeded in thoroughly debasing our public discourse.

I do not know if we will ever break the hold of a narrow, self-serving elite on the means of public communication and representation. One thing that gives me a modicum of hope is the rise of the Internet, with its wild and untamed blog-sphere. To be sure, the Internet remains so wild and untamed that it may end up being a source of more heat than light. But because it is open to so many comers, it is at least a place where contestable representations are contested, sometimes quite rigorously and thoroughly.

But my main thought about propaganda this morning has to do less with institutional reforms than the prospects for reform of individual human minds, one-by-one. It's clear that our own habits of mind, habits of mind deeply ingrained in many, if not all of us, often make us susceptible to propaganda. We all have some tendency to prefer the comforting falsehood, to the hard truth, for example. And that makes us easy prey for those who deploy comforting falsehoods in order to get us to sign on to agenda that we might otherwise not embrace. In the run-up to the war, authoritative voices told us repeatedly that we would be welcomed as liberators, that stockpiles of WMD were present in Iraq, that Iraq bore some vague connection to 9/11, that the war would be quick, cheap, largely financed by Iraqi oil. And on and on. A few dissenting voices could be heard, whispering far off-center stage that none of it was so. But the public, by and large, ignored those voices and bought the tale they were told.

The wonder is less that we bought the initial tale, but that for many many the belief in the tale persisted even as the evidence spoke decisively against it. Once the comforting falsehoods had taken hold, they had vice-grip on our beliefs. This vice grip is the result of what social psychologists call confirmation bias - the tendency to notice and seek out what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, avoid, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs. Confirmation bias often leads us to subject putatively disconfirming evidence to very severe criticism or outright dismissal.

Tendency toward confirmation bias is deeply ingrained in the evolutionary pre-history of our mind-brains. Evolutionary psychologists suspect that a disposition to confirmation bias is connected to a tendency to overestimate our own epistemic reliability.

  • If I find myself believing some proposition, then I also find myself believing that I have a good reason to believe that proposition. After all, one tends not to think of oneself as believing what one believes for no good reason. But that may appear to suggest that someone who challenges what I believe, doesn't just challenge my belief, but also challenges me.
  • If I have committed to believing the government's rationale for the war, what am I to think about myself if I allow that that rationale is entirely fictitious? That I'm not such a good believer after all? That I was a mere dupe? That's a hard truth, few are naturally disposed to accept. Rather than take me to be a dupe, why not take someone who purports to present evidence for a contrary proposition to be mistaken. Which is more comforting?


Most have an idea of how old propaganda posters were used as an instrument to hammer out mass-consensus on a large, national scale. Without having studied propaganda in detail, its effectiveness is demonstrable in the personality cults of Hitler and Stalin (both still well-known today) and the easily recognizable symbols of Nazism (the swastika) and the Soviet Union (the hammer and sickle on communist red). 
 BUT! Propaganda is not only what you find in history books. Often, it's the history books themselves.

  • Propaganda is not just a tool for dictatorships and authoritarian governments.
  • Propaganda is a widely spread phenomenon embedded in every act of communication.
  • Nowadays, propaganda is part of everyone's daily life.
  • Propaganda has become far more invasive and subtle over its roughly hundred-year history.

* Propaganda appears in a variety of forms

  • Propaganda is strategic and intentional
  • Propaganda aims to influence attitudes, opinions, and behaviors
  • Propaganda can be beneficial or harmful
  • Propaganda may use truth, half-truths or lies

Propaganda uses its own techniques to make itself legitimate. It's often disguised by appropriating (or inventing) new words: public relations, advertising, messaging, government information film, health warning, slogan, headline, etc. We take processes and methods adopted in the flow of information that constantly bombards us as they are, but they in fact conceal techniques that are used to achieve some pre-determined results and that target specific audiences leveraging on their tastes and ambitions, on the values they believe in, promoting a vision of the world that comforts them in their beliefs. To be successful, propaganda taps into our deepest values, fear, hopes and dreams. Most important of all, propaganda uses diverse means and techniques to accomplish its goal.

Modern propaganda uses all the media available to spread its message, including press, radio, television, film, computers, fax machines, posters, meetings, door-to-door canvassing, handbills, buttons, billboards, speeches, flags, street names, monuments, coins, stamps, books, plays, comic strips, poetry, music, sporting events, cultural events, company reports, libraries, and awards and prizes. It is most likely that some of these media uses are surprising, but that only serves to show how easy it is to not even recognize propaganda as such.