In the West the calculated manipulation of public opinion to serve political and ideological interests is much more covert and therefore much more effective than a propaganda system imposed in a totalitarian regime.
Its greatest triumph is that we generally don't notice the influence of propaganda — or laugh at the notion it even exists.
We watch the democratic process taking place - heated debates in which we feel we could have a voice — and think that, because we have “free” media, it would be hard for the Government to get away with anything very devious without someone calling them on it.
The American approach to social control is so much more sophisticated and pervasive that it really deserves a new name.
It isn't just propaganda any more, it's “prop-agenda.” It's not so much the control of what we think, but the control of what we think about.
When our governments want to sell us a course of action, they do it by making sure it's the only thing on the agenda, the only thing everyone's talking about.
And they pre-load the ensuing discussion with highly selected images, devious and prejudicial language, dubious linkages, weak or false “intelligence” and selected “leaks”.
With the ground thus prepared, governments are happy if you then “use the democratic process” to agree or disagree — for, after all, their intention is to mobilise enough headlines and conversation to make the whole thing seem real and urgent.
The more emotional the debate, the better. Emotion creates reality, reality demands action.
Keeping the People Passive & Obedient
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views.
That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
Since the voice of the people is allowed to speak out in democratic societies, those in power better control what that voice says — in other words, control what people think.
One of the ways to do this is to create political debate that appears to embrace many opinions, but actually stays within very narrow margins.
You have to make sure that both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions — and that those assumptions are the basis of the propaganda system. As long as everyone accepts the propaganda system, the debate is permissible.
One reason that propaganda often works better on the educated than on the uneducated is that educated people read more, so they receive more propaganda.
Another is that they have jobs in management, media, and academia and therefore work in some capacity as agents of the propaganda system — and they believe what the system expects them to believe.
By and large, they're part of the privileged elite, and share the interests and perceptions of those in power.
It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent.
This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and government malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest.
What is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality of the command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behavior and performance.
Propaganda & the Ruling Ideology
When a leading journalist or TV news presenter is asked whether they are subject to pressure or censorship, they say they are completely free to express their own opinions.
So how does thought control work in a democratic society? We know how it works in dictatorships.
Journalists are an integral part of the ruling ideology. They are so well 'integrated' that they can't see outside the ideological box they inhabit.
Their journalism is balanced, fair and tolerant of other points of view. But that is part of the 'value system' they are promulgating. 'Truth' is their version of the world.
To return to the original question. If one suggests there is censorship in the Western media, journalists immediately reply: “No one has been exerting any pressure on me. I write what I want.” And it’s true.
But if they defended positions contrary to the dominant norm, someone else would soon be writing editorials in their place.
Obviously it is not a hard-and-fast rule: the US press sometimes publishes even my work, and the US is not a totalitarian country. But anyone who fails to fulfil certain minimum requirements does not stand a chance of becoming an established commentator.
It is one of the big differences between the propaganda system of a totalitarian state and the way democratic societies go about things. Exaggerating slightly, in totalitarian countries the state decides the official line and everyone must then comply.
Democratic societies operate differently. The line is never presented as such, merely implied. This involves brainwashing people who are still at liberty.
Even the passionate debates in the main media stay within the bounds of commonly accepted, implicit rules, which sideline a large number of contrary views.
The system of control in democratic societies is extremely effective. We do not notice the line any more than we notice the air we breathe.
We sometimes even imagine we are seeing a lively debate. The system of control is much more powerful than in totalitarian systems.
Look at Germany in the early 1930s. We tend to forget that it was the most advanced country in Europe, taking the lead in art, science, technology, literature and philosophy.
Then, in no time at all, it suffered a complete reversal of fortune and became the most barbaric, murderous state in human history. All that was achieved by using fear:
Fear of the Bolsheviks, the Jews, the Americans, the Gypsies – everyone who, according to the Nazis, was threatening the core values of European culture and the direct descendants of Greek civilisation (as the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote in 1935).
However, most of the German media who inundated the population with these messages were using marketing techniques developed by US advertising agents.
The same method is always used to impose an ideology. Violence is not enough to dominate people: some other justification is required.
When one person wields power over another – whether they are a dictator, a colonist, a bureaucrat, a spouse or a boss – they need an ideology justifying their action.
And it is always the same: their domination is exerted for the good of the underdog. Those in power always present themselves as being altruistic, disinterested and generous.
In the 1930s the rules for Nazi propaganda involved using simple words and repeating them in association with emotions and phobia.
When Hitler invaded the Sudetenland in 1938 he cited the noblest, most charitable motives: the need for a humanitarian intervention to prevent the ethnic cleansing of German speakers.
Henceforward everyone would be living under Germany’s protective wing, with the support of the world’s most artistically and culturally advanced country.
When it comes to propaganda (though in a sense nothing has changed since the days of Athens) there have been some minor improvements.
The instruments available now are much more refined, in particular – surprising as it may seem – in the countries with the greatest civil liberties, Britain and the US.
The contemporary public relations industry was born there in the 1920s, an activity we may also refer to as opinion forming or propaganda.
Both countries had made such progress in democratic rights (women’s suffrage, freedom of speech) that state violence was no longer sufficient to contain the desire for liberty. So those in power sought other ways of manufacturing consent.
The PR industry produces, in the true sense of the term, concept, acceptance and submission.
It controls people’s minds and ideas. It is a major advance on totalitarian rule, as it is much more agreeable to be subjected to advertising than to torture.