Let’s be honest. Propaganda only affects the weak-minded masses. It’s others, not us, who are susceptible to manipulation by mass media messages. When confronted with propaganda, we might think of similar rationalisations also known as the third-person effect. We find it desirable not to be easily influenced. In reality, propaganda techniques come in many shapes and forms and are designed to sway even those who consider themselves independent thinkers.
The propagandist has a plethora of techniques at his or her disposal. They range from sinister methods of mass-scale thought control to mundane instruments of everyday influence. Before we dive into ten of them and their examples, let’s clarify what propaganda is first.
The Nature of Propaganda
You may be surprised to hear that the term propaganda was originally a neutral one. Prior to the 20th century, it was largely used as a descriptive term for the propagation of ideas. Today, propaganda is hardly a neutral word. We generally associate it with the use of deceptive tactics and the dissemination of lies to manipulate public opinion and perception. This influence is usually highly targeted. It aims to change how people feel, think and act to further an agenda.
Being a game of manipulation and deception, there’s another aspect to propaganda. It’s part of a power game. A game of determining who’s in charge and who can impose their own will onto others. In such a context, the message is almost secondary. As Rob Henderson writes in The True Purpose of Propaganda: “Authoritarian regimes aren’t necessarily trying to convince you of anything. They’re trying to remind you of their power”.
However, propaganda isn’t limited to authoritarian regimes either. You may not be surprised at all that even living in open democratic societies, we’re encountering propaganda virtually every day. While watching commercials, reading online news, browsing social media, or being a good employee. Chances are some legal outfit, marketing department, or private entity carefully crafted a message to influence our perceptions to achieve a desired goal.
Selected Propaganda Techniques
Now back to the plethora of techniques available to the propagandist. Some methods are more innocent than others. Some make use of symbols. Others play with cognitive biases and mislead us into believing one thing over the other. Many propaganda techniques have their roots in rhetoric. They make conscious use of logical fallacies speakers are usually trying to avoid. Where there’s communication, we might say, there’s propaganda. Or at least the potential for it.
That all being said, here they are. A selection of propaganda techniques designed to manipulate the masses.
1. Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD)
Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) is a form of propaganda used to manipulate public opinion by creating a sense of, well, fear, uncertainty and doubt. Fear is a potent motivator. This is why it’s often popular with businesses and political groups as a means to discredit their opponents or spread false information.
FUD can create a negative perception of a product, person, or idea and dissuade people from supporting it. It can be employed to persuade people to buy a certain product over another or to support a certain political candidate over another. FUD is a powerful propaganda tool because it can create a negative atmosphere and prevent people from making informed decisions.
Just imagine this! Your brand-new fridge breaks down and your valuable groceries are spoiled. The frozen pizza? A piece of watery sludge. Your Sunday roast? Ruined. The $500 bottle of Don Perignon? Unpalatable. “You better get that fridge breakdown insurance with your new fridge,” the salesman recommends. Yes. You do want to be on the safe side, not the sorry one, don’t you? Until you realise you’re being subjected to a FUD sales tactic. You don’t get insurance. Because you don’t drink Don Perignon. And you enjoy living on the edge.
2. Glittering Generalities
Glittering Generalities is a type of propaganda technique used to evoke positive emotions and feelings without providing any evidence to support a claim. It involves the use of emotionally charged words that lack any specific details or facts. These words and phrases are often vague and ambiguous, yet elicit a strong feeling of approval from the audience.
The technique is often used to manipulate the emotions of the audience in order to create a favourable opinion of a product or idea. An advertisement, for instance, may use phrases like “freedom” or “happiness” without providing any evidence to support the claim that the product will bring these cherished feelings. Or consider this obscure example.
Back in the 2000s, there was a German comedian posing as the fictional politician and MP Dr Udo Broemme. The satirist knew how to fool people by conducting himself with bravado. He even made it into the chancellor’s office by rolling up to the gate in a black limousine acting as if he belonged. His campaign slogan was similarly vacuous: FUTURE IS GOOD FOR ALL OF US! Who wouldn’t agree? It’s only when you push your emotions aside that you realise: His catchphrase is a glittering yet senseless generality.
