10 things about propaganda you should know

Broadly speaking Propaganda is a collection of techniques to channel the flow of information in populations for the material benefit of certain groups, cliques or individuals at the expense of others. Canadian philosopher Randal Marlin, one of the world’s foremost experts on propaganda, defined it as;

“The organised attempt through communication to affect belief or action inculcate attitudes in a large audience in ways that circumvent or suppress an individual’s adequately informed, rational, reflective judgement.”

A key phrase here is “adequately informed”, as Inhibiting information flow is just as important — if not more important — as whatever messages are Amplified, as the absence of such information or context stops us rationally assessing any given scenario. It is in other words a process of sculpting a person’s imagination of the world by altering the information they are exposed to in a way that leads them towards a certain conclusion, to the degree that they sometimes consider to have arrived at it themselves.

As such, material and social power is highly dependent on controlling of the information individuals are exposed to. Cults and orthodox religions offer a variety of tactics to alienate people from the influence of contrary or moderating voices. Excommunication has traditionally been a powerful one as it implies (and as the name infers) the complete severance of information flow between the ostracised individual and the group. This is illustrated in the “eternal” excommunication of renegade philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Jewish community, which concluded;

“That no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favour nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.”

Such Inhibiting, as this conclusion suggests, was beginning to get more problematic after the invention of the printing press as physical isolation alone was no longer enough. In the centuries since, the advance of information technologies has meant the tactics of power structures have had to evolve in order to meet the same objectives. The more media that saturated the cultural landscape, the more competition for attention and the more sophisticated the methods.

The blueprint of the modern propaganda campaign can be seen in in the one waged by the British during the First World War, after they learned much about how troublesome a free press could be during the Anglo-Boer war of 1899–1902. Rather than rely on outright fabrications, Britain’s War Propaganda Bureau waged an information war known as the “propaganda of facts” reporting verifiable events spun in a way conducive to British interests, quietly excluding information that could change or oppose the preferred interpretation. (It was also helped that it was written by a star studded cast including H.G Wells, J.M Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling.)

At this stage, it was in no way a foregone conclusion that America — against which Britain had warred and had a large German immigrant population — would come into the war on the side of former colonial master, so it became critical to have Britain’s political narrative be the dominant one. As such, the First World War is notable in that one of its first strategic objectives was to sever the transatlantic telegraph cables that connected Germany and the United States, meaning only British version of events would reach North America over this “victorian internet”, leaving Germans to rely on older, slower mediums. Thus Inhibiting the transmission of the German point of view and sculpting public opinion. This tactic was critical in bringing American into the war, and had massive repercussions for the rest of 20th century history.

It was Britain’s mastery of propaganda during WWI — generations ahead of its time — that both infuriated and inspired the young Adolf Hitler, who devoted not one but two chapters to the topic in Mein Kampf. For Hitler though, propaganda represented something much more profound, for him it was a “spiritual weapon” to herd the slow-witted general population into doing his bidding. Essayist Stephen Graham wrote of Hitler’s attitude to propaganda;

“Hitler’s real spite, however, is reserved for the masses. His assessment of the “slowness of understanding [which] needs to be given time in order that they may absorb information”…
When one continues to read his assessment, one finds that his opinion is that the population’s lack of perception is due to the fact that they are, “a vacillating crowd of human children… constantly wavering between one idea and another. Hitler is adamant that the “restrictive” receptive powers and “feeble” understanding of the mob can only be captured by simple, oft­repeated slogans and ideas.”

A fan of PR guru Edward Bernays, Hitler developed an attitude to propaganda that resembled an immense, eternal advertising campaign, aimed to stir up prejudices in his audience, which made them easier to control. As Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World Revisited.

A dictatorship… maintains itself by censoring or distorting the facts, and by appealing, not to reason, not to enlightened self-interest, but to passion and prejudice, to the powerful “hidden forces,” as Hitler called them, present in the unconscious depths of every hu­man mind.

With this in mind, here are some of the commonly used propaganda tactics outlined by Marlin, Ellul and others to Inhibit and Amplify information in order to manipulate these hidden forces.

