Acknowledgement

To get this out of the way I want to start with an acknowledgement to a book  I re-read recently called “Trust Us We’re Experts” by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, published 2002 – eISBN: 978-1-101-14406-0. The whole book is excellent, and an eye-opener for anyone interested in how large groups of people can be manipulated by propaganda and what it can lead to. The last Chapter (11) is titled “Questioning Authority”, and I have used the whole chapter as the focus for this piece

We have just had 2 years of ‘questioning authority’ and many of the answers we have been given so far have been wrong, (or the questions have yet to be answered).

Introduction

Modern propaganda has blended into our lives in a more subtle manner than anything our parents or grandparents were exposed to during WW2.

We still experience it, but in another form for it is now called PR, and when it comes to a domestic terrorism attack, a war, or a pandemic, the propagandar/PR machine still engages high gear with the public.

It is February 2022 and there cannot be too many people in the global north right now who have missed the Russia/Ukraine event. The propaganda machine is glowing red hot.

In this piece I try and explore the subtleties of propaganda of today, and some of the basic approaches used in the past. The last part to this report deals with how propaganda gets turned into action.

An industrial Risk Communication consultant called Peter Sandman, is mentioned in the book, and he specialises in giving corporations a hand dealing with what he calls an “outbreak of public outrage.” and here is a 2011 YouTube video of him doing just that.

The title of the video is”RISK = HAZARD + OUTRAGE” which is why it grabbed my attention, {having worked as Risk Consultant before I retired}. My curiosity was momentarily aroused, but to be honest its not a very good video, but it does show that I am not making all this up if nothing else.

Mr Sandman is primarily interested in the emotional factors that influence the public rather than what he and his clients consider the “rational, or real” issues related to risk and public harm. In his world the public are only ever able to deal with things on an emotional level, while big business doesn’t do emotion, business is all about rationality, reality, and the bottom line.

Mr Sandman’s claim, is that there have been many successful campaigns by big business or governments to change public opinion. Such campaigns are often highly charged, and often use absurd or unfounded emotional arguments to grab attention. It is guaranteed that some form of media will pick up a “Public Interest” story on a slow news day and if it doesn’t the people driving the project it can be swiftly summon up a News Conference.(Another tool of industry and goverment along with the famous “Leak” from official sources gambit)

The other side of Mr Sandman’s claim, is that people like him often fail to realise that society is built up from people who are a lot more diverse and complex than they think. It is one of the great positives of a properly constructed democracy. To get it right, democracy needs that wide range of thinking capabilities and specialised knowledge that is often hidden from sight.

At the moment our “Democracies are owned and run by a very narrow section of our society, people motivated by money and power and governed by the dubious laws of economics. This is hardly a good basis upon which to build a system of governance for billions of people. It really does take, “all sorts to make a world”, and my granny was right all along. There is very much more to a person that what they do for a living, how they vote, or which brand of breakfast cereal they eat.

Peter Sandman makes a living trying to create those divisions in society which can then be exploited by the people he works for, simply by using our emotions for leverage. To help him, he has produced a list of 12 opposing views to illustrate to his clients what to consider while trying to minimize public outrage over health risks.

 

The Sandmans List

Voluntary vs Forced or coerced.People are less likely to become outraged over factors that they voluntarily manage over risks that are imposed upon them against their will. “Consider,” he suggests, “the difference between getting pushed down a mountain with sticks strapped to your feet or simply deciding to have a skiing break

Nature vs Industry. People tend to trust what can be promoted as natural: organic food or natural means of pest control rather than the chemical approach.

The Familiar vs the Exotic. “Exotic, high-tech facilities provoke more outrage than familiar risks (your home, your car, your jar of peanut butter),” Sandman observes.

Memorable vs Not memorable. If you want to minimize outrage, not memorable is preferable. “A memorable accident—Love Canal 1940-1950, Bhopal 1984, Times Beach 1983—makes the risk easier to imagine,” Sandman explains. A memorable symbol or image can do the same thing. This is why evidence of genetically modified crops harming colourful Monarch butterflies prompted more concern than similar evidence of harm to other insects.

Dreaded vs. not so dreaded. For example, diseases like cancer, AIDS, plague, and tuberculosis create a great deal more public concern than others, such as heart disease

Chronic vs. catastrophic. Thousands of people are killed each year in highway accidents, but rarely in large groups. Plane accidents are much rarer and cause fewer deaths, but because they can cause large fatalities in a single event, air travel is much more widely feared than car travel.

Knowable vs. unknowable. People tend to be less apprehensive about risks that are known and measurable than about risks that cannot be measured. The unknowable aspects of some risks make them more upsetting.

Individually controlled vs. controlled by others. Individuals can decide whether they smoke cigarettes, exercise, or drive cars. They often can’t decide whether a factory emits pollution in their community.

Fair vs. unfair. “People who must endure greater risks than their neighbours, without access to greater benefits, are naturally outraged,” Sandman says, “especially if the rationale for so burdening them looks more like politics than science.”

