Other Attacks, Part 5

This week I’d like to go through some mass attacks on our thinking… high-cost, large, professional manipulations. We’ve gone through some of these before, as with the big lie of our Fallacy #13, but the ones we’ll cover today are unique, new (100 years old or less), and dangerous.

What’s also unique about these attacks is that people can be very sensitive about them. Nearly everyone has fallen for one or more of them, and people don’t like admitting their errors. As we noted in Other Attacks, Part 2, people tend to defend their mistakes, which is how errors perpetuate themselves and end up at wild extremes.


Large-scale propaganda has old roots, of course, but it rose far beyond all previous efforts in the 1920s, taking advantage of new broadcasting technologies. Previously there was mass communication in the form of newspapers, but they were first of all limited – not many people in Detroit would read the newspapers from San Francisco, for example – and secondly they had to be read, and reading is a poor format for manipulations: people can slow down and re-read what’s in a newspaper, uncovering misleading statements quite well. Newspapers don’t deliver an especially strong emotional impact, and as we’ve learned, logical errors work because of emotional pressures, not because of independent thinking.

Propaganda was at first an American phenomenon, but then it soon spread (notably and very directly to Nazi Germany) along with film, radio, and television. Now it covers the vast majority of the world.

To understand how propaganda works, it’s useful to see a few passages from the books of Edward Bernays, one of the founders of propaganda:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.

The average citizen is the world’s most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts. His own ‘logic proof compartments,’ his own absolutism are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction.

Physical loneliness is a real terror to the gregarious animal, and that association with the herd causes a feeling of security. In man this fear of loneliness creates a desire for identification with the herd in matters of opinion.

What Bernays was selling, then, was the ability to manipulate millions of minds at once… to frighten them and to herd them to a pre-chosen goal. And Bernays sold propaganda to governments and corporations very effectively. By it, everything from World War I to smoking was sold to the American people.

What’s very important to see from all of this is that propaganda succeeds by abusing human weaknesses. The tactics used for propaganda almost always revolve around making people feel inferior. Bernays got women to smoke cigarettes, for example, with two combined efforts:

  1. Making women believe that being skinny was fundamental to being attractive. He did this by promoting especially slender women as icons of beauty, along with carefully chosen words.
  2. By informing women that replacing meals with cigarettes would keep them thin.

Before this campaign, women smoked far less than men, and almost never in public. After it, they smoked profligately. By playing on women’s emotional vulnerabilities (not feeling attractive enough, especially in comparison to the women shown in fashion magazines), Bernays and his employers endangered their lives, certainly causing thousands of premature deaths. (Bernays knew that smoking was unhealthy.)

Coordinated campaigns of celebrity endorsements, stories carefully planted in “the news” and other tricks are now standard procedure, but their goal is to take advantage of your emotional weaknesses… getting you to do things that wouldn’t withstand a careful analysis.

To counteract this abuse, you must first of all understand that it is being done to you. The problem with that is the scale of it… it’s seemingly everywhere; you may have relatives in the public relations business. And so, accepting this strikes most of us as too much… too negative… too radical.

The solution is to not get upset by it. We don’t have to go to war against all marketing. Yes, a great deal of it is abusive, but we’re not condemning all marketing, just marketing that abuses rather than informs. And we don’t need to waste our energies, condemning abuse everywhere we see it. First we must recognize the truth of this for ourselves, then perhaps to inform our friends and neighbors.

Once you can accept the scope and effect of propaganda, just keep turning away from it. You might also avoid products that are sold in an especially abusive way, and go out of your way to support businesses that run honest and direct advertisements, such as local grocery stores who tell you about their great Fruits & Vegetables section.

For now, your victories over propaganda will be mainly for yourself and for those closest to you. But do secure those victories.


Advertising is related to propaganda, of course, but it’s applied differently, and so we’ll cover it separately.

There was a silly comedy film in the 1960s with a very memorable line. In it, a frustrated Satan (the devil) says this:

I thought up the Seven Deadly Sins in one afternoon. The only thing I’ve come up with recently is advertising.

The joke is only funny because advertising really can be abusive.

As we said above, there’s nothing wrong with telling people about what you’re selling, and even going on at some length about your product or service. But when it’s purposeful manipulative, advertising passes into abuse, and that kind of advertising has a particular model, which psychologist Eric Fromm identified:

A vast sector of modern advertising… does not appeal to reason but to emotion; like any other kind of hypnoid suggestion, it tries to impress its objects emotionally and then make them submit intellectually.

