The most effective propaganda is subtle

19 Jul

This morning I read two short pieces before I’d even had coffee. The first, in the Daily Express – Londoner speaks out after stunning Just Stop Oil zealot into silence with ingenious offer –  opened with this:

A London commuter has claimed he was “chased down” by a “beyond insistent” Just Stop Oil eco-fanatic this morning as he tried to go to work, in a “confrontational” stand-off captured by the city worker on his phone.

Subtle it ain’t. But this is the Express, its readership a dwindling self parody of little Englander reaction. As I read on, still alarmingly uncaffeinated, the said eco fanatic  was given additional titles. Not only is he a long haired environmentalist, I learned, but an unnamed sustainability zealot  to boot.

Just savour that for a moment. A sustainability zealot – one of those wild-eyed maniacs who, bizarrely, see copiously evidenced environmental horror as sufficient cause to disrupt sporting events and plonk their protesting arses, en-masse, on busy thoroughfares. This barely a week after global temperatures hit their highest levels ever on four consecutive days.

Slightly more subtle was the “ingenious offer” promised in the article’s title:

The proposition … put to the long-haired environmentalist was … a crowdfunding campaign to finance one-way tickets for Just Stop Oil activists to go to China – the world’s largest polluter – so they could protest against fossil fuel emissions there.

Calling China the largest polluter adroitly leap-frogs the truth that, housing the world’s largest population, its pollution per capita is far lower than that of the West. (Moreover, as the late Andre Vltchek has written, China’s commitment to green public transport leaves the West – for reasons discernible in Why read Michael Hudson? – in the dust.) But then, Express journalists have always been more comfortable with spin at its most curmudgeonly than with such niceties as the uses and abuses of statistics.


As it happens, the subtleties of brainwashery are the subject of my second read of the morning, Caitlin Johnstone’s post today …

It’s Not The Really Blatant Propaganda That Gets You

One of my favorite follows on Twitter right now is a smallish account run by an anti-imperialist activist who goes by “Left I on the News”, because he has a real knack for going through articles in the mainstream press and highlighting the mundane little manipulations we’re fed each day to shape our worldview in alignment with the US empire.

One story he singled out recently was a New York Times article titled “Russia Fires Drones and Missiles at Southern Ukraine,” which opens with the line, “Russian forces launched drones and missiles at cities in southern Ukraine from the Black Sea early Tuesday, Ukrainian officials said, a day after Moscow blamed Kyiv for an attack on a bridge linking the occupied Crimean Peninsula to Russia.”

Can you spot anything funny in that sentence? It’s not super obvious at first glance.

“Look how the NYT phrases this subhead to make Russia sound extra evil,” Left I tweeted with a screenshot of the article. “Not ‘a day after Kyiv attacked the Kerch Bridge’, but a day after Russia blamed them for doing it (as if it’s just some wild accusation). Remember — the most effective propaganda is the subtlest.”

“The most effective propaganda is the subtlest”  is a phrase you should try to remember, because it’s so very true.

It is indeed ridiculous to try to frame this as some wild accusation by Russia, as though Moscow should have remained open to the possibility that the bridge was struck by Bolivia or Nepal. CNN reports that Ukrainian officials have taken credit for the attack, and just days ago Ukraine’s deputy defense minister publicly acknowledged that Ukraine was behind last year’s attack on the very same bridge. No serious person doubts that Ukraine was behind the attack, including those who support Ukraine.

But that subtle manipulation didn’t really stand out when you first saw it, did it?

As we’ve discussed previously, these subtle little adjustments of perception are what constitutes the vast majority of the propaganda westerners ingest through the news media from day to day. This is because the really overt, ham-fisted propaganda isn’t what’s effective; what’s effective is those sneaky little lies that slide in unchecked underneath people’s critical thinking faculties.

