The Evolution of Propaganda



The apocalypse has become a cliché. According to the metrics of its usage in published books as compiled by statisticians who measure such things, its nadir was reached in 1939 and since then its use has doubled. One might think this would be a result of an increase in millennialism (“the end is near”) such as what gave rise to the Crusades a thousand years ago. However, I am convinced that the word, stemming from the Greek for “revelation,” a name which it shares as the title of the last book of the New Testament, is often used today in a metaphorical sense to depict any catastrophe, past or impending. For example, global warming might be described as an environmental apocalypse.

Meanwhile, the use of the word “propaganda” has declined by two-thirds since its peak in 1945. I was born shortly after this and began to study it in my senior year of high school in an advanced placement class generically called “Seminar.” We learned, in broad strokes, how propaganda uses linkage to mold opinions. For example, advertisers might link their products to motherhood or the national flag. We learned that the word “propaganda” stems from congregātiō dē propāgandā fidē, the Office for the Propagation of the Faith, which was established by the Catholic Church in the 1600's to train priests for missions and to counter the Reformation. I was in high school when I read two complimentary versions of a dystopian future, 1984 and Brave New World. In 1984, Winston Smith works as a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite historical documents so they match the constantly changing party line.

At the university I majored in Radio, TV, and Film. The head of the department, Dr. Jack Ellis, was a pioneer in the study of film as a serious art form. His bibliography of published books traces his focus from film history in general to the documentary film and finally to the uses of film as propaganda. We studied the films, the techniques, and even the experiments of Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet silent film director who contributed much to the theory and practice of “montage” or inter-cutting to create an emotional response in the audience.

The “Kuleshov effect” had been first demonstrated by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov in the 1910s and 1920s. It is a mental phenomenon by which viewers derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation. Kuleshov edited a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Tsarist matinee idol, Ivan Mosjoukine, was alternated with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mosjoukine's face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was "looking at" the plate of soup, the girl in the coffin, or the woman on the divan, showing an expression of hunger, grief or desire, respectively. The footage of Mosjoukine was actually the same shot each time. According to one report, the audience raved over the actor's skill in depicting these various moods.

The next step in the evolution of propaganda is when the tail began to wag the dog. By the time of Hitler's rise to power, film had become a highly developed craft with major contributions from German directors such as Fritz Lang, famous for his use of expressionistic camera angles in such films as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and Ernst Lubitsch, famous for his innovative use of lighting. The Nazi filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, utilized a low camera angle to add a heroic stature to Adolph Hitler in her film of the Nuremberg Rally of 1934, “Triumph of the Will”. She also created the columns of light, spotlights aimed at the night sky, specifically for the film though this effect undoubtedly also inspired the actual attendees of the rally. Thirty cameras were in operation making a case that the entire rally was staged for the film. Propaganda was such an important function in the Nazi government that its minister, Hermann Göring, was second in command to Hitler. Perhaps that is why the usage of the word “propaganda” reached its peak in 1945.

In the post-war era, many of the techniques of propaganda were utilized by the advertising industry. The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard was published in 1957 in which eight basic human needs are identified which advertisers try to address. They are: emotional security; reassurance of worth; ego gratification; creative outlets; love objects; sense of power; roots; and immortality. In such a list as this, they all seem to blend together, but each is addressed individually. Packard also discussed the dangers of subliminal advertising, which was banned in Britain and the United States, though its use and efficacy was only a rumor, probably exacerbated by the brainwashing scare arising out of the Korean War.

More than twenty years ago, my sister-in-law forwarded a fascinating article about how freedom produces surprising results. It began with the observation that capitalism, which envisioned economic freedom from the feudalism that had existed in Europe, was expected to produce in America a society of independent craftsmen and farmers. In other words, production would be decentralized with each producer sending his goods to a central market or fair. Instead, with industrialization production became centralized in factories and industrialized farms ,and at the same time, distribution became decentralized. Montgomery Ward produced the first mail order catalog in America in 1872. Before long, Sears and J.C. Penney were sending their catalogs to homes in every farm and factory town across the land. At the same time, advertisers were reaching out to a broad audience through the developing mass-media. Mass marketing techniques found their way into many realms including politics and religion.

Many experts believe that in the first televised presidential debate, in 1960, Nixon won on the radio while Kennedy won on T.V. The entire debate lasted one hour. A hundred years earlier, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, of which there were seven, whoever spoke first would open with an hour long address. The other would then speak for an hour and a half. The first then had 30 minutes of rebuttal. This format appealed to a more literary sensibility which allowed a deep analytical, even philosophical approach to the issues, the main one at the time being slavery.

More than 150 years later, the issue still is slavery – not the literal owning of human beings as chattel to be exploited in involuntary servitude, but rather the right to privacy of the individual's thoughts. This is the main area that is attacked and colonized in the two dystopian novels previously mentioned. But this conquest of the human mind and will can occur in different ways.

