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Toward a Science of Propaganda

Toward a Science of Propaganda

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Toward a Science of Propaganda Author(s): Brett Silverstein Reviewed work(s): Source: Political Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp.

49-59 Published by: International Society of Political Psychology Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3790986 . Accessed: 25/06/2012 09:38
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PoliticalPsychology, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1987

Toward a Science of Propaganda
Brett Silverstein1

Propaganda, which entails much more than communications delivered with the conscious intent of manipulation, has become an important and pervasive factor in modern sociopolitical systems. In the 1930s, psychologists, sociologists, and educators were active in the field of propaganda analysis. At the present time, much propaganda research is being done but because it is dispersed among many disciplines it lacks a basic body of literature, a shared set of techniques, rules for evaluating its quality, and a channel of communication between scholars doing such research. After using examples from American print journalism to describe the range of means by which propaganda may be spread, this articlediscusses the considerationsthat would be relevant in reformulating a science of propaganda as a subdiscipline of political psychology.
KEY WORDS: propaganda; communication; ideology; media.

INTRODUCTION Many people, upon hearing the term propaganda, think of subversive pamphlets written by revolutionary groups or information planted in a country during wartime by agents of an enemy power. In his theoretical treatment of the topic, Jacques Ellul (1973) calls the type of propaganda designed to incite revolution or to undermineexisting regimesthe "propagandaof agitation." Ellul also describes another type which he believes to be much more important than agitation propaganda for people living in developed nations. Every modern social system uses what Ellul calls the "propagandaof integration" to promote acceptance and support among its citizens for that system.

'Psychology Department, City College of New York, New York, New York 10031. 49
0162-895X/87/0300-0049$05.00/1 ? 1987 International Society of Political Psychology



Integration propaganda is important because no modern society can function for long without at least the implicit support of most of its citizens. Integration propaganda is promulgated not in pamphlets put out by small groups of subversives or in broadcasts made by foreign powers, but in the main channels of communication- newspapers,television, movies, textbooks, political speeches etc.-produced by some of the most influential, powerful, and respected people in a society. It is therefore difficult to recognize despite (or perhaps because of) its omnipresence, particularly because it is based upon ideals and biases that are accepted by most members of the society. With the rapid growth in communications technology that has taken place over the last century, integration propaganda has become a major factor in the workings of modern sociopolitical systems. The subtlety, omnipresence, and importance of integration propaganda in modern societies make the study of propaganda an important subfield of political psychology. In this article, I would like to discuss some of the issues that are of importance in creatinga subdisciplineof scientific propaganda analysis. It is interesting to note that just such a subdiscipline began to develop in the 1930s when a group of social psychologists, sociologists, and educators formed the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. The Institute published 50 analytical bulletins, a teacher's guide, and several other books (Lee, 1978). In the early 1950s, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues published an anthology of work on propaganda(Katz et al., 1954). But World War II, during which scholars who were doing propaganda research felt that analyzing American propaganda would be unpatriotic, put an end to the Institute and the McCarthy period that followed further dampened enthusiasm for propaganda analysis. Nowadays, a great deal of work that might be termed propaganda analysis is being done under the auspices of many disciplines, including social psychology, political science, journalism, communications, education, semantics, and sociology, and is published in places ranging from intelligence journals such as the Covert Action Information Bulletin, and press reviews such as the Columbia Journalism Review to the Harvard Educational Review. As a result of this dispersal among various disciplines, propaganda analysis lacks a basic body of literature, a shared set of techniques, rules for evaluating the quality of propaganda research, and a channel of communication between scholars doing such research. These are all necessary if we are to fully understand the role played by propaganda in modern sociopolitical systems. It is important here to point out an assumption that may be disputed by some psychologists that underlies all propaganda analysis: That beliefs, attitudes, and cognitions play a crucial role in the determination of political opinions and behavior. Propaganda researchers should participate in deter-



mining the exact role played by ideas in politics, but few scholars would become actively involved in propaganda analysis if they did not believe that what people read, hear, see, and think is an important determinant of their political actions. The term propaganda is often interpreted to mean communications delivered with the conscious intent of manipulation. If this definition were exhaustive of all propaganda, integration propaganda would still play an important role, but a much smaller one than it does. Propaganda is spread in a variety of ways, ranging from intentional disinformation promulgated by governments to much more subtle examples. The range of means by which propaganda is spread in modern societies is indicated by some examples from American print journalism. Editors seldom tell reportersexactly what to write in covering a story. More frequently, but still relatively rarely, editors will censor a story. When fascist dictator Francisco Franco ruled over Spain, editors of Time magazine killed a report on Spanish communists because "it made the Communists look too good" (Gans, 1980). In late 1963, Charles Mohr and Mert Perry were in Vietnam to report on the war for Time. The article they submitted, which said, in the words of the lead sentence, "The war in Vietnam is being lost" was rejected by Time editors and replaced with one that said, among other things, "Government troops are fighting better than ever" (Aronson, 1970). Sometimes consorship can take the form of editing for style. On August 4, 1982, Thomas Friedman, who had for 2 months been covering for the New York Times the Israeli forces in Lebanon, filed a report which said that the Israelis that day had "indiscriminately"bombed Beirut. It was the first time in 64 days of coverage that he had reported that the bombing was indiscriminate rather than being focused specifically on Palestinian targets. Although he felt that this fact was "the very essence of what was new" that day, the editors of the Times removed the word "indiscriminately"from his story, very much changing the impression received by readers of the article (Cockburn, 1982). The political pressuresthat lead to censorshipmay at times become quite obvious. In 1966 the New York Times invited CIA director John McCone to read a series of articles about the CIA before they were published. He suggested some changes (Newfield, 1970). When Ramparts magazine was ready to publish an expose of the link between the CIA and the National Student Association, the CIA began an investigation of Ramparts and convinced the Internal Revenue Service to check the tax returns of the people who backed the magazine (Mackenzie, 1981). In the late 1960s, the FBI convinced Columbia Records and other companies to withdraw their advertising from underground newspapers, like the Berkeley Barb, that had come out against the Vietnam War. In the words of an FBI memo regarding two



of these papers, "It is believed that there will be opportunities to suggest actions against individualsand groups who are giving financounterintelligence cial support to these publications." As a result, many of these papers went out of business (Mackenzie, 1981). The censorship of reporting is often indirect. In the Winter of 1964-65 the New York Times assigned Fred Powledge to write an article on the student radical movement. His article was one of the very few treatments of radicals in the mass media that was respectful to the activists and tried to explain the issues from the students' point of view. To its credit, the Times ran the article in a prominent position with only minor editing. But in the 9 months that Powledge remained at the Times he was never again sent out to report at length on the student movement. Those assignments went instead to other reporters (Gitlin, 1980). The self-censorshipof reportersadds greatly to the problem. Leo Rosten (1937), in interviewing the Washington correspondents of a number of major newspapers, found that the reporters had a good idea of the "line"that their papers wanted to push and tended to write stories to match that line in order to advance themselves. Forty out of the sixty-six reporters he talked to agreed that "orders are to be objective but I know how my paper wants stories played." But most of the misinformation received by readers of American newspapers may actually be due to the biases that the reporters bring to the stories they cover. Social psychologists Gordon Allport and Leo Postman (1945) performed a study of rumor transmission in which they showed to a number of people a drawing of two men arguing on a train. One man was well-dressed. The other was not so well-dressed and was holding a razor. The man with the razor was white and the other man was black. One person was asked to look at the picture and then describe it to another person, who in turn would describe it to another, and so on. Allport and Postman found that in over half of the chains of people who played this experimental version of the game "telephone" the razor was transferred to the hand of the black man by the time the information had reachedthe last person. The people in the study had allowed their prejudices to bias the transmission of information, probably unintentionally. Allport and Postman gave the name "assimilation" to the process wherein people's assumptions and beliefs affect their perception of, and communication about, events. Even experienced reporters may exhibit the effects of assimilation in their reporting. Thus the propaganda that is spread, at least in the United States, is not necessarily the result of some vast conspiracy masterminded by a central bureau of propaganda. It is due in large part to self-censorship and to the effects of the shared biases of the people who produce the mainstreammedia. Other social systems, such as those in the Soviet Union or China, exhibit



both similarities and differences in these processes by which integration propaganda is disseminated.

