media politics

10 propaganda techniques

In their current exhibition, the British Library explores propaganda and the many ways that governments try to shape collective opinion. (Here’s a write-up of my own visit to the exhibition) There are all kinds of techniques for changing minds or building habits, and they’re not exclusive to politics either. Advertisers and campaigners use them too. Here are ten popular techniques to look out for in the wild.

  1. Appeal to patriotism – flag up the national interest, especially in the face of competing nations. Nobody wants to fall behind in the global race.
  2. Exploit existing beliefs – use prevailing attitudes and beliefs to your advantage, including stereotypes and prejudices.
  3. Use humour – disarm your audience by making them laugh, and make your message more memorable. Can also be used to belittle opponents.
  4. Create fear – build on existing anxieties, and use them to outline a threat or define an enemy. The reasoned arguments of your opponents will be powerless if you’ve got fear working for you.
  5. Imply everyone agrees – People like to fit in, so it’s always worth suggesting that Average Joe, the man on the street, and Britain’s hard working families who just want to get on all see things the way you do.
  6. Establish authority – 99% of doctors agree that referencing trusted authoritites makes your claim more believable.
  7. Disguise the source – We don’t like the idea of the government telling us what to think, so channel the message through think-tanks, quangos, and whatever apparently independent organisations you have available.
  8. Make false connections – We all want our children to be safe. So start with something everyone can agree with, and then jump to your more contested point.
  9. Be selective about the truth – whatever the issue, focus on the aspects that support the view you want to encourage, and don’t give airtime to the alternatives.
  10. Hammer it home – choose your message carefully and then repeat it until it is so common that nobody questions it any more.

For your homework, read David Cameron’s recent article on fracking with these techniques in mind, and see how many you can identify.

8 comments

  1. Or an anti fracking press release. Please don’t try to imply only those you oppose use propaganda. You have been known to be selective about the truth, though no one can accuse you over the use of humour.

        1. Because it’s most recent example that came to mind. And you have to admit, as examples of a politician trying to change public opinion, they don’t come much more up-front than that.

          1. That is true. But then shouldn’t politicians be trying to lead, which does entail a bit of changing the public’s mind.

          2. “That is true. But then shouldn’t politicians be trying to lead, which does entail a bit of changing the public’s mind.”

            DevonChap: The government should not be trying to lead, they should be doing what the public wants. It’s not their job to persuade us. Anyway, there is a difference between NLP and convincing people based on what they want, and underhanded pscho-manipulation to trick people into your agenda.

  2. Yes they should, and I have no problem with propaganda. Propaganda can be good or bad, depending on the message, as I said in my previous post on the subject:
    http://makewealthhistory.org/2013/07/15/propaganda-at-the-british-library/

    The important thing is that we think for themselves. We should be wise to communication techniques and question what they’re told, whether that’s by politicians, corporations or protest groups.

    Incidentally, while I have no problem with Cameron trying to sway public opinion, he is profoundly wrong about fracking, and is unusually economical with the truth in that particular article. Even Cuadrilla don’t claim that fracking will lower bills, so it’s actually a pretty dishonest piece of propaganda. That I do have a problem with, although there are lies being told on both sides of the fracking argument, and his are no worse than those bandied about by the folks at Balcombe.

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