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Bread & circuses
Propaganda is common and inherent in democratic systems

May 5, 2004

"What is it men cannot be made to believe!" - Thomas Jefferson, April 22, 1786.

What a strange sight it must have been! On Easter Sunday, March 31, 1929, a group of socially-prominent women including former suffragettes went marching down New York's Fifth Avenue, self-consciously waving their "Torches of Freedom" in full public view. The march was promoted to be a declaration of womens' political equality and defiance of gender repression, except that the "Torches of Freedom" they were carrying and puffing were actually just cigarettes.

Unbeknownst to them, the entire march had nothing to do with freedom or women's rights, but was actually a propaganda feat arranged by Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and the public relations consultant to American Tobacco Company, who had been hired to increase smoking among women by breaking the social taboo on public smoking.

The now-famous "Torches of Freedom" campaign is familiar to any student of public relations. It grew out of a previous campaign designed by Bernays and his bosses to convince women to smoke at home. His tactic was to glamorize the image of the smoking woman, and to equate smoking with remaining skinny and attractive.

His advertisements encouraged the ladies to reach for a cigarette instead of reaching for a chocolate. And once women started smoking at home, the next obvious move was to get them to smoke in public. And that's how smoking became so related to gender equality and attractiveness that, until quite recently, a particular cigarette company was selling a "Slim" cigarette to women with the motto, "You've come a long way, baby!"

Baby indeed. Americans generally find it hard to believe that they are the victims of propaganda. Such ideas are usually attributed the lefty types whose fashionably political views extend merely to buying the latest Chomsky book. After all, the word "propaganda" is associated with totalitarian states. It brings up mental images of conspirators in dark rooms plotting to air-drop leaflets into enemy territory, or of Nazi soldiers goose-stepping in unison on black-and-white newsreel shows.

In fact it is only recently that propaganda has had a negative meaning. The word originated in Catholic Church's plan to "propogate" the faith in 1622, though historically all governments have practiced propaganda, and not just during wartime against enemy troops. Aristotle's book on Rhetoric is a manual on the uses and abuses of propaganda. Machiavelli advised rulers to mind appearances, because people make judgments on appearances rather than on facts.

Leaders have always known that they can manipulate their followers through the skillful use of images and symbols. What message do the Pyramids convey? "Look at us Pharoahs! We're Gods! So don't mess with us!" Both Caesar and Napoleon were skillful propagandists who published books and newspapers containing accounts of their own military feats. So, the next time you see a painting of Napoleon riding a grand and beautiful horse as he crosses the Alps, remember that in fact he rode a donkey, but the humble donkeys doesn't make for stirring paintings of military honor and glory, does it?

Propaganda is not only much more common in democracies than in totalitarian states, it is also much more sophisticated. Totalitarian regimes don't need propaganda, because they can more easily rely on simple coercion to control their people. Democracies, in contrast, must rely on persuasion and opinion management to control their people.

Indeed, propaganda is so common and inherent in the democratic systems that one British scholar recently suggested that a whole new phrase be added to the political lexicon: the Symbolic State. That's a state "whose directors recognise that, in a sense, words speak louder than actions, and that the production of the correct imagery is politically more significant than the creation and execution of correct policy, the old concept of governing." (O'Shaughnessy, Journal of Public Affairs, November 2003, vol. 3, no. 4)

Yes, as Baudrillard predicted, the image has finally overtaken the reality. And that's why today, there are hundreds of thousands of people employed in the so-called Persuasion Industry, getting paid to manipulate the public mind, and to sell you everything from cars to cigarettes to tax-cuts and wars.

The first official, government-controlled propaganda office in the United States was known as the Committee on Public Information (also known as CPI or the Creel Committee, named after George Creel, a newspaper publisher who was appointed by President Wilson in 1917 to direct the internal propaganda operation.) The purpose of the Creel Commission was to convince the American people to overcome their isolationism and support US involvement in World War I.

Creel hired the best and brightest from the fields of academia, business, entertainment and advertising to push this message. CPI members included Edward Bernays as well as Walter Lippmann, a prominent journalist and political commentator who wrote the founding text of the field of public relations, entitled "Public Opinion."

