Propaganda, power and persuasion – and social media

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The British Library’s current exhibition Propaganda, Power and Persuasion makes essential viewing for anyone interested in politics, communications and social media.

It explores the strategies and consequences of state propaganda from the early 20th century through to its most recent manifestations.

You get to see a wealth of items from around the world, such as Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and the set of playing cards used by US-led forces in Iraq depicting key members of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

There are lots of dictators looking heavenward in paternalistic poses, the familiar pointy finger of Uncle Sam (pictured) and campaigns closer to home such as the Green Cross Code man and Don’t Die Of Ignorance.

The most chilling item for me was a maths text book from Nazi Germany, which showed children how to do arithmetic by asking them to calculate the cost of looking after the “hereditary unfit”.

It’s all brought right up to date at the end, with a rather hypnotic video wall showing the sentiment of tweets at certain times:  during the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony; after Obama won a second term and posted what became the most retweeted tweet of all time; about gun control after Sandy Hook. It’s a fitting closing point to an exhibition which has so much bearing on social media.

Think how it is used to persuade the masses and change behaviour. The way people aspire to be a ‘key influencer’ or ‘thought leader’ – and then boast about it, using self-aggrandising terms like social media ninja or guru.

The curators have put together a handy guide to the techniques of using propaganda. How many of them do you recognise in the way we use social media today?

A user’s guide to basic propaganda techniques

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Establish authority

Link a person or idea with existing symbols of power and authority, which people understand and are comfortable with. Using appropriate symbolism can generate deep psychological resonances.

Exploit existing beliefs

People are much more receptive to messages that build on attitudes and beliefs they already hold dear. Use this technique to play on class, cultural, religious and national stereotypes.

Appeal to patriotism

Play up to nationalist sentiments and emphasise benefits to the nation. People often fail to question ideas linked to the emotive but general sense of patriotism.

Create fear

In a state of fear your audience is more likely to believe you. This technique is particularly effective if you play on existing anxieties and prejudices against people, groups or behaviours.

Imply everyone agrees

The desire to fit in is a strong one and many people go along with the crowd. Combine with apparent plain speaking, an appeal to the ‘average’ person, and deliver in a style which suit your audience.

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Disguise the source

Carefully plant stories and faces so that they come from an independent source your audience trusts. They will have less reason to question the messages your are spreading.

Use humour

Making your audience smile or laugh can make powerful people, countries and ideas seem less threatening and even ridiculous. Humour is particularly useful if you are politically weaker than your opponent.

Make false connections

Start with an uncontested statement and link it with something more controversial. Many people will not notice that there is no logical link between the two. Alternatively link a person or idea with a more general truism, either good or bad.

Be selective about the truth

Control how and when information is released. Ensure only stories that support your position are reported. Where an event is controversial, make sure only the facts and testimony that favour your interpretation are heard. 

Hammer it home

Decide on your message

and stick to it. Saturate your audience, repeating it in as many different media as you can mobilise. Constant repetition will overcome initial scepticism.

Establish a leadership cult

Encourage the population to think their leaser is solely responsible for all successes. Eventually more people may come to believe that their personal fate and that of the nation is inextricably bound up with that of the leader. For advanced practitioners only. 

More information

Propaganda, Power and Persuasion is on until 17th September 2013 at The British Library. You can also see what people are tweeting at #BLpropaganda.

You may also be interested in Social media: new democracy or mass deception?, taking place at the British Library on 17th June.

All images in this post taken from publicity shots for the exhibition.