Earlier I published on this blog a summary of Noam Chomsky’s list of the ways the American ruling establishment uses the media it owns. Cynthia Boaz has made another similar list specifically listing the propaganda techniques used by Fox News
The good news is that the more conscious you are of these techniques, the less likely they are to work on you. The bad news is that those reading this article are probably the least in need of it.
(1) Panic Mongering:
This goes one step beyond simple fear mongering. With panic mongering, there is never a break from the fear. The idea is to terrify and terrorize the audience during every waking moment. From Muslims to swine flu to recession, to homosexuals, to immigrants, to the rapture itself, the belief over at Fox seems to be that if your fight-or-flight reflexes aren’t activated, you aren’t alive.
This of course raises the question: why terrorize your own audience? Because it is the fastest way to bypasses the rational brain. In other words, when people are afraid, they don’t think rationally. And when they can’t think rationally, they’ll believe anything.
(2) Character Assassination:
Fox does not like to waste time debating ideas. Instead, they prefer a quicker route to dispensing with their opponents: go after the person’s credibility, motives, intelligence, character, or, if necessary, sanity. No category of character assassination is off the table and no offense is beneath them.
Fox and like-minded media figures also use ad hominem attacks not just against individuals, but entire categories of people in an effort to discredit the ideas of every person who is seen to fall into that category, e.g. “liberals,” “hippies,” “progressives,” etc. This form of argument, if it can be called that, leaves no room for genuine debate over ideas, so by definition, it is undemocratic.
This one is frustrating for the viewer who is trying to actually follow the argument. It involves taking whatever underhanded tactic you’re using and then accusing your opponent of doing it to you first.
We see this frequently in the immigration discussion, where anti-racists are accused of racism, or in the climate change debate, where those who argue for human causes of the phenomenon are accused of not having science or facts on their side. It’s often called upon when the media hosts find themselves on the ropes in the debate.
(4) Rewriting History:
This is another way of saying that propagandists make the facts fit their worldview. The Downing Street Memos on the Iraq war were a classic example of this on a massive scale, but it happens daily and over smaller issues as well.
A recent case in point is Palin’s mangling of the Paul Revere ride, which Fox reporters have bent over backward to validate. Why lie about the historical facts, even when they can be demonstrated to be false? Well, because dogmatic minds actually find it easier to reject reality than to update their viewpoints.
They will literally rewrite history if it serves their interests. And they’ll often speak with such authority that the casual viewer will be tempted to question what they knew as fact.
This works best when people feel insecure or scared. It’s technically a form of both fear mongering and diversion, but it is so pervasive that it deserves its own category. The simple idea is that if you can find a group to blame for social or economic problems, you can then go on to (a) justify violence/dehumanization of them, and (b) subvert responsibility for any harm that may befall them as a result.
(6) Conflating Violence With Power and Opposition to Violence With Weakness:
This is what could be called a deeply held belief instead of a media technique, but it comes up in the way the news is constantly reported. For example, terms like “show of strength” are often used to describe acts of repression, such as those by the Iranian regime against the protesters in the summer of 2009.
There are at least two consequences of this form of conflation: First, it has the potential to make people feel falsely emboldened by shows of force–it can turn wars into sporting events. Secondly, especially in the context of American politics, displays of violence–whether manifested in war or debates about the Second Amendment–are seen as noble and (in an especially surreal irony) moral. Violence become synonymous with power, patriotism and piety.
This is a favorite technique of several Fox commentators. Its continuing use shows that it seems to have some efficacy. Bullying and yelling works best on people who come to the conversation with a lack of confidence, either in themselves or their grasp of the subject being discussed.
The bully exploits this lack of confidence by berating the guest into submission or compliance. Often, less self-possessed people will feel shame and anxiety when being berated and the quickest way to end the immediate discomfort is to cede authority to the bully. The bully is then able to interpret that as a “win.”
As is the case with bullying, this technique works best on an audience that is less confident and self-possessed. The idea is to deliberately confuse the argument, insisting, at the same time, that the logic is airtight and implying that anyone who disagrees is either too dumb or too fanatical to understand this. Less independent minds will interpret this technique as a form of sophisticated thinking.
