Modern Propaganda Techniques

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Ideas rule the world. 

If you can sell your idea to a large group of people, you can become rich, you can get elected, you can remove your enemies from positions of power. 

I used to think that power came from soldiers, missiles, and tanks but I was wrong. Power comes from the ability to convince a friend—or maybe a nation—that something is good and something else is evil. All the major forces around us are ideas. Democracy is an idea, so is racism.

Powerful people know where their power comes from, and their priority is ideological warfare. 

There is a war going on right now to place specific thoughts inside your head. It is fought by anyone with the motive and resources to change public opinion. It is being fought by political parties, governments, dictators, large corporations, terrorist organizations, and intelligence agencies. 

The weapon for fighting this war of information is called propaganda.

Golden Age of Propaganda 

Modern Propaganda

Propaganda is nothing new. It has always been a part of society. 

Everybody loves a good story and all good propaganda is essentially that—a story. There will be monsters and a saviour. A group of people will be blamed for all your troubles and there will be someone who can save you. 

In the past, this story was spread through posters, speeches, and films. Today, however, we find propaganda online. 

The internet has made our lives better in so many ways. Ironically, it is now being used as a tool for spreading misinformation. Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, blogs, discussion boards, and newspaper sites are full of propaganda. 

As it gets tougher every day to tell fact from opinion, it’s time to expose the clever propaganda techniques that are being used against us.

Emotional Persuasion  

The art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses.
Adolf Hitler

We like to think of ourselves as perfectly rational and reasonable, but are we really?

People, especially in groups, don’t form opinions based on facts and reason. People are ruled by emotion. 

So the first task of propagandists is to attach our emotions and feelings to their cause. It will then be child’s play to manipulate us into acting irrationally. 

No political party wants supporters who rationally analyse their initiatives. Instead, they need people who are emotionally invested in the party. The most valuable follower, therefore, is someone who has made the political party a part of their identity.

Emotional persuasion uses communication to form opinions rather than increase knowledge. Its arguments rely heavily on exploiting logical fallacies and cognitive biases

A logical fallacy is a sneaky error in reasoning. Politicians love fooling us with their flawed logic and their favourite fallacy, by far, is the ad hominem. That’s when they attack the character of their opponent, instead of attacking the argument of their opponent. The result is political discourse filled with name-calling, personal attacks and ridicule.  

Cognitive biases are errors in how our brains interpret information. One such bias is the confirmation bias which is the desire we all have to protect our existing beliefs. The result is that we end up sharing stories on social media that support our views—even if they are biased fake news.    

Another trick that propagandists use is to encourage the use of labels. When you label a group of people, you dehumanize them. Why should I respect THEM? They are a bunch of SJWs/fascists!

The power of emotional persuasion has no limits. It can be used to create a larger-than-life public image of a leader or to convince a community that they are culturally superior to their neighbours. 


Fake News

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Alice in Wonderland

Everyone falls for fake news. (I know I have.)

We are talking about stories that are completely false, but are packaged to look like credible news. This is an organized activity which employs thousands of people and is well funded. 

The authors of fake news are experts in their field. They have studied our psychographic characteristics and they know how to make a topic go viral. 

This phenomenon goes by several names. The US military calls it psychological operations. The Russians call it active measures. The media calls it fake news. You can call it digital deception, online misinformation or, simply, lies. 

The strategies for disinformation campaigns were invented by Russia’s spy agency, the now-defunct, KGB. The New York Times has studied its deceptive tactics which I’ll try to explain here.  

The first step is to look for cracks in society that can be exploited. These social divisions will then be emphasised by mixing truth with lies. (The truth will bring the credibility and the lies will cause the virality.) Think of a news channel that does quality journalism 80% of the time—it can effectively hide 20% fake news. 

In the next step, the propagandists will influence experts to parrot the party line. Subsequently, these biased experts are projected as independent experts on national TV. Fake news, rumours and conspiracy theories are created to support the ideology. These are then shared enthusiastically by useful idiots who believe them to be true. 

This confuses people to such an extent that no one can agree on the facts. And a sane discussion on issues becomes impossible. 

The more a fake story is repeated, the more it starts to seem real to us. Accordingly, a massive amount of fake news is created, and is repeated over and over. Ultimately, people start to think “At least some of it must be true!”

If a section of the population is brainwashed into believing that “2+2=5”, and another into believing that “2+2=3,” then that is the end of an empowered citizenry, the death of democracy.

The final step, for the propagandists, is to have a long-term strategy. Ideological subversion does not happen in a matter of days. It takes patience and large resources. They don’t use one social media account to spread false information, but tens of thousands.

The people who argued with you in the comments section could have been paid trolls. That story which outraged you might have been fake news. And that tweet with a thousand retweets was probably just the work of bots. 

The propagandists hope that the accumulation of fake news will one day create a large-scale social impact. 

Denial of Truth 

Freedom is the freedom to say that 2 plus 2 make 4. If that is granted, all else follows.
1984 (George Orwell)

Welcome to the nightmarish land of post-truth politics, where denial of truth is an acceptable political strategy. 

Leaders can boldly claim that “2+2=5” on TV and get away with it. They can insist that climate change doesn’t exist, that violence is justified and that discriminatory laws are fair. 

We are required to believe that the truth is unpatriotic—or worse, irrelevant. In return, we are offered a flood of half-truths, contradictions, paradoxes, misdirection, exaggeration, and bias. 

Any inconvenient fact can simply be denied and there are familiar tricks for doing so. Propagandists can pretend to not understand an uncomfortable question, give a vague response or go off on a tangent. 

They are coached in PR techniques such as doublespeak, non-denial denial, non-apology apology and cherry picking.

Post-truth politics is creating a society where people believe that truth—concrete, measurable and absolute— doesn’t exist at all. A society where a point of view matters more than reality, where we talk of “your-truth” and “my-truth.”

And this will be the ultimate victory for propagandists: they would have convinced us that truth itself is a lie. In other words, rational political discourse would be out of the question.

Fight Against Propaganda

We can’t hope for all propaganda to go away because that will never happen. Sadly, it’s a feature of human society which is found all over the world. 

At the same time, healthy societies aren’t built on a foundation of disinformation and lies. We have to ensure that the ideas in our heads align with reality. That’s the only way to know which policy is in our best interest and which isn’t.

The fight against propaganda is not a mass movement. It’s an individual movement. You need to take responsibility for what you believe, and everybody else needs to do it too.

Let’s start by realising that language can (and has been) weaponized. Can you identify the hidden bias in the politically-charged articles that you read?

And the next time you feel like sharing something on social media, pause for a moment. Have you read the story or just the headline? Are you sharing it because you believe it’s true, or simply because it supports your existing beliefs? 

Disinformation is only effective if we react to it. If we ignore it, it will die the swift and lonely death it deserves. 

Insist on verified news, not breaking news. (There is no glory in being the first to report a fake story.)

The final step in the fight against propaganda scares me, yet it’s essential. We need to look closely at our own opinions and ask yourselves, “Where do these opinions come from?” There are only 2 possible sources—reality or propaganda. 

Over to You…

Congratulations! By discovering these manipulative techniques, you’ve already joined the fight against propaganda. 

If you are interested in going deeper down the rabbit hole, here are some books you’d find interesting: 1984, The Art of War, Brave New World, Manufacturing Consent and Bernays’s Propaganda.

If you’d prefer watching documentaries, here are some good ones: Active Measures, Century of the Self, The Great Hack, Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies.

Which propaganda techniques have you witnessed recently?