Contrast the above example with the response we’ve been seeing to Yeonmi Park, whose outlandish, larger-than-life propagandistic lies about what it’s like to live in North Korea have turned her into an internet meme. She’s become so widely mocked that even The Washington Post, among the first to help amplify her as a trustworthy North Korean defector after her arrival in the US in 2014, is now openly questioning her credibility.

This is because propaganda only works if it doesn’t ring people’s cognitive alarm bells. You can’t slide propaganda down people’s throats if it triggers their critical thinking gag reflex. If you want to poison someone’s food, you can only pull off the deed if they don’t taste the poison or throw it up before it takes effect.

So most propaganda isn’t of the Yeonmi Park – “communists are so poor that they have to eat mud and get out of the train and push it because there’s no electricity” – variety. It’s subtle. It’s these tiny little adjustments where US allies are reported on more sympathetically than US enemies, claims made by unaligned governments are reported with much more scrutiny and skepticism than aligned governments, and the sins which take place within the US-centralized power structure are overlooked while those outside it are amplified and condemned.

We’ve been ingesting these tiny little manipulations all our lives like microplastics in our water supply, and they build up within our reality tunnels to significantly warp our perception of what’s going on in the world.

And the fact that it’s been so many tiny little lies over years and years means it’s a lot harder to extract all the perception management from our worldview once we’ve discovered that it’s happening. If it was just a few really big lies we could reorient ourselves toward truth fairly quickly just by recognizing them, but because it’s so very many tiny manipulations it takes years of sincere work to fully free yourself from all the distortions and false assumptions you grew up with.

But it’s worth doing, because positive change can only come from an awareness of what’s true, whether you’re talking about individuals or humanity as a whole. Our task as humans is to come to a truth-based relationship with reality to the furthest extent possible, and that means fearlessly diving headfirst into the long, hard slog of sorting out fact from fiction, one lie at a time, no matter how subtle.

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4 Replies to “The most effective propaganda is subtle

  1. I suppose that is why the BBC is the worlds most refined propaganda service, to missquote John Pilger, their subtle world play and lies of omission take some teasing out of their articles and broadcasts. I sometimes do this, a la Media Lens, on Facebook, just for the fun of it but the thing I am really noticing is how that same subtle propagande creeps into drama, game and comedy shows. I particularly noticed this when listening to radio 4 whilst driving long distances for work, Their whole output from the Today programme onwards was basted in a subtle(sometimes not so subtle File on four being a particularly clunky form) melange of western corporate propaganda

    • Should we ever meet in person, Gerald, we can debate this over a coffee or a pint. Me, I’d award the title of “world’s most refined propaganda service” to The Guardian – but let’s not split hairs. Point taken. In a post on systemic media corruption, I declared the BBC:

      Not directly subject to market forces via advertising – hence to ruling class agendas pursued, without need for conspiracy, by a mix of: ideology absorbed as common sense, business realism and career focus. [But] the Beeb relies on licence fees set by politicians who themselves fear the editorial fulminations of the Mail, and/or are in bed with Murdoch et al.

      [Moreover] the BBC’s upper echelons are disproportionately Eton/Oxbridge. Chomsky is on the nail. In his now famous 1996 interview with the Beeb’s Andrew Marr, the latter objects:

      “How can you know I’m self censoring?”

      To which Chomsky replies:

      “I don’t say you are self censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you say. But what I am saying is that if you believed something different you would not be sitting in that chair.”

      I stopped listening to Radio 4 years ago by the simple expedient of changing my default to Radio 3. Not only did this confer instant erudition, making me a walking encyclopaedia of classical music. It also brought a much needed audio haven!