CENTRAL QUESTIONS OF PROPAGANDA ANALYSIS A number of questions (outlined in Table I) are central to the subdiscipline of propaganda analysis. Propaganda analysts must study how propaganda enters the channels of communication of modern societies and how it is spread. We must also formulate categories to be used in analyzing the forms that propaganda takes in the various communications channels. That is, we need to know what structures are used to spread propaganda. These structures might usefully be characterized as those that deal with the processes of communications and those that deal with the contents. Some of the process structuresthat have been studied include the selection of photographs that are printed in newspapers and magazines (Gitlin, 1980), the choice of people interviewed in television reporting (Glasgow University Media Group, 1982), the wording of review questions in high school history textbooks (Anyon, 1979), the well-known propaganda techniques codified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, including bandwagon appeals, glittering generalities, plain folks etc. (Lee, 1952), and the biased use of statistics (Horwitz and Ferleger, 1980). Some of the content structuresthat have been studied are the ethnocentric treatment of underdeveloped nations (Dorfman and Mattelart, 1975), the selective application of the term "terrorism"to apply to the action of forces rebelling against U.S. allies but not to the actions of the allies themselves (Herman, 1982), and exaggerateddescriptions of enemy atrocities during wartime (Vaughan, 1980). Propaganda researchers are also interested in the similarities and differences between the means by which propaganda is spread in different media and different societies. Are the categories discussed above useful for all media? If so, is some translation needed to apply categories developed in one medium to another medium? In what ways are the propaganda systems of the Soviet Union similar and in what ways different from those of the United States? Are there a limited number of types of systems of propaganda that are used in all societies? What form does propaganda take in less technologically-developed societies? Propaganda analysis is not the same as mass media research for it incorporates much of what might be termed the psychology of ideology. Thus, other questions of interest include: How is propaganda passed through social networks and by means of socialization processes within the family? How

54 Table I. SuggestedCharacteristics a Scienceof Propaganda of Centralquestions How does propaganda enterthe channelsof communication? What forms does propaganda take? Process Content How does propaganda differ for: Differentmedia Differentsocieties Industrialized versusnonindustrialized Marketversusplannedeconomies Differentindividuals Personalityvariables Cognitivestyles Educationand accessto information Methods attitudechange Experimental Investigative journalism Historical-archival Abstraction Linguistic/semantic analyses Contentanalyses Sociologyof mass communication


do interpersonal processes like conformity, intrapsychic processes like dissonance reduction, communicationprocesseslike assimilation,and cognitive processes like primacy or recency effects combine to affect the response to propaganda? Is susceptibility to propaganda based on particular cognitive biases or logical errors? Individual differences may also be important. Who is most affected by propaganda? Do personality variables or styles of cognitive processing affect susceptibility to propaganda? Ellul (1973) claims that contrary to popular belief, as a result of their increased exposure to propaganda, highly educated, well-informed citizens of modern societies are more, not less, open to propaganda than are people who receive less information. This hypothesis must be tested. Do some forms of information and education produce greater susceptibility to propaganda while others produce less? This brings up an important question regarding the application of propaganda analysis: Is it possible to develop means of training people to recognize and resist propaganda? McGuire's work on innoculation against attitude change (1968) might lead us to be skeptical about this possibility but the ability of many fledgeling researchersto learn to recognize and avoid methodological errors such as the confusion of correlation and causation leads me to believe that people can be taught to resist propaganda. Much more work must be done on this question.



