Edward L. Bernays' Propaganda (1928) is surely one of the most influential books written this past century, even if rarely cited or closely read nowadays. If his name seems unfamiliar, and the actual practice remote, worry not. We're all soaking in the science.
Consider the track record on offer. Of the myriad utopian 'isms' proposed to ensure the contentment of the masses in the hundred years since - like communism and fascism, or liberalism and corporate nationalism - none have survived or thrived to the extent that Bernays' prescription for happiness has, namely, consumerism. Not consumption in the narrow sense of shopping and purchasing (though materialism there is aplenty). Rather, he espouses the civic potion of 'buying into' ideas, systems, and the underlying logic as citizens of what's been packaged and pitched to us, be it by companies or government. So came the election as entertainment; so went the party as participation. Or as Bernays put it,
the propagandist who specializes in interpreting enterprises and ideas to the public, and interpreting the public to promulgators of new enterprises and ideas, has come to be known by the name of public relations ... governments, whether they are monarchical, constitutional, democratic or communist, depend upon acquiescent public opinion ... government is government only by virtue of public acquiescence. (p. 64)
As a recent reissue of the classic text noted, comprehensive use of propaganda as a tool of the State is only about a hundred years old. 'Not until 1915 did governments systematically employ the entire range of modern media to rouse their populations to fanatical assent.' (M.C. Miller, intro, p. 12). Significantly, this tactical success comes at a steep price for the practitioner.
First and foremost, impact requires secrecy. 'At the very moment of the propagandists' triumph as professionals...to be referred to as a propagandist was an insult." (p. 14). In other words, as the technologies to shape our attitudes and beliefs became more invasively effective, simultaneously they became covert. Or, to circle back to the node title:
The media by which special pleaders transmit their messages to the public through propaganda include all the means by which people today transmit their ideas to one another. There is no means of human communication which may not also be a means of deliberate propaganda. (p. 123)
Which is to say every message carries bias
, every story
an agenda, every transmitted image an ideology
. Reading is an activity immersed in influence, no matter how passive
it may seem, and digital media
have just served to make political nudging and truth-tweaking all the more invisible. In summary, that the vectors of persuasion
emit largely from state-directed, profit-driven firms as opposed to bona fide government offices ought to worry us more, not less.