The Propaganda Machine: Don’t Get Fooled Again (An essay by Randle Aubrey)

The other day, I stumbled across an article on the news site regarding President Obama’s recent signing of the FAA Reauthorization Act, the appropriations bill for the Federal Aviation Administration. The focus of the article was on a section of the bill regarding unmanned aircraft systems, better known to most of the general public as “drones”. The rather ominous title of the article is “Attack Of The Drones”, and begins as follows:

“If you thought 1984 sounded bad, look overhead. Congress quietly passed a new law in February that could result in as many as 30,000 unmanned drones plying [the] nation’s skies by 2020.

The measure was part of the FAA Reauthorization Bill, which President Obama just as quietly signed. A component of the bill calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations…by 2015.

Government doesn’t even have rules in place, yet our elected officials passed a bill that will increase surveillance…of just about anybody, anytime, anywhere?”

I’m sure you can imagine this author’s alarm after reading the first few paragraphs. The article goes on to describe how privacy advocacy groups are concerned about the bill’s implications, and the potential dangers to personal security if/when the usage of drones reaches the private sector. It closes with another reference to Orwell’s 1984, praising his prescience in seeing the future of surveillance, and an entreaty to the public to “demand that guidelines be in place before any more licenses are issued” in order to “avoid a floodgate of abuse and the disappearance of even the expectation of privacy at home.”

Scary stuff, right?

My knee-jerk response to this was highly typical of many of my peers on the Left: I freaked the fuck OUT. I immediately posted this to my Facebook feed, making some wisecrack about the President being a peacemaker, then issuing a digital scream heard far and wide…


Well, someone did wake up as it turns out, and that someone was me.

About an hour after posting this, one of my friends on my Facebook feed responded to my call for alarm with some rather surprising information. It turns out that The Pocono Record is owned by Dow Jones Incorporated, the marketplace for some of the world’s largest textile and manufacturing companies(you’ve heard of the Dow Jones Index, right? Yeah, it’s those guys), which was until recently owned by none other than the Bancroft family, one of the wealthiest families in America and a textbook example of some of the worst the 1% has to offer.

He then went on to cite the specific text in the bill regarding unmanned aircraft systems, which makes no mention of the actual usage of the craft, only the requirement to establish regulations to do so by the aforementioned deadline.

The signing of a rather innocuous bill regarding FAA funding and safety compliance has been blown out of proportion by the ‘liberal media’, and turned into fodder for the propaganda machine. And #ThaPink was completely fooled.

As someone who rallies hard against the dangers of propaganda and the imminent hysteria contained in both the liberal and conservative echo chambers, you can imagine my surprise and shame at being so completely hoodwinked. Upon rereading the article, all of the fallacies and absolutist demagoguery contained within it quickly became glaringly obvious, further fueling my indignation:

-The arbitrary figure of 30,000 drones that cites no external reference

-The InfoWars-esque condemnation disguised as a question: “Government doesn’t even have rules in place, yet our elected officials passed a bill that will increase public and private electronic surveillance of just about anybody, anywhere, anytime?

-A reference to “privacy advocacy groups”, again with no cited organizations

-Blatant fear-mongering statements like, “[some drones] are tiny, as small as birds. You won’t be able to go to the bathroom or have sex without risking a witness.”

-Twisting facts to support the evidence and cast the FAA in the role of “Big Brother”

-A direct appeal to the reader’s newly-created false sense of fear and moral outrage

It’s clear that this article was written as an attack against the President and the supposed dangers of the ‘big government’ he represents, in order to stir up people’s emotions and prevent them from making clear-headed decisions about various issues. And in my particular case, it worked all too well.

When There Is No Product, The Product Is You

Propaganda is a very real thing in our everyday lives: we are constantly bombarded with it from every angle, every hour of every day. From the 24-hour news cycles of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC to the endless stream of videos, podcasts and newsfeeds all over the face of the Internet, the endless struggle between liberal and conservative ideologies has turned into an all-out media war, where pundits and demagogues lend fire and weight to polarized identities through the relentless application of propaganda upon the citizenry.