This is especially popular in election years. The speakers identify themselves as being one of “the people” and those they target as enemies of the people. Their opponents are always “elitist” or a “bureaucrats” or “government insiders” or something else that is alien to the people. The idea is to make their opponents harder to relate to and harder to empathize with. It often goes hand in hand with scapegoating.
A common logical fallacy with populism bias when used by the right is that accused “elitists” are almost always liberals.
(10) Invoking the Christian God:
This is similar to othering and populism. With morality politics, the idea is to declare yourself and your allies as patriots, Christians and “real Americans” (those are inseparable categories in this line of thinking) and anyone who challenges them as not.
Basically, they insist, God loves Fox and Republicans and America and hates taxes and anyone who doesn’t love those other three things. Because the speaker has been blessed by God to speak on behalf of all Americans, any challenge is perceived as immoral. It’s a cheap and easy technique used by all totalitarian entities from states to cults.
There are three components to effective saturation: being repetitive, being ubiquitous and being consistent. The message must be repeated over and over. It must be everywhere and it must be shared across commentators–for example: “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction.”
The truth itself and hard data have no relationship to the effectiveness of saturation. There is a psychological effect of being exposed to the same message over and over, regardless of whether it’s true or if it even makes sense–for example: “Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.”
If something is said enough times, by enough people, many will come to accept it as truth. Another example is Fox’s own slogan of its coverage as “fair and Balanced.”
(12) Disparaging Education:
There is an emerging and disturbing lack of reverence for education and intellectualism in much mainstream-media commentary. In fact, in some circles (e.g. Fox), higher education is often disparaged as elitist. Having a university credential is perceived by these folks not as a sign of credibility, but of a lack of it. In fact, among some commentators, evidence of intellectual prowess is treated snidely and as anti-American.
The disdain for education and other evidence of being trained in critical thinking are direct threats to a hive-mind mentality, which is why they are so viscerally demeaned.
(13) Guilt by Association:
This is a favorite of Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart, both of whom have used it to decimate the careers and lives of many good people. Here’s how it works: if your cousin’s college roommate’s uncle’s ex-wife attended a dinner party back in 1984 with Gorbachev’s niece’s ex-boyfriend’s sister, then you, by extension are a communist set on destroying America. Period.
This is where, when on the ropes, the media commentator suddenly takes the debate in a weird but predictable direction to avoid accountability. This is the point in the discussion where most Fox anchors start comparing their opponents to Saul Alinsky or invoking ACORN or Media Matters, in a desperate attempt to win through guilt by association.
Or they’ll talk about wanting to focus on “moving forward,” as though by analyzing the current state of things or, God forbid, how we got to this state of things, you have no regard for the future. Any attempt to bring the discussion back to the issue at hand will likely be called deflection, an ironic use of the technique of projection/flipping.
The Fox viewership seems to be marked by a sort of collective personality disorder. Fox’s viewers feel almost as though they’ve been let into a secret society. Something about their affiliation with the network makes them feel privileged and this affinity is likely what drives the viewers to defend the network so vehemently.
They seem to identify with it at a core level, because it tells them they are special and privy to something the rest of us don’t have. It’s akin to the loyalty one feels by being let into a private club or a gang. That effect is also likely to make the propaganda more powerful, because it goes mostly unquestioned.
In considering these tactics and their possible effects on American public discourse, it is important to note that historically, those who’ve genuinely accessed truth have never berated those who did not. You don’t get honored by history when you beat up your opponent.
Look at Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln. These men did not find the need to engage in othering, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, or bullying. This is because when people have accessed a truth, they are not threatened by the opposing views of others.
This reality explains the righteous indignation of people like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity as a symptom of untruth. These individuals are hostile and angry precisely because they don’t feel confident in their own veracity. And in general, the more someone is losing their temper in a debate and the more intolerant they are of listening to others, the more you can be certain they do not know what they’re talking about.
One final observation: Fox audiences, birthers and Tea Partiers often defend their arguments by pointing to the fact that a lot of people share the same perceptions. This is a reasonable point to the extent that Murdoch’s News Corporation reaches a far larger audience than any other single media outlet. But, the fact that a lot of people believe something is not necessarily a sign that it’s true; it’s just a sign that it has been effectively marketed.