      • PS – I’m glad you mentioned corporate media lies of omission. As with those lies not being dependent on consciously mendacious journalists (that’s what Chomsky was getting at with Marr) this is a subject dear to my heart. In a post of May this year – Is it stupid to believe media propaganda? – I wrote:

        The “subjective sincerity of most journalists” does not absolve them. Yes, it beggars belief that all are outright liars, but they are guilty of self-serving credulity … Journalists who know what’s good for them please editors. Editors who know what’s good for them please proprietors. Proprietors crave seats at the high table. More fundamentally they need advertisers and/or, as with The Guardian, rich sponsors like Gates and Soros. These realities are compounded by the fact that media distortion, which on matters vital to power is immense, is shaped more by lies of omission – see Telling a Martian what hospitals do – than commission. The former are safer and over the long haul more effective in maintaining powerful myths – Western democracy informed by independent media is a thing … the US Empire is not … each instantiation of an endless succession of foreign leaders in the way of the not-empire’s planetary plunder really is The New Hitler – which consistently trump mere evidence and defy the ABC, known to any functioning human being over the age of twelve, of how power works. The upshot? Hundreds of millions of otherwise sane and intelligent people buying the preposterous notion that Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin pose a greater threat to peace than an empire which, inter alia, has slain millions in this century alone. To which end the gaping omissions of that self-servingly credulous profession have been vital.

  2. The other metaphorical boot of this process under discussion is the active suppression of any expression of anything and everything which does not match The Official Narrative.

    Thus we have this report from Zero Hedge about the attempts to prevent the US Government – ie Deep State – from censoring social media:

    “Good news: the senile occupant of the White House who occasionally moonlights as a president, will be allowed to order social media cos to censor any news about his crack-addicted son’s laptop again.

    That clear violation of the constitution is what a federal appeals court ruled today when it temporarily halted an order that would bar Biden admin officials from communicating with major social media companies while it considers the government’s request for a longer-term pause.

    Friday’s order came from a three-judge panel assigned to handle the government’s emergency request: Judge Carl Stewart, appointed by Bill Clinton; Judge James Graves, appointed by Barack Obama; and Judge Andy Oldham, appointed by Donald Trump. It didn’t note any dissents.”

    Encountered via Larry Johnson’s blog:

    “The Washington Post and other MSM purveyors of the Gummint narrative attacked Judge Doughty’s July Fourth decision without any real discussion of the undisputed facts that were detailed in his 155 page memorandum, and subsequently saluted the Fifth Circuit’s decision to suspend the injunction without any discussion of why they reached that decision. The Court just suspended because they said so. “Hurray!” says The Washington Post. Here’s an excerpt from the WaPo:

    “Civil rights groups, academics and tech industry insiders say the order risks dismantling years of work to enhance coordination between the U.S. government and social media companies, as the federal government responded to rising election interference and voter suppression efforts after revelations that Russian actors had sowed disinformation on U.S. social sites during the 2016 election.”

    Civil Rights groups??? What “civil rights” groups said that? “[T]he federal government responded to rising election interference and voter suppression efforts revelations that Russian actors had sowed disinformation on U.S. social sites during the 2016 election”?

    I thought that all turned out to be totally false. And so what if it was not false? Under the First Amendment, on what basis does the federal government suppress people expressing their opinions on this or any other subject on social media? See Oliver Wendell Holmes quote above. The fact of the matter is that it means absolutely nothing.

    So there’s the answer to Patrick Lawrence. As with Ukraine, most people are blissfully unaware of what is really going on and/or just do not care.

    Much as it pains me to quote Harry Truman, Judge Doughty quoted from Truman’s Special Message to Congress in 1950 in the conclusion of his July 4th opinion. It’s worth repeating:

    “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one place to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

    Later, in the same message, Truman concluded:

    “We must, therefore, be on our guard against extremists who urge us to adopt police state measures. Such persons advocate breaking down the guarantees of the Bill of Rights in order to get at the communists. They forget that if the Bill of Rights were to be broken down, all groups, even the most conservative, would be in danger from the arbitrary power of government.”

    [Special Message to the Congress on the Internal Security of the United States, August 8, 1950]”

    Yesterday the two Alex’s at The Duran were posing the question as to why so many are still attached to the totally debunked US “Russiagate” narrative whilst at the same time the evidence – from Fox News of all places – of the Biden Crime Family conflict of interest in Ukraine via Hunter Biden’s laptop is there in plain site.