It may be obvious in the above series of questions that a subdiscipline of propaganda analysis would have as its focus of study people and their responses to propaganda, communicators, communication networks and the means by which they spread propaganda, and the actual communication in which propaganda is contained. These foci are not very different from the categories of source, channel, message, and audience used by Hovland and his colleagues (1953) in their work on attitude change. But propaganda analysis focuses more attention on the message itself-its structure, content, language, logic, etc.-than did the attitude change research. In discussing the methods of propaganda research, an ethical issue becomes important. That is, some care may be called for in doing propaganda analysis, for while propaganda researchers are interested in studying the effects of propaganda, most would probably not be interested in developing more effective techniques for spreading propaganda. Propaganda researchers cannot ignorethe lessonslearnedby physicistsin the 20th century:Effectivetools will be used but not always for good purposes. If propaganda researchers simply employ the methods used in most attitude change research, the typical study would manipulate various aspects of the propaganda situation in order to determine which lead to the greatest effectiveness. But this work would be most useful to those who want to propagandize. A great deal of discussion among propaganda researchers is needed as to whether the research should be limited for ethical reasons: If not, how can the misuse of the results be prevented; and if so, how can the strongest conclusions be drawn within the limits of ethical research.

THE METHODS OF PROPAGANDA ANALYSIS Political psychologists who are familiar with the literature on attitude change and on the effects of the mass media already know many of the methods that are useful in propagandaresearch. Propaganda researchershave also made good use of techniques borrowed from other disciplines. [These techniques are outlined in Table I.] In order to draw conclusions about whether or not a particular example of propaganda was disseminated with the conscious intent to manipulate, propaganda analysts must use some of the methods developed by investigative journalists and historians, particularlythe unearthing of quotes from diaries, correspondence and in-house memoranda. This method has been used effectively by Ewen (1977) to show that some of the founders of the field of modern advertising consciously planned to create an ethic of consumerism and to convince immigrants to the United States that their old customs were



how It unAmerican. was also usedby Biskind(1976)to demonstrate the film of "VivaZapata" intentionally was changedfroma depiction a heroicrevolutionaryleaderto a film that was "anti-communist." the can Historical-archival research also be usefulin comparing media incidentwith informationabout what was treatmentgiven to a particular because actuallygoingon behindthe sceneswhilethe incidentwasoccurring, and often takesyearsto becomepublic.Schlesinger Kinzer suchinformation cam(1982)were able to use archivalmethodsto uncoverthe propaganda in the CIAandthe UnitedFruitCompany orderto mislead paignorganized by Jacobo the Americanpublicaboutthe U.S. role in the coup that overthrew the presidentof Guatemala,in 1954. Arbenz, is Anothermethod that has been used in the analysisof propaganda that of abstraction commonalitiesamong examplesof pro-discovering in thatweredisseminated differentmedia,at varying pointsof time, paganda or in differentsocieties.For example,I have found that one of the technitowardnationsthathavebeen questhathas beenusedto fomentantagonism attacks."That in conflict with the UnitedStatesis what I call "hypothetical the description greatdetailof whatattacks thesenationson theUnited in is, by Stateswould be like IF they ever occurred.In 1898,just before the United States declaredwar on Spain (whichwas much too weak to even consider attackingthe United States)the New York Worldwarnedof the possible damagethat might be causedby the SpanishwarshipVizcaya,expectedto arrivesoon on a visit to New York:"Whilelying off the Batteryher shells will explodeon the HarlemRiverand in the suburbsof Brooklyn" (Wisan, 1965).After the United StatesenteredWorldWar I againstGermany,the Wilsonto drumup Committeeon PublicInformation,createdby President for of support the war,distributed three-quarters a millioncopiesof a pamphlet entitled"WhyAmericaFightsGermany" whichincludedthe following:
Now let us picturewhata suddeninvasionof the UnitedStatesby theseGermanswouldmean;suddenbecausetheirsettledwayis to attacksuddenly. Firstthey set themselves capture to New YorkCity. Whiletheirfleetblockades harbor the and shellsthe city and the forts from far at sea, theirtroopsland somewhere nearand advancetowardthe city in orderto cut its rail communications, starveit into surrender thenplunder and it... TheypassthroughLakewood, stationon theCentral a Railroadof New Jersey.They first demandwine for the officers and beer for the men. Angeredto find that an Americantown does not containlargequantities of either,they pillageand burnthe post-office,and most of the hotelsand stores. .. One feebleold womantriesto concealtwentydollarswhichshe had beenhoarding in herdeskdrawer; is takenout andhanged savea cartridge) she (to 1980). (Vaughan,

