We tend to think of propaganda as old wartime posters, short monochrome films, crackly radio announcements and racist newspaper clippings from a hundred years ago. We tend to think of Nazis, communism and Apartheid – and link it to words like “regime” or “dictator”. Propaganda uses language overtly, covertly and subconsciously, to form opinion and relabel ideas as facts. And, regardless of what we think propaganda is or was, we seldom notice the effect it has on us – until now.
We live in the era of fake news – a term coined not by the man who made it famous, but by anti-misinformation group First Draft. Fake news is the newest form of yellow journalism; malicious propaganda that steers false information through social media, and is periodically picked up by mainstream media.
Propaganda is not a new concept. Equally, it’s not dead. It’s alive and well, possibly in better health than it’s ever been, thanks largely to the internet and advertising.
The rampant digital spread of misinformation is widely thought to have shaped all major political outcomes in the western world over the last few years – but this itself could be misinformation, peddled by those wishing to diminish trust in content providers.
It’s clear that the delivery system of news and popular expression has changed. Print media is working to adapt to a world of screens. TV is evolving to cater to the Netflix and YouTube generation. In spite of the overhaul of the way content is delivered, the mechanisms of political propaganda have not changed since their inception; a mixture subtle and overt language, used to marginalise certain groups, fracture society and segment tribes into ideologies that are fundamentally at odds with each other – irreconcilably so.
Propaganda, used effectively, can be self-perpetuating. It finds scapegoats for problems in a nation and systematically finds ways of blaming them on certain groups, with the intent of stoking unrest and inciting intolerance – eventually amassing to reform by popular demand.
It Works in All Directions
Propaganda is believed to be an instrument of the far-right – but it has been adopted by many groups of varying political leaning, and even those considered neutral. Anti-working-class propaganda exists in the same universe as anti-capitalist propaganda. Secular propaganda exists alongside religious propaganda. All propaganda serves to derail a certain group in order to benefit another, and it knows no firm affiliation. Its techniques can be seen in advertising and marketing, sales – and even job candidates in an interview.
The techniques employed by propagandists have scarcely changed in hundreds of years; visual media – be it text, imagery or more commonly a combination – is still seen today in the memes popularised on Facebook, Twitter and fringe Reddit groups.
However – the specific means of what constitutes propaganda fall down to language. Among the most common propaganda techniques are appealing to fear, prejudice and “plain folk”, direct calls to action, exaggeration, euphemism, name-calling and loaded language.
The Power of Words Alone
Wording is incredibly powerful. In advertising, copywriters agonise over taglines that are merely five words long. The effectiveness of wording is entirely separate to design, font usage and imagery – the things we assume advertising prioritises. It resonates in the mind long after the residual image has faded, like a distant, echoing bell.
That previous statement itself is an example; using a cliché of real-world experience to heighten an argument – language that has absolutely nothing to do with the conversation, but is universal enough to strike an emotive chord, or unearth a memory, in order to appeal more strongly to the reader.
You can hear the words of company slogans, long abandoned, in your thoughts; I’m Lovin’ It. Every Little Helps. Just Do It. Snap, Crackle, Pop.
Through a combination of repetition ad nauseam and the near perpetual carpet-bombing of your senses with language, certain phrases have become inseparable from brands, people, policies and political affiliations.
Make America Great Again. Take Back Control.
Words hold immense power. And yet, we commit them to languish in everyday banality as our primary means of communication.
As a species, our capacity to break the mould, to learn and to change runs as deep as our capacity for herd mentality. We are so accustomed to language that we barely take the time to critique it or question its intentions.
Words alone have forged empires and toppled giants, by rallying nations, groups and individuals into action.
Whatever you read – even this – consider the core of the message. Consider whether or not you are being manipulated – to buy, to believe or to vote. Because once you uncover the power of language, you’ll have a profound respect for it – and may even choose to have your say with it.
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