Creel developed the CPI into a highly-sophisticated public relations organization, utilizing a wide variety of propaganda techniques including films, books, cartoons, and a 75,000-member cadre of volunteer speakers known as "Four-Minute Men" who would deliver impromptu anti-German speeches at any location that people gathered, such as in movie theaters or bus stops.

These speeches relied on exaggerated or fabricated anti-German atrocity propaganda, such as claims that the spike-helmeted " Huns" were throwing babies onto their bayonets and making soap out of dead bodies. This war propaganda campaign was so successful that Hitler wrote about it approvingly in Mein Kampf. The war fervor stirred up by Creel also resulted in severe backlash against German-Americans who were often attacked and forced to prove their loyalty. And for a brief time in the USA, hamburgers were called Freedom Steaks. Sound familiar? With the end of the WWI and the return of American soldiers from the front in Europe, Americans went through a period of disillusionment as they learned that much of what they had been told about the war had been misleading or plain lies.

The Institute for Propaganda Analysis was set up in the aftermath, and attempted -- naively -- to educate the people about propaganda by documenting the "seven devices" of propaganda: "Name-Calling, Glittering Generality, Transfer, Testimonial, Plain Folks, Card Stacking, and Band Wagon." But America's elites were hardly disillusioned by propaganda.

In fact Creel wrote an enthusiastic book about it entitled "How we advertised America." It was now clear that men can be made to believe anything by their leaders, through the skillful and scientific manipulation of symbols and images. In fact, some believed that since the right to vote had greatly expanded in the UK and US, propaganda was necessary to maintain order and keep the great unwashed masses in line.

When the leaders realized the potential of modern propaganda, they also found a way out of a paradox of democracy. You see, democracy always claimed that the people, who are rational beings all created equal, should rule over themselves. And yet political scientists had known that the people are in fact far too ignorant and short-sighted to actually do so.

As a recent article in a legal journal state the problem of the Demos in Democracy: "If six decades of modern public opinion research have established anything, it is that the general public's political ignorance is appalling by any standard. As one influential researcher concludes, ëthe political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best-documented features of contemporary politics.' And another: 'The verdict is stunningly, depressingly clear: most people know very little about politics, and the distribution behind that statement has changed very little if at all over the survey era.' " [See: Rrighting the ship of democracy]

So, what to do? The new art and science of propaganda had the answer: Why, manufacture the people's views for them, of course!

Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist explained this process best in his 1965 book entitled "Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes". "Even in a democracy, a government that is honest, serious, benevolent and respects the voter cannot follow public opinion. But it cannot escape it either. The masses are there; they are interested in politics. So what can it do? Only one solution is possible: as the government cannot follow opinion, opinion must follow the government. One must convince the present, ponderous, impassioned masses that the government's decisions are legitimate and good and that its foreign policy is correct. The democratic State, precisely because it believes in the expression of public opinion and does not gag it, much channel and shape that opinion."

Of course, today propaganda is a dirty word so we prefer more euphemistic terms such as public diplomacy, public relations, education, marketing, advertising, lobbying etc. However, regardless of what we call it, essentially the same propaganda tactics and techniques which are used to sell products such as shoes, washing machines and cigarettes can be employed to sell political candidates, policies and wars.

Every year, government agencies, corporations, trade unions, political parties, social organizations and even foreign countries spend billions of dollars specifically for the purpose of influencing American public opinion. There are firms which specialize in various areas of the persuasion business: Lobbyists use tactics such as the selective use of campaign contributions to pressure lawmakers into enacting laws and promoting public policies which are favorable to their clients; Opinion researchers conduct surveys and polls to identify the opinions of target populations and help determine strategies to control and manipulate those opinions.

Crisis control experts specialize in minimizing the public relations damage associated with sudden bad news for their corporate clients, such as oil spills and sex scandals; Jury consultants help lawyers determine the best way to present their cases in court; Branding experts specialize in promoting positive perceptions with their client company's name or logo; Campaign managers decide how the package and sell their "product" (the political candidate) to the voters and the media; Image consultants groom the appearances, clothing style, packaging color and mannerisms of their clients to promote a particular view of the product, and Spin Doctors try to make bad news sound good.

