So I made the mistake of getting into a Facebook disagreement with a young relative over a news story about a movie star who voiced an opinion at an awards show. (When will I ever learn?)
Then I read the article my relative linked to, and I was surprised. It wasn’t a news story at all. It was clearly spin, thinly disguised as a news story. It was fake news. How could she not have recognized that?
Then I realized–I’m a child of the Cold War. I learned about spin in grade school–we just called it propaganda. We learned about that along with civil defense drills and fallout shelters.
I pray that no child ever has to learn about fallout shelters ever again–but it looks like a little education in spin-spotting might not be a waste of time. Certainly, it wouldn’t be as big a waste of time as an argument on Facebook.
Not long before World War II, a group of scholars founded the Institute for Propaganda Analysis to help Americans recognize and resist propaganda.
The 7 techniques
They named seven propaganda techniques that we can see at work in politics–and consumer advertising–almost every day.
- Name-calling. We sometimes call this mud-slinging. Attaching a bad name or scary idea–from the silliest to the nastiest–to the competing candidate or product is a common tactic.
- Glittering generalities. Instead of labeling the competing person or product with bad words, the spinner covers their own person or product with good words, value words that can’t be proved or disproved.
- Transfer. This tactic takes advantage of the power of symbols. Photographing the candidate in front of dozens of flags is just one example.
- Testimonial. This tactic borrows the power of a respected or admired person or institution to promote the candidate or product. We’ve all seen movie stars and famous athletes endorsing cars, beer, makeup.
- Plain folks. We see this every time a millionaire candidate goes to the state fair and enjoys a messy local treat for the cameras. The messages depict no glamour, wealth, or fame, and that’s the point. The idea is that the candidate is “one of us.”
- Bandwagon. Everybody’s coming to the weekend sale at Macy’s, according to the commercial.
- Card stacking. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis scholars used this phrase as a catch-all for the dark arts of truth-shading, misdirecting, manipulating, and downright lying, all at work at the same time. To combat this tactic, we must know the facts and our own minds.
- Fear. Many scholars cite the use of fear as a spin or propaganda tactic.
Short-circuit our thinking
The point of all these tactics used by spinmeisters and propagandists is to appeal to our emotions and short-circuit our thinking. Emotion, though not bad, is easily manipulated by people with agendas not aligned with ours.
So, dear young relative on Facebook with whom I don’t want to argue (and anyone else who’s read this far), keep an eye open for these tactics. When you spot them, ask yourself, What’s the agenda behind this?
Love, Aunt Audrey
Audrey Novak Riley is director for stewardship for the churchwide expression of Women of the ELCA. She promises to write on the board 100 times, “No one ever changes anyone’s mind on Facebook.”