Wow. Sorry I’m so late on this post. All right, I’ll try extra-hard to make this week’s entry a good one to make it up to you guys!
What do you think about when you hear the word propaganda?
I’ll bet it looks something like this:
Or, if you’re more into the perspective of the other side,
That’s the kind of image that most people think about when you mention propaganda. Notice the similarities – simple pictures, colorful, compelling slogans, and caricatured good and bad guys. If we saw one of these today, most of us (well, unless you’re in North Korea, and if you are, you really should stop reading a blog on manipulation before someone notices you) would either laugh it off or be scandalized by the insult to the intelligence. Boy, those older people must have been dense to be taken in by these!
Well, it turns out that the art of propaganda didn’t really stop at the end of WWII. The techniques and the medium and the art simply evolved, away from poster art and more towards tweaks and manipulation of standard media.
First off, propaganda posters were not just used in war. Most people don’t realize this, but you can find old propaganda posters on most of the key issues of the day prior to the 1960s. For example, just after WWI, women’s right to vote was a hot topic, and posters went up to dissuade men from voting for, well, women’s right to vote:
Note the similarities with the war posters above?
By WWII, it became clear that posters alone were not going to do it. An entire branch of the military, the Office of War Information was actually built to figure out new ways to spread propaganda. They focused on new ways to reach both domestic and foreign audiences, using relatively novel methods – everything from working with writers of movies and comic books to emphasize the war effort to more esoteric efforts – Operation Cornflakes, for example, was a project where the Allies bombed German mail trains, and then airdropped bags of mail in the region. The mail contained Allied propaganda with fake German stamps, and when the Germans came to clean up the bombed trains, they found the bags and, thinking that they were part of the original mail train, they delivered the propaganda mail themselves.
Many of the people hired in this office over the years left at the end of the war and joined private companies. They were the seed of modern propaganda efforts – except that today, propaganda is much more focused on new media than on cute posters and mail efforts.
Think of radio call-in shows, for example. Of course, they use screeners so that only callers that agree with the host (or that are so inarticulate as to make good fodder for the host) can get through. But screening is only half the battle. What if you can’t get good quality callers to call in? What if your callers are too smart to agree with you, or too idiotic to agree with you articulately? Well, then, you use a service! Services like Permiere On Call hire actors to call in to shows with pre-set scripts. The scripts adhere to the basic propaganda rules: colorful, caricatures (both good and bad), and simple, easy-to-understand messages. To a very large extent, those services are pure propaganda – just in a different format.
What about TV? I could do several blog entries on Fox News alone, partly because it has brought propaganda to a new level, and partly because it is new at it, so there are enough mistakes that can be easily spotted for discussion. The Fox News propaganda is more subtle than flashy posters, but it is quite effective:
One trick that Fox News likes to use, for example, is to use images from previous events while reporting on other things:
For example, this was a scene from Sarah Palin’s book-signing tour. The voice-over by Fox reporters talked about “huge crowds” at the book signing, seen above. Except, of course, that the crowds were not there – turns out Fox had used footage of the 2010 campaign instead. Fox likes doing this – it did it while covering a health care rally, for example, and did it again while covering a Michelle Bachman event using crowds from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 event. Fox News does this often enough that the writers of the Daily Show now consider it a safe staple for a source of jokes.
A similar process was used on Joe Biden – On March 16 of2009, for example, Fox News showed an abridged clip of Joe Biden saying that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” It was a stupid thing to say at that time, of course, and made him look completely moronic. To be fair, he did not say it then – he had said it during the campaign as part of a longer point, and the clip had been shortened to make it appear as a recent interview.
Fox News apologized for all these things, of course, once they were discovered, but it makes no difference. Remember the Distribution Rule? If you spread the news that Biden is an out-of-touch politician one night on prime time, and then apologize the next day during the morning, far, far more people see the propaganda than the apology.
Another trick that Fox News pulls off relatively often is to remove things instead of adding them. For example, during the last State of the Union, President Obama made some jokes. The next day, Fox reported that the “jokes fell flat”. What followed was almost painful to watch: president Obama made jokes, which were followed by silence and even cricket sounds, added by Fox to emphasize how terrible the president was bombing.
The problem, of course, is that the president’s jokes didn’t bomb- the actual jokes got lots of laugh, but Fox edited them out and replaced them with silence and cricket sounds.
Even Ron Paul fell victim to the same trick. When Ron Paul was announced as the CPAC 2011 winner, the crowd cheered and shouted. When Fox News showed the scene, Ron Paul is heavily booed. How is that possible? Well, Fox simply changed the soundtrack to a speech where Ron Paul was booed – in 2010.
All right, one final one, not to pick on Fox News. On Feb 10, Fox News anchor Jon Scott decided to take the viewers on a “look back at how the economic stimulus package grew and grew.” Followed was a timeline video that showed a very partisan view of the stimulus package history. How do we know it was partisan? Well, it was written, word for word, by the Senate Republican Communication Center – it was a Republican press release masquerading as news. The issue was not showing it – it was not identifying it as a Republican packaged piece instead of investigative journalism.
Propaganda is a very specific type of manipulation. At its heart, propaganda is all about simple narrative: find a compelling slogan, and hammer it home with basic, simple tools. the propagandists of today have had to adapt, and they use digital media instead of posters, but the lessons learned by the poster makers are still valid. Find a compelling slogan, caricature it, and then spread it as fast as you can. Propaganda is not subtle – “Japanese soldiers are evil!” “Suffragettes hate their family!” “Sarah Palin is popular!” “Democrats are not!” – but it doesn’t need to be. The idea is to take a narrative, make it simple, make it colorful, and then spread it as far as fast as you can. Whether you do it via posters, or radio shows, or television shows doesn’t make a difference – the core idea is the same. And it still works today just as well as it did 100 years ago.