In the previous article in this series, I included this link to the Wikipedia article on propaganda techniques. Please bookmark it. You need to be able to recognize these techniques as you watch politicians and media outlets. In that last article, I listed a series of techniques, and put them into two categories: direct appeal to emotions, and “spinning” techniques. I took one technique (appeal to fear) from the emotion category, and dealt with it in a little more in depth. In this article, I’ll continue with an in depth look at more techniques from the spinning category: intentional vagueness, over simplification, and selective truth.
Before I go into these techniques in depth, I’d like to first continue a larger view comment that I began in my last article. Direct appeals to emotion are effective, and persuasive to those who are little inclined to check facts. Rudy Giuliani in the Republican National Convention of 2016 demonstrated an appeal to fear when he told the audience “It’s time to make America safe again.” This was a theme repeated by many of the speakers. It implies that we are not safe. It plays well to that part of the audience who are already afraid. It does not call into question whether they should be afraid. Instances of emotional appeals are easy to identify, as they have no factual content. The more pernicious techniques lie in the spinning category, since one has to do fact checking to determine how true or false they are. These statements can seem factual, but are not. These techniques include: big lie, selective truth, exaggeration, guilt by association, half-truth, intentional vagueness, non sequitur, over simplification, quotes out of context. They are all designed to get you to believe a view that a fuller examination of the situation would not support.
Intentional vagueness: This technique was more pervasive in the 2016 republican campaign than any other campaign in recent times. There were no details or specificity for how the candidate was supposed to “Make America Great Again”. There still aren’t any specifics to the issues of the campaign. The replacement for the Affordable Care Act is not defined. Immigration reform is not defined. Growth in the economy is not defined. The President’s tax returns are not released. Full disclosure on the President’s holdings and economic conflicts of interest are not publicly disclosed, but are closely held by his family. Another major area of intentional vagueness is in the way the now President spoke or tweeted. He frequently began his statements with “I heard that ……” or “It was reported that…….”. This is a cross between intentional vagueness, half-truth, and selective truth. In a court of law, it would be difficult to prove what the President actually heard, or what he read. Therefore this type of statement isn’t an outright lie, and he can avoid being proven wrong and/or a liar. However, he implies that the follow on to that introduction is in fact true. It makes a statement or accusation without being responsible for the consequences.
Over simplification: This technique is used to make a complex problem seem simple in a way that is useful to advance your personal interests. Saying that a wall between Mexico and the United States will fix the illegal immigration problem is a clear over simplification. Border walls exist elsewhere in the world, and have not materially affected the movement of illegal people or goods. Any study of black markets show that neither walls nor surveillance can do more than reduce this problem by a meager percentage. This solution appeals to those who don’t know the facts, or have a “zero tolerance” attitude, where every instance avoided is worth any cost of prevention. Telling people that this is a very complex issue, and is not amenable to a simple solution is not a popular position. Over simplifying this situation allows one to provide a simple solution, and become popular with those who seek a solution. It also allows the supplier of the solution to imply that those thinking of the issue as complex are too biased or corrupt to propose the simple solution.
Selective truth: This technique is used to create a view of a problem or solution that is useful to advance your personal interests. With this technique, one only quotes the facts that supports one’s point of view, and leaves out the facts that would cast doubt on the speaker’s position. Recently, in justifying why the United States needs to build a wall, the selective truth is that there is crime associated with some Mexican immigrants. Another selective truth is that dollars are spent on health care for those individuals who don’t contribute to a payment system for that care. Items left out of these issues are:
- Illegal immigration has been on a consistent decline, and is currently at a 40 year low. This problem appears to be fixing itself, without a wall. Other evidence suggests that this is due to the growing viability of a Mexican middle class, giving locally viable options for Mexicans.
- The presence of a wall would do little to interdict the influx of illegal drugs into the US, as most drug shipments are by plane or by boat. As mentioned earlier, a survey of behavior near other walls in the world shows that it would do little to curb the problems that American’s fear.
- While it is true that free health care is provided, those illegal immigrants offset this cost by keeping labor costs low for farmers and businesses that use them.
Propaganda frequently utilizes multiple techniques in the same presentation. For example, selective truth is frequently used to aid in over simplification. This over simplification can lead to cult of personality around the “only” person who was smart enough to see the simple solution.
I believe one should look at broadcast news as a source of leads to the facts. If you search for the underlying “fact candidate”, you’ll find it repeated across a bunch of sources. Comparing fact candidates to each other produces more leads, etc. Sooner or later, an unbiased image appears. It is a lot of work, but unfortunately, in a “facts for profit” world, I see little choice. Getting good with the propaganda techniques should at least lower your stress level, and produce the first set of leads for which to search. By the way, while I’m not giving an endorsement, I’ve heard that the following print sources are good for leads (in no particular order): Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times.
Remember, in the world of items-as-facts-for-a-profit, it is irresponsible to simply take what you hear or read for granted. This does NOT mean that it is all just lies. This does NOT mean we should just give up. There are facts within the hype. We can disregard the propaganda. Discerning listeners will get past the hype and propaganda to the information.