Intellectual Self-Defense against Propaganda

in informationwar •  2 years ago 


“The vast majority of people, perhaps 90 percent, know how to read, but do not exercise their intelligence beyond this. They >attribute authority and eminent value to the printed word, or, conversely, reject it altogether. As these people do not possess >enough knowledge to reflect and discern, they believe - or disbelieve - in toto what they read. And as such people, moreover, >will select the easiest, not the hardest, reading matter, they are precisely on the level at which the printed word can seize >and convince them without opposition. They are perfectly adapted to propaganda”.

-Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men´s Attitudes.

“Propaganda as such is neither good nor evil. Its moral value is determined by the goals it seeks”.

-Joseph Goebbels, Nuremberg, 1934. Source

If education was not in the service of the establishment –the system or status quo, call it as you prefer- we would surely learn all about propaganda at school. Amazingly, in many cases not even Communication Sciences faculties teach anything about propaganda, at least not in depth, as if the problem wasn’t really that relevant to our societies but a thing of the past, perhaps expressed in World War II posters and far flung stories of enemy atrocities.

In fact, decades old criticism by major intellectual figures is traditionally left out of the mainstream media and universities because they successfully debunk every myth about freedom of expression, pluralism, or the “democratic role” of journalism in our society. The “Propaganda Model” is a good example of an alternative and critical view, disdained and looked over by the press and academia; we will go back to it later.

In this writer’s opinion, what we traditionally know as journalism needs to be rebranded as “corporate journalism” and understood as business focused on information, not social improvement or even the values behind journalism, in short: inform citizens objectively about everything that concerns their interests so they can make sovereign decisions in a democracy, but even more importantly: defend the interests of society as a whole, and those disenfranchised.

Massive corporations, getting bigger as time passes and they absorb -or merge with- other media corporations, have the exact same interests that go across the corporate world: deregulation, privatization, trade liberalization, basically, the preservation of any economic model that results in higher pecuniary benefits and a constant push for an increase in those profits.
It’s common knowledge that the many stakeholders of these corporations have interests across many other businesses, unrelated to journalism or communications. The question we must ask ourselves is what happens when there is a conflict between the interests of corporations (profit) and the principles behind journalism. Or are those interests aligned? Which way would they go when profits and journalistic values collide?

Let’s talk about the different publics these corporations attend to. There is a misconception regarding which public is the prime focus of mainstream media (MSM) corporations. We think that the viewer or reader, he or she who consumes newspapers, televised news and such, is the public MSM is attending to. Actually, MSM clients and most important public are other corporations that advertise their products and services to their audiences.

Advertisers approach media corporations that own the attention of certain audience at a specific place and time, and buy some space to place their ads. In other word, the audience’s attention is the product being sold; the particular show or content is secondary.

It is the interest of MSM to create a convenient atmosphere for their client’s interests and philosophy, which can be resumed in consumerism and the values of capitalism in its most recent shapes. Would a bank advertise its services through media content attacking banks? Perhaps, but what would be their preference? Obviously, to advertise their services and products in the convenient setting of friendly –perhaps even “ideologically aligned”- content.

A few definitions (and approaches) on Propaganda

The Oxford Dictionary defines propaganda as:

  1. Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.
  2. A committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for foreign missions, founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.

As we can observe, propaganda is by no means defined as “false” information. Truth, of course, could be used in a misleading and biased manner. We could easily find examples for this: a real attack on a warship by enemy forces could be used as valid reason to go to war, especially if public opinion isn’t told that the attacked warship was invading enemy waters prior to the attack.

As the second meaning asserts, the word propaganda (or ‘prōpāgāre’ in the original Latin) was first used by the Catholic Church in order to manage foreign missions that were meant to expand the Church’s area of influence. In an interesting parallel, Christopher Simpson, professor of journalism, argues in his book The Science of Coercion (p. 6) that:

“…fundamentally, U.S. security agencies see propaganda and psychological warfare as a means to extend the influence of >the U.S. government far beyond the territories that can be directly controlled by U.S. soldiers, and at a relatively modest >cost”.

A very common misconception of propaganda states that it aims to change public opinion or to make people believe certain ideas or even facts. Jacques Ellul quickly dismisses this misconception:

“Very frequently propaganda is described as a manipulation for the purpose of changing idea or opinions of making >individuals 'believe' some idea or fact, and finally of making them adhere to some doctrine—all matters of the mind. It tries >to convince, to bring about a decision, to create a firm adherence to some truth. This is a completely wrong line of thinking: >to view propaganda as still being what it was in 1850 is to cling to an obsolete concept of man and of the means to influence >him; it is to condemn oneself to understand nothing about propaganda. The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to >modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling >irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to transform an opinion but to arouse an active and mythical belief."

