Truth, Untruth, Propaganda, and the Public Good

Propaganda is not merely lies — although lies, rumors and disinformation have been used. But the lie is not a generally effective technique, despite the Nazis’ famous notion about the “Big Lie” inspiring more belief than a small one. Overt lies, when detected, compromise the credibility of the propagandist; however, the propagandist can always use a front organization or “leaks” to outsource incredible claims while still preserving the appearance of probity. Thus Jacques Ellul noted, in propaganda truth pays. There is no need to risk the lie when copious information consisting of select facts, arbitrary, operational definitions and statistics create a cognitive deluge which overwhelms the victim, who becomes therefore even more dependent on interpretive expert-propagandists to explain what it all means.

Additionally many matters within the province of propaganda are beyond truth or untruth per se, e.g., images or symbols. How can a photograph or an image be untrue? Unless offered as doctored evidence, an image merely is what it is. It may evoke a response, or a response to it can be conditioned through repetition, or it can be “interpreted,” hence, in part, its power, e.g. the golden arches, the hammer and sickle. This observation applies to slogans as well, which are often intentionally ambiguous so as to allow people to see in them whatever they need to see, e.g., “Change you can believe in,” which means anything, everything or nothing depending on the perceiver’s predispositions. Additionally, since the main thrust of propaganda has to do with the interpretation of meaning, which more often than not is ultimately unknown or in dispute, especially concerning complicated social issues, who is to say what may be the “correct” meaning of any major part of the human experience? The propagandist steps into this void, presenting a plausible case, perhaps one based on the crudest circumstantial evidence, but one suitable for his audience and purposes.

Is propaganda evil by definition, or does it convey social benefits? It has often been defended or minimized. Harold Lasswell discounted its long-term influence by claiming America’s various propagandas would cancel each other out in a free marketplace of competing propagandas. This of course assumes a free market. Lasswell’s assumption possibly no longer holds in the face of modern interpretive near-monopolies, e.g., government and ownership centralization, or the “cornering the market” in key areas within the information sociology, e.g., education policy, or the decline of citizen-based voluntary associations that might act as alternate information sources, and the concordant proliferation of staff-run groups wherein small, top-down organizations claim to speak on behalf of all humanity.

Edward Bernays boasted that propaganda had helped to make America great by promulgating new products, markets and ideas. Others say that good propaganda works for the “public interest” while bad propaganda advances “special interests.” Beware this line of argument, however, because autocrats routinely, if not invariably, claim the collective good as their warrant of personal legitimation. Further, “special interests” may well be you or anyone else who doesn’t go along with a current administrative agenda. Another common argument is that having more available information gives people more choices, so propagandists are therefore just providing a public service. Maybe this is true, but when information is thus subsidized it tends to serve those who have subsidized it, as is the case with press releases and think tank reports. Plus, propaganda is not neatly distinguishable from information. Is there even such a thing as neutral information? For information doesn’t just spontaneously appear in media — it serves some purpose. In any case, the lone individual is not up to the task of collecting raw data on world, national or even local events, and must depend on
propaganda’s interpretive experts to turn such data into information.

Some degree of propaganda may be good when viewed as a cost-benefit calculation, although we must always wonder who is doing the arithmetic. We might consider here the near universal belief among Americans of belonging to something called “the middle class,” a pretense that is absurd on its face. If the belief is regarded as a socialization propaganda, however, which causes people to aspire and behave “correctly” according to cultural models, the belief assures that much unpleasant work continues to get done. Arguing the contrary, though, such a belief may have permanently injured many who don’t know the difference between being a consumer and a citizen, and who haven’t truly developed themselves because they imagine themselves as having already “arrived.” It may also have damaged the nation by decreasing sustainable productivity and creating a false bubble of prosperity that appears recently to have burst.

Also, without propaganda societal unity might disappear. Extreme fragmentation might result. This was a fear of the Church as well, that without centralized control of meaning, the virtues of a higher, greater order might disappear and interpretive pluralism might degrade to the level where everyone merely strives against everyone else in a brutish Hobbesian fashion. Good or bad, however, propaganda is an omnipresent environmental fact. It seems impossible to imagine a mass society without it.

(Excerpted from Brian Anse Patrick, The Ten Commandments of Propaganda, available in our Webshop.)