Carole Owens: Don't get fooled by campaign propaganda


STOCKBRIDGE >> As the political season revs up and the primaries begin we should all be prepared to sort through what we are about to hear. When there is more heat than light in the dialogue, what we need is a working definition of propaganda.

First, it is important to note that propaganda can masquerade as news reports, current affairs, government reports, talk show chitchat, science reports, and public service announcements as well as the ubiquitous advertisements, posters, and bumper stickers.

Second, propaganda is rarely a one-off; it is a campaign designed to indoctrinate through repetition. So before you become indoctrinated, and while you can still think for yourself, here are a few techniques used by propagandists. Forewarned is forearmed.

Ad hominem: Attack your opponent rather than attacking his position

Ad nauseam: Repeat and repeat and repeat until your audience has heard it so often they mistake familiarity for truth.

Appeal to authority: Collect names of experts who support the candidate. The message is: if they do; you should. A variation is the appeal to fame: these famous people are on board so you should be too.

Appeal to fear: Instill anxiety, even panic, to sway support. The underlying message: you will only be safe if you support X.

Appeal to prejudice: Characterize those for the candidate as the good guys and those opposed as bad guys. Use emotional words to characterize the opposition, such as "gang" or "mob" or "un-American".

The bandwagon is a variation on the appeal to authority. In this case you should lend your support not because the experts do but because the majority does. You don't want to be on the losing team do you?

The Big Lie always has elements of truth. Based on some truth and some exaggeration, a conclusion is drawn. The conclusion is little more than speculation, a generalization that promotes a candidate or his course of action.

Reducing the world to two choices is effective in swaying an audience. Attention is focused on an either/or: we can only do this or that; you are either with us or against us.

The best propagandist tells some truth. He selects facts that fit and support his purpose. He represents himself as the "common man" with common sense using colloquialisms while appearing in rolled up shirt sleeves.

The candidate creates a "cult of personality" using the media to project an idealized and heroic public image, never forgetting to demonize those who disagree. It is a cynical manipulation of: what you see is what you get.

At the core the tools of the trade are simplify and falsify. And if caught: deny, deny, deny.

It may not be exhaustive but this list includes the most commonly used techniques. Steel yourself against the salesman with the snake oil who swears it is a cure-all. And remember if they can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time then it behooves you to believe half of what you hear.

Woodrow Wilson ran on a slogan: "He kept us out of war" — and led the country into World War I five months after his inauguration. Warren Harding claimed his opponent James Cox was a drinking man and marked his victory with a toast in the White House.

Do your best to sort it out, make your choice, and even if you must hold your nose, vote.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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