(Propaganda: the Formation of Men’s Attitudes, page 25. Emphasis added).

And this is the reason why propaganda, contrary to what our Steemian friend @stevescoins points out in the 2nd part of his very interesting series, could never be used in a positive or democratic manner, regardless of its content being truth or false: the way it communicates its messages implies an audience devoid of rationality, not making decisions based on objective information but reacting as conditioned, by an appropriate stimulus and a set of symbols, flags, abstract ideas, etc.

In sum, for propaganda to have a hold on the masses, they need to remain immature, living in the simplified world of “good guys” and “bad guys”(1), and looking up to authority to tell them what is true or what is “right”.

And this is where MSM and its “corporate” journalism comes into place, with its pervasive shallowness and complete lack of historical context. But the reader would be wrong to assume anything close to a conspiracy is taking place. Instead, a set of structural factors condition its performance. Edward Herman, one of the proponents of the Propaganda Model, (a set of filters: ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak and anti-communist ideology, give shape to mass media content)(2) explains:

"The exclusion of the propaganda model perspective is noteworthy, for one reason, because that perspective is consistent >with long standing and widely held elite views that 'the masses are notoriously short-sighted' (Bailey 1948: 13) and are 'often >poor judges of their own interests' (Lasswell 1933: 527), so that 'our statesmen must deceive them' (Bailey 1948: 13); and >they 'can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality' (Walter Lippmann >1921: 310). In Lippmann's view, the 'manufacture of consent' by an elite class had already be-come 'a self-conscious art and >a regular organ of popular government' by the 1920s (Lippmann 1921: 248)".


The idea that an elite should “manufacture consent” was once widely and publicly acknowledged by many intellectuals. Not anymore, and the reasons are quite obvious: a democracy where the citizenship is psychologically manipulated “for their own good” is nothing more than a soft authoritarianism by the means of coercion.

Harold Lasswell, famous social scientist and one of the many fathers of Communication Sciences, also shared similar views, for him, literacy

“…did not release the masses from ignorance and superstition but altered the nature of both and compelled the >development of a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda. ... [A propagandist's] regard for men rests on >no democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests. The modern propagandist, like the >modern psychologist, recognizes that men are often poor judges of their own interests…”


“Propaganda [has attained] eminence as the one means of mass mobilization which is cheaper than violence, bribery and >other possible control techniques".

(Simpson, Christopher. The Science of Coercion. Page 21, first quote; page 18, second).

Christopher Simpson’s work shows us how Communication Sciences were shaped in the interests of elites, by men working –many times in secret- for the government in times of war. His book The Science of Coercion is filled with examples of real covert, psychological operations taking place outside of the U.S. designed by civilian, social scientists like Lasswell and then being incorporated to academia by whitewashing them through scientific journals like Public Opinion Quarterly.

We have heard in the past about MSM journalists talking about the freedom of speech they enjoy in their respective medium, perhaps this short answer by Noam Chomsky can clarify a bit:

Written by Daniel Espinosa W. for his blog at


(1) As Murray Rothbard explains: “Once again, the American public is being subjected to a nearly unanimous barrage of war propaganda and war hysteria, so that only the most searching and rational can keep their heads. Once again, we find that there has emerged upon the scene an Enemy, a Bad Guy, with the same old Bad Guy characteristics that we have heard of before; a diabolic, monolithic Enemy, which, generations ago in some “sacred texts,” decided (for reasons that remain obscure) that it was “out to conquer the world.” Source (Emphasis mine).
(2) E. Herman: “In short, the propaganda model describes a decentralized and non-conspiratorial market system of control and processing, although at times the government or one or more private actors may take initiatives and mobilize coordinated elite handling of an issue. Propaganda campaigns can occur only when they are consistent with the interests of those controlling and managing the filters”. Source

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Thanks for sharing this informative post

Thanks for reading!

Excellent post, very well articulated. thank you so much.


“The vast majority of people, perhaps 90 percent, know how to read
only by the very broadest definition.
Most people have the attention span of a gnat.
There's a reason Twitter is so popular and has a character limit.

Indeed, most people can't even understand what they read. And those words you quote were written in France in the 60´s... today's society is even less educated.

Great article!


Good post. Happy to see this type of topic on steemit.