Psychology of mass persuasion

This class, using commercial news as our canvas, essentially deals with two areas: first, how do people in the media, or with influence over the media, manipulate the masses? Second, why is the media consuming public so vulnerable to manipulation? The first gets at large, political pressures and economic structures–the propaganda model is a good example of how news is filtered, and the kinds of pressures that lead to censorship in mainstream, commercial media. The second gets at the psychology of persuasion–what is it about the human mind that it is susceptible to techniques of deception that essentially bypass logic and rational reasoning?

First, we should try to distinguish between persuasion and propaganda. We all try to persuade in one way or another, consciously and otherwise. In a society of 300 million, with the largest economy in the world, persuasion becomes central for a lot of people’s livelihoods. Politicians seeking office, companies seeking to increase sales, lawyers seeking to represent clients, media outlets seeking to increase audience and market share.

German sociologist Max Weber (pronounced ‘vay-brrr’) identified well over a century ago a social process he referred to as ‘rationalization.’ Rationalization was an inevitable product of ‘modernization‘ and the industrial revolution. As societies become larger and more complex, new forms of social organization develop to maintain social order. For instance, without some sort of bureaucracy, a set of rules, people with distinct job responsibilities, registration at the beginning of the term here at EOU would be a nightmare. Imagine how it would be at Penn State, with 42,000 students. Thirty seven million people live below the poverty line. Imagine trying to manage welfare and public assistance services without many bureaucracies in place to figure out who is eligible, how to deliver services, how to ensure they’re reaching eligible recipients, etc.

A few things happened in the 21st century that caught the attention of powerful organizations, individuals and public officials. First, the US entered WWI, and many Americans were ambivalent about our involvement. The government enlisted a group of influential people to serve on the Committee on Public Information, or CPI, designed to help sell the war domestically. George Creel and Edward Bernays (the latter considered the founder of the public relations industry) were enlisted in the effort. Bernays was the newphew of Sigmund Freud, one of the founders of the modern discipline of psychology, and was quite interested in Freud’s theories of personality and psychotherapy. Except Bernays interest was in understanding how to move masses, how to use Frued’s theory of the unconscious to persuade, not individuals, but populations. He would later become quite wealthy, using what he had learned and Freud’s theories to sell a variety of ideas and products and presidents and candidates. Bernays is considered the most important figure in making it socially acceptable for women to smoke–quite a feat, when you think abou it. Smoking was, in Freudian terms, tied up with masculinity and male sexual prowess, and hence even though one might say smoking was in a sense the height of conformity to a certain set of institutions, Bernays made it seem rebellious, referring to the cigarettes women were smoking as ‘torches of freedom.’ I wanted to show you a Virginia Slims commercial on youtube or Google Video, but the tobacco companies are quite vigilant about protecting copyrighted material (especially when it’s used for purposes other than to sell their products).

Other historical processes were well underway besides the war effort, and the realization that the masses could be persuaded. Bernays understood he could sell much more than war. Back to that process of rationalization, the production of goods in society was becoming complex as well. A socioeconomic class was developing that purchased ‘luxury’ goods. Those with means were satisfying wants instead of just needs. And being encouraged to do so through the media. Henry Ford figured out he could sell many more cars, at lower prices to boot, if he could mass produce them. We got the assembly line, which revolutionized production, but which requires pretty sophisticated mechanisms and organization to pull off. The agribusiness industry figured out how to produce higher levels of agricultural crops, using fossil fuels and machinery. Every industry in a society of 100 + million, if it is to survive as a nation-wide entity, must mass produce. This requires lots of political mobilization–lawyers and lobbyists, influencing legislators and regulators, funding political campaigns, etc., with the intent of making sure that no laws or regulations get passed that would hurt sales or profits, or whose costs could not be passed on to consumers. But mass production implies that what industries are producing has a market. How to get consumers to buy the stuff being mass-produced? Why mass consumption, of course! The advertising and public relations industries were built around the idea that mass production required means of increasing levels of consumption, and they’ve been pretty darned successful. They’ve taken advantage of research and theory from disparate social scientific fields, especially from psychology–from the work of Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner especially. Although as the authors of Age of Propaganda point out, the literature on the psychology of persuasion dates back a few thousand years to the times of the Sophists, Aristotle, Cicero, etc. But while the Greeks looked at persuasion as a means of elevating public debate and discourse, advertisers have used what they’ve learned about persuasion mainly to move products and services, and as an industry to present consumption as the highest expression of post-industrial society. At some point in the 20th century, a certain segment of the ruling class began viewing citizens less as citizens, less as workers, and more as consumers (of course consuming requires a job, and there have to be some democratic rituals to justify power relations).

In modern society, the techniques of persuasion require a knowledge of how to use mass media. And to the extent that persuasion is designed not to illuminate and inform, but to sell, and to obscure alternative conceptions of society not so focused on material consumption (as an example), we can call it propaganda. The authors refer to propaganda as mass influence through the manipulation of symbols and psychology of the individual. It’s not the sole property of totalitarian regimes. It isn’t just advertisers who do this. Hitler’s rise in Nazi Germany was largely due to the expertise of his propagandists, such as Joseph Goebbels. Politicians have long seen the value of using techniques of persuasion and propaganda. What makes the current generation of propagandists–most distinguished among them the Bush / Cheney White House–different is their systematic and disciplined approach to using every form of mass media and information technology, via print, radio, Internet, television, cinema, etc., to communicate and amplify a fairly narrow set of messages and philosophies. This requires a power base, and corporate consolidation of commercial media ownership–and the alignment of corporate media and the interests of the government–certainly hasn’t hurt.

Hence as business historically becomes more complex, mass production requires mass consumption requires . . . mass persuasion. And mass persuasion is every bit as well thought out as mass production is. As citizens this isn’t one of the things we’re taught in school–how to deal with propaganda for what it is. Most of us are in a sense media suckers, left to fend for ourselves and figure out on our own what’s going on. Mass media is the vehicle for a propaganda system of this magnitude, and it’s important to understand somewhat how it operates and who drives it.

What are the goals of propaganda?

  • To move public opinion to ‘voluntarily’ accept views of others as one’s own.
  • What separates it from the Greeks, others? There is no attempt to educate, inform, stimulate debate–the object is to persuade masses–the ‘target’–that there is no debate, there are no alternatives–to obscure undesirable alternatives (from the point of view of the ‘communicators’).
  • In many cases, at least in our society, there are three sorts of goals of propaganda. First, to sell products (and more generally, encourage consumption). Second, to sell wars (in other words, gain the public support needed to invade another country). Third, to sell politicians and ideologies.
  • Mass persuasion is easier to do with images and feelings than with text, although text and language is very important in the process. TV, film and radio have had a big impact on the rise of propaganda and its effectiveness. People don’t process information from these media the same way we do printed words, for instance. Part has to do with the immediacy of modern media. We expect instant analysis (trust the media to do the analysis for you!). If you’re reading a newspaper, or a book, you can actually pause, digest an idea, look at it skeptically, re-read, etc. TV on the other hand is for quick processors or zombies.
  • But . . . who’s doing the analyzing? What credibility do they have? Whose interests might they be serving? How many ‘message force multipliers‘ are out there that we simply think are helping bring us the news?