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Propaganda 101

“You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.” Robert Heinlein, Revolt in 2100

This is a three-part series on propaganda. Today is how it works, next week after is propaganda in the world of social media and AI. The final part is on protecting yourself from propaganda.

It’s tough to be objective. Our biases led by our experience and environment might lead us to have certain underlying beliefs, that we often do not know we have. It’s even harder to objective when people are trying to sway your opinion. Falling for propaganda makes you accept biased information and undermines your rational decision-making.

What is propaganda:

Propaganda is a form of communication aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position. Whilst propaganda is seen as a political tool, it is used broadly. Some examples in the table below.

We all use and fall for propaganda

We all use and fall for propaganda. Let that sink in.

We use propaganda because we feel our cause is the right one, so any framing we make that is not quite 100% the honest truth is fine, because our cause is right and others need to get as mad as we are. We are amazing at convincing ourselves we are doing the right thing. So we juice it up a bit, to get people to listen and feel what we are feeling. We also might slightly twist the opposition's argument. They are in the wrong after all, right?

We often fall, willingly, for propaganda because it's easier than constantly being on the lookout. Besides, we often hear propaganda from people we like, and therefore it's from the home team and we are on the right side. Wanting to be objective is not for everybody. It sometimes feels disloyal and is hard work. Easier to accept your side's narrative and you can live in blissful ignorance.

A 5-step guide to a propaganda campaign

Step 1: Identify who your target audience is.

In an ideal world you would be able to target each audience separately, understanding:

  • How can I get to them? (print, online, social media etc.)

  • Who or what is their 'voice of reason'? (certain newspapers, news channels, influential voices, the church)

  • What language do they resonate with? (to boost our side and discredit the other side)

  • What values or morals do they see as important? (we can point to the other side as having broken this code)

Step 2: Selective truth and framing

Finesse your presentation to maximise emotional resonance and moral high ground.

  1. The moral war: If the opposition can be painted as evil, stupid or crazy (not like us) we do not need to listen to what they say, or why they might be doing things. We also can do whatever we want to them - they do not deserve the rights we give to ‘good’ people (like you and me).

  2. The authority war: Can you get influential and respected people to publicly support you. This is social proof, and works best when you can convince someone who would be expected to support the other side to come out in your support.

  3. The information war: selectively share information that helps make it look like you are achieving your objectives. This helps the morale on your side and makes your side more willing to make sacrifices (it will be worth it in the end).

  4. The visual war: pictures of injured women and children are powerful emotional cues. You must make sure that your target audience sees your pain. You want them to see only the crazed fighters from the other side. The more you can flood people with powerful imagery, the more likely you are to emotionally impact them.

  5. The story war: Make sure that you have very vivid stories and anecdotes. For example a story of one person from your side helping a person from the other side.

  6. The language war: The other side are animals we are heroes. They murder we target.

  7. They started the war: In any conflict, both sides portray themselves are victims of the other side that started it. What will follow will be a curated history selecting only the negatives of the other side. If you can make people believe that the other side started it, then you are just retaliating.

Step 3: Outright lies

In war, truth is the first casualty said Aeschylus. Outright lies in war are part and parcel of both the initiation and continuation of wars (and most likely their ending too). Lies are hard to remove from the group psyche once they have been said. Lies are an effective tool in propaganda.

  1. Make up mortal threats that the other side has. Make the war about survival.

  2. Create a link between your opposition and another common enemy. If you are supporting them you are also supporting these other bad guys.

  3. Make up atrocities that the other side committed. When atrocities are vivid enough, people are likely to believe in them more. Add details that help evidence the brutality.

  4. False binaries: 'You are with us or against us'. The idea that if you do not sign up to someone's response fully, you are in some way against them is logically false.

  5. Create logically faulty statements. An example being, if you believe protecting crocodiles, you are supporting animals that have killed babies. You are supporting baby-killers.

Lies need to be repeated and repeated until no-one challenges whether they are true or not. At that point any hope or eradicating the idea from the target audience is a very slow journey.

Step 4: Symbols, slogans and community

Now its time to enlist more people with a sense of community. There are often a lot of people who can be persuaded by social proof i.e. because people like me are supporting this, than so should I.

  1. Short phrases and slogans. Capture people with a slogan that shows their membership of the cause.

  2. Use of symbols. Have a symbol, that you encourage people to protest with. When you have lots of symbols in one place, it is a powerful graphic. A political sign or flag, or picture of a hero or victim is the norm.

  3. Create group norms, such that a consistent image can be formed.

Step 5: Interfere with the opposition's campaign

Not content with getting emotional resonance for your side, the master propagandists need to silence the other side.

  1. Label those who support the other side as 'enemies'. People are happy to support a cause, but would think twice about being labelled an enemy.

  2. Discredit sources that disagree with your narrative or appear neutral.

  3. Financially or politically put pressure on those who have come out in support of the other side.

  4. Brand as fake any imagery that the other side uses.

Which cognitive biases does propaganda utilise?

1) Make us believe something

Anchoring and availability bias: We are heavily influenced by the first framing they hear. Propaganda, if first source of information, sets an “anchor” for subsequent beliefs and attitudes. We are also subsequently influenced by the amount of times they hear something, as that looms larger in their mind.

Bandwagon, Authority and In-group Bias: We are more likely to adopt certain behaviors, styles, or attitudes if we believe the majority of people, people like us or people that we respect are doing the same.

Simplification and Stereotyping: Propaganda exploits simplistic narratives and stereotypes. This simplified picture then takes advantage of the Dunning-Kruger effect by allowing uninformed individuals to feel confident in their understanding.

2) Help us solidify that belief

Confirmation Bias: People favour information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. Propaganda reinforces these beliefs, making the message more acceptable.

False Consensus Effect: People tend to overestimate the extent to which their beliefs or opinions are typical of those of others. Propaganda promotes a false consensus, creating the illusion that a particular opinion or belief is more common than it actually is.

So what?

  1. Propaganda uses targeted communication to influence communities by taking advantage of their cognitive biases.

  2. A propaganda campaign is typically a multimedia affair. It identifies a target audience, frames messages with selective truths and emotional appeals, outright lies. It utilises symbols, slogans, and community to strengthen group identity and discredits and attempts to silence opposition.

  3. Propaganda aims to create beliefs and then continually supplies information to further sway and confirm beliefs.

Thank you for joining. "Propaganda in the technological age" next week. Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders ( Follow me on twitter: @HBSingh_uk


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