by Jay Thorwaldson
That headline has nothing to do with the recent national election campaign or the fledgling presidency of Donald Trump, of course. It can apply to divided Palo Alto politics as well as full-blown regional and state campaigns.
Propaganda techniques include often-subliminal marketing/advertising messages aimed at all ages — adults and children — that promote everything from dish soap and deodorant to candidates for president.
We swim daily in such messages — hence most of us, like fish in water, are unaware of them, and especially unaware of how they affect us.
My personal interest in propaganda dates back more than a half century, when my interest in journalism as a career was still budding, circa 1960. I spent a full college semester studying the role of propaganda in our world, past and (then) present.
For my term thesis I researched the 1920s, when the wonder of radio was emerging as a full-blown force. I even dipped into the appalling, name-calling newspaper coverage that preceded the Civil War.
I concluded that the two greatest propagandists of the 20th century were Joseph Goebbels and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
FDR's pre-World War II propaganda was primarily a gentle, encouraging kind for good causes, such as calming the economic fears of a nation and laying the groundwork for a vast expansion of federal programs — those incentives my "I Like Ike" Republican father referred to as FDR's "alphabet soup" programs.
Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" were a brilliant sharing of his views in a despairing and terrifying time of economic collapse and impending war. They still were propaganda, mostly rooted in reality yet designed to influence the beliefs and actions of the public.
Goebbels' propaganda consisted of hate-filled, racist attacks embedded in lies upon lies about Nazi Germany and its intentions in the world, a prelude to unimaginable death and destruction. A friend recently forwarded a collection of Goebbels' quotations from a website — azquotes.com — where many are quoted. Goebbels' quotations have an unsettling, chillingly modern ring.
Following advice not to waste time trying to influence intellectuals, he wrote: "Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth (is) unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology."
And his most famous line: "A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth."
In the late 1930s, in the face of a worldwide propaganda assault, a group of academics and journalists created the "Institute for Propaganda Analysis." It was an attempt to educate Americans about how to recognize and resist the barrage of propaganda flooding the nation. It published a bulletin and books and died in 1942, when actual war engulfed the world and all sides were using propaganda full blast.
The institute attributed its demise to lack of funding. No major potential source of funding and support, it seems, wanted the public to know too much about how to recognize/resist propaganda — not the wartime leaders and military recruiters, not the churches, not the burgeoning "marketing/advertising" industry and monopoly-hungry businesses, not unions trying to expand their power-base among the middle and working classes.
Dale Carnegie's famous book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," first published in 1936, mixed time-tested truisms with insights from the then-fledgling field of psychology — which shares with propaganda the science of influence. In 1981, an updated, streamlined edition of the still-popular book was released.
In 2011, a third edition emerged with a modern twist: "How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age." Social media strikes, or tweets, again.
The term "fake news" has entered our national vocabulary, and nameless "trolls" roam the digital hallways and dark alleys attacking whomever they choose — a dark side-effect of the Tech Age.
Several programs have been developed to educate parents about how advertising affects their kids. Yet no such awareness/resistance program has "gone viral," in today's jargon, in terms of public or media attention. Schools generally show little or no concern about teaching young people how they are being monitored and manipulated.
"Marketing" today goes far beyond pushing and selling products and programs — and political candidates. It includes sophisticated research into personal habits and preferences, including what many consider clear invasions of privacy.
Reflecting a recent-years resurgence of interest in the subject, a book was published in 2004 entitled simply "Propaganda." It was by the late Edward Bernays, considered "the father of public relations" and once named as one of the 100 most influential Americans by Life Magazine.
It could be said that the friendlier term "public relations" is itself a slice of propaganda. "Spin doctors" is a disrespectful shorthand for PR people, of course, who are usually better paid than most professional journalists. Some believe money spent nationally on PR exceeds many times over what is spent on professional journalists.
More recently, a nonprofit website, propagandacritic.com, has focused on the history and implications of propaganda, present and future. Its creator, Aaron Delwiche, a professor at Trinity University best known for his work on computer hacking and "transmedia storytelling," publishes an intelligent review of propaganda and related techniques in an easy-to-read format. It is well worth reviewing — and could be a great do-it-yourself resource for families and teachers to use in learning about propaganda.
And a new term has emerged: Russia's alleged infiltration of the 2016 U.S. election campaign was called in Russia an "influence campaign." American PR firms had already adopted the term, though. One major firm boasted of having more than 5,500 "influencers" available for clients.
Lies, name-calling, use of vague and simplistic answers to complex questions, "buzz words" and subliminal images all play a part in propaganda. The pervasive use of propaganda, many believe, is fostering a cynical disbelief in society generally, with serious implications in terms of public trust in social and political systems.
Learning to recognize and resist the flood of misinformation and manipulative messages, from whatever source, may be more important today in America than at any time in history.