In America, you can find propaganda everyday, everywhere: on every channel on TV, on every station on the radio, and every article in every single last newspapers or magazine. You can't get away from it. You grew up with it surrounding you, just as a fish grows up in water. And since you're not aware of it, you can't really fight it. The numbers are frightening: according to AC Neilson, the average child views 20,000 TV commercials in a year. The average American youth spends 900 hours in school and 1,500 hours watching television. All-in-all average American spends nine years of their lives watching TV.

You can't spot the lies contained in the propaganda either, because a good propagandist does not lie -- he merely manipulates the truth and uses selective emphasis of facts to shape perceptions. And despite what you may think, you're not really smart enough to see through it all, regardless of how many advanced degrees you may have.

In fact, being educated probably makes you more susceptible to propaganda because you're more used to receiving information from second-hand sources, you're more likely to identify with "establishment" types, and you're too vain to think that you may be wrong about something. And the most effective forms of propaganda are specifically designed to get around the thinking parts of your brain. That's why entertainment is so such an effective medium of propaganda, as well as a means of distracting public attention. Wasn't it a Roman emperor who claimed that he could rule all of Rome with just bread and circuses?

The fact is that people -- all people -- are susceptible to psychological manipulation. All people have biases and perception limitations which can be exploited. Psychologists have known for generations that, for example, people tend to believe claims simply because they are repeated more often, and that people tend to believe attractive spokespersons over ugly spokespersons, and also that people tend to believe individuals who appear to be an authority on a subject, even if they are really not an authority at all. Psychologists have also known the less people know about a subject, the stronger the opinions they hold on that subject.

Also, people tend to seek out views which confirm their own pre-conceptions rather than information which challenges their pre-conceptions. When people are presented with new information which challenges their preconceptions, they feel uncomfortable (a state known as "cognitive dissonance") and tend to react by ignoring, down-playing or intentionally misinterpreting the new information. No one likes to think they have been wrong. That's probably why most Americans still think that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and ordered the 9/11 attacks -- it is just to hard for Americans to admit that their own government lied to them.

The bottom line is that all people are irrational beings, and the ones who insist they are totally rational and immune to manipulation are the biggest nuts. The tactics of manipulation employed by propagandists can be as simple and overt as issuing press releases, arranging for lecture tours by specific spokespersons, sending pundits to participate in television talk shows, and providing all-expense paid trips for reporters. It can also include covert means such as planting false or misleading articles in newspapers, intentionally misquoting a competitor, promoting rumors about opponents and exposing embarrassing personal information about them to undermine their credibility, promoting falsified scientific reports and burying bad news to ensure that no one sees it or pays any attention to it.

A popular tactic is to use front groups - organizations pretending to be objective think tanks, research organizations or volunteer citizens groups - to promote the message of a hidden client such as a tobacco or oil company. It wasn't so long ago that "scientific evidence" said smoking was actually good for you because it "soothed the throat." The scientists who reached this conclusion, of course, were hired and paid by the tobacco companies. A well-known front group is the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which according to a Washington Post article claims to be "pro-American" think-tank but was actually created by the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee to promote pro-Israeli views in Washington foreign policy circles.

Spinning is the art of making bad news sound good. Specialists in this area are known as "Spin Doctors." When the British portrayed their defeat at Dunkirk as a positive sign of British war-time resolve, that was spinning. When the lobbyists for a coal company says that global warming is actually good for the environment because the extra carbon dioxide helps the growth of trees, thatës spinning. When an American general claims that the uprising in Iraq is actually a sign that the US policy is a success, that too is spinning.

Another popular tactic is the "staged event" -- the manufacture of an attention-grabbing event which is intended to convey a particular propaganda message. A famous staged event was the Boston Tea Party, where rebel American forces threw British tea shipments into Boston harbor. The "Torches of Freedom" march down Fifth Avenue mention at the start of this article was also a staged event. Sometimes the events happen on their own -- like the events of Sept. 11 or the accidental sinking of a US battleship in Havana harbor. When such events happen on their own, its up to the skilled propagandist to exploit them to, for example, justify the US invasions of Cuba and Iraq.

