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Have we lost truth in maze of information-age propaganda?

Truth seems elusive in the information age.  We have access to an overload of information, and it’s up to us to decipher truth.  The journalism adage I learned in the 1960s led me to believe that “where truth and falsehood meet, truth will prevail.”

Today I wonder if in the cacophony of voices from competing interests that are often at the extremes, setting us to think our only choices are false choices, ones no one would ponder.  When inaction can mean that corporations operate without regulation, undermining the global economy, health-care access, peace negotiations and human dignity, we need to be aware of the well-oiled machines of public relations that tip over into propaganda.

We often pointed our fingers at the propaganda that allowed Adolph Hitler to convince the German people and other nations that his death camps were work camps, and that genocide removed the “undesirables.”  It worked for a while—far too long.

Today, we are accustomed to and blind to propaganda within our own nation and culture.  “Propaganda” is something the enemy does—an assumption born of a propaganda technique. 

While the propaganda that permeates our psyches is not always the blatant, obvious government-sponsored forms I saw in travels in East Germany and the former Soviet Union in the 1960s to 1980s, propaganda is pervasive in advertising, sadly in news content, in political wrangling, in corporate lobbying and in government communications.

Propaganda distorts facts, information and opinions subtly or overtly to influence thinking, change ideas, limit options and control people.  It is biased, selective, manipulative information, rather than “just the facts” journalism.

Propaganda techniques include:

• An appeal to hop on the bandwagon along with everyone else  relies on trends or fads, such as the constant pulse-taking polls about a President’s or policy’s popularity.

• Slogans give easy-to-remember catch phrases, sound bites or jingles, which repeated often enough seem to be true.

• Transfer relies on connecting a respected symbol or belief with what the propagandist is promoting, such as the flag representing patriotism.  The goal is to engender credibility and support.  In reverse, guilt-by-association renders something undesirable.

Selective information, such as rumors, spreads unverified information.  With the internet, half-truths, innuendo and overt lies can spread instantly.

• Personal testimonials are used to lend credibility, connecting celebrities and leaders, with ideas or products.   

• Fear and hate play on stereotypes, pushing the public to desire “law and order” in the 1960s and “security” since 2001.  Advertisers and faiths, as well as politicians and governments, appeal to people’s fears to invite involvement, compliance or purchases.

Name calling plays on enemy images, creates emotionally charged negative associations with ideas or ideologies, such as communism or fascism, or alienates people from those espousing certain views or actions, such as socialists, terrorists or illegals.

• Broad generalities about a virtue, such as democracy, ties it to the perspective being promoted, without questioning whether the tie is legitimate.

Euphemisms soften connections of the realities of war or policies.  It’s “double speak” referred to in the novel, 1984, by George Orwell.  So the War Department becomes the “Defense Department” and civilian casualties become “collateral damage.”

• Politicians or corporate executives who are the elite claim to be plain folks, just like the rest of the people.

We must each take responsibility to discern when these techniques are in play.

Mary Stamp - editor