Propaganda is certainly taking center stage in American culture. Very few citizens — left, right, or center— could dismiss the overwhelming power of sensationalist journalism today.
The last century was filled with it, part of the reason for how more than one hundred million victims were annihilated in the global cataclysms set loose upon the world in the 1900s. In the 21st century it’s just as virulent.
Disinformation is ancient though. Time-worn graffiti are found on the walls of ruins from the ancient world. Romans, Greeks, Persians, and Egyptians certainly weren’t immune to rumor mongering and character assassination of political, religious, and cultural opponents.
Propaganda, as old as civilization itself, is an elevated sort of hype nonetheless, earning the status of a science, and a unique one at that. Its practitioners can’t hold conventions and symposiums to exchange ideas, or set membership qualifications and standards, and adopt new practices.
So this is a discipline that has evolved in its own way, with new techniques entering the field and old tropes vanishing owing to the results of unending probes into the arena of the mind, where its assaults either succeed or fail.
Modern purveyors of newspeak however are aiming for a specific target, the seat of human belief, the limbic system — the amygdala, hypocampus, and hypothalamus regions of the brain — which controls our most primal emotions and decision-making capabilities. Thoughts that please the limbic system produce pleasurable rewards through endorphins and dopamine.
Psychologists realize it’s not always the truth that necessarily counts in politics or in many other human interactions, so much as too often the message setting off a pleasure-reward sensation in our brains. And those who put words and thoughts on paper and into the ether know that well.
Humanity’s good judgment can obviously be overwhelmed by manipulating this internal biological circuitry toward almost anything, since cigarettes, drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling, and other plainly negative aspects of our culture remain in vogue. Aptly chosen words, sounds, smells, and graphics send calcium and sodium ions to work their magical effects on receptors in nerve synapses, causing people to do and accept even those things they are aware they shouldn’t.
In the end, much of it is pure chemistry and maybe something even more powerful than that. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the 20th century philosopher much celebrated by critics today, posited that language itself used to convey the meaning of anything has an active and important part in forming the final vision in the mind’s eye. For Wittgenstein reality is shaped by the terms used; he believed “words matter,” seven or eight decades before that catch-phrase was first uttered.
They’ve always mattered. Cleverly-chosen verbiage disseminated to the masses was already an art and science in Julius Caesar’s time. The conqueror’s dispatches detailing his victories in Gaul, for example, included propaganda-laced episodes directed at the electorate and Senate.
Caesar’s reportage traveled to Rome on horseback however and things have certainly changed. In today’s modern world—with microwaves and laser fibers and a world-wide electric grid that pulses at the speed of light — there is far more opportunity to propagandize one’s way to online clicks, money, fame, influence, and ultimately power.
With 65,000 television and radio stations, 30,000 major newspapers and magazines, close to 750,000 books published and 3,000 films released every year, and literally uncountable numbers of internet news, politics, and culture venues, the world’s media can’t possibly be churning out such a gargantuan quantity of copy and have it be pristinely accurate news and information — since it’s questionable if there even exists sufficient truth to fill that insatiable broadcasting torrent. There has never been anything like this current explosion of information in human history.
What remains the same as ever nonetheless is the eagerness for the public to accept the same outlandish slander and misinformation as in the past. Only in recent months have the world-wide uproars over a president of the United States held up as a supposed criminal colluder with a foreign power, and a Supreme Court justice maligned as a drunken leader of gang rapists, clearly indicates that the human tendency toward believing the worst about political, religious, ethnic and commercial opponents is as strong as it ever was.
Every culture in every age — including our own — has reveled in hear-say, half-truths, and defamation because propaganda doesn’t deceive people so much as it merely aids in their self-deception, playing on the biological hard-wiring that rewards the psyche for hearing and believing what it wishes to hear and believe.
The question before the world’s media and audiences everywhere is whether humanity’s capacity for untruth and bad-mouthing is equal to its seemingly insatiable desire to be defrauded and to see rivals humbled.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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