Reverse Engineering the Propaganda Machine
- We fight against a truly unprecedented disinformation campaign, where the liars are claiming that everyone else is giving out misinformation, basically turning truth on its head
- While propaganda takes many forms, mainstream media play a crucial role. The good news is that people are starting to catch on, and trust in mainstream media has dropped to an all-time low
- By the early 1900s — literally a century ago — journalists like Upton Sinclair and George Seldes were discussing the corruption of the media, how they were owned by big business with a profit agenda, and how they were not dealing squarely with investigative reporters
- For propaganda to be effective, there needs to be central coordination of narratives, and that’s where public relations agencies come in. Few appreciate the power that these companies have. Two-thirds to 80% of the content broadcast and published by corporate media comes from public relations firms, so most of the so-called “news” is actually brainwashing propaganda
- Other common PR tools include “public protests,” which are actually made up of people hired by the PR company, and media will of course be sent there to cover it, and front groups, which are paid by industry to promote a particular view that benefits that industry
In this interview, Michelle Stiles reviews some of the basic tools of propaganda, which is the topic of her book, “One Idea to Rule Them All: Reverse Engineering American Propaganda.” It’s a pertinent and apt topic in light of what’s been going on over the last few years, as we attempt to understand how we’ve been manipulated and brainwashed.
If you can understand that, then you can prevent it from happening again in the future, and you can help other people to break free from the indoctrination as well. Stiles includes the following quote from George Orwell in the book:
“In the age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
That’s really our battle today, as we fight against a truly unprecedented disinformation campaign, where the liars are claiming that everyone else is giving out misinformation, basically turning truth on its head.
Most of you are aware that I was given top billing on the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s (CCDH) “disinformation dozen” list, which is a true testament to the credibility I’ve built over the past 25 years. They see me as a real threat to their propaganda machine, and it’s no small honor to be recognized as someone who’s telling the truth in this age of misinformation.
Legacy Media Was Never Deserving of Our Trust
While propaganda takes many forms, mainstream media play a crucial role. Many people my age would agree that we used to believe the media were a trusted source of information. But no more. Investigative journalism within mainstream media doesn’t exist anymore. They’re all just talking heads, reading from scripts, which is why they all sound the same, even reiterating the same sentences verbatim.
The good news is that people are starting to catch on, and trust in mainstream media has dropped to an all-time low. In her book, Stiles presents the historical view of media, and how it’s changed over time. By the early 1900s — literally a century ago — journalists like Upton Sinclair and George Seldes were discussing the corruption of the media, how they were owned by big business with a profit agenda, and how they were not dealing squarely with investigative reporters.
“They were trying to tell as many people as they could, but they couldn’t get it out there,” Stiles says. “And then, journalists, they were created through the schools. We had to have a degree to get into it. So now you’re sort of captive. You can’t really blow the whistle without blowing up your career. So that impacts it because nobody can tell the truth. And if you do come out, it’s a long road to getting your own reputation set up and your own income.
I’m just hoping that people, when they take that perspective, can go, ‘Wait a minute, why would we ever have trusted them?’ It’s a sacred trust, as Lippmann says. ‘The power to determine what’s important and what is not important is a power that is so great that no one has seen it since the Pope lost his hold on the secular mind.’
Stiles’ first foray into propaganda came in the wake of 9/11. Initially, she didn’t believe that 9/11 was a false flag operation. “I actually said to somebody, ‘Nobody credible believes that, so stop.’” But later, she ended up watching a video made by Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, and it turned out to be a life-altering decision.
“I remember I really couldn’t sleep that night,” she says. “It was about having those trusts torn down, and it’s really a betrayal, in a large sense.
Tools of the Propaganda Trade
For propaganda to be effective, there needs to be central coordination of narratives, and that’s where public relations agencies come in. I think hardly anyone really appreciates the power that these companies have.
For example, in the 1950s, the tobacco industry hired the PR company Hills+Knowlton (H+K). It devised the tobacco industry’s now-infamous playbook, which worked for almost 50 years. Classic propaganda strategies included confusing people about the facts, discrediting the opposition and sowing doubt.
H+K was also responsible for creating the Kuwaiti witness during the Iraq war. During a hearing, H+K presented an anonymous girl who testified that Iraqi soldiers were taking babies out of incubators in the hospital and throwing them onto the freezing floor. Eventually, it was revealed that she was the daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador and the entire story was made up. It was a PR stunt designed to create outrage and support for the war effort in Iraq, and it worked.
Today, two-thirds to 80% of the content broadcast and published by corporate media comes from public relations firms, the top four being the Publicis Groupe, WPP (which recently acquired H+K), Omnicom and Interpublic.
In other words, most so-called mainstream media “news” is actually brainwashing propaganda. And, remarkably, when you add the 2022 revenues of these top four ad holding companies together, it’s still below $60 billion, which is a rather modest price to control international policy and up to 80% of the global mainstream media landscape.
How PR Companies Are Used in Politics
One of the most classic stories Stiles could find while researching her book was that of Edward Bernays discussing the use of PR in politics. Bernays, widely considered the father of public relations and propaganda, rose to prominence in the 1920s.
Facts and reason were “out,” he said. Instead, if a politician wanted to advocate for lowering the tariff on wool, for example, he was to hire a PR company to create the necessary circumstances to make lowering tariffs the solution to an apparent problem. Stiles tells the story:
“The PR guy is going to talk to prominent businessmen and get them to agree to wear cotton suits to their important events as a protest. They’re going to boycott wool. Somewhere else in the community, or in the nation at large, they’re going to get some middle-class people to protest, so they don’t seem linked together in the public’s mind.
And then somewhere else, social workers will do some surveys and interview the poor, and they’ll run a report on the plight of the poor and the suffering that entails from the high cost of wool, like they can’t buy wool blankets and they’re freezing to death.
So, you have these events being placed into the public consciousness, and that’s when the politicians are going to step in and help solve the problem. So, he’s teaching young PR professionals and he says, ‘You’re going to have to look and find out, intimately, what news feels like because you’re going to create it.’
Propaganda packaged as news is devastating to a democracy. They’re seeding the consciousness with the problems — and again, the news is highlighting those … You might think, well, what does it matter if a politician advocates for lower taxes?
But let’s say that powerful interests have overseas stakes in wool that they want to dump cheaply onto the United States, or they want to take out their competitors in the United States with cheap wool.
Now you have something really nefarious. You have powerful interests, big government, corporations, and the news manipulating to consolidate power, wealth and resources … and they’ve used this playbook over and over for the last 100 years.”
Things Are Often Not What They Seem
Another common PR tool is public protests. Many events presented as spontaneous public uprisings aren’t that at all. They’re made up by people hired by the PR agency to protest, and the media will of course be sent there to cover it.
Some of these events can be pathetically small, consisting of just a few dozen protesters, yet they’ll get massive media coverage. In contrast, real, legitimate public protests can have hundreds of thousands of people present and get virtually no media coverage at all. That’s one way to start telling them apart.
Of course, video has become one of the greatest tools of the propaganda trade. As noted by stiles, “seeing is believing.” It’s easily to manipulate how an event comes across on video, so we need to recognize the potential dangers of a visual experience. Since most newsworthy events don’t happen in our immediate vicinity, we rarely can verify the veracity of what we see on video.