In 1948Look magazinerana pictorialarticleentitled"Couldthe Reds Seize Detroit?"(Metcalfe,1948)describing how communists mightbe able to overrunan importantAmericanindustrialcenter.The articlecontained suchlinesas: "Detroit... is the industrial heartof America.Today,a sickle is beingsharpened plungeinto that heart"; to "Assume that Russiadeclared



war upon the United States; not in the obsolete fashion of serving formal notice but in a sneak offensive - an all-out initial blow in the best blitzkrieg style"; "The first few minutes would be busy ones for the Communist flying squads. On split-second schedule groups would be liquidating certain civic and political leaders"; "Rabble-rousers, using sound trucks would roll into those sections of the city where years of preparation had conditioned the people to Communist leadership. Now, caught in the madness of the moment, emboldened by the darkness, intoxicated by an unbridled license to kill, loot and destroy, mobs would swarm the streets." An important issue is how to make the most effective use of this powerful method while also meeting the requirements of scientific procedure. In other words, is it possible to combine the art with the science of propaganda analysis without losing the power of either? Linguistic/semantic analyses have also been used to study the misuse of language that occurs in much propaganda (e.g., Herman and Brodhead, 1984) which has come to be called "doublespeak"after 1984, George Orwell's classic novel of propaganda. One of the simplest forms taken by propaganda is the biased selection of the information that is presented. This form is often studied using content analyses. Herman (1984), for example, compared the coverage given by the New York Times between February 1 and March 30, 1984 to the elections scheduled to be held in El Salvador and Nicaragua. He found that whereas freedom of the press was mentioned as an important problem in six of the eight articles that dealt with the Nicaraguan elections, it was mentioned in none of the 28 articles that dealt with the Salvadoran elections, even though freedom of the press is clearly more restricted in El Salvador than it is in Nicaragua.

THE PROBLEM OF SAMPLING This example points up the relevance of sampling to propaganda analysis. Sometimes, particularlywhen the goal is training people to recognize and resist propaganda, it is enough simply to demonstrate that a particular propaganda technique has been used a number of times. The descriptions of hypothetical attacks that were described above exemplify this form of sampling. In other instances, it is enough to select examples from very popular sources in order to make the case that a particular example of propaganda is important because many people were exposed to it, or from highly respected sources in order to make the case that if even the careful sources, like the New York Times, contain such propaganda, imagine how much more occurs in the less rigorous sources like the New York Post.



Often, however, it is necessary to sample more rigorously. The method, used by Herman in his analysis of election coverage, of comparing the treatment given to two subjects which differ on just one or two dimensions is quite powerful. Herman (1982) used the same methodology to compare the number of times between January, 1976, and July, 1981, that Soviet dissidents were mentioned in the New York Times (e.g., Anatoly Scharansky-138, Andrei Sakharov-223) with the number of mentions made of dissidents who are fighting against nations that are allied with the United States (e.g., Archbishop Camara of Brazil-4, Heri Akhmadi of Indonesia-0.)

VALUES IN PROPAGANDA RESEARCH The selection of the studies used to exemplify the points made in this paper points up the issue of values in propaganda research. Most propaganda analysts would probably base their work on a belief in basic democracy; that is, the idea that an informed citizenry is good while a manipulated citizenry is not. (This is not necessarily to say that all propaganda is bad. For example, many propaganda analysts supported the methods used to build morale and to stimulate effort in the fight against Nazism during World War II.) But the issue of value orientation in propaganda research is complicated by the problem of selecting propaganda to analyze. There are obvious differences in values between the studies of the media biases against business done by the corporate-sponsored organization Accuracy in Media and the analyses of CIA propaganda that appear in the Covert Action Information Bulletin. The effect of ideology on propaganda analysis may lead some scholars to question the possibility of the field ever becoming scientific. But other disciplines with ideological implications have made some progress despite this difficulty. The problem would be minimizedif there were accepted criteria by which to judge propaganda analyses and places where researchersworking from differing ideologies could communicate their findings to one another and perhaps engage in debate. Although no science, particularly no science of political behavior, can ever be completely value free, it should be possible by applying accepted principals of research methodology to come to some shared understanding of how propaganda works. That there will be a great deal of irreducibledisagreementis inevitableand not necessarilyinappropriate for a young subdiscipline. These ideological issues become particularly touchy because the most influential propaganda in a society is integration propaganda. As a result, in the United States, for example, while studies might be done of Nazi, Chinese, British, or Soviet propaganda, or of anti-Americanbiases in various



