by Jon Atack
Propaganda Sways Opinion
Propaganda is the evil twin of Public Relations. Although the founder of modern PR, Edward Bernays, preferred the term “propaganda”, most people nowadays equate propaganda with manipulative PR or “spin”.
Propagandists have a hidden agenda. They bend opinion at the expense of the truth, a truth that may be completely hidden from public view. Recent revelations about frequent accidents at nuclear power plants in the UK exemplify this tactic.
Political spin-doctors are adept at “stealing” the news by releasing a bigger story than the negative one about to break about their employer, which is then pushed into the middle pages (as shown in the film Wag the Dog, where a potential presidential sex scandal is eclipsed by a manufactured war). They know how to reword any proposition, using the most positive words possible, turning even the worst news into something to be celebrated.
Spin-doctors can also undermine a competitor’s position. In an opponent, “caution” will be reviled as “paranoia”; the willingness to negotiate becomes “appeasement”.
Words That Work
Dr Frank Lutz, consultant to the Republican Party in the US, wrote a remarkable exposé “Words that work” about his profession, including some of his own stirring words as they were voiced by politicians. Lutz gives many examples of wrong and right words, for instance: never say “government”, instead say “Washington”; for “undocumented workers” say “illegal immigrants”; for “capitalism” say “free market economy”; for “wiretapping” say “electronic intercepts”.
Lutz understands the immediate emotional power of words. There are “snarl” words and “purr” words that are readily used to channel thinking, creating the desired emotions in the listener through the words used to describe the situation.
Predators and Propagandists
The true propagandist is a special form of predator, at times a fervent believer in a cause, though most make the mistake of boasting about their sleight of hand. Our present distrust of politicians is a direct result of the memoirs of spin-doctors, who cheerfully admit their attempts to manipulate the public at every possible opportunity.
Propaganda diverts from the negative and amplifies the positive. Hitler said that the Allies won the First War because of British propaganda rather than military strategy. He was able to control almost all available media through his own propaganda minister Josef Goebbels.
A glance at Allied propaganda in World War Two shows how easily images are manipulated: both China and Russia are characterized by strong, handsome people, whereas the Japanese enemy are characterized by buck-toothed, under-nourished, frail images with malevolent eyes.
Public Relations vs Propaganda
The distinction between honest public relations and propaganda is often hard to make: Edward Bernays insisted that Goebbels had simply applied his American advertising techniques to the control of a whole population.
Propaganda can be used to deceive and to create hatred. It is a tool very effectively used by contemporary terrorist cults to attract recruits.
It is best to fight propaganda with truth. The Internet has given us both fact-checking and fake news. We need to learn to differentiate between them. A good start is Pratkanis and Aranson’s book, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion.