Beware the Propagandist You See In the Mirror

Americans Are Overwhelmed by Persuasive Messaging, Even as They Bombard Each Other

Beware the Propagandist You See In the Mirror | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Photo by Aaron Salcido.

On any given day, Americans are inundated with persuasive messages, otherwise known as propaganda, from the time they wake up until the time they go to sleep. These messages—their positive effects and their dangers—were the focus of discussion at a Zócalo/UCLA Anderson School of Management event titled, “Is Propaganda Keeping Americans From Thinking for Themselves?”

Moderator Carla Hall, editorial board member of the Los Angeles Times, started off the event, held before a standing-room-only crowd at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles, by asking the panelists if propaganda can be both bad and good.

Hal Hershfield, a marketing scholar and psychologist at UCLA Anderson said that propaganda isn’t necessarily bad; it can help people “do the things that they say that they want to do.” Consider the campaign to convince people to take 10,000 steps a day did not have scientific backing—it was promoted by a company that made pedometers, Hall said. Whatever the intentions behind messaging, if propaganda is “moving people in the right direction health-wise, is this a problem?” Hershfield asked.

Hershfield said the positive propaganda around participation in retirement plans is similar; such messaging may come from the retirement plans themselves, but it has led to big increases in America’s retirement savings.

Another panelist, the UC Santa Cruz social psychologist Anthony Pratkanis, said propaganda can have multiple definitions. Propaganda can simply mean the promotion of one side of a dispute, or it can have a more nefarious definition. The definition he uses for propaganda is: “A message that plays on your emotions and prejudices.” Propaganda, he said, “is typically short, like a sound bite, a photo, a vivid image, and it’s designed to speak to your gut” and arouse your feelings, often fear, guilt, or your prejudices. Pratkanis offered the example of Nazi propagandist Fritz Hippler, who said his role in the production of propaganda in Nazi Germany “was to simplify, make it agreeable, entertain, and then repeat, repeat, repeat.”

One problem with this approach, according to Pratkanis: If a leader is simply constantly appealing to the public’s emotions, he or she effectively prevents real discussion of the issues. And, Pratkanis said, “a democracy is founded on having deliberative persuasion, discussion, negotiation, and (an) understanding (of) the core issues.”

Hall, the moderator, questioned whether, with the American public sphere broken, people even know the rules of productive discussion and debate. “What are the rules?” she asked the panelists.

Texas A&M historian of rhetoric Jennifer Mercieca said that we communicate more as propagandists than as citizens. Americans no longer join organizations the way we used to, and instead exchange views on social networks like Facebook and Twitter that use algorithms “designed to promote the most outrageous and emotive content,” she said.

And the notifications the networks send users are designed to “ping the dopamine receptors in your brain to get you addicted” to using the platforms. The networks train you “to speak as a propagandist on social media. It will only show your content if you’re outrageous,” Mercieca said.

Hall then asked how, given the overwhelming number of messages, notifications, and ads that reach us, we are able to pick our way through all the propaganda of this work.

Pratkanis replied that it’s impossible to think, let alone think critically, about each persuasive message we encounter in a given day. This, he said, “is the real issue we face as citizens.”

Propaganda “is typically short, like a sound bite, a photo, a vivid image, and it’s designed to speak to your gut” and arouse your feelings, often fear, guilt, or your prejudices.

The saturated environment is one of the reasons that propaganda is so effective, Pratkanis said. Unable to think about messages, people start to use heuristics—simple rules to decide if something is good or bad, or true or false. And that strategy leads us to conclusions such as, “Well, it came from my political party so it must be good, (or) it came from their political party it must be bad.” The public simply doesn’t have the time—or necessarily the skills—to successfully wade through all of these persuasive messages.

But is there anything we can do to be “smart consumers of propaganda” Hall asked?

Mercieca said that her best advice is to be “super vigilant,” though that can be hard, since social media platforms are designed to prevent us from thinking critically. Still, Mercieca said, it’s important to ask what the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero asked, “Cui bono?,” or “Who profits?,” when consuming propaganda. You have to think about who might be attempting to manipulate you and for what reason, she said.

Pratkanis said that “when you’re receiving messages you have to pay attention to your emotions” and monitor how your thinking or emotions change after consuming a certain message. If you’re feeling guilty, or experiencing moral outrage, you should ask yourself why. And if you are feeling panicky in a sales situation, this is a “clue that someone is trying to use propaganda against you,” Pratkanis said.

Hershfield argued for bigger changes, especially in social media, to allow people to better understand the propaganda aimed at them. But that requires more transparency over social media platforms like Facebook that have shrouded their algorithms in mystery. He said, “We need the social media platforms to figure out ways to change the algorithms so that people are more mindful consumers of the messages.”

During the question-and-answer session with the audience, the panelists were asked if they thought teaching rhetoric and educating high schoolers about propaganda could be part of the solution. All the panelists agreed that more education on these issues would be helpful.

But a change in mindset is also needed. Mercieca said that one of the major differences between ancient Greek society and ours, is that citizens then saw themselves as “officers of the government.” Today, she said, “we don’t think of ourselves as having an office as citizens” and instead “act more as partisans than we do as citizens.”

In this way, the biggest propagandists are regular people themselves, spreading the propaganda we receive. In essence, Mercieca said, we “communicate as propagandists,” and not as citizens.

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