Shifting realities: The art of propaganda

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
– Noam Chomsky

Reconfiguring reality

Edward Bernays, who some call the ‘father of propaganda’, had an approach to PR that was ground-breaking in his time. He didn’t just try to push the features of a product or an idea, as so many ad-men were doing in those days. Instead, Bernays created campaigns that attempted to shift society’s configuration of reality, to create fertile conditions and a perceived ‘need’ for the product or idea he’d been tasked to peddle.

For example, when Bernays was marketing bacon to the American public, via the ad vehicle of a ‘hearty breakfast’, he assembled a panel of doctors and persuaded them to give bacon their seal of approval. With expert approval of the product, a shift could now begin in the population’s perceptions of reality, eventually reaching the point where it would see bacon as the perfect breakfast item.

The foundations had been laid; now the selling could happen with ease. Bacon started to fly off the shelves, and soon became embedded in the American social psyche as the perfect, filling breakfast, where it remains to this day, despite much evidence to the contrary. Bernays’ aim was long-term; not to persuade the buyer that they needed the product right now, but to ‘transform the buyer’s very world’ so that the product appeared to be utterly desirable.

From products to politics

Bernays also applied this technique, far more dangerously, to political campaigning. In 1953 he used it on behalf of the United Fruit Company, to orchestrate a campaign that brought down the government of Guatemala and turned it into a fascist dictatorship – all to create more suitable conditions for United Fruit to make more profits. The campaign began by creating and spreading the myth that Guatemala was at risk of communist subversion.

Once this myth became widely believed, the United Fruit Company was able to persuade the Eisenhower administration, via the CIA, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala. What was in it for United Fruit? An uninterrupted source of bananas and pineapples, picked cheaply by local labour and sold for big profits in the United States.

The newest propaganda 

If propagation of such a myth could cause regime change in the 50s, a pre-digital age, what could similar campaigns achieve today, with so many more tools at propagandists’ disposal? Bernay’s calculating antics with United Fruit offer parallels with today’s alarming rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement. This movement seemingly emerged from nowhere, but from there, became influential enough to propel Donald Trump into the White House, borne on a swelling tide of populist fear, hatred, and bigotry.

Among other things, Trump voters responded to a constant tide of media messages detailing horror stories of terrorist attacks and ISIS atrocities. The link between those stories and Muslims, refugees (mainly Muslims) and foreigners in general was cleverly and cynically drawn.

Once the seeds of this hysteria took root, it became easy to stoke it high enough to shift the public’s perceptions of reality. In short, to create fertile conditions for the ‘alt-right’ to go mainstream and elect their presidential candidate. Or, over the Atlantic, for the public to vote against their interests and decide on Brexit. Both outcomes were so extreme that many didn’t expect them. But, just as Bernays did all those years ago, with products as mundane as bacon and pianos, so these campaigns were once more executed to a tee. The conditions were created, and the ‘product’ quickly sold itself.

Emotion over reason

Critics of Bernays contend that the public is not one big mass that can be easily manipulated, with opinions drip-fed into their passively waiting brains. This critique is especially relevant in these days of independent media, where alternative opinions can be sought at the expense of a simple Google search. It’s valid, to an extent, but on the other hand the power of emotion, especially fear, is such that it can override the logical parts of the human brain. When this happens, the resulting fight or flight response can make even the most logical human being abandon reason for emotion.

The pervasive power of media messages is hastened along even further by the enormous reach of social media, distilled into a concentrated force by people’s own digital echo chambers, until it finally seeps out to unveil a grand result – a fearful population that no longer knows what’s true and what’s not. In this milieu, fear of the ‘other’ seems to make perfect sense. And who better to save us than a self-styled strong leader, a straight-talker who refuses to be bound by political correctness, who makes lofty promises for change that would seem to quell our nastiest fears?

Perhaps it really is all a big propaganda campaign and populations on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen for it. The question remains now – who stands to benefit? And who is running the show?

All’s not right with the alt-right

 

“Intolerance betrays want of faith in one’s cause”

– Mahatma Gandhi

The rise of radicalisation has been closely mirrored by the rise of extreme right-wing groups, or “alt-right” (alternative right) as they have come to be known.  The media focuses heavily on the former, but tends to neglect the latter. But they are both part of the same cycle of fear, therefore deserve equal attention and analysis.

What is the alt-right?