Bandwagon is a propaganda technique used to persuade people to think, believe or act in a certain way by capitalizing on herd mentality. It’s a type of appeal to emotion that encourages people to join the majority and take part in a certain activity, regardless of their own beliefs or values. The Bandwagon appeal is a highly effective form of propaganda because it plays on the psychological need to fit in and be accepted by a group. It implies that everyone is doing it and that if you don’t join in, you’re missing out on something.
This type of propaganda is often used in marketing campaigns, political campaigns, and other forms of communication to create an atmosphere of enthusiasm and conformity. To give you an example, I could dial up my newsletter propaganda and urge you to join our movement of millions of devoted mind collectors determined to escape the prison of their own ignorance. I won’t. Because it sounds cringe. But you can subscribe here anyway.
4. Poisoning the Well
Poisoning the Well is a form of propaganda that involves discrediting an opponent’s argument before it’s even presented. This is done by disseminating negative information or making negative assumptions about an opposing viewpoint. As a result, the opposition gets discredited since the tactic creates a bias in the audience before they have a chance to hear the other side.
When the source (or: well) of information is contaminated, distrust in the actual message is almost guaranteed. A related phenomenon is the Contagion Heuristic. This mental shortcut leads us to avoid people or objects that were in touch with someone or something we consider contaminated. How comfortable would you be wearing a T-Shirt that belonged to the person you despise the most? The same applies if we think of personal beliefs as valuable possessions.
In any case, this propaganda technique seems to explain a lot that is happening on social media nowadays. Whenever arguments are not evaluated on their own merits. But based on who voices them and before they’re even uttered.
5. Firehose of Falsehoods
The Firehose of Falsehoods is a term used to describe the overwhelming amount of false or misleading information that is shared online and in media. This includes false stories, lies, half-truths, rumours, and other forms of false information that are shared rapidly, repetitively and widely. Inundating people with messages is a powerful tool that can be used to manipulate the public. It brings us back to Henderson’s idea of propaganda being a reminder of someone’s power.
Because the goal of the Firehose of Falsehoods is not persuasion. It’s rather to blur the line between fiction and reality. To sow confusion, fear, and mistrust, which can have serious implications, such as affecting the outcome of elections or public policy. The method is often employed by states to manipulate the population of an adversary. One of the best ways to deal with the Firehose of Falsehood seems to be a consistent counter-campaign grounded in trust, integrity, facts and truth-telling.
BONUS: Ad Nauseam
Ad Nauseam is a Latin phrase meaning “to a sickening degree”. It describes a situation in which a single argument or point is repeated over and over, to the point of boredom or annoyance. Ad nauseam is often used in reference to political or ideological propaganda, where a certain point of view is presented in such a way that it is repeated ad nauseam, so that it becomes impossible to ignore. As opposed to the Firehose of Falsehood, the goal of using this type of propaganda is to saturate the audience with a particular message in order to persuade or influence them.
Nowhere becomes this method more apparent than in North Korea where one storyline is perpetually repeated: Anything great that was ever built or ever happened to the people of Korea was thanks to the genius and benevolence of the unfathomably capable and charismatic leaders. The inescapable idea is encountered everywhere. In propaganda stories, museums, pieces of art and even the local ski resort. If you’re being subjected to this propaganda technique only for a few days, it’s not hard to see how your mind just begins to accept it and move on.
It’s probably good practice to start with the assumption that propaganda techniques work on us, too. At the same time, there’s no need to become paranoid. The lines between legitimate influence and sinister manipulation are often blurred. But whenever you feel the thinking is done for you, it’s worth taking a second look at what somebody else could gain from you buying into it.
If you’re keen on learning about more propaganda techniques, check out part two of this article exclusive for subscribers of The Mind Collection Newsletter.