Propaganda promoting war and smoking has contributed to many deaths
Following World War II, propaganda increasingly became a major instrument to promote national policy. Both the Western and the Eastern blocs waged all-out campaigns to win the great masses of uncommitted people to their side. Every aspect of national life and policy was exploited for propagandistic purposes. In recent years the growing sophistication of propaganda techniques has been evident in election campaigns, as well as in advertising by tobacco companies. So-called experts and other leaders have been employed to portray smoking as glamorous and healthful and not as the threat to public health that it actually is.
Certainly, the handiest trick of the propagandist is the use of outright lies. Consider, for example, the lies that Martin Luther wrote in 1543 about the Jews in Europe: "They have poisoned wells, made assassinations, kidnapedchildren . . . They are venomous, bitter, vindictive, tricky serpents, assassins, and children of the devil who sting and work harm." His exhortation to so-called Christians? "Set fire to their synagogues or schools . . . Their houses [should] also be razed and destroyed."
A professor of government and social studies who has studied that era says: "Antisemitism has fundamentally nothing to do with the actions of Jews, and therefore fundamentally nothing to do with an antisemite's knowledge of the real nature of Jews." He also notes: "The Jews stood for everything that was awry, so that the reflexive reaction to a natural or social ill was to look to its supposed Jewish sources."
Another very successful tactic of propaganda is generalization. Generalizations tend to obscure important facts about the real issues in question, and they are frequently used to demean entire groups of people. "Gypsies [or immigrants] are thieves" is, for instance, a phrase frequently heard in some European countries. But is that true?
Richardos Someritis, a columnist, says that in one country such perceptions caused a kind of "xenophobic and very often racist frenzy" against foreigners. It has been shown, however, that when it comes to delinquent acts, the culprits in that country are just as likely to be native-born as foreign. For example, Someritis notes that surveys have shown that in Greece, "96 out of 100 crimes are perpetrated by [Greeks]." "The causes of criminal activity are economic and social," he observes, "not 'racial.'" He blames the media "for systematically cultivating xenophobia and racism" by a slanted coverage of crime.
Some people insult those who disagree with them by questioning character or motives instead of focusing on the facts. Name-calling slaps a negative, easy-to-remember label onto a person, a group, or an idea. The name-caller hopes that the label will stick. If people reject the person or the idea on the basis of the negative label instead of weighing the evidence for themselves, the name-caller's strategy has worked.
For example, in recent years a powerful antisect sentiment has swept many countries in Europe and elsewhere. This trend has stirred emotions, created the image of an enemy, and reinforced existing prejudices against religious minorities. Often, "sect" becomes a catchword. "'Sect' is another word for 'heretic,'" wrote German Professor Martin Kriele in 1993, "and a heretic today in Germany, as in former times, is [condemned to extermination]—if not byfire . . . , then by character assassination, isolation and economic destruction."
The Institute for Propaganda Analysis notes that "bad names have played a tremendously powerful role in the history of the world and in our own individual development. They have ruined reputations, . . . sent [people] to prison cells, and made men mad enough to enter battle and slaughter their fellowmen."
Playing on the Emotions
Even though feelings might be irrelevant when it comes to factual claims or the logic of an argument, they play a crucial role in persuasion. Emotional appeals are fabricated by practiced publicists, who play on feelings as skillfully as a virtuoso plays the piano.
For example, fear is an emotion that can becloud judgment. And, as in the case of envy, fear can be played upon. The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, of February 15, 1999, reported the following from Moscow: "When three girls committed suicide in Moscow last week, the Russian media immediately suggested they were fanatical followers of the Jehovah's Witnesses." Note the word "fanatical." Naturally, people would be fearful of a fanatic religious organization that supposedly drives young people to suicide. Were these unfortunate girls really connected with Jehovah's Witnesses in some way?
The Globe continued: "Police later admitted the girls had nothing to do with [Jehovah's Witnesses]. But by then a Moscow television channel had already launched a new assault on the sect, telling viewers that the Jehovah's Witnesses had collaborated with Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany—despite historical evidence that thousands of their members were victims of the Nazi death camps." In the mind of the misinformed and possibly fearful public, Jehovah's Witnesses were either a suicidal cult or Nazi collaborators!
The sly art of propaganda can
paralyze thought and prevent clear thinking
Hatred is a strong emotion exploited by propagandists. Loaded language is particularly effective in triggering it. There seems to be a nearly endless supply of nasty words that promote and exploit hatred toward particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups.
Some propagandists play on pride. Often we can spot appeals to pride by looking for such key phrases as: "Any intelligent person knows that . . ." or, "A person with your education can't help but see that . . ." A reverse appeal to pride plays on our fear of seeming stupid. Professionals in persuasion are well aware of that.
Slogans and Symbols
Slogans are vague statements that are typically used to express positions or goals. Because of their vagueness, they are easy to agree with.
For example, in times of national crisis or conflict, demagogues may use such slogans as "My country, right or wrong," "Fatherland, Religion, Family," or "Freedom or Death." But do most people carefully analyze the real issues involved in the crisis or conflict? Or do they just accept what they are told?
In writing about World War I, Winston Churchill observed: "Only a signal is needed to transform these multitudes of peaceful peasants and workmen into the mighty hosts which will tear each other to pieces." He further observed that when told what to do, most people responded unthinkingly.
The propagandist also has a very wide range of symbols and signs with which to convey his message—a 21-gun salvo, a military salute, a flag. Love of parents can also be exploited. Thus, such symbolisms as the fatherland, the mother country, or the mother church are valuable tools in the hands of the shrewd persuader.
So the sly art of propaganda can paralyze thought, prevent clear thinking and discernment, and condition individuals to act en masse. How can you protect yourself?