On Lies And Propaganda

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I would love to have seen an interview with the “founder” of public relations and “spin” in the United States, Edward L. Bernays, and the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment, Joseph Goebbels, perhaps moderated by Rudolph “Truth is Not Truth” Giuliani. Could you just imagine? It might go something like this.

Giuliani: Its great to have you two back from the dead if only to clarify the role of propaganda in the contemporary world. Herr Goebbels, I believe that everyone hears their own truth, how do you see propaganda functioning in this context, in other words, how does one make a kind of customized, targeted truth?

Goebbels: Propagandists must have access to intelligence concerning events and public opinion. Propaganda must be planned and executed by only one authority. It must issue all the propaganda directives. It must explain propaganda directives to important officials and maintain their morale. It must oversee other agencies’ activities which have propaganda consequences. The propaganda consequences of an action must be considered in planning that action. Propaganda must affect the enemy’s policy and action.

Giuliani: I issue contradictory statements everyday to confuse and disrupt the media (the enemy) and consequently throw out red meat to members of the President’s base. I add a pinch of fact just for spice. Am I doing the right thing? Or how else should disinformation be handled?

Goebbels: By suppressing propagandistically desirable material which can provide the enemy with useful intelligence. By openly disseminating propaganda whose content or tone causes the enemy to draw the desired conclusions. By goading the enemy into revealing vital information about himself. By making no reference to a desired enemy activity when any reference would discredit that activity. Declassified, operational information must be available to implement a propaganda campaign. To be perceived, propaganda must evoke the interest of an audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications medium. Credibility alone must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false. The purpose, content and effectiveness of enemy propaganda; the strength and effects of an expose; and the nature of current propaganda campaigns determine whether enemy propaganda should be ignored or refuted. Credibility, intelligence, and the possible effects of communicating determine whether propaganda materials should be censored. Material from enemy propaganda may be utilized in operations when it helps diminish that enemy’s prestige or lends support to the propagandist’s own objective. Black rather than white propaganda may be employed when the latter is less credible or produces undesirable effects.

Giuliani: Good points, Herr Minister. Now, let me ask Dr. Bernays. Herr Goebbels uses propaganda to mold public opinion, as I’ve been attempting to do. You, have a similar agenda, but for you propaganda has more positive implications. You want people to be “educated and informed.” Really?

Bernays: The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

Giuliani: This is good, not what I expected. Do go on:

Bernays: We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet.

Giuliani: Hmmmmm. Sounds like the deep state is at work here.

Bernays: They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons — a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million — who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.

Giuliani: I have a sweet spot for domination by a trifling fraction. Herr Minister what will make a propaganda campaign work best for the persons in power?

Goebbels: Propaganda may be facilitated by leaders with prestige. Propaganda must be carefully timed. The communication must reach the audience ahead of competing propaganda. A propaganda campaign must begin at the optimum moment. A propaganda theme must be repeated, but not beyond some point of diminishing effectiveness.

Giuliani: I make a point of stating certain key phrases, like ‘truth is not truth’ or ‘there is no collusion.’ Should I keep this in the mix?

Goebbels: Propaganda must label events and people with distinctive phrases or slogans, they must evoke desired responses which the audience previously possesses. They must be capable of being easily learned and utilized again and again, but only in appropriate situations. They must reinforce anxiety concerning the consequences of defeat.

Giuliani: Herr Minister, this supports my own strategy. Dr. Bernays, I want to end this with you. I have to rush outside to appear on camera for my hourly obfuscation briefing. So tell me how do you see propaganda working in a democracy?

Bernays: This is an age of mass production. In the mass production of materials a broad technique has been developed and applied to their distribution. In this age, too, there must be a technique for the mass distribution of ideas. [But in closing I’d like to say this about democracy]: In theory, every citizen may vote for whom he pleases. Our Constitution does not envisage political parties as part of the mechanism of government, and its framers seem not to have pictured to themselves the existence in our national politics of anything like the modern political machine. But the Ame
rican voters soon found that without organization and direction their individual votes, cast, perhaps, for dozens or hundreds of candidates, would produce nothing but confusion. Invisible government, in the shape of rudimentary political parties, arose almost overnight. Ever since then we have agreed, for the sake of simplicity and practicality, that party machines should narrow down the field of choice to two candidates, or at most three or four.

Giuliani: It might even be more efficient with just one party, but I’ll leave that for another discussion. Thank you both.

[Words were actually written or spoken by Bernays and Gobbels]

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →