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Alternative Culture Articles

April 22, 2001

Propaganda and Public Information
By Royce Carlson

Have you ever bought something that you wish you hadnít solely because of an influential sales person or advertisement? If you did, itís probably because someone studied the relatively new science of influence and used it to convince you to buy. The same science is used in politics to get us to vote for candidates or against them, to vote for propositions or against them and to ignore or pay attention to what particular governments are up to. If you are someone who resists the corporatization of the world and fights manipulation wherever you see it, you need to know your enemy and his/her tactics. Those tactics involve the use of words to influence people.

Words are powerful. We use the word "propaganda" to describe information campaigns that we donít like but might use the words "public information" to describe the same type of campaigns that we do like. Propaganda has a negative connotation and public information has a positive one, or at least a neutral implication. The way words are assembled can have very different effects and, since World War II, those effects have been meticulously studied as part of the science of social psychology.

Take "green-washing" for example. Green washing is a technique used to create a positive environmental public image that is in opposition to the real activities of a government, organization, or corporation. When an oil company spends $100,000,000 to tell you how it spent $2,000,000 on the environment in order to convince you how environmentally friendly it is, thatís a green wash. There is a fairly recently formed organization called Republicans for Environmental Responsibility. The name sounds nice doesnít it? "Maybe those Republicans arenít all out to rape the land," you might think after hearing the name. But this organization is not friendly to the environment at all. It is sponsored by the mining and chemical industries for the purpose of "using" the environment for their own gains. A name like that is a green wash. It is purposely misleading to avoid attracting attention from opposing groups. It would be far less successful if it was named Republicans for Environmental Exploitation but definitely more accurate. 

Check out this current news article on the American Chemical Council's greenwash techniques published by CorpWatch, a watchdog group working to keep corporations accountable for their actions:

American Chemical Council Greenwash at Earth Day Conference - ACC uses tried and true greenwash techniques in response to 'Trade Secrets,' the Bill Moyers expose of corporate malfeasance in the chemical industry. - April 17, 2001

Advertisers, sales people, organizations and governments use words that trigger our susceptibilities. In the U.S., people tend to have a conflicting dynamic in their personalities where they want to be seen as unique and special and at the same time they want to feel like they belong. This leaves us open to ad campaigns that tell us to "be a rebel", "think different", etc. by buying their products along with thousands of other special and unique people just like us.

There are cultural norms that are also used to manipulate our behavior. Our need for a reason to do things runs deep. If you ask someone to do something, they will be more likely to do it if you give them a reason. Even a stupid reason works better than no reason. The idea of fair exchange is built into our psyches since childhood. If someone gives you something, you feel obligated to give something back. Itís only fair, right? If an advertiser gives you a "gift", no matter how worthless, the chances that you will reciprocate by buying their product increases significantly.

Itís important to know how words are used to influence you if you want to regain some control over your ability to resist, but not all use of words is necessarily manipulative. You can use these same techniques ethically to increase the chances that your message will be heard. Many non-profit organizations use these techniques for fund raising and the funds raised can go to very good causes. The key is to educate people, not manipulate and alienate them. You can use these techniques to best present your case rather than misrepresent it. The techniques of persuasion are powerful and, in order to fight the good fight, we need to understand when they are being used against us, and to know how to use them ethically to fight manipulation by others.

So far G.W. Bush has been pretty clumsy in his efforts to undermine the environmental movement. Every declaration has been obvious and has catalyzed environmentalists to action. This wonít go on for long. His administration will wise up and soon he will be raping the environment and we will hardly know about it unless we understand the techniques of manipulation and propaganda. Here are some links to more information on the science of influencing behavior:

An Introduction to Social Influence - This is a great site and was the inspiration for this article.

Steve's Primer of Practical Persuasion and Influence - Details on human susceptibilities and techniques used to influence people.

Propaganda and Psychological Warfare - A directory of links to sites on specific propaganda from political to religious.

Propaganda Techniques In Advertising, Media, Politics & Warfare - a class for K-12 Teachers and students. Includes examples and images.

The Science of Modern Propaganda - This web site is devoted to operationally defining the various techniques of modern propaganda


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Royce Carlson