Wall of Lies
Propaganda is not what it used to be. It is something far worse. In part because of the effectiveness of its action upon us, we have no idea when it is present, nor what it is doing to us.
[This essay is an adaptation to current circumstances of a chapter from my 2018 book Give Us Back the Bad Roads(Currach Press), titled ‘Engineering Consent’.]
I see the same syndrome expressed in signs everywhere: people on the street jumping under buses rather than pass close to one another; a journalist I once thought at least vaguely intelligent writing about ‘cases’ under the seeming impression that PCR tests do exactly what it says on the Covid tin; a political movement supposed to be pro-freedom demanding a faster rollout of vaccines; half a dozen police officers sitting on a woman and helping each other to handcuff her because she is more than five kilometres from her home, and nobody batting an eyelid. Signs of what? Signs of complicity in a terror beyond understanding. Signs of having surrendered the option of having a mind of your own. Signs of a surrender to the insuperable, the inevitable. Signs of being walled in by lies.
There is something we are not comprehending, something to do with the minds of the generality of people.
It is not sufficient to speak of ‘propaganda’. The word, used by our limited understanding of its meaning, is inadequate to the achievement of even the remotest understanding of where we are now. To speak of it thus in times like these is like standing on the deck of Noah’s Ark discussing the weather.
Someone, the other day, sent me a link to an article headed ‘Households left better off as a result of pandemic — Central Bank’. It was indescribably fatuous, idiotic beyond measuring, containing the immortal sentence: ‘Mass unemployment last year has left households better off and a savings glut means we’ve never been richer.’ This sounds like propaganda but isn’t really. Since it suggests that people have been wasting their time starting businesses and getting out of bed in the mornings to earn a living, it is as relevant to real life as a eunuch calculating his savings on condoms. It’s just plain clownery. To think this is propaganda is utterly to misunderstand what propaganda is. Propaganda is ubiquitous, insidious, deceptive, relentless, often invisible and always manipulative. That article, taken in isolation, is just a harmless piece of stupidity that stands as something to be exhibited in the Book of Evidence in a year or two, when the true extent of the lockdown damage is permitted into the light of even darker days than these.
Most people think of propaganda as one-off or recurring bulletins of misleading statements, something like the orchestration of information to a singular purpose. Someone reads a slanted article, perhaps, and thinks she recognises the animal. Similarly, a poster, a slogan, a TV ad. All these qualify as instruments of propaganda, but they are not the thing itself. They are not the thing that has existed in history, especially the history of the past century, and above all the history of the lustings of people seeking profit and power to manipulate the citizen in his capacity as a member of a herd that, generally speaking, enjoys no possibility of immunity from such manipulation. In reality the issue is the generation and government of public feeling. Who, for example, could have predicted that the colour yellow, which once summoned up Easter eggs, could become the colour of terror and oppression? Answer: a hypnotist could have, since yellow has long been recognised by ‘depth manipulators’ as one of the most effective hypnotic colours.
Propaganda has even longer been a key element in the armoury of the modern technocratic state and those seeking to rule through it. The godfather of modern public relations, Edward Bernays, wrote in his 1928 book Propaganda that, even if every citizen had time to sift through data concerning every question, virtually nobody would be able to come to informed conclusions about anything. We just don’t have the time, or access to reliable means of verification. We therefore tend to farm out the sifting process to what Bernays called ‘the invisible government’, which we rely upon to tell us what things mean, which things are important and what are our options in considering them. By and large, we accept the verdicts provided to us by our media and political elites. Universal literacy, Bernays recalled, was supposed to change these conditions, giving each citizen ‘a mind fit to rule’ – the core doctrine of democracy. ‘But instead of a mind, ‘ he observed, ‘universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when these millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints.’
There were a number of key players in the development of propaganda and, before that, the identification of the necessary underlying psychologies, and all of them emerged in the first half of the last century. The best know was Bernays, grand-nephew of Sigmund Freud, whose ideas he adapted for the purpose of manipulation and motivational research (MR), largely on behalf of corporate clients. Another key figure was Ernest Dichter, also a Viennese-born psychoanalyst, who in the 1950s was President of the Institute for Motivational Research and became known as an ingenious trouble-shooter on misfiring advertising campaigns. The most significant figure in exposing the deep reality of propaganda was Frenchman, Jacque Ellul, a philosopher and Christian anarchist, who developed possibly the best overview of the discipline in his 1965 book Propagandas: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.
The techniques of what became known as ‘depth manipulation’ were based on several key understandings about human beings: that people behave irrationally and paradoxically; that they lie about their motivations, to themselves as much as to others; that their chief triggers are emotions, especially fear and guilt. In his 1957 book, The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard wrote about the ‘depth’ industry’s discovery and leveraging of what were called ‘subsurface desires, needs and drives’. Among the chief ‘subsurface’ levers found in most people’s emotional profiles were the drive to conformity, the need for oral stimulation and a yearning for security,’
It was Bernays who first experimented with applying psychoanalytic principles to marketing by linking products to emotions in ways that tapped into people’s tendency to behave in illogical ways. Intrigued by his grand-uncle's notion that irrational group-based forces drive human behaviour, Bernays set about harnessing those forces to sell products for his clients. In Propaganda, he speculated that it should be possible to manipulate people’s behaviour without their knowing. Then he began putting his theories into action, firstly on behalf of George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, who was keen to demolish the taboo that, by insinuating a strong link between female cigarette smoking and sexual promiscuity, had until the late 1920s discouraged women from lighting up in public. Hill, seeking to promote his company’s Lucky Strike brand, consulted Bernays, who in turn spoke to leading New York psychoanalyst and Freud disciple, Dr A. A. Brill, who saw cigarettes as essentially adult pacifiers, a throwback to the infant’s pleasure in sucking, but gave Bernays a lightbulb moment when he postulated that cigarettes were also symbolic of male power. Bernays developed a campaign aimed at convincing women that smoking in public would allow them to strike a blow for sexual equality. Hence, Lucky Strike’s ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign, launched during New York’s Easter Parade on April Fools Day 1929. Bernays had obtained a list of female models from the editor of Vogue magazine and convinced enough of them that they could advance the cause of equality by lighting up on Fifth Avenue. The parade became an international sensation and Bernays dubbed his newly tested technique ‘engineering consent’. Bernays it was also who ‘discovered’ that the ‘snap crackle and pop’ of breakfast cereals was a crucial part of their appeal, the built-in crunch providing an outlet for unconscious aggression and other pent-up feelings.
Later, Ernest Dichter, who most controversially postulated that men equated convertibles with youth, freedom, and the secret wish for a mistress, and that women could be sold soap as a means to wash away their sins before a date, further developed the idea of tapping into the unconscious to sell people things they didn’t need. ‘You would be amazed to find how often we mislead ourselves,’ he wrote in his 1960 book The Strategy of Desire, ‘regardless of how smart we think we are, when we attempt to explain why we are behaving the way we do.’
Dichter believed that human motivation was about one third rational, with the remainder governed by emotion. He referred to this syndrome as the ‘iceberg’ and developed the idea that people could be persuaded to buy things because of illogical associations implanted by advertising. He was a pioneer of focus group market research methods, which he used to great effect on behalf of clients like Procter & Gamble, Chrysler and DuPont. He was also an early practitioner of qualitative research, involving long, in-depth interviews, not unlike therapy sessions. To understand why people really bought certain things, he insisted, you had to talk to them at a deeper level. ‘If you let somebody talk long enough,’ he would say, ‘you can read between the lines to find out what he really means.’ Dichter tapped into people’s desires — usually for sex, security or prestige. For him, shopping was a form of self-expression. He divined that certain people prefer cars that feel safe, whereas others like their steeds to speak of adventure and youth. He sold more typewriters by proposing that keyboards be designed to suggest the female body — ‘more receptive, more concave’. He discerned that Americans preferred to borrow money at higher rates from loan sharks rather than patronise legitimate banking institutions, because they feared being judged. Using these insights, he helped banks to develop products and messages to get around such fears. He formed the view that people tend to buy things for reasons other than utilitarian — as extensions or reflections of their personalities, for example. Every product, he declared, has a personality, and the right campaign will communicate this to people who see themselves in a certain way. He exploited neuroses and unfulfilled longings and made a lot of money out of the insight that older women like to bake cakes as a substitute for child-bearing. Through depth-interviewing, he deduced that soaping while taking a bath was one of the few occasions when the average puritanical American of the 1950s felt permitted to caress himself or herself. The research showed that bathing was for many adults a pretext for auto-erotic experiment, a ritual that afforded rare moments of personal indulgence, particularly before a romantic assignation.
Imagine ideas like these at large in the era of Big Data, when the clients of Dichter’s successors have access to precise maps of human desiring based on actual observed behaviours.
Armed with such insights, even 70 years ago, it was possible to sell almost anything with the rights slogan and imagery. The most important thing about propaganda, Dichter asserted, is that it be universal and continuous, hammering home the same message by diverse means, again and again. The purpose is to ‘regiment’ the mind of a society in the same saw as an army drills its soldiers. Propaganda is most effective in the hands of what Bernays had called ‘intelligent minorities’, by which he meant not minorities in the latter-day sense of victim groups, but intellectual elites seeking to guide society in particular directions. Bernays referred to these intellectual elites, without irony, as ‘dictators’.
Bernays also hitched to advertising the earlier thinking of the French philosopher Charles-Marie Gustave La Bon on the question of mob minds — the idea that the ‘group mind’ presents an entirely different study to the individual mind. Le Bon, in The Psychology of Crowds, had explained that a crowd has a different psychology to that of an individual. He saw a crowd as forming a single being, responding always to unconscious thoughts, and conforming to laws of mental unity. The consciousness bestowed by membership of a crowd, he expanded, can be transformative of the person, putting individual members in possession of ‘a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think and act in a manner quite differently from that in which each individual would feel, think and act were that person in a state of isolation.’ In a psychological crowd, individual personality disappears, brain activity is replaced by reflex activity, involving a lowering of intelligence, provoking a complete transformation of sentiments, which may be an improvement or disimprovement on those of the crowd’s constituent members. A crowd may just as easily become heroic or criminal, but the latter is far more likely. ‘The ascendency of crowds,’ wrote Le Bon, ‘indicates the death throes of a civilisation.’ The upward climb to civilisation is an intellectual process driven by individuals; the descent is a herd in stampede. ‘Crowds are only useful for destruction.’
Adapting these ideas to the marketplace, Bernays both refined them and applied them to real situations. Although the group mind does not ‘think’ in the normal sense of the word, he elaborated, it still behaves as if it had an intelligence of its own. ‘In place of thought,’ he wrote, ‘it has impulses, habits and emotions. In making up its mind its first impulse is to follow the example of a trusted leader. . . But when the example of the leader is not at hand and the herd must think for itself, it does so by means of clichés, pat words or images which stand for a whole group of ideas or experience.’ By playing upon an old cliché, or manipulating a newly minted one, the propagandist can swing a whole mass of group emotions.
The thoughts of these pioneers were themselves analysed by Jacques Ellul in Propagandes (Propagandas), the first significant cautionary work on the dangers of propaganda. Ellul treated propaganda as a sociological phenomenon, rather than — as had Bernays and Dichter — something created by particular people for specific purposes. He also saw that propaganda was an instrument that would come into its own the more technological a society became. He identified technology and propaganda as having a symbiotic relationship: technology makes propaganda easier and a technological society feeds off the effects. ‘Propaganda,’ he wrote, ‘is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments and to integrate the individual into a technological world.’ He rejected the anticipated argument that it depends on what kind of state or regime is engaging in propaganda; it doesn’t matter: ‘[I]f we really have understood the technological state, such a statement becomes meaningless. In the midst of increasing mechanization and technological organization, propaganda is simply the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive and to persuade man to submit with good grace.’ This means, of course, that a technological society is perforce driven by propaganda, and also that we are already unfree. Indeed, long before the advent of Artificial Intelligence, we had already been absorbed into the machine that is the herd in thrall to what is deemed the level of propaganda necessary to control it.
Propaganda always addresses itself to the individual enclosed in the mass. The individual must never be considered as such but always, Ellul instructed, in terms of what he has in common with others, such as his motivations, his feelings or his myths. ‘He is reduced to an average and, except for a small percentage, action based on averages will be effectual.’ The propagandist addresses the individual — in newspapers articles, radio broadcasts etc. — as part of a group. The individual is never treated as if alone. ‘Emotionalism, impulsiveness, excess, etc. — all these characteristics of the individual caught up in the mass are well-known and very helpful to propaganda.’ This is the key to understanding how modern opinion polling works: It likewise treats individuals as part of a mass, and moreover induces the individual to accept this version of himself as valid and truthful. When the pollster with her clipboard enters the room to canvass the opinions of those present, she brings the masses with her.
Propaganda said Ellul, agreeing with Dichter, must be total. It must utilise all the available means of communication and at once: press, radio, TV, movies, posters, meetings, door-to-door canvassing. To use these media sporadically and without a propagandist intention is to achieve nothing. Each medium has a different line of attack, and all must be employed together to achieve a total, unconditional surrender.
Ellul refined and in some cases rejected inherited ideas, such as that all propaganda is lies and that its sole purpose is to change opinions. On the contrary, he observed, the best kind of propaganda is generated from half-truths and truths taken out of context, and its main purpose is to strengthen existing trends and perceptions, to promote action where appropriate, and — most importantly — to dissuade, with terror or discouragement, those of strong opinions contrary to the propaganda from interfering with its agenda. Ellul characterised conventional education as ‘pre-propaganda’, the conditioning of minds with enormous amounts of secondhand, disconnected, unverifiable, incoherent and/or useless information masquerading as ‘facts’, but intended to prepare the citizen for the planting of propaganda.
One of the chief impacts of the action of normative propaganda has, of course, been to further suppress the possibility of independent thought. The brain has a finite capacity to manage and sort information, and when it is already overloaded by random, largely uninvited facts and opinions, it has little ‘disk space’ for its own ruminations. Modern man, Ellul observed, accepts ‘facts’ as the ultimate reality. ‘He is convinced that what is, is good’. He places facts ahead of values and unquestioningly applies the moralism of ‘progress’ to something to which he attributes value because it exists. Something dressing itself up as ‘science’ or ‘progress’ is therefore halfway to conquering such a person.
‘Everywhere,’ writes Ellul, ‘we find men who pronounce as highly personal truths what they have read in the papers only an hour before and whose beliefs are merely the result of a powerful propaganda. Everywhere we have people who have blind confidence in a political party, a general, a movie star, a country, or a cause, and who will not tolerate the slightest challenge to that god … We meet this alienated man at every turn, and are possibly already one ourselves.’
Universal education of the kind described by Ellul has generated populations of citizens who provide easy meat for propaganda for at least four reasons: people who consider themselves ‘educated’ have a need to hold opinions on any and all matters arising in their purview; such people, by virtue of their ‘education’, have access to large amounts of what might be called contextless information; they think of themselves as capable of judging all questions on their own; they are generally people who have left behind the kind of communities which in the past provided a kind of filtering for external propaganda, such as families, churches, villages etc., to live in some anonymous metropolis to which they have no historical connections. Hence, in mass society, the pre-programmed citizen, who becomes isolated and dependent upon his own resources to fulfil his conditioned needs, is a sitting duck for propagandists of all kinds. When you consider present-day instant access to a certain kind of basic information about next to everything, it is not surprising that, on virtually every matter of public controversy, there is a ready constituency for the indoctrinations by propagandists among those who believe themselves educated because they hold a degree, have instant access to Google and other search engines and regard themselves as free because they cling to what they firmly believe to be their own opinions, but are not. And all this mess of pseudo-belief is held together by a kind of cultural ‘glue’ composed mainly of elements of insinuated pseudo-morality. Believing these things is not merely evidence of wisdom, but also evidence of goodness. Thus, what might be called the market for propaganda has expanded to include virtually every member of a modern society — everyone, that is, except those who understand the underfoot conditions and are prepared to seek their information from other than ready sources and remain determined to think for themselves.
By Ellul’s thesis, the citizen imagining himself ‘modern’ needs propaganda: to fulfil his sense of importance and involvement in the ostensibly prevailing democracy; to provide an outlet for his pent-up energies, to put on display his ‘moral’ disposition, and so forth. Seen like this, it becomes clear that a modern society needs propaganda in much the way, and for the same reasons, that it needs entertainment. And Ellul was insistent on his own careful use of words: when he spoke of the ‘necessity’ of propaganda, he was not expressing approval: ‘… the world of necessity is a world of weakness, a world that denies man. To say that a phenomenon is necessary means, for me, that it denies man; its necessity is proof of its power, not proof of its excellence.’
It is obvious from this outline that the fundamental conditions described by La Bon, Bernays, Dichter and Ellul remain in place today, but have been subjected to exponential multipliers arising from the sheer pervasiveness of advertising, the ubiquity of technology, the power of the internet and the 24/7 stream of information and responses in respect of selected events from around the globe.
It seems obvious that our reference points for mapping propaganda must by now be decades out of date. When the pioneers of depth manipulation were plying their dubious trade, they were dealing with a world in which there were but a handful of media by which a society and its members could be manipulated. The work of the founding fathers of the 'science' of the ‘depth approach’ — Bernays, Dichter etc. — is all firmly embedded in the first half or middle of the 20th century, when TV was in the womb or in its infancy and all you had were a few newspapers, cinema, advertising hoardings and the radio. Our understandings of 'depth manipulation' spring from this period, and have not been updated to take into account that media are now almost constantly central to the consciousness of most of the human race. We're therefore dealing with a different kind of animal — in the average human being — than those guys were talking about. Then, by comparison, advertising and propaganda no more than grazed off the consciousness of the individual — capable of influencing but not necessarily dominating the entire thought processes, as is now the case. Talk radio, 24 hour news, breakfast television, all these are phenomena of the past handful of decades, and have entered human culture almost as human entities — more like intimate relationships than technological adjuncts — to say nothing of social media and the other internet 'gifts'. The TV set in the corner is not just an apparatus for obtaining news, information, entertainment — it's actually akin to a person sitting in the corner of the room, and usually the most dominant, strident and garrulous person at that.
In the Covid episode, the TV set has become the narcissist/psychopath who dictates to the other occupants what they should think and feel, brooking no dissent. TVs are uninterruptable, so the dynamics of the situation dictate that any nonconformists in the room will be put in their place, unless one of them can turn the darn thing off. Twitter, as its name almost suggests, is also a kind of personification of psychopathic traits: one minute satiating the user’s craving for dopamine, the next lacerating the addict for some unwitting sin against orthodoxy. Even when the user is the aggressor, he or she is aggressively enforcing thinking that comes from someplace/someone else.
Hence, people are not like they used to be, or how we still assume them to be: i.e. maybe 90% themselves, with 10% of their 'content’ imposed. It may well be the other way around: 10% themselves and 90% imposed.
We continue to talk to one another under the assumption that we are — on both sides — still more or less as we used to be (I'm talking here mainly of us older folk; the young are in a much worse situation, because there may be no 10%). In truth almost nobody is like that. What we're dealing with most of the time is people with hollowed out minds and therefore hollowed out souls — what pass for their brains crammed full with the ideas other people want them to cling to. It is not that they are propagandised — we're way beyond that — but that their minds are utterly colonised and occupied by alien thoughts. And — even more ominously — they are addicted to the source of these thoughts, the abusive box in the corner, which (‘who’?) tells them everything they know, everything that's true and untrue, and advises them how to avoid being waylaid by false narratives, i.e. unapproved versions of reality. What we are talking about, then, is not methods of imparting information, but instruments of mass hypnoidal entrancement, a different strand of the modern story of herd management, which I wrote about [https://lockdownsceptics.org/?s=hypnosis] back in the summer of 2020. This takes things to a new level — the informal second part of this essay.
