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How to Detect Propaganda

You have probably heard of the dangers of propaganda before. Propaganda is a misinformation tactic that some leaders use to control their follower’s perception of reality and to shut down their critical thinking and conscience.

Controlling Followers

Leaders who use propaganda (I am going to call them P Leaders to stand for Propagandistic Leaders) usually do so in order to control their followers. They also do so to get them to believe and do things that benefit the leader. They also do so to shut down all opposition to their agenda.

You may have heard of propaganda in connection with cult leaders like Jim Jones (of Jonestown) or the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (of the Dalles, Oregon cult).

Baghwan Shri Rajneesh #2

The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

Or you may have heard of propaganda in connection with authoritarian countries like communist Russia.

We often connect propaganda with cult leaders and certain political leaders. And, in fact, sometimes the line between a cult leader and a political leader can be very thin. Sometimes cult leaders start to function like political leaders, and sometimes political leaders start to function like cult leaders.

I will return to P Leaders shortly and examine how they use propaganda in order to control people.

But first, here are two things about propaganda that are both important and scary to realize. First, people who experience propaganda usually don’t realize they are being propagandized. Second, propaganda can occur anywhere, even in organizations with seemingly good intentions–like schools or churches or governments.

Let me explain.

First: People who experience propaganda don’t realize they are being propagandized.

Nobody wants to be propagandized. And most of us know that propaganda is wrong. Because of this, leaders who use propaganda have to be tricky about how they use the tactic.

As you can imagine, if they are too obvious in their propaganda techniques, people will realize what they are doing. And the jig will be up, so to speak. For instance, P Leaders cannot tell their people, “I would love unwavering, unquestioning loyalty from you. And I want you to do whatever I want, whenever I want you to do it.”

Folks aren’t going to follow leaders who say these things directly.

So leaders  will often use subtle psychological and emotional techniques to shut down people’s ability to think. They also use subtle techniques to destroy people’s ability to trust themselves and their own opinions. And P Leads also slowly destroy people’s ability to listen to their own conscience, and to empathize with other people.

Because of this, people who experience propaganda don’t realize they are being propagandized. This is a bit scary because this means that if we are being propagandized we will likely not be aware of it.

But, there are strategies we can learn to detect propaganda. And I will return to these shortly.

Second: Propaganda can happen anywhere.

Propaganda can happen in any nation or church or business or school. And while sometimes people intentionally use propaganda, sometimes leaders who actually have good intentions unintentionally use propagandistic tools. That is because they realize subconsciously that propagandistic tools can be very effective at motivating people. So they use propaganda without realizing what they are doing.

Television, schools, politics and churches can all be used for good purposes or bad purposes. The more they are used for bad purposes, the more likely they are to use propagandistic techniques.

So while we like to think that propaganda is only something that the
“bad guys” use, oddly enough, “good guys” can also use propaganda.

In addition, people are especially susceptible to propaganda in times of wars, financial devastation, or significant social change or unrest. P Leaders often control people subtly by convincing them that the leaders have the solutions to all the problems the people are currently facing.

Is It okay for “Good Guys” to Use Propaganda? Like for “Good” Purposes?

No, and here’s why.

Whether a leader uses propaganda for bad or seemingly good intentions, it is always a problem. That is because propaganda always spreads misinformation or poorly reasoned information. Thus, it cuts off people from their own thinking, confidence, conscience, and from each other.

Because of this, propaganda always weakens people’s overall reasoning and moral capacities. And this encourages them to act badly in ways they never would have previously considered. (I will give some examples of this at the end of this post.)

So How Does Propaganda Work?

Please note that I am not at all interested in teaching people to be effective propagandizers. Rather, I am interested in helping us to understand how to detect propaganda wherever it occurs. And because of this, we must examine how propaganda works.

First, I would like you to imagine something for me, if you don’t mind. (If you would rather not, you can skip to the next section.) I want you to imagine that there is a leader that wants to control people and get them to do what he says no matter what.*

This leader must shut down people’s critical thinking, their trust in themselves, their own conscience. He must shut down their ability to empathize or care about others who disagree with the P Leader.

But he must be sneaky about it in and do it in a way that people don’t realize what he is doing. What kinds of things would a leader like this do or say to accomplish this goal? If you like, take a minute to write down five things on a piece of paper or to type five things you think he might do.

Below, I am going to describe some ways leaders might do this. I bet you that you will see a lot of the items you guessed in this description. Also, I am going to list some sources by people who have studied propaganda techniques. I recommend you also research these things yourself.

The Pattern of Propaganda

As a philosophy professor, I teach logic, critical thinking, and ethics. In addition, I have also been an educator for over twenty years and have taught students from kindergarten to college and beyond throughout this time. The primary job of a good philosopher and educator is to teach people to develop good thinking habits. They must also encourage students to develop confidence in their own abilities, a conscience, and care for others. So, I am going to refer to all these good skills together as people’s ability to Live from the Inside Out, and I will abbreviate this LIO.

I know what it takes to teach people to LIO. So I also know what crushes this capacity in people, which is what P Leaders do.

Here are some of the most common things leaders do to crush people’s capacity to LIO.

