Invisible Puppeteers: A Plague of Propaganda (Pt. 1)

Andrew Wu

July 07, 2023

In a vast, constant, endless stream of noise, it is increasingly hard to decipher the difference between truth and lies, irrationality and rationality. Propaganda can be defined as the "dissemination of information—facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies—to influence public opinion" by Britannica Encyclopedia. This word is stereotypically associated with totalitarian regimes and posters promoting harmful messages, such as the eras of Nazism and Stalinism.

However, an argument can be made that propaganda is worse than ever. Marketing and public relations have given propaganda a good name. There is an important dichotomy in objectives between propaganda and business: one is to sell a product, and the other is to convince others of a point of view. The main point is that both subjects share similar tactics and influence the public.

The origin of public relations stems from Edward Bernays. Being the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, Bernays used his father's psychological principles for business.  

In Adam Curtis' documentary, The Century of the Self, Bernays' most famous success story was illustrated by his influence on women smoking. Previously, smoking was considered an activity exclusive to men. However, Bernays' campaign had associated smoking with gender equality and "the torches of freedom." Furthermore, he paid women to smoke at mass gatherings. Both of these examples utilize techniques of propaganda.

The torches of freedom uses “glittering generalities,” which employs language that appeals to an individual's values such as freedom, honor, etc. In the other case, paying women to publicly smoke uses bandwagoning. All propaganda techniques have a similarly contrasting logical fallacy that comes with it. Bandwagoning is an ad populum, and the torches of freedom with honor by association.

Similarly, it is not uncommon to see celebrities promote products. Surprisingly, this form of advertising is a form of propaganda, as companies seek to transfer the authority of celebrities to their products.

While humans have varying levels of intelligence, they are all susceptible to irrational instincts and logical fallacies. As a result, Bernays is able to "engineer consent" and control the masses by appealing to human irrationality through information. The only way to counter the subtle messaging in propaganda is through media literacy education: identifying and decoding messages within media. With this skill, anyone can recognize propaganda, dismantle its message, and render it ineffective in influencing the individual. Moreover, understanding common techniques such as name-calling, glittering generalities, transfer, testimonials, etc, is essential to identification.

However, society can only get more complex and saturated with noise. Thus, people will face an even greater bombardment from advertising and propaganda. Consequently, there needs to be greater media literacy and critical thinking skills. The bar for propaganda susceptibility and ignorance is higher. The challenge lies in bridging the gap between education and irrationality. 

Only knowledge and discernment can lead us to informed choices in an ever-increasingly complex society.