research media,muchpropaganda mightfocus upon the waysin whichsupport is maintainedfor the U.S. sociopoliticalsystem. Thus, the field may appearto some to be unpatrioticor subversive. But if we agreethatignorance, and are misinformation, manipulation neither politicallynor scientifically healthyfor any society,includingour own, then mustbe considered be bothscientifically politicalresearch to and propaganda ly important.And if we agreethat ideas play a major role in politics and that many of the ideas of people living in modernsocietiesare influenced by propaganda,then it may be time for politicalpsychologiststo become involvedin helpingto createa scientific of subdiscipline propaganda analysis. REFERENCES
Allport, G., and Postman, L. J. (1945). Psychology of rumor. Trans. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 18(2): 61-81. Anyon, J. (1979). Ideology and United States history textbooks. Harvard Ed. Rev. 49(3): 372. Aronson, J. (1970). The Press and the Cold War, Beacon, Boston, p. 201. Biskind, P. (1976). Ripping off Zapata: Revolution Hollywood style. Cineaste 7(2): 11. Cockburn, A. (1982). Press clips. The Village Voice, September 21, p. 10. Dorfman, A., and Mattelart, A. (1975). How to Read Donald Duck, International General, New York. Ellul, J. (1973). Propaganda, Vintage, New York. Ewen, S. (1976). Captains of Consciousness, McGraw-Hill, New York. Gans, H. (1980). Deciding What's News, Vintage, New York, p. 194. Gitlin, T. (1980). The Whole World Is Watching, University of California Press, Berkeley. Glasgow University Media Group (1982). Really Bad News, Writers and Readers, London. Herman, E. S. (1982). The Real Terror Network, South End, Boston, pp. 139-199. Herman, E. S. (1984). The New York Times on the 1984 Salvadoran and Nicaraguan elections. Covert Action Inf. Bull. 21: 10-11. Herman, E. S., and Brodhead, F. (1984). Demonstration Elections, South End, Boston, pp. 202-203. Horwitz, L., and Ferleger, L. (1980). Statistics for Social Change, South End, Boston. Hovland, C. I., Janis, I. L., and Kelley, H. H. (1953). Communication and Persuasion, Yale University Press, New Haven. Katz, D., Cartwright, D., Eldersveld, S., and Lee, A. M. (eds.) (1954). Public Opinion and Propaganda, Dryden, New York. Lee, A. M. (1952). How to Understand Propaganda, Rinehart, New York. Lee, A. M. (1978). Sociology for Whom? Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 126-128. Mackenzie, A. (1981). Sabotaging the dissident Press. Columbia Journalism Rev. March/April: 57-63. McGuire, W. J. (1968). The nature of attitudes and attitude change. In Lindzey, G., and Aronson, E. (eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 3. Addison-Wesley, Reading. Metcalfe, J. (1948). Could the Reds seize Detroit? Look, August 3: 21-27. Newfield, J. (1970). Journalism: Old, new and corporate. The Dutton Rev. 1: 153. Rosten, L. (1937). The Washington Correspondents, Harcourt Brace, New York, p. 97. Schlesinger, S. and Kinzer, S. (1982). Bitter Fruit, Doubleday, Garden City. Vaughan, S. (1980). Holding Fast the Inner Lines, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, p. 28. Wisan, J. E. (1965). The Cuban Crisis As Reflected in the New York Press (1895-1898), Octagon, New York, p. 393.

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