The model is this: Emotions are implanted with images, sounds and slogans; then the mind is pressed to submit. This is the mass implantation of fantasies and fears, for the benefit of whoever pays the bill: 

You won’t be happy unless you have this!

Look at the happy people who do have it!

Your neighbor probably has one!

Examined critically, these statements are easily seen as tricks. But if the right emotions are triggered first, analysis may be bypassed and the reasoning mind brought along for the ride.

That’s not just an abuse of our weaknesses, it causes our emotions to fight our reason, damaging them both.

A first defense against this manipulation is simply to recognize it and turn away from it: Don’t watch or listen to commercials and so on. But that’s not a complete solution, because the modern world bombards us with endless images. Back in the 1980s, the leading advertising magazine found that the average North American was hit by 1,000 advertisements per day. And so we’ll still see a large number of images, even if we habitually ignore them. These days It’s hard to pump gasoline without being assaulted by advertising.

A large swathe of advertising relies upon impressions remaining in our minds over time, the same as a song getting stuck in our heads. That’s the purpose of endlessly repeated advertisements; the group buying the adds wants to “own” a word or image in as many minds as possible. Then, when the right moment comes along, you’ll associate with the image and buy the right product.

How to clear these images from our minds is not something that has been properly studied, so far as I know. And so I’m going to give you an odd suggestion, but one that fairly clearly works for me. And that solution is hard physical exercise.

The combination of body and mind involved with forcing yourself to run the last quarter mile or grind out the last set up push-ups seems to clear your residual memory banks. Other experiences that deeply absorb you may clear your mind also, but it seems the physical component of exercise increases the effect.

Again, I can’t prove this, but I know from my own experience and the experience of friends that this works to clear our minds. You can experiment with it on your own.

Remember also that abusive advertising is nearly always based upon the assumption that we are in a deficit position – that the advertised product will somehow fill our deficit. And so the more we come to believe in our own sufficiency (as we should), the less of a handle our abusers will find to grab.

Social media

Social media, because it’s the newest of these mass abuses (with most people engaging in it recently and willingly), is the one that’s most vigorously defended. Nonetheless, if we’re to discuss critical thinking, this cannot be excluded.

I’ll start by asking you to conduct an experiment, since it’s important for you to see this for yourself, rather than just being told:

Pull up YouTube on your favorite smart phone. Look at the screen you are given.

Then, walk across the hall or the street and have your neighbor pull up YouTube on his or her device. Take a good look at their screen.

What you’ll see is that the screens are different: One is tailored to you and the other is tailored to your friend.

YouTube users, then, are being given customized environments. More than that, when interacting with social media, you will be thinking in response to personalized stimuli.

Social media companies only make money if they can influence you to think in certain ways. And so they work very hard at learning how to manipulate you. Their stock price depends upon it.

What social media is, really, is a persistent psychological profiling system… one that’s specifically designed to uncover your emotional vulnerabilities and response triggers. That is what they monetize.

There is much more to say about this, but just a few points will suffice:

    • Facebook ran a secret experiment back in 2012, to see if changing the words in news headlines, could change their user’s attitudes. And it worked. It also changed the attitudes of the subjects’ friends.
    • Google produced a training film about horrifying, dystopian manipulation techniques. They tried to deny it afterward (saying it was just “a tool for generating discussion”), and it immediately dropped from view, but it uncovered Google’s true nature.

The sad truth, then, is that every second you spend on Facebook or the others trains their computers to manipulate you. And yes, they can handle all that data; the Big Data systems they use prefer oceans of data.

Furthermore, a large percentage of the users on Facebook, Twitter and so on are programmable bots (virtual robots), not real people. I’ve seen estimates of 30 percent, and there have long been bots for hire: pay a certain amount of money for 10,000 Facebook likes and so on. It’s a big business, and if used cleverly, it makes people believe that “everyone agrees on this,” pushing them to conform with the apparent crowd.

All of this is set against human reason – purposely opposing human reason. The solution is simply to walk away. We’re actually happier without it.

There’s nothing wrong with talking to your friends, but if it’s done through a system that pretends to do it for free, you will be abused, persistently and very badly.

Federated, hobbyist systems like Mastodon are fine: each segment is operated by someone who does so as a hobby, getting no payment for it, save some donations to cover server expenses. (And please do donate.) They have little incentive to abuse their users, especially because those users could jump to another segment in the federation and get more or less the same access and content.

One of the oldest lessons of business is that free services are never actually free, and this is very definitely true for free accounts, which are being abused to a shocking level. Free services are poison in disguise. They are the enemies of clear thinking.


Paul Rosenberg