One: Fear of Doom: P Leaders convince people that that affairs in the organization or world or nation are horrible and only the leader has the answers.

When leaders do a good job of convincing people that everything is horrible, it overwhelms them emotionally. This shuts down their ability to think. They start to feel like their only hope or safety is with the leader.

P Leaders often accomplish #1 by telling their followers scary stories about how someone is determined to destroy them. Or they pronounce dire warnings about how an enemy is about to destroy their livelihood.

For example, Communist Russia effectively propagandized its citizens by convincing them that all non-communist countries were determined to destroy Russia and its citizens.

You can imagine that if this is the message people hear day in and day out*, it becomes very difficult for them to disagree with the leader or group. They feel as though their life is doomed if they do.

You can read more about this here: This is How Propaganda Works:  A Look Inside a Soviet Childhood.

Two: Fear of the Enemy: A P Leader gives people a clear enemy. He usually then demonizes the enemy and convinces the group that the enemy is out to destroy their lives. And he encourages his followers to believe that it is the group against the enemy.

Sometimes the enemy is the whole world, but often the enemy is another nation or race or a group that disagrees with the leader. If the P Leader can convince his followers that this enemy is out to destroy them, it benefits the leader for three reasons:

1) It distracts the followers from the leader’s behavior. And he can get away with stuff to which they might otherwise object.

2) It solidifies the follower’s loyalty to the group and to the leader. The followers feel they are united together in a battle against the awful enemy.

3) Even if the followers don’t like the leader’s behavior, they believe he is the only alternative.

As an example, you may know that Hitler, who was highly effective at propaganda, made Jews the enemy of the Germany people. For communist Russia, non-communists became the enemy. For a while during WWII, all Japanese became the enemies of the U.S.–even Japanese people who were citizens of the U.S. and had lived their whole lives here. (Many U.S. Japanese citizens were sent to internment camps, their homes and goods confiscated, because of this.)

You can read more about this here: This is How Propaganda Works:  A Look Inside a Soviet Childhood

Propaganda can be used in the U.S., too. The above posters are both propaganda from U.S. history. First, the one on the left is propaganda that frightens people in the South out of freeing slaves. The idea in the poster, as you can see, is that freed slaves would become monsters who attack white people. And, second, the poster on the left is from WWII and carries a similar sentiment about the Japanese.

Three: A Demand for Total Loyalty: You can probably imagine that a P Leader has very little, if any tolerance, for people who disagree with him. After all, if he tolerated disagreement, people might begin to point out problems in his leadership. And this would weaken his control.

Therefore, P Leaders usually demand complete loyalty from their followers. They may convince their people that they are God’s chosen leader or the savior of a nation or group. And they will try to convince people that they are the only ones who have the answer and that anyone who disagrees with them is the enemy or a traitor or disloyal.

P Leaders are not interested in evidence, rational debate, and open discussion. They need total, unquestioning loyalty.

You can read more about this here: The Psychology of the Cult Experience

Four: Demonizing Critics

Because (as noted in #3), P Leaders demand total loyalty, they spend a lot of energy demonizing critics. They may do this by insulting their critics and calling them demeaning names and insulting their appearance. Or they may label them traitor, enemy, criminal, etc.

Either way, P Leaders use insults and names because they are an effective tool for shutting down people’s critical thinking. After all, no one wants to defend a traitor or a criminal. So if a leader someone admires labels someone a traitor, it becomes difficult for the person to question this label.

You can read more about this here: Why Political Propaganda Works

Five: Creating Chaos: It may not be obvious at first why creating chaos would help a P Leader. But consider this. A really good way to do crush people’s ability to trust themselves is to continually disorient them and then to demand complete loyalty.

P Leaders often do this by alternately showering followers with love, kindness, and praise and then assaulting them with shame, fear, and insults. The leader may also just act in a chaotic and impulsive manner, while still demanding loyalty. In doing so, both his followers and opponents feel continually disoriented, caught of guard, and out of control. It is really hard to think clearly and morally when we feel this way.

You can read more about this here:

The Rise of the Personalist Ruler (My Note: This article discusses the types of political leaders, like Vladmir Putin, who use chaos as a control technique)

and Chaos is not a Viable Leadership Strategy

Six: Black and White Thinking: Considering items one through five above, you can imagine that P Leaders really profit from black and white thinking. Black and white thinking promotes the view that there are either bad guys or good guys, winners or losers.

If P Leaders can get their followers to buy into black and white thinking, it is much easier to convince them that the leader is good and everyone else is bad.

You can read more about this here: Characteristics Associated with Cults

How Susceptible are We to Propaganda?

You may be reading this article and thinking about all the people you know that are being propagandized. And that’s perfectly fine to do. You probably do know some people who are being propagandized. And it is perfectly fine to realize that and try to point that out to them if you can. (If you are interested in helping them, here is an article you can read. Although it is about cults, P Leaders often act like cult leaders, so it relates: How to Talk Someone Out of a Damaging Cult)

But remember that if we are effectively being propagandized, we will likely not realize it. So if we want to be aware of propaganda, we need to be aware of it both with our friends and loved ones but most especially with ourselves.