A more sophisticated propaganda tactic using front groups is known "astroturfing". Astroturf is the brand name of fake, plastic grass used in some sports arenas. An astroturf propaganda campaign involves the manufacture of fake grassroots organizations which pose as "ordinary people" or "citizens groups." The objective is to create the impression that a particular viewpoint is supported by a wide segment of " ordinary people" and not just greedy large corporations, thereby giving the viewpoint greater legitimacy.

A typical astroturfing tactic is the mass letter writing campaign, which is usually easily exposed by the fact that all of the letters sound alike, word for word. So, for example, if a bunch of "ordinary soldiers" in Iraq supposedly write almost identical letters to editors across the US, claiming that the people of Iraq have welcomed them with flowers, who are you to say otherwise -- unless you happen to do a Google search and discover the same letter was sent to many editors, signed by different soldiers (some of whom deny signing the letters at all.)

And when a bunch of "volunteer groups" across America were engaged in "educating" the public about the dangers of Hepititis C, who knew that the moving force behind these false citizens groups was actually just a major drug company seeking to increase sales of its expensive anti-hepatitis drug? As the Washington Post wrote, "contrary to appearances, these coalitions are not spontaneous gatherings of concerned citizens. They are instead a key part of a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign funded by Schering-Plough Corp. to sell the primary therapy for hepatitis C, Rebetron, which costs $18,000 a year."

The latest twist to astroturfing uses the internet to promote fake blogs and to spam discussion boards with promotional material. Framing is another tactic. Framing an issue means setting boundaries and context in the discussion of an issue to promote a particular outcome. For example, when faced with lawsuits by victims of lung cancer, cigarette companies often resorted to framing the issue of smoking as one of "personal freedom": The victims were "free" to stop smoking anytime they wanted. No one forced them to smoke. Aren't laws against smoking interfering with your "freedom"?

Israel frames the Palestinians as the aggressors, and itself as a victim which is merely seeking a "right to exist." Another example of framing: when the USS Vincennes was shot down, Time and Newsweek framed it as an example of how technology can lead to "tragic accidents" in wartime. Framing the incident as an " accident" means that no one should be blamed -- it was just and "accident". Only later did we learn that there was no "accident" involved. (See "Framing U.S. Coverage of International News: Contrasts in Narratives of the KAL and Iran Air Incidents" By Robert M. Entman Journal of Communication 41(4) Autumn 1991) Burying bad news is a skill required of any good public relations specialist. One way to bury bad news is to make sure that it appears on page D-12 of the newspaper instead of the front page headlines.

Another tactic is the time the release of the bad new to correspond with some other more interesting event, making sure that the bad news does not get noticed. When Sept 11th happened, a British government official passed around a memo in which he explicitly stated " This would be a good time to bury news" -- and do you think it was a coincidence that the very day the OJ Simpson verdict was released was also the day that the US Department of Energy officially apologized for conducting illegal nuclear radiation experiments on unsuspecting patients without their knowledge or approval? Ordinarily, that would have been big news -- but it was pushed aside by the OJ Simpson story, so few people noticed it.

Of course, none of this means that the situation is hopeless and the people are doomed to be forever manipulated. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "You can fool some people all of the time; You can fool all of the people some of the time; But you can't fool all of the people all of the time." Propaganda is just a tool and can be used for positive ends, such as convincing people to drive safely or avoid drug abuse. Propagandists are themselves just humans, who suffer from the same shortcomings as anyone else.

The practice of manipulation has grown harder and harder in recent years, as people have grown more cynical. While being educated doesn't totally immunize people from manipulation, informed citizens are harder to trick. So the next time you hear that the government has lied to justify a war, don't be too shocked -- its happened many times before. The next time a public relations firm like Hill and Knowlton presents a fake "nurse" to falsely testify before Congress that she personally saw Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators, don't be too upset. It has happened before. Spin, manipulation and perception control is how things work in America -- the truth or the reality of the matter is no longer really relevant. It all just bread and circuses.

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