Identifying propaganda techniques: Column
By Rich Elfers
Propaganda: “The spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.”
We live in a time when information is politicized. Smerconish.com “Techniques of Propaganda” tells of seven propaganda techniques. They can open our eyes to see what is hidden in plain sight.
“Everyone is doing it, so you should too.” This technique is found in ads and political statements. Psychological pressure is applied to the natural human desire to be part of the group, to be accepted, to fit in. It’s likely there has been a time in your life when you were pressured to conform to a viewpoint or face ostracism.
“Highlighting good information and leaving out the bad.” Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, the president or a child, we all have used this approach. I remember when my two children were ages 4 and 6. They had gotten into a fight. I walked in and asked each separately what had happened. Their statements pointed out why their position was just and their sibling’s was wrong. I remember thinking at the time that my children were destined to become lawyers. Their arguments were so persuasive. They were effectively using card stacking without even understanding this natural human tendency to filter information, so it makes one point of view look good and the other bad.
“The product (or the politician) is for people just like you.” President Trump is a master of this approach. Even though he is a billionaire, he got elected because he has a gift for sensing intuitively what his much poorer supporters want to hear and then saying what they are thinking. They roar with approval at phrases like: “Lock her up!” or “Build the wall!”, not be-cause they actually believe that that’s what should be done, but because he is expressing their thoughts.
“If a celebrity likes it, then you should, too.” This technique is used in advertising. When actor Matthew McConaughey drives a Lincoln, he’s viewed as cool and sophisticated and part of the elite, and people who drive a Lincoln therefore fit in that same category.
Politicians also use this technique. If a popular politician is viewed as in favor of some cause, then his followers will also be in favor of it. Devotees of either political party believe what they do, not necessarily because they have really studied an issue like climate change, but because their party states that it is an important issue. It’s not that the political party is taking a stand on an issue because their supporters believe in it. Research has demonstrated this phenomenon.
Advertisers use terms like “best,” “great,” and “new and improved.” Politicians use terms like: “human rights,” “justice,” “freedom,” and “Make America Great Again.” These words are never really explained. They leave it up to individuals to define the terms. The marketer or candidate is putting a spin on his “product” to make it desirable or meaningful.
“Socialist,” “patriot,” “stupid,”and “war hero.” The use of this technique has increased exponentially since the 2016 election. Letters to the editor have used the word “socialist” without ever defining what the term actually means in real life. Police, the military, environmental laws, and water and sewer systems are all examples of socialism, but are rarely considered when the epithet “socialist” is used. Calling someone “an arrogant, uniformed buffoon” is an example of name calling.
“Invoking something revered like Jesus or the U.S. (this can also be negative, like comparing someone to Hitler or Stalin).” Both sides of the political spectrum use these phrases frequently to denigrate the beliefs of the other side. The problem arises when these terms are used; reason goes out the window and emotion comes rushing in. People become irrational be-cause these words often elicit awe or fear.
These propaganda techniques find their way into our politics, our advertising, and our speech. Hopefully, by making visible what has been invisible, we can become more discerning and thoughtful. We can become truly educated and much more aware of our emotional tendencies.
Rich Elfers is a columnist with the Courier-Herald in Enumclaw, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.