In the information age, propaganda has become one of the most powerful forces in the world. And political factions, legacy news outlets, and special interest groups looking to manipulate societies to their wills use propaganda’s various tactics to advance their goals.
Yet, if we can manage to understand the inner workings of these propaganda tactics, their effects can be blunted. Like watching a magician at work, the tricks lose their charm when we can recognize the sleight of hand.
Among the most common methods used by legacy news outlets and political factions to manipulate public opinion is to deceive people into interpreting their adversaries as “symbols” of intended emotions and concepts.
Edward Bernays, whose 1928 book “Propaganda” directed modern tactics for advertising and politics, wrote that the intentional manipulation of societies, and of the habits and opinions of people, “is an important element in democratic society.”
“Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society,” he wrote, “constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
The manipulation of symbols is one of the tactics at the foundation of many other tactics. And to understand how these broader tactics work, we first need to understand how propagandists break down how a person views the world, and how they can trigger people’s emotions. This ties to one’s “mythos” and “cycle of meaning.”
The “mythos” is used to describe a person’s system of values and perceptions of the world. It can be your interpretation of right and wrong, your beliefs shaped by religion, and your worldview shaped by stories and experiences.
Propagandists look to alter a person’s “mythos” by subverting what’s described as your “cycle of meaning.” This is the cycle that makes people interpret things as symbols. It holds that people don’t interpret reality directly, but instead interpret reality through a series of symbols onto which they attach meaning. Through the cycle of meaning, it’s held that a person can alter the way people interpret these symbols through things including ritual, myth, art, and experience.
The concept isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As an example, a crucifix has no meaning in and of itself. It would carry no meaning if shown to someone unfamiliar with the story of Jesus. For people with the story, however, the crucifix is seen as a symbol of salvation.
The same concept of symbology ties to people in your life, and how your past experiences with them shape your perceptions of them. When you encounter a person, you may feel the past emotions they caused in you. Some people may evoke love, others resentment, depending on how your perceptions have been shaped by experience.
Propagandists look to subvert your cycle of meaning, and your mythos, in order to alter the way you react emotionally to things and how you interpret reality.
Bernays wrote that when people desire something, it’s often not for that thing’s actual worth or usefulness, but instead because they interpret surface meanings as symbols of deeper unspoken desires. He explained, a person desires something “because he has unconsciously come to see in it a symbol of something else, the desire for which he is ashamed to admit to himself.”
“A man buying a car may think he wants it for purposes of locomotion… He may really want it because it is a symbol of social position, an evidence of his success in business, or a means of pleasing his wife.”
These deeper desires, or surface meanings, then become tools for propagandists to manipulate—since using them can directly trigger a person’s emotional responses.
If people find insects disgusting, then a propagandist looking to make a target appear disgusting will name that target alongside insects. If people find a group reprehensible, a propagandist will mention that group in relation to a target that they want to paint as reprehensible.
We’ve seen this tactic used heavily, for example, by legacy news outlets and politicians attempting to paint conservatives badly. To do this, they try to associate in people’s minds all conservatives with negative emotions by always naming them alongside words such as “fascist,” “alt-right,” or “racist.”
This is of course done through a jump in logic.
Mussolini was a socialist, as was Adolf Hitler’s “National Socialist” (NAZI) party. The concept that they were “far right” came about through a re-framing of political spectrums done under the Marxist Frankfurt School, which looked only at the ideas of nationalism versus internationalism to separate their systems from the full body of socialism (a necessary move for the survival of socialism, since its association with Hitler’s National Socialists would have been devastating to socialist movements during the denazification movement after World War II).
Yet, using this tactic, legacy news outlets have convinced their followers to interpret “MAGA” hats as “symbols” of hate. Conservatives are seen as being “symbols” of “fascism” and are targeted for violence by leftist radical groups like Antifa. It’s a “guilty by association” concept - only the propagandists pulling the strings are fabricating what the symbolic “associations” are.