One of the unnoticed consequences of propaganda, according to Jacques Ellul, is that it results in a gradual ‘closing up’ of the individual, arising from a growing insensitivity to repeated bouts of propaganda. Subjected to persistent repetitions of the same messages, he begins to skim the headlines of his newspaper rather than reading the articles. In a more modern context, he uses the remote control to zap from station to station on his TV set, searching perhaps for some element of surprise, and always in vain. He checks his phone incessantly, craving a new fix of data or instruction. Radio becomes no more than background noise: he doesn’t hear and doesn’t care. This stage of the process does not signal immunity to propaganda, but the opposite. Deeply imbued with the symbols of propaganda, he no longer needs to absorb the detail. A splash of colour, a familiar logo, is enough to trigger the required Pavlovian response. The subject of successful propaganda resembles an addict, who, however long he remains on the wagon, requires just a single shot to put him back in the gutter.
Propaganda, Jacques Ellul believed, is ‘a direct attack against man’. Although himself an advocate of democracy, he believed that propaganda renders the true exercise of such freedoms ‘almost impossible’. This is why those who persist in thinking for themselves, or even in expressing unapproved views, invite such opprobrium in modern societies. It’s not just that dissenters threaten the reach or influence of the propagandists, for in truth due to their inability to achieve total saturation through media, they rarely do so. The cause of their being so feared is that, by their very presence, they put at risk the whole edifice. Their heresy endangers the artifice essential for effective propaganda: the sense of naturalism, factuality, that accompanies it.
Propaganda, writes Ellul, ‘does not tolerate discussion. It abhors contradiction. ‘It must produce quasi-unanimity, and the opposing faction must become negligible, or in any case cease to be vocal.’ To submit to propaganda, therefore, means to become alienated from oneself, because it closes off the power of critical thinking. ‘Propaganda strips the individual, robs him of part of himself, and makes him live an alien and artificial life, to such an extent that he becomes another person and obeys impulses foreign to him.’ This is achieved by suffusing the individual in the emotions and responses of the herd, dissipating his individuality, freeing his ego of all, confusions, unresolved contradictions and personal reservations. It pushes the individual into the mass ‘until he disappears entirely’. What ‘disappears’, in fact, is the individual’s capacity for personal reflection, independent thinking, critical judgment, these being replaced with ready-made thoughts, stereotypes, clichés, catchwords and ‘guidelines’.
Once successfully propagandised, the individual ceases to be a passive recipient of the propaganda and becomes an evangelist. He takes vigorous stances, starts to oppose others, polices the orthodoxies. ‘He asserts himself,’ observes Ellul, ‘at the very moment that he denies his own self without realising it.’
The chief reason the individual can no longer judge for himself is that he must constantly relate his thoughts to the entire complex of values and prejudices established by propaganda, and this is something that can only be learned as though by rote. Once atrophied, the capacities to judge, discern or think critically are no longer accessible to the subject, and these faculties will not simply reappear when propaganda is discontinued or suppressed. Years of spiritual and intellectual reconstruction will be required to restore them. The victim of propaganda, deprived of one channel of opinion, will simply seek out another, like a junkie seeking a different kind of fix. This, says, Ellul, will ‘spare him the agony of finding himself vis-à-vis some event without a ready-made opinion and obliged to judge it for himself.’
Propaganda, then, is a bigger word than we have allowed ourselves to consider. It is also a word that embraces an array of what can only be accurately described as weapons of mass indoctrination — and ultimately of destruction, too: the destruction of minds, hearts, souls, lives, livelihoods, relationships and futures. It is not, then, a small, comical thing; it is a very big, unfunny thing. When journalists, then, contrive to bombard their readers with concocted pseudo-narratives, ‘human interest’ stories directed at the singular purpose of manipulating them into a particular frame of mind; when they collaborate in the falsification of statistics in order to terrorise people; when they use their platforms to not merely deny the voices of alternative viewpoints, but to put dissenters on trial in proceedings in which they have no representation — they are not engaging in victimless wrongdoing. Their victims are many, and include in particular many of those least able to defend themselves against this barrage of mendacity that constructs walls of lies around their very bodies and beings in the world, walls that imprison not merely themselves but also all those caught in the contagion of their mind-virus. These are crimes of a very modern kind. But they are crimes all the same, all the more dastardly because the criminals scrub their own tracks in their wake, and tell themselves they are dealing in ‘facts’. They are crimes committed by individuals and collectives against individuals and communities-without-immunity, crimes that cry out to Heaven for retribution.