In this article:
- Propaganda is a message that’s intentionally crafted based on principles of social psychology to make us believe in a cause or idea.
- Its techniques show up everywhere, from commercials to political ads to social media campaigns.
- Even those who know how it works and are confident in their intelligence can still end up internalizing the opinions and ideas spread through propaganda.
- In fact, believing you’re immune to propaganda could end up making you even more vulnerable to it.
What comes to mind when you hear the word propaganda? For a lot of people, it’s something that’s only used in countries under dictatorships. Propaganda doesn’t happen where you live and, even if it did, it’s not like you would fall prey to it.
After all, you’re smart, skeptical, and have a shred of common sense. You can’t possibly find yourself a victim of propaganda, right?
Let’s start with the basics. Contrary to what you might think, propaganda isn’t just brainwashing ads made by authoritarian regimes. Miriam-Webster defines it as “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.”
Put simply, any information that is made to advocate for a cause is propaganda.
People recently proved that they weren’t immune to this when Save Ralph, a short film made by Jojo Rabbit director Taika Waititi, went viral. The video was uploaded by the Humane Society of the United States and caused enough outrage that Mexico’s Senate passed a law to ban animal testing.
The bill is still awaiting approval and implementation but just the fact that Save Ralph was able to get a bill passed in such a short timeframe is a testament to what propaganda can do.
But why was Save Ralph so effective? They certainly didn’t employ any of the underhanded tactics we commonly associate with propaganda…or maybe they did.
In Psychology and Propaganda, Leonard W. Doob and Edward S. Robinson explain that the belief that propaganda disseminates inherently false beliefs and information is, well, naive.
This is because many of the psychological mechanisms behind the spread of valid and invalid opinions are one and the same. It’s how propaganda ends up looking valid even if it may be false or harmful on a societal scale: Even bad propaganda looks good.
How Propaganda Works
1. Propaganda Tells a Story
It’s a secret that all marketers know: People love a good narrative. As someone who’s been freelancing for a couple of years now, I’ve seen how social media marketers advocate the use of storytelling to promote brands.
It doesn’t matter if you’re selling bamboo straws or hair extensions: Create a story. This is because a story humanizes a cause and capitalizes on people’s inclination to connect on a personal level. We are social animals and monkey see, monkey do, monkey feel.
Kimball Young’s Social Psychology: An Analysis of Social Behavior explains propaganda in the larger context of myth-making. We create an emotional association of words and pictures with certain concepts by means of storytelling.
Sometimes these stories are a nation’s history or the values of a culture.
In the case of Save Ralph, the film plays on the notion that animals are innocent and thus undeserving of cruelty. Seeing Ralph be abused throughout the film naturally raises our hackles, bringing conditioned ideas of fairness into play. In short, it makes us empathize.
As unfortunate as this may sound, the video may not have gotten the same amount of sympathy if the speaker wasn’t a cute rabbit but, say, a convicted pedophile. The message may still be the same but the story no longer resonates the same way.
2. Propaganda Is Familiar
Absence makes the heart grow fonder but that isn’t the case for propaganda. Quite the opposite, constant exposure to a message makes you likelier to believe that it’s true.
A study published by the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review found that mere repetition makes statements appear truer to us regardless of whether they are true or false.
This is because repetition helps us confirm our knowledge with everyone else’s. If everybody around you is repeating the same information, you will likely accept the repeated information as truth.
Even if you have prior knowledge that says otherwise, repetition of information that contradicts what we already know makes us doubt our own knowledge.
Another thing that propaganda does through repetition is increase your familiarity with an idea or a cause. In social psychology, this is called the familiarity principle but it also goes by a more popular name: the mere exposure effect.
This psychological phenomenon makes you feel more comfortable with an idea through sheer exposure and, despite any aversion to it you may have felt before, growing familiarity makes you more open to propaganda.
3. Propaganda Is You
If you haven’t noticed it yet, most of the psychological mechanisms behind propaganda are centered around creating a connection between the target and the cause or idea that is being promoted.
While the previous two can be harder to identify, it’s easier to distinguish propaganda from other types of media when it uses the plain folks technique.
Plain folks works through the same psychological principles that foster a connection with the audience. Propaganda that works by means of plain folks resonates with the audience because the speaker claims to be one of them.
It doesn’t matter if the person pushing their agenda is a politician with rich parents whose money comes from questionable sources.
They will act and speak as if they came from the same background as their voter base. This makes their voters feel “seen” and that our hypothetical masquerading politician will represent them and their interests.
You Are Not Special
The fact that propaganda is largely based on social psychology may only solidify your belief that you’re immune. You don’t care what anyone else thinks because you’re an independent thinker! You can’t be affected by the kind of nonsense these sheeple are.
If you believe you’re too smart for propaganda, this is going to be a tough one to swallow: that kind of thinking makes you an even better target for propaganda.
Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “I only know that I know nothing.” People who are truly intelligent and well-versed in their fields of study are well aware of the limits of what they know and the vast ocean of knowledge that they don’t know.
This makes them more careful and less likely to accept their first assumptions regarding a stimulus. This self-doubt is the same phenomenon behind imposter syndrome and an important tool in critical thinking.
Meta-cognition, which is simply how we think about the way we think, helps us assess our own knowledge, understanding, and competence.
The ability to analyze why you think the way you do helps you better identify if ideas and beliefs you have internalized are valid and rigorously contemplated or if you’ve just passively accepted them by psychologically suggestive means.
Automatically assuming that one is “too smart” for propaganda throws meta-cognition out of the window. It stops you from thinking further about why you think the way you think and believe in what you believe in.
This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, a psychological phenomenon where one’s lack of awareness of their own incompetence makes one prone to believing that one knows enough.
Also called meta-ignorance — ignorance about ignorance — this cognitive bias is the opposite of meta-cognition. Incomplete or misguided knowledge doesn’t just stop us from coming to the right conclusions but also keeps us from understanding the full extent of our cognitive shortcomings.
But now that you’ve learned about how propaganda works and how it can blindside you, you’ll find it easier to identify when you’ve started to believe in it.
Don’t feel ashamed when you discover that some of your beliefs may have originated in internalizing propaganda because the truth is that we all have those beliefs. What matters is knowing the limits of these beliefs and their flaws.