The Age of Propaganda — by Anthony Pratkanis

Propaganda is all around us, persuading us to spend money on things we don’t want, to vote for politicians who don’t care about us and to buy toys that aren’t worth the plastic they’re made of. Fortunately, we can counteract this illusion by identifying the fundamental methods of propaganda and understanding how it works.

With the exception of dictators and authoritarian leaders whose every whim becomes law, persons in power must normally rely on alternate techniques — primarily persuasion and propaganda — to achieve their goals and get the support of the general population. People in positions of authority seek to make us act the way they want us to by carefully altering our perceptions of the world, frequently without our knowledge.
However, persuasion and propaganda are not restricted to politics; in reality, we are subjected to propaganda from corporations and other groups on a daily basis, the majority of which is meant to persuade us to buy items against our better judgment or to entice us into dubious cults.

The good news is that we can train ourselves to detect propaganda for what it is: a lot of hot air. We can construct a better society and make smarter judgments by exposing propagandists’ methods and techniques.

Persuasion is based on rational reasoning and the weighing of several points of view.

People are always attempting to persuade the decisions of others in one manner or another. But this isn’t necessarily as bad as it seems; by utilizing persuasive strategies to influence decision-making, these folks provide us the opportunity to make educated decisions based on facts.
Such persuaders attempt to provide individuals with enough knowledge about the topic at hand to allow them to make an informed decision. A common persuasive method is to present both an argument and a counterargument, only to debunk the counterargument instantly with evidence to support one’s position.

People are always seeking to convince others’ decisions in some way. But this isn’t always as awful as it appears; by employing persuasive tactics to influence decision-making, these individuals provide us the opportunity to make informed selections based on facts.
Persuaders of this type strives to present folks with enough information about the subject at hand to allow them to make an educated decision. A typical persuasive technique is to give both an argument and a counterargument, only to immediately demolish the counterargument with facts to support one’s side.

People who have been centrally convinced are open to receiving information-dense communications. They aren’t interested in any old knowledge, but would rather spend their time analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of various perspectives.
Because of this intensity, such people are completely focused on the message they’re discussing, devoting all of their mental capabilities to comprehending the message as well as their own ideas on the subject. When arguments are presented in this manner, individuals are able to make intelligent conclusions by evaluating information from several sources.

Propaganda muddles its message in order to spread information without people understanding it.

Propaganda, unlike persuasion, does not intend for its targets to have a fair opportunity of retaining their own ideas. Instead, it operates by catching individuals off guard and affecting them without their knowledge.
To do this, propagandists present their ideas in visually appealing packaging, diverting customers from focusing on what is actually being conveyed. This is performed by the use of positive language and the structuring of information in an appealing manner in order to divert customers’ attention away from the veracity of the assertions.
For example, people are far more likely to purchase 75 percent lean ground beef than the identical product labeled 25 percent fat. Similarly, petrol stations offer a cash discount when customers are simply avoiding the credit card premium.

While persuasion relies on the major path of information flow, propaganda relies on a distracted consumer being unable to concentrate on the true message he is being given. Consider advertising marketing a product; the explanations they give for why a buyer should buy anything rarely hold up under investigation.
To get around this, they bombard the customer’s senses with as much stimulation as possible, including music, fast shifting visuals, and a plethora of colors. With so much going on at once, a person viewing the commercial is unable to concentrate on the quality of the information she is absorbing.

This method makes this advertising effective even if individuals just watch commercials for a few seconds while watching their favorite shows. While people may believe that neglecting to pay attention to an advertisement renders them immune to its message, they are just as likely to recall a catchy melody that urges them to buy a product the next time they’re in the store. As a result, a person may prefer one brand over another while having no reasonable basis to do so.
After all, failing to focus on listening implies that individuals aren’t focusing on not listening. Because of this failure, all kinds of things that people wouldn’t expect get through to their subconscious.

The legitimacy of a source, as well as the message it transmits, is critical to the effectiveness of propaganda.

So, propaganda is all about deceiving people, and it takes different forms, but it is always founded on the four stratagems of influence. Let’s start with the first two: the credibility of the source and message.
The person receiving the message will be likely to believe the one giving it if the source is credible. Propagandists meticulously choose persons to convey their ideas in order to dazzle their listeners and force them to focus on the source’s physical appearance rather than the words being given. A typical tactic is to utilize a popular, well-liked, respected, or trustworthy public figure who is well-liked by the audience.

Famous and well-liked sportsmen, for example, have long been utilized to advertise morning cereal. They’re naturally interested in eating well to improve their athletic performance, and the inference is that if they consume a certain morning cereal, you should as well.
In this approach, an athlete’s endorsement persuades consumers to buy cereal without considering how nutritious it is.

The message in the second method utilized by propagandists frequently misleads people on purpose. After all, propagandists don’t care if the product they’re promoting is the greatest one on the market; they just want others to believe it is.
To achieve this purpose, they say things that appear to be bold positive remarks but are only an ingenious technique of dressing up a mediocre fact. Consider aspirin commercials: a firm selling aspirin may claim that no other brand of aspirin works quicker than theirs, but fails to clarify that no other brand works any slower.

