How do you survive the age of propaganda?

It’s no secret the digital world is an atmosphere rich with messages. We are told all sorts of different things every day but none of these messages come with plenty of information or explanations.

Such an overload of generalized information only further increases our predisposition toward laziness and exacerbates our failure to properly consider what we’re seeing and hearing. In this climate, many people become addicted to entertainment, an addiction that the mass media is perfectly positioned to cater to.

We are in fact so used to being entertained that even the news has become a form of entertainment. The more “boring” news stories are brushed aside for more sensational reports on crime, murder and the extramarital affairs of public officials, those that go into depth about foreign policy or economic processes.

Because of the overload of senseless entertainment we experience, most people are out of practice when it comes to hearing and dissecting detailed arguments. Not only that, most of us, when faced with serious news coverage, would rather switch channels than deal with an often troubling reality.

Since most people won’t watch or read things that demand any mental effort, the messages we receive are grossly oversimplified. For instance, political messages get cut down to sound bites – bits of language that sound powerful, but lack any real purpose or meaning.

The general failure of the public to sit and listen to explanations means that politicians are rarely forced to explain, in any sufficient detail, just what these chopped up messages mean and how they intend to put their ideas into action. Just consider former US president Richard Nixon: over the course of his 1968 campaign for president, he said that he would win “honorable peace” through the Vietnam War.

But what exactly does that mean?

An “honorable peace” may be all kinds of things depending on who you ask, and Nixon’s dream was never to be expanded upon. As a result, two people with very different views and perceptions of Nixon’s message may have voted for him, because they both believed he was speaking on each ‘s behalf.

Humans are naturally social and rational creatures, and propagandists know just how to take full advantage of this. The reality of human tendencies can often trap people in a vicious cycle, as we’re likely to prolong bad decisions as a means of rationalizing our behavior and saving face.

Take smokers, who are major rationalisers. Most people who want to stop smoking end up struggling as they come up with countless excuses why they should continue their unhealthy habits. Such people say they have to smoke because all their mates are doing it, or because they would rather live a short and happy life than a long, unhappy one.

Because of all the work smokers do to convince themselves to keep puffing away, the work of the tobacco companies becomes much easier. All big tobacco has to do is make sure people get hooked, and the customers take it from there.

Yet propagandists often take full advantage of human social nature by using something called the technique of granfalloon, a way of grouping people together while excluding others to build a sense of camaraderie for some – and alienation for others.

People tend to think that cults brainwash people through some sort of witchcraft, but the fact of the matter is that cults use exactly the same techniques as any other propagandistic group – just with different names.

For cults, the name of the game is reciprocity, distraction and self-sell. The first of these, reciprocity, is a powerful tool since humans are inclined to reciprocate acts of kindness they’re shown, even something as small as the gift of a flower, which Hare Krishnas hand out to entice new devotees. Such gifts increase your likelihood of engaging with such people, as you feel like you owe them something.

Then, if you decide to give a group the time of day, point two is used: diversion to hide their true intentions. To do so, they might invite you to participate in some light-hearted singing that takes the mind off the post, or stay by your side constantly, never leaving you time alone to realize what’s going on.

Once a new recruit is securely hooked in this way, they’re encouraged to go find other potential followers using the same values and benefits of joining, over and over again. This is point number three, the self-sell, which serves a second function of cementing the cult mindset in the new devotee.

Another tactic the cult uses is to separate its leaders from outside influences while fostering complete reliance on the leader of the group. Followers are prohibited or prevented from seeing family members and anyone else who could draw them away from the religion. They are also taught in a great illustration of the granfalloon technique to see outsiders as bad, and to think of themselves as enlightened.

To accomplish this, cult leaders tend to be charismatic communicators who can list off multiple reasons for their superiority and come up with plenty of explanations as to why people should be devoted to them.

In the end, members find themselves trapped in a rationalization spiral that produces more and more extreme actions to justify their decisions. Such entrapment can even result in death, as in the case of the mass suicide pacts engaged in by the members of some cults.

It’s easy to get angry when you consider the sheer amount of misinformation people being exposed by politicians, advertisers and the mass media on a daily basis. The disillusionment fostered by this atmosphere often engenders complacency, as people prefer to believe that misinformation does not impact them. Yet there are practical ways you can bring about positive change to this situation.

For one, you can educate yourself and your children about how propaganda functions. This is a vital step, as children are commonly targeted by propaganda in the form of commercials for toys and fast food. These ads play on repeat during Saturday morning cartoons and during the commercial breaks for educational programming in schools.

This advertising discourages children from being individuals who can pursue the core course of reasoning and interpretation against persuasion. This deters them from contemplating the importance of a message itself, and from a very young age, they end up being peripherally convinced.

As such, kids should be challenged about why they think, a new toy will make them happier. By posing such questions, you can teach your kids to think on a deeper level that counters the aims of advertisers.

Another powerful strategy for combating propaganda is to personally challenge politicians and companies on the claims they make. Lots of people want to simply opt out of politics and refuse to vote because they don’t agree with the system.

However there is another way; you can write to the politicians and compel them with evidence to back up their arguments. For media outlets you can do the same and insist that they have in-depth reporting of a significant topic. When these individuals and companies know they can only persuade people by truth and integrity, they will have to change their tactics.

You can also write letters to companies, questioning their claims about their products. The way they respond can be very telling – did they actually answer your question or just send you more advertising materials?

If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, it may be time to take your business elsewhere.

Propaganda is all around us, encouraging us to spend money on things that we don’t want, voting for politicians who don’t care about us and telling our children that they need toys that aren’t worth the plastic they ‘re made from. Fortunately, by recognizing the core tactics of propaganda, and knowing how it operates, we can counteract this deception.

Check out my related post: Has it turned into people vs tech? – Part 1

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