After the First World War, tobacco use among men soared quantumly as cigarettes were officially included in the ration of soldiers. Being a witness to this development, the anxious president of American Tobacco Company, George Washington Hill invoked his opportunistic self and requested one of the famous propagandists of the 20th century to integrate women in this growing market. Until now, cigarette smoking among women was considered as immoral, and the act of doing it invited harsh punishment both from the state and the society.
It was the crafty mind of Edward Bernays, father of modern Public Relations that skillfully linked women empowerment and feminism to cigarette smoking. Though Washington Hill never advocated feminism, he simply wanted to expand his circle of business. On March 31, 1929, Bernays launched a coordinated campaign to forever change this paradigm. His secretary, Bertha Hunt, stepped out into the crowded fifth avenue and created a scandal by lighting a Lucky Strike cigarette. It had never happened before. The event dubbed as ‘Torches of Freedom’, not only influenced the immediate ambience but became a national headline as Bernays had already informed the press and created appropriate pamphlets and leaflets for its mass acceptance.
The next day, The New York Times, ran the headline “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom”. This propagandistic phenomenon used the techniques like: appeal to authority, appeal to prejudice, bandwagon, euphoria, join the crowd, operant conditioning, and cult of personality. Subsequently, it engineered and crystallised the public opinion by setting an agenda and dictating people what to think about, not necessarily coincidental to their demands. And thus began the new phase of mass manipulation of minds.
The use of propaganda to influence public opinion and generate acceptance, conformity is as old as man itself. In the 17th century, Pope Gregory the XV used religious propaganda for the propagation of the faith. Its function was to defend Catholicism against the protestant reformation.
In modern times, propaganda is seen as synonymous with half-truth, selective perception or falsehood. Contrary to this belief many experts hail the power of propaganda in altering the behavioural predilections at the mass level. For instance, propaganda techniques like fear have been used to limit the road accidents, ill effects of tobacco products and alcohol consumption on health, demerits of dictatorship and so on.
But again, it all depends on the universal rule that governs every single phenomenon in this universe: nothing is good or bad, but its usage makes it so. A safely guarded Atom Bomb doesn’t concern any of us, but its use in Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed thousands of humans. The intention of human being, which is central to every event, can either give a bad or good image to any phenomenon. As it turns out, propaganda has been disproportionately employed by dictators, demo-dictators, feudal, fascists, and despots to further their agenda and derive political, social, economic, and religious benefits. The underlying principle of propaganda is to control the minds. As the notorious dictator of former USSR, Joseph Stalin once said, “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.” So, controlling a person is to control his ideas.
Relevantly, because of the growing dissatisfaction and horrifying consequences of WWI and WWII, new techniques were invented to control the minds, as firing bullets and dropping bombs only ended up in economic devastation and more political resistance. It was this era of human civilization that gave more preference to soft and smart power rather than hard military power. The famous propagandist of the 20th century, Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany, launched a scathing stereotyping campaign against Jews and managed to engineer consent among countless Germans, who without even giving it a second thought, murdered Jews and looted their belongings and justified their anti-Semitism.
Goebbels was an exceptional writer and his master Adolf Hitler was a great orator, together they propagandised and normalised the murder of approximately 6 million Jews. This could have never been committed had non-Jew population been not manipulated and their ideas being hacked. Goebbels instituted the propaganda techniques like a big lie, Ad nauseam, demonisation of the enemy, legitimisation of violence, name-calling, scapegoating, and stereotyping. His famous quote is still relevant today, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” ~ Noam Chomsky
In contemporary times, use of propaganda is at its zenith. There are organised and professional sectors which literally sell propaganda tactics in order to help despotic governments to continue mass exploitation. Absolute falsehood is no longer used to engineer consent but its selective and obfuscated use together with grains of condiments representing truth are being served to the uneducated or for that matter gullible public, who either unintentionally or ignorantly continue to support the despots. And worse, it manipulates individuals to convince them that the idea or action they adopted was one they chose through their own personal volition.
In a democracy, the right to vote is considered as the most powerful weapon. With this right, a community can dethrone a person accused of despotism or incapacity. But, is this so simple? What about the complicated and labyrinthine procedure of removing him? What if he re-launches himself in the next election and uses propaganda to tide the wave towards himself? What about the gullible public, which stands true in the Indian context, would they be able to master his propagandistic tactics? Here, does democracy seem to be the foolproof way of ruling? I am not against the democracy, and there seems no alternative to it, but aren’t there serious defects with it, especially in the Indian context.
During 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, Narendra Modi and RSS-affiliated political wing, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) employed mass advertising campaign to sway the public opinion. Not only this, the members of BJP used Brahmanical, Hindutva, anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit, and anti-Women rhetoric to garner mass support. And it was all orchestrated under the belly of propaganda. Mass use of disinformation, plain folks, ad hominem and many other propaganda techniques in newspapers, Television sets, rallies, religious platforms and through the digital universe in the name of Advertisement funded programs (AFP) have a significant role in altering the public opinion.
As of 2019 elections are near the corner, BJP’s IT cell has become active. People who have Anti-establishment views or opinionate their criticism against the incumbent central government’s policies are being maliciously targeted. This organised hate campaign on social media is an archetype of propagandistic phenomenon where the opponents are delegitimised and subsequently their views obfuscated by a barrage of lies. Recently, two critically acclaimed journalists, Rana Ayub and Ravish Kumar, who have been rigorously criticising the communal politics of BJP, were horrifyingly attacked. Reportedly, many of the ‘trolls’ are being followed by Union Minister Piyush Goyal and Narendra Modi.
A situation like this is dangerous for the freedom of expression and the right to dissent. Feedback or for that matter constructive criticism of government policies is very crucial for the growth of democracy. But, BJP’s authoritarian and condescending way of political operations has the least respect for these rights. Furthermore, BJP spokespersons like Sambit Patra – whom I consider the ‘modern Joseph Goebbels’ and who was awarded the portfolio of ONGC director – despite having an MBBS degree -for his amazing propagandistic abilities, is on the rampage. I have watched, analysed, researched his dozen of debates. And I can’t find a single event where he has given a straightforward answer to any genuine question. His ability to twist the answers with chop-logic, Ad hominem (attacking opponents rather than their ideas or principles), Ad nauseam, cognitive dissonance and many other propaganda techniques have surely earned him a great degree of material benefits inside the party, but people have started to decode his propagandistic instinct.
Here is the link to a well-researched video by Kumar Shyam. It surely decodes the ability of Sambit Patra to manipulate the minds.
Propaganda or fake news is the most challenging issue a democracy faces today. Efforts should be made to delimit its influence on the general public who want development and not Hindu-Muslim debates, which are aimed to brainwash them, exploit their emotional and religious vulnerabilities and consequently instigate one against other to slit throats and pave the way for fascists.