Propaganda and Persuasion: An Investigation

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Propaganda & Persuasion

“War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength”

-George Orwell, 1984

This iconic slogan encapsulates the way in which propaganda reinforces a train of thought which can sometimes be contradictory to our version of the truth. In this article, I will discuss signs and symbols used in propaganda, the role of mass media, and how persuasion techniques impact our perception of the world.

Signs and Symbols in Propaganda

Propaganda is a form of communication that aims to progress ones’ desired intent by attempting to achieve a response from the viewer. Propagandists with endless access to money and resources can utilize multiple aides to showcase their intent. A sign is essentially a stimulant, aiming to evoke a response from the viewer. Whether this is a visual stimulant (graffiti, art, leaflets, uniforms, stamps), physical structures (museums, landmarks), sound (anthems, music, poetry), or gestures/movement (handshake, salute, posture). While signs have unambiguous meanings—indicating something specific (such as a stop sign)—symbols often are open to interpretation, conveying complex ideas through a simple visual stimulant. The Swastika was a beacon of racial superiority for the Nazi Party while simultaneously acting as a religious icon in many Eurasian cultures. Napoleon Bonaparte is widely considered successful in his use of symbolism as propaganda—the “man on the white horse” emerging out of the chaos as a result of the French revolution. He recognized the power of manipulation in symbols early in his career as an army officer, and throughout his life, he learned to achieve glory in his victories while placing the blame for his failures at the feet of others. Like Caesar before him, he wrote self-congratulatory accounts of his military exploits and created for himself a swashbuckling image of the dashing commander. Napoleon was among the first of the modern propagandists to understand the need to convince the population that the rights of the individual were less important than the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the nation. In this way, he was able to gather large, populist armies even in the worst of times.

An example of Bonaparte’s use of propaganda was seen in art (Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David, 1800-01)

Napoleon’s use of art as propaganda had two different aims. While glorifying his image, he also utilized propaganda to glorify his revolutionary ideals and patriotism.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps is a portrait of sovereignty. Perched on a stallion, Bonaparte’s gloveless hand points to a summit not in the frame, essentially guiding his soldiers in the distance. What’s interesting about this piece is that the background itself is a foundation for the hero archetype.

On the left is a mountain range while behind Bonaparte’s soldiers haul a cannon and The Tricolore. On the bottom right, the name Bonaparte is carved beside Charlemagne and Hannibal—both led their soldiers over the Alps. Overall, with the pointed arm and undulant cloak, perhaps Napoleon’s body echoes the background, while the opposite may also be true, being that it is in fact the background that echoes him, and it is fundamentally subdued by his will. David perhaps implies that Bonaparte- whose achievements will be celebrated for centuries to come, can do anything. The reality was in complete juxtaposition to the heroic story depicted—Napoleon never led his troops over the Alps but rather followed them a few days afterward. However, David orchestrated the depiction of a heroic archetype, instantly recognizable and a hero for generations to come. 

The Role of Mass Media

The role of the mass media in creating and strengthening public opinion is instrumental. Greater is the role of the free and independent media in the process of democratization because it contributes to the growth and freedom of expression and thinking. With the introduction of the New York Sun on September 3, 1833, the era of the “penny press” was begun, and the entire course of news was altered. The penny press was not so much a revolutionary development but rather the inevitable result of the gradual shift away from selling newspapers only through monthly or annual subscriptions. 

Not only did the gradual increase in the importance of the mass media throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century bring into existence viable and reachable publics, but the media themselves also began to assume the mantle of “expertise.” This proved to be a potent combination. The media were both collectors and disseminators of information, and this placed them in a powerful position to act as the channel for all types of persuasive messages, from merely informative advertising to the most blatant forms of propaganda for specific causes. 

The present-day, pejorative connotation of propaganda recalls the utilization of mass media by WWI governments to motivate the people of various countries to go to war. Some media outlets depicted the war as a global struggle between Anglo civilization and Prussian barbarism. While some soldiers in the war efforts lacked the knowledge and understanding of the political motivations of WWI, wartime propaganda galvanized them to enlist. WWI legitimized the advertising profession in the minds of government and corporate leaders because its techniques were useful in patriotic propaganda campaigns. Corporations quickly adapted to this development and created an advertising boom in the 1920s, using WWI propaganda techniques to sell products.

We see that governments and people in power who control the flow of information are able to influence public opinion by doctoring content at predetermined times, publishing distorted content, and aiming content at selective audiences. During the Serbian-Croatian war in former Yugoslavia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia controlled almost all forms of mass media to fuel hatred against the other’s side. In Russia, Putin’s oppositions are edited out of national television networks which are controlled by the Kremlin. When students protested in Beijing in 1989 at Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government stopped news of the protest from being reported in other Chinese cities and a majority of the rural Chinese countryside. History books never mentioned the protests and Chinese citizens in different areas never saw the plight of the student protestors for reformation. As protestors were massacred by the Chinese government, they published false information, claiming that thugs had killed the People’s Republic of China’s soldiers who then retaliated as an act of self-defense. The Chinese government was successfully able to control the flow of information within their country but due to a number of Western journalists being present in Beijing to report on Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit, the rest of the world was able to witness the atrocities that occurred. 

In Western society, the persuasive power of the mass media is well known. In the years after 9/11, there were multiple reports of the death of Osama bin Laden—in reality, he was killed in 2011. Governments, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and political campaigns rely on both new and old media to create messages and to send them to the general public. During and since the 2008 Presidential election, there has been constant scrutiny over Barack Obama’s birthplace and citizenship; the reports are discredited, but the questions resurface. The comparatively unregulated nature of U.S. media has made, for better or worse, a society in which the tools of public persuasion are available to everyone.

With the growth of the mass media and their ability to transmit information and messages to whole populations, communication itself was changed. The emergence of the internet, as well as the enhanced credibility of journalists and commercialization, has led to the media becoming a basic social institution in which individuals are connected with the wider social and political world. With this, propaganda and its occurrence has increased drastically and will continue to for generations to come.