On propaganda

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: When does opinion become propaganda? There are numerous factors to consider but, central to answering that question, is the extent to which any view manipulates facts, the main focus of the brief exposition below. Essentially this can be done in two ways: by altering the nature of information or by excluding it entirely. What is the effect of that on public thought? And why do that? Read on to find out.

On propaganda

By: Gareth van Onselen

9 May 2013

Propaganda at its most devious successfully smuggles a falsehood betwixt and between truths. In this way it creates the illusion that some ostensible ‘fact’ enjoys the same veracity as the proven context in which it is presented, fooling the gullible and apathetic alike. And so it escapes interrogation and is accepted as part and parcel of history.

At its most brazen, however, propaganda will make no attempt at such subtle manipulation. When this happens – when outright lies are declared incontestable truths – you can be sure the propagandist enjoys an unfettered influence. After all, why twist history when you can rewrite it absolutely?

So the nature of propaganda is a good litmus test for power: the more extreme it is, the cruder the lies it generates, the less threatened the propagandist by the consequences that normally accompany such deceit.

Likewise, an omission constitutes propaganda when its purpose is to give a false impression of something’s nature. In other words, by excluding that fact, an idea is rendered incomplete and the effect of that is a distortion of the truth.

Just like the reworking of ideas, the omission of information can vary in scale and significance. The insecure propagandist might polish off some small annoyance without too badly damaging a general narrative or, more comfortable in their role, the seasoned propagandist might exclude an entire chapter, altering a story fundamentally.

Whether by omission or manipulation the purpose is to change the lesson an audience might learn from a given event, always to the benefit of the propagandist – for the propagandist the means always justify the end and the end is always theirs to justify.

But the real test propaganda constitutes is for the audience itself to pass. If their critical faculties are lulled into a false sense of security, they will fail to identify or correct propaganda. In the other direction, if their minds are independent, informed and interrogating, the propagandist will never gain the foothold necessary to entrench their particular worldview.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.