People are misled into believing that a product is superior to all others when positive affirmations like these are made. As a result, they’re prepared to spend more for one brand even though it’s identical to the others.

Propagandists manipulate our emotions and utilize them to influence our decisions.

You’ve already learned how propagandists employ source credibility and deceptive messaging; now it’s time to look at the other two influencing strategies: pure persuasion and emotions.
The first, pure persuasion, is a technique for instilling in the target a susceptible attitude. For example, the great amounts of violence presented on television do not represent reality; crimes are 10 times less likely to occur in real life than they are on television.

Nonetheless, politicians attempt to steer the news toward criminal tales in order to garner public support for programs such as the drug war and to divert attention away from economic difficulties that pose a more genuine danger to working-class people. Meanwhile, when they execute measures to combat drug crime and make areas “safer,” these politicians gain popularity.
Gun manufacturers are another good example. When weapons are advertised as a means for defending oneself against the frightening world depicted in the media, they are considerably more likely to sell guns to individuals.

Prepersuasion is a potent tool, but so are emotions, the fourth stratagem. When people are emotional, they frequently take actions that will alleviate their suffering without fully understanding the repercussions.
In one experiment, Merrill Carlsmith and Alan Gross had certain individuals apply electric shocks to others sitting in another room when they replied poorly to questions. When another participant offered an incorrect answer, the other participants were instructed to simply hit a buzzer.

Following this exercise, the volunteers who were buzzing or shocked — who, unknown to those hitting the buttons, weren’t actually being shocked — invited those pressing the buttons to make calls to collect support for “Save the Redwood Forest.” Participants who believed they had shocked the others were three times more inclined to go forward and make these calls.

The entertaining element of the mass media makes us more susceptible to misinformation.

It’s no secret that today’s world is awash in messages. Every day, we are told a variety of messages, yet few of these communications provide many specifics or explanations.

An overflow of generic information exacerbates our proclivity for lethargy and exacerbates our failure to fully analyze what we see and hear. Many people grow hooked to entertainment in this milieu, an addiction that the mass media is ideally positioned to pander to.
In fact, we’ve grown so accustomed to being entertained that even the news has devolved into a type of entertainment. The more “boring” news items, those that delve into detail into political policy or economic processes, are pushed aside in favor of more thrilling reporting about terrorism, murder, and prominent figures’ extramarital relationships.

Most individuals are unpracticed when it comes to listening and analyzing elaborate arguments as a result of the overabundance of useless entertainment. Not only that but when confronted with serious news coverage, most of us would prefer to change the channel than face an often difficult truth.
Because the majority of people will not watch or read anything that requires any mental effort, the messages we receive are greatly oversimplified. Political statements, for example, are reduced to sound bites — short bursts of verbiage that seem strong but lack any actual purpose or significance.

Because the general public is unwilling to sit and listen to explanations, politicians are seldom compelled to explain in sufficient detail what these jumbled signals imply and how they intend to put their ideas into effect. Consider former US President Richard Nixon, who stated during his presidential campaign in 1968 that he would achieve “honorable peace” through the Vietnam War.
But what does that actually mean?
Depending on who you ask, an “honorable peace” may mean anything, and Nixon never had to expand on his vision. As a consequence, two people with opposing views and interpretations of Nixon’s message may have voted for him because they both thought he was speaking on the same issue.

Propagandists use our desire to legitimize our actions and be socially acceptable.

Humans are social and intellectual beings by nature, and propagandists know how to take full advantage of this. The truth of human inclinations may frequently trap people in a vicious cycle, as we are prone to prolonged bad judgments in order to rationalize our actions and save face.
Consider smokers, who are excellent rationalizers. Many people who try to quit smoking fail because they come up with a limitless number of reasons why they should maintain their dangerous habit (I am one of those people). These people convince themselves that they must smoke because all of their friends do, or that they would rather live a short and happy life than a long and unhappy one.

Because of all the energy smokers put in to persuade themselves to keep smoking, the tobacco corporations’ job becomes considerably easier. All big tobacco needs to do is get people addicted, and the consumers will take it from there.
However, propagandists take full advantage of humans’ social nature by employing the granfalloon tactic, which involves gathering individuals together but excluding others in order to create a sense of camaraderie for some — and isolation for others. Rush Limbaugh, a well-known radio broadcaster in the United States, is a prime illustration of this method.

This conservative talk radio star is widely renowned for his radical Republican beliefs and is a granfalloon master. He refers to his fans as dittoheads because they agree with whatever he says, and he compares them with other outside groups whom he degrades and berates.
For example, he dismisses liberals as ignorant and believes that all ethnic minorities are criminals. To avoid being labeled as an unfavorable member of their group, the dittoheads become fierce defenders of it against any attacks.

This group identity, like rationalization, takes use of the human fear of loneliness and the terror of being wrong to persuade people to do and think whatever Limbaugh wants.

Propaganda is widely used in war.