Morally irrelevant vs. morally relevant. Arguing that a risk is small will fall on deaf ears if creating the risk is morally wrong in the first place. “Imagine a police chief insisting that an occasional child molester is an ‘acceptable risk,’” Sandman says.

Trustworthy sources vs. untrustworthy sources. The “third party technique,”, is a PR strategy built around the effort to put industry messages in the mouths of seemingly trustworthy sources.

Responsive process vs. unresponsive process. “Does the agency come across as trustworthy or dishonest, concerned or arrogant?” Sandman asks. “Does it tell the community what’s going on before the real decisions are made? Does it listen and respond to community concerns?”

 

I find this whole list thing really simplistic and as a retired risk manager my feeling is that his efforts would have been better spent minimizing the health risks and removing the source of the public outrage. Job Done!

What Sandman is doing here seems at first glance pretty obvious, but that depends entirely upon who is sitting in his audience. He is not talking to you or I, he is talking to industry “Risk managers”, quite probably PR men, and pointing out the weaknesses of us mere public folk. He is training them so that Industry can better fight the “public outrage” their industry has created, so he is training them to fight us.

Here is one real life example of how industry went about removing the sting from the publics “Outrage”

“One way that industry and government bodies try to make it appear that their activities are being accepted “voluntarily” rather than “coerced,” for example, is to create so-called community advisory panels (CAPs) to seek the advice of people who live where their facilities are located. One of Sandman’s clients, the U.S. Department of Energy, used this tactic in trying to overcome the objections of Nevada residents over the DOE’s efforts to establish a national dump site for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The Secretary of Energy announced that there would be a ‘citizens advisory panel’ to discuss the Yucca Mountain project,” recall Judy Treichel and Steve Frishman, who have led the state’s campaign to block the project: “However, the real purpose of the panel was to invite opponents of the site such as ourselves to draft standards that would make the Yucca Mountain program acceptable. We were also invited to workshops in which government, industry and public representatives were supposed to ‘prioritize your values.’ Then we were supposed to ‘trade off’ our values in order to reach an acceptable compromise. Our response was to ‘just say no, and then of course we were told that we were being ‘unreasonable.’”

The sting was removed and public pacified, but the battle still goes on.

 

 

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

Edward Bernays – Propaganda-1928

 

The Institute for Propaganda Analysis

How many of us even knew that there had once been an Institute for Propaganda Analysis? It was set up in New York just before WW2, and came about, “because of the general concern that increased amounts of propaganda were decreasing the public’s ability to think critically.

The purpose of the Institute was slated as:  “to spark rational thinking and provide a guide to help the public have well-informed discussions on current issues. “To teach people how to think rather than what to think.” (Italicised text by Wikipedia)

Interestingly, an early fundraising meeting of the IPA drew a large audience, one of whom was Edward Bernays himself, the man responsible for changing our understanding of the word propaganda by renaming it “Public Relations”

A pity the IPA was dissolved in 1942, I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with their stated principles, but apparently the “Powers that be” in the US were not exactly thrilled at having a home-grown institute analysing the US side of propaganda as well as the enemy side in WW2.

The IPA did leave a very handy tool kit to identify and understand some of propagandas basic tricks. They appear in the book I referred to at the beginning of this piece, but a more succinct version appeared in a paper by a Harvard author, Enrique Suarez in 2016, under the heading:-

The propaganda Tool-Kit,

 

*Name-calling (ad hominem)

Links a person or idea to a negative trait or concept: e.g., commie, fascist, yuppie, bum, terrorist, anti-Semite, conspiracy theorist etc. All of these are usually used without supporting evidence.

Glittering Generalities

Positive associations used to enhance a person or concept: e.g., civilization, democracy, religion, patriot, motherhood, science, medicine, health, love

Euphemisms

Used to water-down strong negative associations: e.g., collateral damage instead of civilian casualties. Post war: PTSD instead of shell shock. This has also been called “Doublespeak” and an excellent authority on that subject is William D Lutz, {An informative and entertaining interview with him is Here}

Transfer

Use of authority or prestige from a symbol like church (cross), democracy (statue of Liberty), our nation (Uncle Sam) to support a program or campaign. Also, medicine or science used to back a concept: e.g. “More doctors smoke camels…”

Testimonial

Citing a reputable source (NY Times), celebrity (Angelina Jolie) or sports figure (Mohammed Ali) to endorse a product or concept by association

Plain Folks

Politicians, wealthy entrepreneurs pose as ordinary citizens to attract popular support.

Bandwagon

Appeal to join the crowd, follow the herd: everyone else is doing it, so you must join in.

Fear

Disaster just around the corner, cold war is back, 9/11 = fear of terrorism. (Note: patriots and dissenters are now called terrorists by US Homeland Security.) Few people believe that war is a good thing, for example, but most people can be convinced to support a specific war if they believe that they are fighting an enemy who is cruel, inhuman, and bent on destroying all that they hold dear. Fear can lead people to do things they would never otherwise consider, and there is more on this in the next section.