In 1949, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, wrote a letter to George Orwell upon the publication of 1984:


Wrightwood. Cal.
21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals --- the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution --- the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual's psychology and physiology --- are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud's inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large-scale biological and atomic war --- in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley


In short, Huxley believed it more likely that the human will could be subverted, not through coercion but voluntarily, through a combination of factors related to sado-masochism, hypnotism, addiction and entertainment. Though I have not consigned 1984 to the fires of that other dystopia described in Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, I favor Huxley's vision as the more prescient. Each of these novels describes repression in its various forms, and each has had its antecedents in Nazism, in Stalinism, in the Inquisition, to name a few. In terms of the present, I believe a Brave New World is the bigger risk. On the other hand, perhaps that only holds for the Western world. In the Middle East, for example, there are modesty patrols enforcing female attire, endemic torture, ubiquitous secret police and heavy handed propaganda, all more reminiscent of 1984. I am a dual citizen residing both in the uttermost West and the Middle East, but since my subject is the evolution of propaganda, I believe that the innovations in propaganda have been far greater in the Western World.

But before I leave the Middle East, however, I would like to further illuminate this contrast in the techniques of brainwashing and propaganda between the East and the West with the history of a sect called the Assassins. The origins of the Assassins can be traced back to just before the First Crusade, around 1080 in Persia. Hassan-i Sabbah founded the cult whether for personal power or in reaction to internecine strife within the Muslim world, or due to the incursion of Crusaders in the Holy Land, or for all of these factors combined. The one motivation that is certain is that Sabbah wanted to establish what he called an Islamic State, or specifically, as he referred to it by the name of his sect, a Nizari Ismaili state. He searched for a location that would be fit for a headquarters and decided on the fortress at Alamut in what is now northwestern Iran. He adapted the fortress to suit his needs not only for defense from hostile forces, but also for indoctrination of his followers. He then began expanding his influence outwards to nearby towns and districts, using his agents to gain political favor and to intimidate the local populations.

Below Sabbah, the Grand Headmaster of the Order, were those known as "Greater Propagandists", followed by the normal "Propagandists", the Rafiqs ("Companions"), and the Lasiqs ("Adherents").

It was the Lasiqs who were trained to become some of the most feared assassins, or as they were called, "Fida'i" (self-sacrificing agent), in the known world. The disciples who carried out these suicide missions were generally intelligent and well-read because they were required to possess not only knowledge about their enemy, but his or her culture and native language. They were trained by their masters to disguise themselves and sneak into enemy territory to perform the assassinations, instead of simply attacking their target outright.

One hundred and fifty years later Marco Polo recounted a story he had heard during his travels to the Orient, of the "Old Man of the Mountain" who would drug his young followers with hashish, lead them to a "paradise", and then claim that only he had the means to allow for their return. Perceiving that Sabbah was either a prophet or magician, his disciples, believing that only he could return them to "paradise", were fully committed to his cause and willing to carry out his every request. Hence the term “assassin” - from hashish. Others dispute this entymology, writing that Hassan-i Sabbah called his disciples Asasiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Asās, meaning "foundation" of the faith. Whatever the case semantically, whether the inspiration was the promise of seventy virgins or the propagation of the faith, this story illustrates that in a thousand years, from the cult of assassins to the cult of ISIS, nothing has changed. Of course, to apply the term “propagandist” to 11th century Persia is more than anachronistic, but the principle remains. Terrorism is psychological warfare with most of the intended effect being disseminated by the media, fully understanding the newsroom axiom, “If it bleeds it leads.”

Now let's take a look at the alternate method of producing conditioned responses through positive reinforcement, through the activation of our dopamine receptors. We are talking about fine tuning here. Chocalatiers, casinos, and drug pushers have long been involved in triggering the release of dopamine in the brain. To some extent they have each set up shop in what they believe is the most profitable locations. But “big data” can now be mined not according to one's zip code, nor according to one's affiliations, but individually, based strictly on one's non-private postings and “likes” on Facebook, one's choices and ratings of movies on Netflix or music on Pandora. The use of big data has been used recently to produce surprising wins in two recent political campaigns, Brexit and Trump. In fact, Trump's chief adviser is on the board of directors of one of the pioneering firms in mining and utilizing big data, Cambridge Analytica. It is uncertain how big a factor this was, but it is possible that the recent campaign was, among other things, a contest between big data and advanced psychographics versus mere demographics. Messages do not need to be consistent, only targeted and on point. Things usually proceed in small increments until they reach a breaking point, somewhat like plate tectonics. Knowing whether we are at the breaking point is as difficult as predicting an earthquake. In other words, the apocalypse is always late, until it happens.


-Chaim Bezalel