1. Card Stacking

Defined by the Institute of Propaganda Analysis as “the selection and use of facts and falsehoods, illustrations or distractions, and logical or illogical statements in order to give the best or worst possible case for an idea, program, person or product” it is the misuse of statistics and quotes, and framing debates that are heavily skewed to a particular ideological perspective. In Marlin’s words setting up events and “pre-ordaining that one’s own favoured views become dominant.” This is related to;

2. Selective Omission / Quoting out of Context

Marlin writes that “the omission of certain facts or circumstances connected with an event so that the hearer forms a false impression” is an extremely old method of propaganda. When one quotes X person or body and decides to make a cursory check by doing a google search, we can see that it does indeed show up in X’s book. Most will not stop to read the surrounding chapter to get a good idea of what it means.

This is often used by conspiracy theorists when quoting a UN reports on, say, population control, which discuss a multitude of methods as hypotheticals when weighing up all the options. This discussion is then quoted as official policy as part of an “agenda”.

3. Name Calling

Marlin said that;

“Used in propaganda, names invite us to form our opinions without reviewing the evidence and, thus, to overlook those aspects of the truth the propagandist prefers to be concealed. In our own day, we find words like “Communist”, “leftist”, “liberal”, “extreme rightist”, “bigot”, “neo-con”, “terrorist” and so on used pejoratively, often without a clear ideas as to the meaning to the term so applied.”

Today we can add “misogynist”, “Crusader”, “cybernat”, “SJW”, “MRA” “Islamaphobe” and so forth, depending on the political or religious flavour of the group. It is increasingly common across the political spectrum to refer to your opponent’s rhetoric as “hate speech” to deflect from tackling substance. This only works to a point until the application of the word is expanded too broadly, and loses its emotional resonance. George Orwell wrote in 1946;

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.

4. Glittering Generalities / Virtue Words

The reverse of Name Calling are called “Glittering generalities”, according to the Institute of Propaganda Analysis, mean “associating something with a ‘virtue word’ to make us accept and approve the thing without examining the evidence”. “American” was used during the Cold War persecutions by Joe McCarthy, according to Marlin, as “a way of bullying Americans of a more socialist standpoint than his own”. Spreading “democracy” and “freedom” were used as rhetorical window dressing for imperial ambitions in the neoconservative era.

“Social justice” is another phrase that has been used by a diverse array political movements over the years. In the 1930s, it was used as the name of a magazine by rogue Catholic priest, talk-radio pioneer and fascist sympathiser Father Charles E. Coughlin to promote his Anti-Semetic beliefs.

“Social Justice” was also championed by the Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s and 80s as a part of his revolutionary message, and to offer an alternative to what he called “Atheistic marxism”. More recently, it has been used by some advocates of intersectional feminism to justify or excuse the type of abusive behaviour they often campaign against when conducted by others. I emphasise some because we do not want to fall into the next propaganda trap;

5. Hazy Generalisation

The ancient instinct to stereotype is easy to exploit, especially when emotions run high. Marlin writes that “The prejudiced mind requires little evidence to draw conclusions about how a whole class of people behave on the basis of having seen a very small sample (emphasis mine). This is a common occurrence in online activism, where an atheist may find the dumbest religious person they can find — probably somebody from an impoverished background — and screengrab something ignorant they’ve said and parade it as if it is representative of all believers.

It is also used by Men’s Rights Activists to quote the most militant statements made by feminists as if it is representative of all of them; and of course, vice versa; painting ugly, emotionally resonant stereotypes that become associated with any of the groups slogans or symbols. This feedback loop of in-group validation and out-group othering creates a distorted perception of reality at the same time and puts us in a heightened emotional state, leading us open to further manipulation…

6. Ignoring the logical direction of an argument

This is the art of building up a solid and rationally constructed argument and then presenting an irrational conclusion, and is especially effective when our emotions are already aroused. Marlin writes that;

“An argument to the effect that a given crime is heinous and needs to be published does not answer the question whether the given accused in fact committed such a crime. Building up emotional indignation can result in easier bridging of this logical gap… people are more manipulable when their passions are aroused.”

7. Victim hegemony

This is a method literally as old as history, being first recorded by Herodotus in the 6th Century BC. He told the story of the populist Greek tyrant Pisistratus, who after inflicting wounds on himself claimed he had been set about by his political enemies. This gained him considerable sympathy in Athens, who allowed him a retinue of personal bodyguards, which he later used to take over the Acropolis. Marlin continues;

A similar principle has been used many times in the course of history; one country will invent, exaggerate, or provoke an incident involving assault or violence to some of its citizens. The resulting wave of indignation will be used to support a pre-planned war effort against the offending nation.

8. Manipulation of statistics

We are not great at dealing with numbers at the best of times, and are worse when they are presented in a way that confirm the our pre-existing worldview. Marlin identified at least 10 ways that statistics can mislead;

1. The problem of randomness in the sampling procedure
2. Effects resulting from who it is that does the polling
3. Mathematically discernible ranges of error built into the theory of polling, and reports that ignore those ranges
4. Bias or incompetence in the wording of questions and their contexts, including the order in which different questions are asked
5. Lying respondents
6. Dishonest survey collectors
7. Biased or dishonest interpretation of answers
8. Fluctuation of opinion
9. Deliberate attempts to skew the results in some way; and
10. The use of totally unscientific “polls” carried out simply to persuade, and not to determine public opinion

Despite widespread illiteracy on such matters, we regularly take statistics at face value, with little further research attempted if they feel right and conforms to our pre-existing worldview. This is especially so when they are accompanied by an infographic, or stamped on the front of an evocative image. However we are more than capable of analysing or debunking such falsehoods in depth when they are presented by the out-group.

9. Thought terminating cliches

In his book Propagandes, Jaques Ellul talked of the power of slogans to inhibit the flow of thought and debate. When repeated regularly and ubiquitously, they become a kind of truth in and of themselves. Ellul illustrated this with examples from medieval France, such as Tous Justice emande du roi (All Justice Comes from the King) and Que veut le roi si veut la loi (What the king wants is what the law wants) which were designed to justify monarchical absolutism.

In his 1956 book, Robert Jay Lifton expanded on this core concept with the idea of the Thought Terminating Cliche, which he saw as particularly evident in totalitarian societies, such as Maoist China.

“The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”

Popular culture is awash with such phrases. Christian groups still use “It was Adam and eve, not Adam and Steve” to oppose gay marriage. For right wing conspiracy theorists, the cry is often “We’ve got the official documents”. The most recent evolution of this is into the snarky hashtag, an effective example being “#NotAllMen”.

10. Sociological propaganda

An interesting aspect of propaganda is that which does not conform to traditional “command and control” models of stories cooked up in smokey rooms, but that which spreads and grows quite organically. While there are indeed professional propagandists out there, rattling away on comment threads in support of Vladimir Putin or quietly promoting Oreos for cash, much of what you will encounter online is much more subtle; known as “sociological propaganda”, a term coined by French political theorist Jacques Ellul. He defined it as;

“The group of manifestations by which any society seeks to integrate the maximum number of individuals into itself, to unify its members’ behaviour according to a pattern, to spread its style of life abroad, and thus to impose itself on other groups….A person’s environment is is changed at the deepest level by sociological propaganda. It acts gently, introducing an ethic in benign form, penetrating very slowly, and ending up by creating a fully established personality.”

Sociological propaganda is, in other words, deeply insidious. It seeps through social networks and weaves itself together from multiple sources through phrases and jargon, and self assembles into a more crystalline form, a worldview that sinks into the subconscious to warp a person’s perception of reality largely before it reaches our conscious attention. Soon, the worldview begins to become part of our very being as out brains are re-tuned to seek out evidence of the worldview’s validity and continue its assembly, aided by flowchart-like thought processes that alter our emotional relationship to symbols and language.


Although by no means exhaustive, such models act as information processing systems designed to propagate world-views by controlling the flow of information. But furthermore, we need to be mindful that we inhabit a world and culture littered with the debris of ancient and modern propaganda campaigns; a poisonous soup that clouds our thinking and does little but stir up prejudices and hatreds.

I’ll conclude with a final quote by Marlin;

To avoid repeating mistakes of the past, an alert citizenry today should take the trouble to learn how easy it can be for a powerful minority of people to manipulate information to win the support — or the indifference — of the majority towards its actions. People need to be sensitised to these methods if the are to guard adequately against such manipulation.