Remember, all of us are susceptible to propaganda. We are especially susceptible if it plays on emotions we already have. (You can read more about this here.)

For example, we are much more susceptible to propaganda promoted by leaders in our favored political party or religion. And we are more susceptible to propaganda aimed at groups we already fear or dislike.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Well, as long as the propaganda supports the views I already have, that’s fine.” But consider that propaganda specializes in shutting down your critical thinking, your confidence, your conscience, and your connection to others. And this happens without you realizing it. This process can make you and others propagandized much more susceptible to do things you would otherwise find reprehensible.

For example, we may look at countries like Nazi Germany which perpetrated heinous crimes against their citizens. We might ask, “How did people fail to realize that what was happening to the Jews was wrong?” There are several answers to this question. But one answer is that Hitler used propaganda extremely well. And he convinced many Germans to believe that their Jewish neighbors were their enemies bent on destroying Germany.

We might looks at cults like Jonestown and wonder how Jim Jones convinced his followers to commit the Jonestown Massacre. Or we might wonder how leaders like the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh convinced his followers to attempt mass poisoning of their neighbors. (You can read more about this here and here).

Again, there are multiple answers to this question. But one answer is that these leaders were extremely effective at propaganda. They convinced their followers that everyone outside of the group was evil and trying to destroy them.

Most people who suffer propaganda never do the types of reprehensible things mentioned above. Instead, they start viewing more and more people as enemies. This causes them to be increasingly motivated by fear and anger.

This is no way to live, and it usually damages our relationship with ourselves and other people. That is why it is especially helpful to examine our life to see if we are being influenced by propaganda.

Questions for Detecting P Leaders

So, to that end, I am going to end with a list of questions you can ask yourself to help you spot P Leaders and propaganda in your own life.

Fear of Doom: Does your leader recognize that there is both good and bad in the world? Or does he frequently paint doomsday scenarios and communicate that he alone has the answer?

The more a leader uses fear to persuade people, the more likely it is that he is using propaganda to control people.

Fear of Enemy: Does your leader respect the dignity of all human beings? And does he work on making the world safer for all kinds of people? Or does he talk a lot about enemies (certain people groups) who are going to destroy you and your family? Does he encourage you to feel angry or hateful or afraid of these groups?

The more frequently a leader demonizes groups, the more likely he is using propaganda to control people.

Demand for Total Loyalty: Does your leader recognize that it is possible to hold a view that is different from his own? And does he recognize he is an imperfect human and may not have all the answers? Is he humble, and does he promote rational, critical discussion? Does he seek out evidence from a wide variety of sources?

The more a leader tries to squash all dissent, the more likely he using propaganda to control people.

Demonizing Critics: Does your leader recognize the humanity and dignity of all human beings? Even those with whom he disagrees? Does he treat others, especially those who disagree with him, with civility? Or does he make it a regular habit to insult his critics and label them as traitors and criminals (without clear and careful evidence to back up these claims)?

The more a leader treats critics as sub-human and treats them as things or labels, the more likely the leader is using propaganda to control people.

Creating Chaos: Does your leader act according to consistent rational, moral, and civil standards? Or does he act in a consistently chaotic, impulsive, and reckless manner?

The more a leader demands unconditional loyalty while acting chaotically, the more likely he is using propaganda to control people.

Black and White Thinking: Does your leader recognize that both grace and the fall run through everything? (By the terms grace and the fall, I mean that every single human being and institution has both light and dark in it. And we must face both of those in order to be healthy personally and in our institutions.) Is he able to see and admit the faults in himself or his party? Is he humble? Or does your leader encourage you to adopt good guy and bad guy thinking or an Us vs. Them mentality?

The more a leader paints a black and white view of the world, the more likely he is using propaganda to control people

These Behaviors as Exist on a Spectrum

Most leaders exhibit one or more of the above characteristics at one time or another. And this doesn’t mean the leader is automatically a P Leader. But the more a leader exhibits the above characteristics on a regular basis, the more likely it is that he is using propaganda to control people.

If you have been following a leader like this, one of the best things you can do is to separate yourself from leaders and groups who use propaganda. It is also really important to work on building your critical thinking, your confidence, your conscience, and your connection to others. This makes you more likely to spot propaganda in the future when it happens. I have included some resources below to help you do this.***


If you found this post helpful, please consider sharing on social media.

*I will use the pronoun he in this post to refer to P Leaders, even though women can become P Leaders, because all of the historical examples I will use in this post are male leaders.

**Sources for reading more about propaganda and P Leaders:

This is How Propaganda Works:  A Look Inside a Soviet Childhood

And this is an article by Germans in WWII detailing specifically how they used propaganda to persuade people.

The Rise of the Personalist Ruler (My Note: This article discusses the types of political leaders, like Vladmir Putin, who use chaos as a control technique)

Why Political Propaganda Works and How to Spot It

Chaos is not a Viable Leadership Strategy

The Psychology of the Cult Experience

Characteristics Associated with Cults

***If you would like to read an article that helps you Live from the Inside Out (LIO), you can read this article: How to Live from the Inside Out
















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