    When only the officially approved and subjective fantasy narratives are available – Ukraine is winning; Russia is a basket case; Men are really women and so on – at the same time as any contradictory objective fact based evidence is subject to widespread official across the board censorship via not only the Deep State administration but also what passes for a fourth estate, the various iterations of the Uni-party, and even the Judiciary the hardest of landings is due sooner rather than later.

    Here’s Alastair Crooke:

    “Hubris consists in believing that a contrived narrative can, in and of itself, bring victory. It is a fantasy that has swept through the West – most emphatically since the 17th century. Recently, the Daily Telegraph published a ridiculous nine minute video purporting to show that ‘narratives win wars’, and that set-backs in the battlespace are incidentals: What matters is to have a thread of unitary narrative articulated, both vertically and horizontally, throughout the spectrum – from the special forces’ soldier in the field through to the pinnacle of the political apex…..

    …..The obvious flaw to this hubris is that it requires you to be at war with reality. At first, the public are confused, but as the lies proliferate, and lie is layered upon lie, the narrative separates further and further from touched reality, even as mists of dishonesty continue to swathe themselves loosely around it. Public scepticism sets in. Narratives about the ‘why’ of inflation; whether the economy be healthy or not; or why we must go to war with Russia, begin to fray.”

    Hence the widespread censorship through various means from Social Media through to Cancel Culture through to compulsory indoctrination sessions at both work and school.

    Crooke save the best for the second half of his article:

    “The western meta-narrative “from Plato to NATO, is one of superior ideas and practices whose origins lie in ancient Greece, and have since been refined, extended, and transmitted down the ages (through the Renaissance, the scientific revolution and other supposedly uniquely western developments), so that we in the west today are the lucky inheritors of a superior cultural DNA”.

    This is what the narrators of the Daily Telegraph video probably had at the back of their minds when they insist that ‘Our narrative wins wars’. Their hubris resides in the implicit presumption: that the West somehow always wins – is destined to prevail – because it is the recipient of this privileged genealogy.”…..

    Hence the Garden/Jungle metaphor of Spanish Socialist Worker member and Eurocrat Josep Borrell.

    “……Of course, outside of general understanding, it is accepted that notions of ‘a coherent West’ has been invented, repurposed and put to use in different times and places. In her new book, The West, classical archaeologist Naoíse Mac Sweeney takes issue with the ‘master myth’ by pointing out that it was only “with the expansion of European overseas imperialism over the seventeenth century, that a more coherent idea of the West began to emerge – one being deployed as a conceptual tool to draw the distinction between the type of people who could legitimately be colonised, and those who could legitimately be colonizers”.

    With the invention of the West came the invention of Western history – an elevated and exclusive lineage that provided an historical justification for the Western domination. According to the English jurist and philosopher Francis Bacon, there were only three periods of learning and civilization in human history: “one among the Greeks, the second among the Romans, and the last among us, that is to say, the nations of Western Europe”.

    The deeper fear of western political leaders therefore – complicit in the knowledge that the ‘Narrative’ is a fiction that we tell ourselves, despite knowing that it is factually false – is that our era has been made increasingly and dangerously contingent on this meta-myth.”

    Which is why the censorship and associated Cancel Culture is but an extension of an earlier process which has transformed both the workplace and education at every level into an image of the incompetent Western Oligarchy by expunging all those with experience, expertise, knowledge and gumption.

    Its why nothing works any more. From the JIT supply chains to the barge pole length AI* run metal mickey organisational and institutional contact systems to the over-expensive not fit for purpose Western military hardware ‘wonder weapons’ currently going up in smoke in the Ukraine courtesy of weapons and weapon systems which actually do what it says on the tin at a fraction of the cost.

    * Which should, in a sane world, be referred to as DI – Dumb Intelligence – because that too is made in the image of the Oligarchy it serves.

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