The Propaganda Machine

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Until the development of newspapers, and later broadcast media, it was often difficult for the rulers of countries to get their message out to the masses on whose cooperation was necessary for keeping society in good order. There were a couple of ways of passing on important information, and framing it in a way that told the story the people in positions of power wanted told: one was to employ people to read proclamations in public places, and another was public works of art.

Public works of art also had the added benefit of not seeming like they were giving direct instructions to people about what to think, because they didn’t say anything with words. And public art could be absolutely anywhere–from official sanctioned statues of leaders, to profiles on coins and doodles on oil lamps. Commemorative items, too, help to shape the way that we thought–and continue to think–about specific events, and also about our group identities.

Outside of politics, too, there have long been attempts to sway the way people think with art and messaging, usually to either convert people to a religion, or get them to buy something. Some of the oldest examples of advertising are direct, and to the point, and might easily be considered incredibly primitive by today’s advertisers and their ranks of psychologists and carefully-planned campaigns. However, a lot can change even in two decades, and there’s no way to know what kind of marketing approach might work tomorrow.

Although we’re currently in the grip of fears about how social media providers can manipulate behaviour and thought patterns by controlling communications, the only really new part of the equation is the technology. Pervasive, wide-ranging means of propaganda dissemination have been with us since at least the implementation of regularly-minted currency.

Of course, the powerful don’t have it all their own way, and all kinds of competing groups of people have historically tried to wrest the control of a conversation–and control of minds–away from whatever position it might currently hold.

William Hackwood

An effective communication campaign uses striking images and a memorable slogan, as in the case of this abolition medal from 1787. Showing a kneeling, pleading figure of a black man in chains, without caricature, it reads, “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” Depictions of African men as slaves were very common and normalised in European art and consumer ware in the 18th century, meaning that medals like this had to work to restore the conception of Africans as people to the minds of people they hoped to sway to the abolition movement.

Since the freeing of the press in England, there’s been a long tradition satirical art: cartoons which poke fun at powerful people and institutions, current events, or the idiocy of the masses–a tradition continued by the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, who recently curated an exhibition of artefacts at the British Museum centring on those that had a history of being used to dissent.

The goal of any propaganda, whether it’s official (governments and kings), commercial (companies and products), or revolutionary (individuals against the way things currently are), is to get the people looking at it to think about a subject the way the people who made the propaganda want them to. Sometimes that’s really direct: showing your leader as a military hero, for example. Sometimes making people doubt what they already believe is enough, like the oft-reported “fake news”. Sometimes, getting people to talk about things using the specific words you’ve chosen, like “ethnic cleansing” instead of “genocide”, is the goal of propaganda.

One way to spread changes in language quickly in the internet age is through memes. Because they’re eye-catching and easy to disseminate, things that get said on memes can spread to lots of people very quickly, and sometimes more effectively than if they’re printed in newspapers.

Any museum wanting to record how dissent and mind control are disseminated now would have to start with social media. Understanding, altering, and propagating memes is a surprisingly effective when done properly, although it would be hard to get anyone to agree on how “properly” would look!

What do I mean by “framing”?

Framing is how someone imparts information (the information may be real or fake). For example, you could frame the information that Napoleon has won a battle either as a great victory for the people of France, or as a tragedy for the people who lost the battle. The key information, Napoleon has won, remains the same, but the framing is likely to have an effect on how people view that information–like the frame of a photograph cutting off the cause of the fight it captures.

What do I mean by “messaging”?

The message is the idea that someone wants to get across, and messaging is communicating that–but it doesn’t always happen as straightforwardly as saying “buy my bacon” (for example). Instead, someone might say “buy my bacon” by saying, “lots of people have been buying my bacon recently! It’s very popular! I will probably run out of bacon soon”, which sends the following messages: Other people like this bacon, there is a possibility of missing out on this thing that other people are enjoying, and action within a limited timeframe can prevent the experience of missing out on something that other people are enjoying.

Sometimes messaging takes place through juxtaposition (how things are placed beside each other): a politician might mean, “blame elderly people for the mess we have made”, but might achieve that message by talking about the lack of money and how very expensive medical treatment for the elderly and pensions are, and how there are more elderly people around than there were before.


Related Strings: Faces of Colour (WARNING) [The warning is for some highly racist imagery]

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