The Pitfalls of Propaganda

The Pitfalls of Propaganda

        The human brain is usually well protected from tricks and outside influences. Over time, it has grown adept at spotting and removing outside manipulations that silently creep in. Of course, that does not apply to one of the most frightening, effective, and malignant tools of our time. Slowly slithering itself into open thoughts, unmade decisions, and naive perceptions, it shows no remorse and it takes no prisoners. Propaganda is just as deadly as any terminal disease, as toxic as any fresh poison, and yet, it remains surreptitious and unnoticeable. In its most simple and most dangerous form, propaganda plays into the brain’s base needs and desires, influencing people, their thoughts, and their decisions in such a subtle way that the brain does not even realize it has been tapped and trained until it is too late.

        Propaganda has taken a large role in the lives of almost every single person on this planet, but few actually understand the deep rooted history and intricacies of a propaganda campaign. The Cambridge English Dictionary calls propaganda information or ideas that are spread by an organized group or government to influence people’s opinions, especially by not giving all the facts or by secretly emphasizing only one way of looking at the facts (Propaganda). William Butler a professor at the University of Kent paraphrasing and simplifying an earlier work of David Welch, says that, the purpose of propaganda is simply to narrow one’s perceptions (Butler 4). Propaganda is the persuasion of a targeted group to a specific cause directly or indirectly by the cause or those that benefit from it. Propaganda has a large and impactful history, stretching all the way back to its very first use in 1622 describing a committee created by Pope Gregory XV called the ?Congregatio de Propaganda Fide’ to help propagate the faith. It has been used in wars and conflicts to great effect as well as to no effect. An example is the Indian Rebellion of 1857, where local leaders used trigger phrases to get common citizens to rise up in arms against the British Colonizers, though the.

During World War One, the Austro-Hungarian Empire used tactfully placed propaganda to unite the vastly different population groups that cohabited the nation and call them to war. In 1916, just before the United States joined the fight in World War One, a poster by James Montgomery Flagg started circulating, with a patriotically dressed Uncle Sam telling those in the audience of the piece to join the army with the simple phrase I want you for U.S. Army. In Britain, as Nazi Germany rose to power, the government started putting up posters telling concerned citizens to Keep Calm and Carry On as a way to placate citizens as the war raged on. Images made by Vietnamese citizens during what they call the American War feature a common theme of foreign invaders and local, rural people forcing them back. Despite its usefulness and commonality in war, propaganda can also be used in other places with other contexts. During World War Two, Rosie the Riveter was a piece of propaganda used to get women into vacant jobs formerly filled by men, but was adapted to become a symbol for women’s rights in the United States. It has been used by ISIS and Al-Qaeda to spark recruitment from local citizens and those abroad. Currently, propaganda takes a different form from history, jumping on to a newer development with more potential than is conceivable: Technology. Propaganda thrives on technology. Fake news on Facebook, an ever growing problem, is a propaganda campaign at it’s finest. Misleading titles attempting to get clicks, while not as deadly, are propaganda nonetheless. Photoshopped images on advertisements and regular social media platforms are influencing the way a person may think of a particular product or person, even with no basis in fact, and that is propaganda. Swaying the vote from one side of the political spectrum to the other is quite common with political propaganda influencing voting percentages and choices.

Another, less discussed but still impactful side of propaganda is that of health indoctrination. In the prohibition and the years that lead up to it, alcohol was demonized as a push to illegalize it became a law. Anti-smoking campaigns, some of which still run on today, use graphic images and harsh realities to portray the negatives of smoking. With the intention of lowering teenage pregnancies, safe sex information has spread around, lowering pregnancy rates and improving life spans. When Ronald Reagan announced his War on Drugs, he used significant amounts of propaganda to push the notion of drugs being criminal onto the American people. On the flipside of that campaign, advocates for marijuana legalization use similar types of catchy sayings and colorful pictures to change public opinion on marijuana back to the positive.

        Propaganda has a long and storied history of influencing vulnerable people, but the general populous still has little to no idea how it works. Propaganda is a very powerful tool used for conveying and converting public opinion through effective biological responses and a targeted audience, and can make changes to a person’s very thoughts and habits. Propaganda works behind the scenes, and those behind it make very specific choices when marketing it. They can either consciously reinforce, or subconsciously infiltrate. Conscious propaganda takes thoughts and fears that people already harbor, and amplifies and weaponizes them. For example, it plays up the notion of immigrants stealing jobs to unemployed people, causing them to turn on immigrants. It shows smoking death facts to smokers in an effort to get them to quit. It takes things that the people already know, whether they believe it or not, and creates neural links to the information that it provides, so that when people think of their lack of a job, they think about how much they hate immigrants. Subconscious propaganda takes a different route, manipulating those unaware of an issue, or those indifferent to an issue, and, by using subtle terms with high meaning or value, moves the victim to their side. Doomsday cults, which persuade susceptible people into joining based on their fear that the world will end are a clear example. Advertising is basically corporately sponsored subconscious propaganda, persuading certain groups of consumers to consider a product.

The next time that the consumer sees the product at the store, if the propaganda was effective, the odds of them choosing the item or spending money increase. Shankar Vedantam, a Stanford educated human behavior reporter, believes that the biological response to propaganda is evolutionary, occuring in what he calls the hidden brain(Vedantam 4). The brain likes to believe that it is correct, and when anything plays this up, whether true or not, the brain takes note and further reinforces its beliefs from other information or ideas from the source. Because of this, the brain rewards itself upon exposure to propaganda, creating a falsely happy feeling. Choices make themselves, as the brain, wanting to continue the good feelings, decides to follow the path that feels nice. Interests and hobbies change as the brain chooses to do what outside sources have told it. Beliefs, political or religious, rarely change due to propaganda, but propaganda can be used to strengthen thoughts, or push people further down a path. Propaganda disrupts neural links, forging paths for thoughts to follow that did not exist before. Because of these effects, propaganda is the strongest tool in the arsenal of those that are in the market to influence and change people.

        Due to the unpredictable and secretive nature of propaganda, it is hard to discern and track by the untrained eye. In fact, this paper, which uses the word ?propaganda’ 43 times, could be considered a piece of subconscious propaganda, discreetly linking the term to a negative connotation. The point of this exercise really has been: look at information with a cautious eye, as propaganda might be hiding in plain sight. Propaganda has been used for hundreds of years to great effects. Nations have been toppled, religions have grown from tens to millions of members, and fake news has become a significant worry of a vast number of people, due to the fact that the brain is rewritable. Propaganda plays into the brain’s base needs and desires, influencing people, their thoughts, and their decisions in such a subtle way that the brain does not even realize it has been tapped and trained until it is too late and has changed. Like all deceptive, persuasive mind games, with simple information on what propaganda is, the power it holds falls, and it becomes useless. Let it.

Works Cited

  1. Butler, William, review of Propaganda: Power and Persuasion (Exhibition), (review no. 1489). https://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1489. Accessed: 8 November 2018.
  2. Irvine, Dean. Vivid Propaganda Posters of ’50-’70s Vietnam. CNN, Cable News Network, 15  June 2017, www.cnn.com/travel/article/cnngo-travel-vietnam-propaganda-        poster-art/        
  3. index. Accessed 6 November 2018.
  4. Propaganda. Cambridge English Dictionary, Cambridge UP. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/propaganda. Accessed 4 November 2018. 
  5. Vedantam, Shankar. Why We Believe Propaganda. Slate Magazine, Slate, 15 Sept. 2010, slate.com/technology/2010/09/why-we-believe-propaganda.html. Accessed 7 November 2018.
  6. Welch, David 2013, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, London: British Library.
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