The Manipulation of Information
“By clever and persevering use of propaganda even heaven can be represented as hell to the people, and conversely the most wretched life as paradise.”—ADOLF HITLER, MEIN KAMPF.
AS MEANS of communicating have expanded—from printing to the telephone, radio, television, and the Internet—the flow of persuasive messages has dramatically accelerated. This communications revolution has led to information overload, as people are inundated by countless messages from every quarter. Many respond to this pressure by absorbing messages more quickly and accepting them without questioning or analyzing them.
The cunning propagandist loves such shortcuts—especially those that short-circuit rational thought. Propaganda encourages this by agitating the emotions, by exploiting insecurities, by capitalizing on the ambiguity of language, and by bending rules of logic. As history bears out, such tactics can prove all too effective.
A History of Propaganda
Today the word “propaganda” has a negative connotation, suggesting dishonest tactics, but originally that was not the meaning intended for the term. “Propaganda” apparently comes from the Latin name of a group of Roman Catholic cardinals, the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith). This committee—called Propaganda for short—was established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 to supervise missionaries. Gradually, “propaganda” came to mean any effort to spread a belief.
But the concept of propaganda was not born in the 17th century. From ancient times, men have used every available medium to spread ideologies or enhance fame and power. For example, art has served propagandistic ends since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs. These kings designed their pyramids to project an image of power and durability. Similarly, the architecture of the Romans served a political purpose—the glorification of the state. The term “propaganda” took on a generally negative connotation in World War I when governments began playing an active role in shaping the war information spread by the media. During World War II, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels proved themselves to be master propagandists.
Following World War II, propaganda increasingly became a major instrument to promote national policy. Both the Western and the Eastern blocs waged all-out campaigns to win the great masses of uncommitted people to their side. Every aspect of national life and policy was exploited for propagandistic purposes. In recent years the growing sophistication of propaganda techniques has been evident in election campaigns, as well as in advertising by tobacco companies. So-called experts and other leaders have been employed to portray smoking as glamorous and healthful and not as the threat to public health that it actually is.
Certainly, the handiest trick of the propagandist is the use of outright lies. Consider, for example, the lies that Martin Luther wrote in 1543 about the Jews in Europe: “They have poisoned wells, made assassinations, kidnaped children . . . They are venomous, bitter, vindictive, tricky serpents, assassins, and children of the devil who sting and work harm.” His exhortation to so-called Christians? “Set fire to their synagogues or schools . . . Their houses [should] also be razed and destroyed.”
A professor of government and social studies who has studied that era says: “Antisemitism has fundamentally nothing to do with the actions of Jews, and therefore fundamentally nothing to do with an antisemite’s knowledge of the real nature of Jews.” He also notes: “The Jews stood for everything that was awry, so that the reflexive reaction to a natural or social ill was to look to its supposed Jewish sources.”
Another very successful tactic of propaganda is generalization. Generalizations tend to obscure important facts about the real issues in question, and they are frequently used to demean entire groups of people. “Gypsies [or immigrants] are thieves” is, for instance, a phrase frequently heard in some European countries. But is that true?
Richardos Someritis, a columnist, says that in one country such perceptions caused a kind of “xenophobic and very often racist frenzy” against foreigners. It has been shown, however, that when it comes to delinquent acts, the culprits in that country are just as likely to be native-born as foreign. For example, Someritis notes that surveys have shown that in Greece, “96 out of 100 crimes are perpetrated by [Greeks].” “The causes of criminal activity are economic and social,” he observes, “not ‘racial.’” He blames the media “for systematically cultivating xenophobia and racism” by a slanted coverage of crime.
Some people insult those who disagree with them by questioning character or motives instead of focusing on the facts. Name-calling slaps a negative, easy-to-remember label onto a person, a group, or an idea. The name-caller hopes that the label will stick. If people reject the person or the idea on the basis of the negative label instead of weighing the evidence for themselves, the name-caller’s strategy has worked.
For example, in recent years a powerful antisect sentiment has swept many countries in Europe and elsewhere. This trend has stirred emotions, created the image of an enemy, and reinforced existing prejudices against religious minorities. Often, “sect” becomes a catchword. “‘Sect’ is another word for ‘heretic,’” wrote German Professor Martin Kriele in 1993, “and a heretic today in Germany, as in former times, is [condemned to extermination]—if not by fire . . . , then by character assassination, isolation and economic destruction.”
The Institute for Propaganda Analysis notes that “bad names have played a tremendously powerful role in the history of the world and in our own individual development. They have ruined reputations, . . . sent [people] to prison cells, and made men mad enough to enter battle and slaughter their fellowmen.”
Playing on the Emotions
Even though feelings might be irrelevant when it comes to factual claims or the logic of an argument, they play a crucial role in persuasion. Emotional appeals are fabricated by practiced publicists, who play on feelings as skillfully as a virtuoso plays the piano.