War is one unique application of propaganda tools. In reality, politicians who exploit false information to gain public support for deadly military actions are among the largest beneficiaries of propaganda. They rely on public support to preserve societal order and persuade soldiers to fight.
Thus, war is a perfect illustration of how propaganda, logic, and terror all work together to affect the public. The US invasion of Iraq, for example, was marketed to the American people as a necessary, sensible measure to topple Saddam Hussein, a Hitler-like tyrant.

Naturally, this message stoked fears that if the US did not invade, Hussein would constitute a direct threat to the country. Furthermore, the public was duped into believing that by ridding Iraq of this threat, it was assisting the Iraqi people.
Such measures were employed to sweep off thousands of Iraqi civilian fatalities and silence critics of the US war operation. Americans were so afraid that they justified any choice that reduced their dread, and many truly believed that by murdering Iraqis, the US was helping them.

The Nazis are likely the best example of granfallooning, which identifies a distinct adversary and boosts public determination to oppose it. During WWII, they utilized this strategy against Jews by portraying them as wealthy money-grabbers.
By contrasting Aryans’ blonde hair and blue eyes with the stereotypes of Jews’ dark hair and large noses, the Nazis made it easier to identify and target the components of society that they regarded as undesirable.

Finally, another wonderful example of excessive reasoning is the Vietnam War. This disaster cost thousands of American lives, primarily because withdrawing from the war would have suggested that the US military admitted it had been wrong. As a result, the world’s most powerful military power acted entirely irrationally.
The war’s goals got increasingly ambiguous as time passed, to the point where the end goal was to “win at whatever cost,” merely to establish that it hadn’t all been for naught.

Cults recruit members through the employment of propagandistic strategies.

Individuals believe that cults utilize witchcraft to brainwash people, but the truth is that cults employ the same strategies as for any other propagandistic group — only under a different name.
Cults thrive on reciprocity, diversion, and self-promotion. The first of them, reciprocity, is a potent weapon since individuals are eager to repay acts of kindness offered to them, even if it’s as simple as a flower gift, which Hare Krishnas give out to lure new believers. Such presents improve your probability of connecting with such folks since you feel obligated to them.

Then, if you’ve agreed to give a cult a chance, they’ll employ point number two: a distraction to hide their genuine motives. To do this, they may push you to engage in some lighthearted singing that takes the emphasis away from the message, or they may continually be by your side, never allowing you time alone to reflect on what’s going on.
Once a new recruit is hooked in this fashion, they are urged to go find additional prospective followers by repeating the same beliefs and benefits of joining. This is step three, the self-sell, which also serves a secondary purpose of establishing the cult mindset in the new believer.

Cults use another approach to isolate its members from outside influences while encouraging full reliance on the cult’s leader. Followers are discouraged or prevented from visiting family members or anybody else who could put them off the cult. They’re even trained to perceive others as wicked and to think of themselves as enlightened, which is a fantastic illustration of the granfalloon approach.
Cult leaders are compelling communicators who can reel off several arguments for their superiority and come up with a plethora of reasons why people should be dedicated to them.

In the end, members become locked in a rationalization cycle, resulting in increasingly harsh behaviors to explain their judgments. Entrapment can even result in death, as in the example of cult members participating in mass suicide pacts.

You can combat propaganda by understanding it.

When you consider the enormous number of misinformation individuals are exposed to on a daily basis from politicians, advertising, and the mainstream media, it’s easy to become frustrated. The disenchantment fostered by this atmosphere encourages complacency since individuals tend to believe that propaganda will have little effect on them. However, there are actual steps you may do to improve the situation.
For starters, you and your children can learn about how propaganda works. This is an important step since youngsters are frequently targeted by propaganda in the form of toy and fast food ads. These commercials run over and over again during Saturday morning cartoons and during commercial breaks for instructional programs in schools.

Such propaganda hinders children from developing into persons who will follow the core persuasive path of argument and analysis. It prevents kids from assessing the quality of the message itself, and they end up getting somewhat influenced from an early age.
As a result, children should be questioned about why they believe a new product would make them happier. By addressing such questions, you may encourage your children to think on a deeper level, which goes against advertising’s goals.
Another effective approach for fighting misinformation is to directly dispute politicians and corporations on their assertions. Many people desire to avoid politics entirely and refuse to vote because they disagree with the system.

However, there is another option: write to legislators and push them to back up their assertions with evidence. You may do the same with media sources, demanding that they provide in-depth coverage of a critical problem. If these people and businesses realize that they can only persuade people with facts and honesty, they will need to adjust their approach.
You can also write letters to corporations disputing their product claims. The manner in which they react might reveal a lot — did they genuinely address your inquiry or simply give you additional advertising materials?
If you do not receive a good response, it may be time to look elsewhere for your business.

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A Quant Trader | Data Scientist | can I help you? linkedin.com/in/ali-h-askar

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Ali H. Askar

Ali H. Askar

A Quant Trader | Data Scientist | can I help you? linkedin.com/in/ali-h-askar

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