“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Power and Persuasion

Last Wednesday, my husband and I went to visit a marvellous exhibition at the British Library, entitled Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. It was divided into six sections: Origins, Nation, Enemy, War, Health, and Today. The three I found most interesting (and which between them formed the bulk of the exhibition) were Nation, Enemy and War. As the free leaflet explained, "Governments and national institutions are the most prolific and expert users of propaganda as they strive to validate and justify their actions, build support for their aims and influence the behaviour of populations." Most of the exhibits were posters, but these were interspersed with fascinating short videos explaining particular aspects of the propaganda game, by the likes of David Welch, Noam Chomsky and Alastair Campbell.

The tactics used in propaganda are very clever. They are set forth in the leaflet thus:

  • Establish authority. Link a person or idea with existing symbols of power and authority, which people understand and are comfortable with.
  • Exploit existing beliefs. People are much more receptive to messages that build on attitudes and beliefs they already hold dear.
  • Appeal to patriotism. Play up nationalist sentiments and emphasise benefits to the nation.
  • Create fear. In a state of fear your audience is more likely to believe you.
  • Use humour. Making your audience smile or laugh can make powerful people, countries and ideas seem less threatening and even ridiculous.
  • Imply everyone agrees. The desire to fit in is a strong one and many people will go along with the crowd.
  • Disguise the source. Carefully plant stories and facts so that they come from an independent source your audience trusts.
  • Hammer it home. Decide on your message and stick to it. ... Constant repetition will overcome initial scepticism.
  • Make false connections. Start with an uncontested statement and link it with something more controversial.
  • Be selective about the truth. Control how and when information is released. Ensure only stories that support your position are reported.
  • Establish a leadership cult. Encourage the population to think their leader is solely responsible for all successes.
It was quite scary to see how well all governments have learned these lessons. The technique that I found particularly powerful was the combination of an innocuous or innocent picture with powerful words. In the War section of the exhibition, there was a series of Norman Rockwell pictures of wholesome Americans in various settings, combined with text that implored people to buy war bonds. I found this one particularly distasteful:

poster by Norman Rockwell

To link religion and supporting war in this way is just not on in my book. But there is no denying its power to persuade. Going to this exhibition has really opened my eyes to the huge range of propaganda, both in history and today. The power of social media to influence public opinion should not be underestimated. The last bit of the exhibition was a demonstration of how fast particular stories can spread via Twitter and Facebook. It's on until 17th September - highly recommended.

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