In the world of “Alternative Facts” and viral WhatsApp forwards, propaganda is a powerful political tool. Propaganda and advertising are inextricably linked and are often difficult to identify.
Propaganda is deliberate manipulation and distortion of facts, popularised through mass media, with the intention of convincing the general population something that may not necessarily be the truth. Propaganda may not always be outright lies, sometimes it means stereotyping, projecting a negative image of a particular community based on a sole incident, hate-speech, fear mongering etc. Conversation regarding propaganda, what it represents, and the kind of influence it holds is more relevant today than ever before. Many experts credit Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 United States Presidential elections to propaganda. By discrediting the entire western liberal media, projecting himself as a highly successful businessman, and calling him an ally of the blue-collar working class he won people over despite having no political experience. In truth Trump is far from what a successful business person looks like. He inherited his wealth and has multiple failed ventures under his belt, some of which include Trump University, Trump Magazine, Trump Steak, Trump Casinos, and Trump Vodka. He plans on introducing tax-reforms that would give tax breaks to billionaires, which is the last thing a blue-collar ally should be doing. Closer home propaganda would mean the endless WhatsApp forwards circulated some of which spread lies and hate about certain communities and groups. Messages like “UNESCO has declared the Indian national anthem, flag, Prime Minister, etc. to be the best” are classic examples of propaganda. Their aim is to placate the masses regarding where the country is heading, perhaps distract people from bigger problems.
Two big questions that come to mind are: first, if propaganda is just psychological manipulation, then is advertising not propaganda? And secondarily, is all propaganda bad? While there is a slight distinction between advertisements and propaganda, the former encourages people to consume certain goods while the latter is a way to cause change in the long term thought process of people; propaganda and advertising are co-dependent tools. Propaganda can be spread through advertisements while advertisements can use propaganda in order in influence consumer behaviour. The greatest example of propaganda in advertising is the “Diamonds are Forever” campaign. Diamond company De Beers, had a monopoly on the diamond market and consecutively they wanted to influence the demand as well. Careful marketing, including articles about Hollywood celebrities and their engagement rings, ad-campaigns correlating a man’s love for his sweetheart, even his personal success to the size of the diamond on his fiancés finger made rounds. Marilyn Monroe coquettishly singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friends” influenced and underlined the importance of diamonds. Diamonds are far from rare and cannot last forever; they can very well be chipped, shattered, and damaged. But the propaganda and advertising in this campaign was so thorough that even a century later people continue to regard a big diamond as the ultimate token of love. Our spending habits, our voting patterns, and our lifestyles are influenced by advertising and propaganda, more so than we will ever know.
However, propaganda and advertising are not always bad. Anti-smoking, anti-drunk driving campaigns are all forms of propaganda as well. They instil fear in the mind of viewers are can often exaggerate the influence of smoking on one’s health, but their impact on society is positive. This form of propaganda discourages a lot of people from taking up the habit of smoking. During the Second World War the “Rosie the Riveter” campaign that showed a woman in a blue shirt and red bandana flexing her muscles was also a form of propaganda that encouraged women to participate more actively in the war effort by working in factories and industries. The “Dunkirk Spirit” and the “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters are also examples of British propaganda that helped boost the morale of the people and contributed to the victory of the Allies and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis and Fascists.
In 2018, the context of propaganda has changed. Propaganda is not an exclusive tool of governments anymore. Media houses, political candidates, and anyone with enough resources can contribute to propaganda and spread hysteria, panic, and hate. Our world is not solely the world of televised advertisements and posters anymore. Alternative facts, viral stories, and a personalised Facebook feed that strategically shows you posts similar to your beliefs is a dangerous combination that makes us all vulnerable of believing in fake news. In order to identify problematic news pieces here are a few steps we can take-
1. Believe news sourced from verified media outlets only– a large number of small websites, blogs, and pages have popped up that share misinformation or deliberately distort facts in order to incite hate or fear. Most of these pages are paid by political parties and their purpose is to advance a particular ideology. Following unbiased and verified media outlets, and believing their stories exclusively would be a good way to not engage with these propaganda tools.
2. Examine financial and familial ties between the media houses you follow– is a particular news channel presenting a biased version of current events? Are you seeing a spike in the number of one-sided stories they are publishing? Doing a small google search on whether that media house is financed by a major politician or their family member would be another good step that could give you additional clarity.
3. Notice leaders who discredit media outlets that speak against them– If a political candidate speaks against any media house that highlights their problematic behaviour, calls them fake news or tries to question their legitimacy, it is a sign that they are trying to control the narrative around them by discrediting free media. It is an alarming sign that should not be underestimated. By effectively discrediting press, one silences their opponents or at least makes their words redundant- this is a common tool employed by authoritarian leaders, and one we must watch out for.
4. Name calling, generalisation and stereotyping– When people in the public eye try to call their political opponent names, use racial or derogatory slurs for them, try to generalise the behaviour of fringe groups and extremists as that of the whole community, use lone incidents in order to stereotype a group, it is propaganda at its finest. These things when done repeatedly over an extended period of time can make most people hateful and prejudiced. Such irresponsible behaviour should always be called out and discredited immediately, especially if made by people revered and followed in the public eye.
It is impossible to avoid all forms of advertising and propaganda- the two are deeply rooted in modern society. What we can do is keep ourselves alert and informed. By being conscientious, responsible, and considerate we can reduce the negative impact of propaganda.
Feature Image Credits: The Advocate