However, the propaganda of both Left and Right do have one thing in common: they paint a false picture of America is, as well as what they think it should be. Propaganda relies on extremities of ideas in order to send direct messages, which requires a deliberate disregard for integrative complexity on behalf of its creators. From the patriotic stirrings of America’s golden years on behalf of the Right to President Obama’s 2012 election campaign call-to-arms, the simple “Forward”, both sides work in conjunction to create a false reality of polarized ideologies, an “us versus them” world where the politics of the parties trump the will of the people, starting from within each individual.

Arguably, the Left’s perspective of what America ought to be is a much kinder, gentler one than the homogeneous, hive-minded worldview of the Right, but the unfortunate truth of the matter is that the Left’s ideology is, in the end, just as unrealistic. It stresses far too much mankind’s altruistic tendencies without acknowledging our innate selfishness, coupled with a deep distrust of authority figures and an excess of individualism.  The idea of a nation where everyone gets along, people are free to be whomever they like, and everything is genuinely “fair and balanced”, fails to account for the fact that some people are just not going to get along no matter how much you try and make them, and the lack of respect for that fact only serves to the detriment of this ideology, by keeping Lefties in a near-constant state of apoplectic moral outrage over the fact that people won’t accept their lifestyle choices.

This lack of pragmatism on the part of the Left is more than made up for on the Right, a party brimming with authoritarianism and individuals with a deep-seated need to follow and obey. The might-makes right, “free market” morality espoused by the majority of conservatives, where some people are “more equal than others” as Orwell so eloquently put it, creates a profound and tangible sense of “in-group/out-group” tribalism, where demonizing the “other” in order to preserve community integrity takes primacy over things like social justice and equality.

But propaganda cannot exist in a vacuum. It relies upon certain aspects of human nature in order to work properly: aversion to uncertainty and ambiguity, the aforementioned concepts of justice and fair play, and the need for closure, among other things. These are universal traits that transcend partisanship and reach directly into people’s core values, no matter the particulars of their ideology. Granted, the relevance of each to egalitarians and authoritarians alike varies between individuals and party affiliations, but without these fundamental human traits, propaganda would not exist, nor would its necessity.

The Ultimate PR Machine: The Brain

Acknowledging propaganda’s effect on the self requires understanding the relationship between your values and your ideology, a fact clearly misunderstood by a large majority of the populace to the benefit of the body politic. Both inform and shape one another in your decision-making process, and the disproportionate influence of either on the psyche is what allows propaganda to flourish.

Coming to this understanding is no simple task, however. It first requires a great deal of introspection about both your values and your ideology, which is seldom done by anyone without a great deal of initial resistance. Depth of introspection is not an innate survival skill, rather a learned behavior based upon a combination of personal experience and genetic predisposition. Everyone undergoes this process throughout their waking lives, but most often unconsciously and with little thought given to consequence. And it’s not necessarily their fault.

I hear a lot of talk these days from both liberals and conservatives about media “echo chambers”, where not only the same ideas are endlessly repeated, but the same reactions to them, as well. These are tangible manifestations of partisan tribalism, where the homogenization of ideas serves only to preserve the in-group and to suppress dissenting opinions out of fear for ideological safety. In short, the echo chambers are little more than cadres of yes-men and yes-women, surrounding themselves with party rhetoric in order to find shelter from the intellectual storm. In the echo chamber, you don’t have to think: others will do it for you.

To quote Orwell once again, this sort of “groupthink” is particularly dangerous, and has become a self-perpetuating propaganda machine of its own. In the echo chambers, you have to agree with the group or at least act as such, or else risk being ostracized by your peers. But at that point, you have to ask yourself: if my opinion is different than everyone else’s, are they actually my peers or just people I disagree with? Am I crazy for daring to be different, or are they crazy for failing to be?

Surrounding yourself with yes-men doesn’t make you smarter; it only keeps you safe. Unchallenged opinions created treacherous chasms in the intellect, where the tendrils of propaganda can take root and slowly corrupt rational thought. We owe it to ourselves and to one another to break free of the choking restrictions placed upon us by groupthink, and to strive together to form more personalized ideologies based upon a deeper assessment of our values through communication, honesty and respect for one another.

At the end of the day, we all want the same things, regardless of political affiliation: peace, security, and personal well-being. But only through the difficult process of reconciling our beliefs with our behaviours will we be able make ourselves immune to the machinations of the propaganda machine, and create the society we truly desire: not the one we’re told is acceptably desirable.