Propaganda Prop # 1: Repetition

(The first in a series on the tools of propaganda)

In one of the more memorable cartoons created by humorist Robert Smigel for Saturday Night Live, George W. Bush keeps going to the podium to make a speech, but all he can say is “Iraq; 9-11. Iraq; 9-11. Iraq; 9-11.” This pokes fun not only at Dubya’s legendary struggles with the mother tongue, but also his habit of mentioning Iraq or Saddam Hussein in connection with 9-11 as often as possible (while avoiding mention of the attack’s suspected mastermind Osama bin Laden, who proved more difficult to catch) to establish a connection in voters’ minds, even though no connection has ever been found. He was using what is one of the most essential tools, if not the most essential tool of propaganda: sheer repetition. Quite simply, the more something is repeated, the more people will believe it. The more something is repeated, the more people will believe it.

More than 40% of the American public swallowed the one about Iraq and 9-11. Many even believed that some or all of the 19 hijackers were Iraqi. In fact, none were; but 15 were from Saudi Arabia, an equally brutal dictatorship of whom Bush seldom if ever spoke ill (probably because of his coziness with the Saudi royal family). So not surprisingly, you don’t hear a lot of people on TV yammering about an “Operation Saudi Freedom”.

According to one aphorism attributed variously to Lenin, Goebbels and Hitler among others, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt (or was it Teddy) supposedly said “Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.” So which is right? Well… both, actually.

If you say a million times that the moon is made of gold, it will not cause that heavenly body to weigh an ounce more or shine any more brightly. But if the statement is believed by enough people, then it could become true for practical purposes. It could, let’s say, cause speculation in lunar gold, driving down the value of terrestrial gold and greatly impacting the world’s economy. The effect, in other words, might be the same as if the moon really was made of gold. Okay, that’s an absurd example. (On the other hand, should we really rule out anything as too absurd anymore?)

In any case, you get the idea. Repetition influences belief, and belief influences behavior. Sometimes this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Suppose you lead school kids to believe (by verbal repetition or by repeated behavior reinforcement or both) that blue-eyed students are smart and brown-eyed students are dumb. You can bet it won’t be long before the blues will start improving on their test scores, while browns start taking a nosedive. Reverse the polarity and you will reverse the results. This has been confirmed many times in actual experiments.

Repetition can be used for constructive purposes or destructive purposes or purposes somewhere on the spectrum in between. Constructive purposes include the positive affirmations recommended by many self-help gurus, a concept lampooned by another Saturday Night Live veteran, Al Franken in his New Age touchy-feely persona of Stuart Smalley. (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”) Destructive purposes would include brainwashing, a term coined by Chinese communists of the 1940s who felt that people who did not see the virtues of communism had polluted noggins and needed to have them scrubbed. Citizens displaying such impure behavior would be held prisoner under deprived conditions, and subjected to repeated propaganda until they came around. The “in-between” includes advertising, which can be, in various degrees, constructive (aspirin or house paint), destructive (soft drinks, tobacco) or relatively neutral (fast food restaurants).

But when we hear repeated soundbites these days, the commodity they’re often promoting is ideology, which usually means a political viewpoint. This isn’t really brainwashing in the Chinese communist sense, but it has essentially the same effect: it induces irrational beliefs, which prompt people to behave against their own interests. Day after day, we’re bombarded with these soundbites, and after a moment’s reflection, you can probably think of at least half a dozen of them that you’ve heard numerous times. They might include “death panels”, “government takeover”, “FEMA camps”, “War on Terror”, and “liberal media”. A good rule of thumb is that the more often you hear such expressions, the more you should question them (which is not to say that all hard sells are dishonest); but in the real world, the more something is repeated, the more it’s accepted as fact.

You deserve to have your own thoughts, convictions and values rather than those that someone else has drilled and filled your head with. But do you always claim that right? Whenever you hear something repeated many times, it’s a sure bet that someone is trying to make you believe something; and it’s a good bet that the motives for doing so are in that party’s interests rather than your own. You owe it to yourself to ask, who wants me to believe this? And why?

Fortunately for propagandists, few people ever bother.

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