Skip to content

A simple case study: How propaganda works

There are very few exceptions: Right-wingers and the Republican Party cannot win elections or have their way without lying and cheating. Without a sophisticated propaganda system (and, increasingly under Trumpism, the demonization of the responsible media), the right wing would be exposed as what it truly is: A radical minority with a highly unpopular agenda, and no principles, that gets its way only insofar as it can get away with lying and cheating.

This is an interesting case study, because Ken recently had an article in High Country News (a newspaper for the western U.S.) that explains what is really going on. The article is here:

‘No trespassing’ laws create personal playgrounds for the wealthy

The video above shows how right-wingers and Republicans use lies to enact laws that benefit the rich while pretending the opposite. This video — unlike more sophisticated right-wing propaganda with more subtle or hard-to-detect lies — actually is an example of bad propaganda because it’s relatively easy to detect the deception and the attempt to use fear to manipulate people.

In the video, we have a typical American family of three going about their morning routine in a typical American home. Clueless hippies and hikers are encamped on their front lawn, even though there’s a white picket fence. Sheila is out in the yard cooking hot dogs on someone else’s Coleman stove. A man is fishing in their swimming pool. We are given to understand that this is what will happen to typical Idaho families unless the Idaho legislature approves what may now be the most radical trespassing laws in the country.

But the easy-to-see truth is that a typical suburban Idaho family (are there even suburbs in Idaho?) is at no risk. Existing laws already have got them covered. The real story (as Ken shows in the article) is that this is a billionaire’s law.

There are more subtle messages in the video that are very disturbing. One is that nice people don’t camp and fish. Those who do camp and fish (that is, if they’re liberals) are careless and clueless and utterly disrespectful. Nice people, of course, stay in their atomized suburban homes and see the world only on their televisions, or maybe through a window if they ever open their shutters and curtains. The young daughter of the family raises her hand and starts to wave to the fisherman. But her dad pushes her hand down and says, “No; no, no.” The message is that nice people don’t even associate with people like that. That is probably the ugliest and most subtle message contained in this 47 seconds of propaganda: Civility can be dangerous if extended to the wrong people. Civic involvement is one of the last things Republicans want (unless its done through an organization controlled and financed by right-wing money, such as the Tea Party). Nice people stay home, watch television, believe what they’re told, and don’t get involved. Liberals are not only clueless, they’re also a threat to nice normal people. Why doesn’t the dad of the family just go out and ask the campers to leave, or call the police? Because the ad wants people to believe that, unless a new law is passed, the dad has no right to do that — a rather blatant falsehood.

Contrast this with how progressive political elements try to get their message out. This propaganda video is a nice contrast with something I posted two days ago, Environmental justice: The people fight back. The method used in that case was to leverage the media power of famous people to tell the stories of poor people who otherwise are ignored. The most important part of the news conference that I wrote about was not the speechifying by Al Gore and the Rev. William J. Barber (though they gave great speeches). The most important part, rather, was the parade of ordinary people who told true and verifiable stories of devastating illnesses and early deaths caused by living in proximity to coal ash.

For progressives, the challenge is how to draw attention to the truth. That’s what Ken was doing with his op-ed in a Western newspaper, on a subject on which he has done a great deal of research and written a book. For right-wingers, the challenge is designing effective lies, connecting those lies to an emotion such as prejudice or fear, and pumping those lies into the propaganda system.

I propose a game. The Nov. 6 election is coming up. Soon, television screens all over the country will be full of right-wing political ads. Analyze the ads as propaganda. Look for the lies. Were the lies obvious, or was some research required to expose them? Keep your list of fallacies handy. How many fallacies can you identify? What does the propaganda assume that people don’t know, so that it can take advantage of ignorance? What emotions does the propaganda try to stimulate? Whom does it demonize? What is the propaganda’s overt intention? Are there also disguised intentions? Is divisiveness intended? If so, who is being played against whom, based on what element of distrust or fear? Who paid for the ad? Whose interests does it serve? Google them and see if you can follow the money (that may be hard!). Feel free to apply the same checks to ads for liberals, and do your best to apply the same methods to scoring liberal vs. right-wing political ads.


  1. Dan wrote:

    The campers in the video bring to mind Occupy Wall Street. The target audience will see them as unemployed and a tax burden that will leech from them anything they can get. The fisherman is like dumb Ray Stevens / Hee-Haw comic relief for those without a sense of humor – the target audience. I imagine most people who live in rural Idaho already live by these tenets to some extent, while those in the suburbs will just have their fears confirmed by ads like that. It almost seems like more of a national campaign in that sense.

    Wednesday, August 15, 2018 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Phil wrote:

    It’s sad that many educated people actually think certain government policies benefit them. The reality is that most government action makes them poorer and less productive.

    Wednesday, August 15, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  3. daltoni wrote:

    Phil: That would depend a bit on the particularities of the policy, don’t you think? And whom, and what purpose, the policy serves…

    Wednesday, August 15, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Dan wrote:

    Some government regulation is necessary – public utilities could reap huge monopoly profits without regulation. Investment advisors could take advantage of clients with near impunity. That property right stuff is just fear mongering.

    Wednesday, August 15, 2018 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *