In late December 1989, I was sitting, huddled together with my family, in the basement of our apartment building in Bucharest. Outside, you could hear the sounds of assault rifles and tank shells tearing apart the neighboring buildings during the “Revolution” that followed Nicolae Ceausescu’s departure. While scared by the mayhem taking place just meters away from us, we also felt free at last — for my entire life, and for most of the life of my parents, we had lived in a communist dictatorship. Dissent of any kind had been severely punished, and access to information was carefully controlled by the government, with the exception of the occasional Voice of America or Radio Free Europe broadcasts that we would listen to at low volume so that our neighbors could not hear us.

While in the basement, waiting for the morning to arrive, and for the weapons to rest, we wondered about the life we would have after Ceausescu’s fall. Who would take his place? The name my parents came up with was Ion Iliescu — the one party member they thought would have the leadership ability to help our country recover from almost half a century of communist rule. The same name was volunteered later by other friends of ours, and neighbors, and unsurprisingly, Ion Iliescu raised to the challenge, took the helm, and then was elected as our first freely elected president of Romania.

Years later I started to wonder how so many people had come up with the same one name. Iliescu was not a prominent and visible politician. Succession plans were not discussed freely at party meetings, or in people’s homes. Even the idea that Ceausescu may soon end his reign was absent from discussions and even people’s thoughts, yet as soon as it happened, one name and one name only came to everyone’s mind. The only possible explanation is that this name had been implanted in our brains by a highly effective propaganda machine. Effective not just because it operated underneath the radar of the secret police of the harsh communist dictatorship we lived in, but also because not one person realized that their ideas and thoughts had been manipulated.

Our mind is our identity — Je pense donc je suis famously proposed Descartes — and propaganda had so effectively managed to hijack both. Propaganda changed us from independent agents into mere pawns in a deadly political game we called the Romanian Revolution.

For those who grew up in the Western world, it is perhaps difficult to identify with the situation I have just described. Many things can and have happened under totalitarian regimes that couldn’t possibly happen here. Free access to information, freedom of speech and association, high quality education, all protect us from the dangers of propaganda. We independently make our own minds, and can protect ourselves from attempts to manipulate our opinions, and particularly our identity. We are who we want to be and nobody can influence that….or can they?

The image of a woman smoking, while rarer by the day (at least in the US), is no surprise in today’s world, and many women who do will argue that they do it out of their own free will. The wide acceptance of women smoking (and smoking in general) is, however, due to a concerted propaganda campaign led with deadly effectiveness by Edward Bernays during the interbellum. Bernays can also be credited for creating the “traditional” American breakfast — bacon and eggs are not a tradition but an invention in the 1920s by his propaganda efforts aimed at increasing the consumption of pork.

The Western world, is, thus, not immune to propaganda. Even the “objective” scientific community fails to protect us. Bernays campaigns relied on doctors who were touting the benefits of smoking and of eating fats, and our acceptance of sugar — ingredient that is currently in pretty much everything, from Big Gulps to chicken nuggets — is in no small part due to faked scientific articles published after peer review in one of the top medical journals — the New England Journal of Medicine.

The new digital world has increased our access to information and our ability to communicate, but those abilities are also increasingly being used to manipulate our opinions, thoughts, and even emotions. Fake news, and alternative facts can now spread more efficiently, and the big data analytics and recommendation systems used by all the big players in the Internet create echo chambers that only help to amplify the effectiveness of propaganda. The more informed we think we are becoming, the more likely it is that our opinions have been carefully engineered by malevolent agents pursuing their own economic or political agenda. We have become so unable to think for ourselves that a meme spreading through social media or a well timed press release can now tilt the results of an election.

Every day I am reminded by an anecdote I heard after the end of the Cold War. The chief propaganda expert of the KGB was visiting some American University and was asked to comment about American propaganda. He coyly replied: “American propaganda is truly great and quite comparable to the excellent Russian propaganda machine. The key difference is that in Russia nobody believes it”.

Written by

Mihai Pop is a professor of computer science, and an expert in computational biology. He is currently the director of UMIACS — a research institute.

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