The alt-right movement started in the US as a mainly online phenomenon. Its proponents believe that existing Western governments are fatally flawed. They criticise democracy and rule of the people by the people. But this in itself is not the biggest issue. The main facet of alt-right ideology is its obsessive focus on race, specifically on white supremacy and the belief that different races ‘should be kept apart’. This manifests itself clearly in Donald Trump’s claim that the US should build a wall between itself and Mexico. His arguments to ban Muslims from entering the country also fit the alt-right ideology.

Alt-right proponents like Trump because they believe he represents the ultimate in free speech and tearing down the political correctness that they despise so much. The views of the alt-right are seen as anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and white supremacist. According to NPR, the alt-right movement mostly consists of young white men “who see themselves first and foremost as champions of their own demographic. However, apart from their allegiance to their “tribe,” as they call it, their greatest points of unity lie in what they are against: multiculturalism, immigration, feminism and, above all, political correctness.”

Donald Trump is the most prominent figurehead of the alt-right, with his rhetoric of hatred and division. The growth of this movement, which is especially rampant on social media, represents a worrying trend towards fascist viewpoints becoming mainstream. Those heady, hopeful days when Obama got elected feel like a distant memory. It almost feels like the rise of the alt-right is a backlash, driven by their simmering outrage built up over eight years of having a black, Muslim-named president in the White House.

Where did it come from?

Although extreme right-wing ideas of various stripes have been around in America (and to a lesser extent the UK and Europe) for many years, they have largely stayed outside the mainstream. But the Trump campaign has given extreme right ideas greater legitimacy, presenting their proponents with the opportunity to emerge from the woodwork and air their views. Indeed, the leader of Trump’s campaign, Stephen Bannon, until recently also led a conservative website called Breitbart News, which he referred to as “the platform for the alt-right”.

How is alt-right different to mainstream conservatism?

Alt-right followers tend to see conservatives as weak, believing that their support for racist and anti-Semitic ideas is not strong enough. The alt-right coined the term “cuckservative” (‘conservative’ + ‘cuckold’) to disparage mainstream right-wingers. The term refers to white Christian conservatives who supports Jews, minorities and non-whites, supposedly ‘prioritising’ their interests over those of whites. Identity is a key feature of the alt-right, specifically in how white identity is seen in relation (and opposition) to that of the so-called ‘other’.

What are its key messages, and how does it spread them?

The alt-right is still a loose movement made up of various strands, but its ideology and key messages are very clear. They are fixated on promoting white identity and this forms the core of the alt-right ideology. Alt-right supporters want to ‘preserve European-American (i.e. white) culture’ and reject any form of multiculturalism, pluralism or globalist outlooks. They also claim to promote traditional white Christian values (of which hate seems to be one…) Many in the alt-right support the use of propaganda on subjects such as black and immigrant crime, in their mission to ‘protect’ whites from potential ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Like their counterparts in Isis, many alt-right members are young and internet-savvy. They know how to use the power of the digital world to amplify their messages. Alt-right proponents have a noisy online presence and frequently use trolling as a way to get their message across. In fact, some justify their trolling as a necessary response to perceived ‘bullying’ by liberals, or SJWs (‘social justice warriors’) as they are dubbed.

What threat does alt-right pose?

The rising popularity of the alt-right represents a wider trend towards right-wing social attitudes that has been spreading over the Western world in recent years, driving the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote. The risks stem from deepening of social divisions, increasing hate (especially that directed against Muslims), and making racist ideas become mainstream. This promotes a rise in hate crime and increased victimisation of vulnerable members of society. At the same time, the increase in aggressive right-wing attitudes promotes the exact same kind of social division that groups like Isis seek to ignite. Fearful and divided societies turn against one another, producing disillusioned individuals seeking a cause greater than themselves. This is where extremists come from. And we must not forget, extremists are not only Isis, but also alt-right.

How can it be counteracted?

Liberals often feel themselves to be superior to the ‘barbaric’ alt-right. Arguably, both groups could benefit from understanding what drives the other side. Liberals tend to live in bubbles, surrounded by people with similar worldviews. The social media echo chamber effect only amplifies this effect, excluding all dissenting viewpoints from the user’s immediate social media feed. But we need to understand what drives people to certain views. They believe that white identity is at stake; but what has caused them to think so? Are their views rooted in fear of losing their identity?