For example, fear is an emotion that can becloud judgment. And, as in the case of envy, fear can be played upon. The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, of February 15, 1999, reported the following from Moscow: “When three girls committed suicide in Moscow last week, the Russian media immediately suggested they were fanatical followers of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Note the word “fanatical.” Naturally, people would be fearful of a fanatic religious organization that supposedly drives young people to suicide. Were these unfortunate girls really connected with Jehovah’s Witnesses in some way?
The Globe continued: “Police later admitted the girls had nothing to do with [Jehovah’s Witnesses]. But by then a Moscow television channel had already launched a new assault on the sect, telling viewers that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had collaborated with Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany—despite historical evidence that thousands of their members were victims of the Nazi death camps.” In the mind of the misinformed and possibly fearful public, Jehovah’s Witnesses were either a suicidal cult or Nazi collaborators!
Hatred is a strong emotion exploited by propagandists. Loaded language is particularly effective in triggering it. There seems to be a nearly endless supply of nasty words that promote and exploit hatred toward particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups.
Some propagandists play on pride. Often we can spot appeals to pride by looking for such key phrases as: “Any intelligent person knows that . . .” or, “A person with your education can’t help but see that . . .” A reverse appeal to pride plays on our fear of seeming stupid. Professionals in persuasion are well aware of that.
Slogans and Symbols
Slogans are vague statements that are typically used to express positions or goals. Because of their vagueness, they are easy to agree with.
For example, in times of national crisis or conflict, demagogues may use such slogans as “My country, right or wrong,” “Fatherland, Religion, Family,” or “Freedom or Death.” But do most people carefully analyze the real issues involved in the crisis or conflict? Or do they just accept what they are told?
In writing about World War I, Winston Churchill observed: “Only a signal is needed to transform these multitudes of peaceful peasants and workmen into the mighty hosts which will tear each other to pieces.” He further observed that when told what to do, most people responded unthinkingly.
The propagandist also has a very wide range of symbols and signs with which to convey his message—a 21-gun salvo, a military salute, a flag. Love of parents can also be exploited. Thus, such symbolisms as the fatherland, the mother country, or the mother church are valuable tools in the hands of the shrewd persuader.
So the sly art of propaganda can paralyze thought, prevent clear thinking and discernment, and condition individuals to act en masse. How can you protect yourself?
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The sly art of propaganda can paralyze thought and prevent clear thinking
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IS THE WORK OF JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES PROPAGANDISTIC?
Some opponents of Jehovah’s Witnesses have accused them of spreading Zionist propaganda. Others have charged that the ministry of the Witnesses promotes Communism. Still others have claimed that the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses promotes the ideals and interests of “American imperialism.” And there are those who assert that the Witnesses are anarchists, fomenting disorder with the aim of changing the social, economic, political, or legal order. Obviously, these conflicting accusations cannot all be true.
The simple fact is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are none of the above. The work of the Witnesses is carried out in faithful obedience to Jesus Christ’s mandate to his disciples: “You will be witnesses of me . . . to the most distant part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Their work focuses solely and exclusively on the good news of the heavenly Kingdom—God’s instrument for bringing peace to the whole earth.—Matthew 6:10; 24:14.
Observers of Jehovah’s Witnesses have found no evidence that this Christian community has ever been a force disruptive of the good order of any land.
Many journalists, judges, and others have commented on the positive contributions that Jehovah’s Witnesses have made to the communities in which they live. Consider some examples. After attending a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a reporter from southern Europe commented: “These are people with strong family ties, they are taught to love and to live by their conscience so as not to harm others.”
Another journalist, formerly negative about the Witnesses, stated: “They live an exemplary life. They do not violate the standards of what is moral and right.” A political scientist similarly remarked about the Witnesses: “They behave toward other people with profound kindness, love and gentleness.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses teach the rightness of submission to authority. As law-abiding citizens, they follow Bible standards of honesty, truthfulness, and cleanliness. They build good morals into their own families, and they help others to learn how they can do the same. They live peaceably with all men, not getting involved in disruptive demonstrations or political revolutions. Jehovah’s Witnesses seek to be exemplary in obeying the laws of the human superior authorities, while they wait patiently on the Supreme Authority, the Sovereign Lord Jehovah, to restore perfect peace and righteous government to this earth.
At the same time, the work of the Witnesses is educational. Using the Bible as a basis, they teach people worldwide to reason on Bible principles and thereby develop right standards of conduct and moral integrity. They promote values that improve family life and help young people cope with their peculiar challenges. They also help people to find the strength to overcome bad habits and to develop the ability to get along with others. Such a work would hardly be termed “propaganda.” As The World Book Encyclopedia says, in a climate where ideas circulate freely, “propaganda differs from education.”
Publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses promote family values and high moral standards
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Propaganda promoting war and smoking has contributed to many deaths