More recent additions to this list include:-

Phoney Opinion Polls

Used to back a platform or concept but the results can be biased depending on the parameters and questions. Dont believe me? Have a laugh and check out how they do it

Peer reviewed Studies

Can be fraudulent within a system controlled by powerful entities like Big Pharma

Lies become Believable by Repetition Thru power of the media, lies are made believable after continuous repetition and reinforcement by other channels of the consolidated media.

*A modern-day example of Name-calling: “Conspiracy” The elite bankers attained their wealth and power by establishing central banks in the UK and the US. Naturally, they don’t want the public to look too closely at their nefarious plots such as starting endless wars, so one tactic is to label ‘conspiracy theorists’ as people to be shunned. Such is the immense power of the controlled media that they can establish parameters for acceptable behaviour and the masses who want to be accepted by their peers tend to conform. Hence this phrase now carries a strong pejorative association.

(The above list is directly cited from the paper by Suarez excepting the odd italicised piece from me)

The IPA disbanded at the beginning of World War II, which is a pity, there would have been more than enough work for it on Planet Earth 2022.

 

A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without pangs of conscience,

so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority,” – Stanley Milgram

 

And what of the results of this Propaganda?

 Stanley Milgram was born in New York, 1933 and lived a comparatively short life passing away in 1984 from a sudden heart attack. During his life he had become a distinguished and respected social psychologist, with a long career starting at Harvard, passing through Yale, and finally, back to his hometown of New York at the NY City University.

His name may not be familiar, though the wider public might recall some of his work. One experiment he conducted was the “Six Degrees of Separation”, in which a group of people were tasked with the “Small World Experiment” to trace their connections to an unknown stranger living a great distance away from them. The result seems to show that we are all connected somehow to someone far removed from ourselves by a mere 6 steps

The work he is best remembered for among other psychologists though is “The Milgram experiment” conducted to show that people could be made to perform unspeakable acts on others “when confronted with authority”

His peers refused to believe this was possible, but in a staged scenario, volunteers were told they were studying the effect of mild electric shock on other volunteers to find out if it affected their learning abilities.

A “Scientist”, ran the experiment, with a group of supporting players that were actors. Volunteers were engaged to sit at a machine that administered a small electric shock to a victim (Actor). The scientist asked the victim a series of questions, and if he answered them incorrectly he was to be given a jolt by the volunteer.

It was possible to adjust the power level of the shocks, and as the experiment progressed the scientist called for the volunteer to increase the level of the shocks to such a point as the victim “cried out in pain”and pleaded for this to stop. (This was all acted out, no real shocks were delivered at all).

When volunteers objected to this, the  Scientist”became agitated and stated that the whole experiment would be ruined unless the volunteer continued, and in many cases the shocks went on even further.

Here I do quote directly from the book because this is the observation from Milgram himself”…

“With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under to the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts.”

More than 65% of the volunteers involved obeyed the commands of the authoritarian figure in this experiment, and my mind is well and truly boggled at that number.

Maybe this 5 minute video may boggle yours too.

 

The findings of the experiment showed that in order to make people behave in this manner there MUST always be 2 conditions present EVERY time (That’s science for you)

  • The man pressing the buttons must believe the “Scientist” is fully qualified to instruct him, and…
  • That man must also believe the Scientist will take responsibility for what happens.

There is no evidence of either condition being true in this video or during the experiments, and to repeat what Mr Milgram said earlier…

“With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts.”

 

 

 

Links and Reading list

The Book  https://www.amazon.com/Trust-Us-Were-Experts-Manipulates/dp/1585421391

Peter Sandmans video  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WU__jJzr_Hw

Love Canal Disaster area  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Canal

Bhopal India Disaster Zone  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster

Times Beach disaster 1983  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Times_Beach,_Missouri

Yukka Mountain Nuclear Dump https://ag.nv.gov/Hot_Topics/Issue/Yucca/#:~:text=The%20state’s%20official%20position%20is,nuclear%20fuel%20for%20several%20reasons%3A&text=More%20than%2070%2C000%20metric%20tons,reactor%20sites%20across%20the%20country.

Yukka Mountain Nuclear Dump, the fight continues today  https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/nevada/articles/2022-01-01/yucca-mountain-remains-in-debate-over-nuclear-waste-storage  

The IPA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institute_for_Propaganda_Analysis#:~:text=The%20Institute%20for%20Propaganda%20Analysis,Filene%2C%20and%20Clyde%20R.

Wiki on Propaganda  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda

Critical Thinking  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_thinking

Enrique Suarez on Edward Bernays  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299343352_Edward_Bernays_The_Father_of_Public_Relations_and_Architect_of_the_Consumer_Mind_The_Century_of_the_Self

William D Lutz on Double speak  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91ka2s9Ubs0

Hilarious “Yes Minister” sketch on Opinion Polling      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0ZZJXw4MTA&t=6s

Milgrams Obedience Experiment    https://youtu.be/cBDkJ-Nc3Ig

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