By Nigel Atkin
Just as high levels of lead can damage the intellectual development of children, a consumptive diet of propaganda, distraction, and inconsistent information can damage public intellect and erode a nation’s democracy.
Buying-in to fraudulent facts, data, and reason at any level has dire consequences.
It’s not difficult to imagine the extreme manifestations of fraud.
Internationally, there are many examples where small groups of powerful people, usually men, govern societies through conspiracy, crime, violence, and the manipulative devices of propaganda.
In recent history, following the decline of Communism and the breakup of its totalitarian flagship, the Soviet Union, and many of its surrogates ruled by dictators, the concept and practice of democracy has actually expanded in places such as Poland and Ukraine and in many other countries—in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.
But, while pursuing the ideals of democracy has given tangible hope to millions more people, the chaotic transitions from former totalitarian systems are not always immediately free of fraud and corruption.
And, at the same time, in established, apparently stable democracies, people empowered by the evolving possibilities of communication technology can also threaten our highest ideals of government.
With ever-expanding global opportunities for accumulating wealth through unbridled capitalism and other means, some individuals have embraced greed to secure power and pro t by exploiting new markets in home countries and abroad.
Without the institutions and the individuals to deliver the many aspects of democracy, metaphorical weeds will grow.
Within traditional and new “freedoms,” some old and new enemies of democracy have arisen on all continents in three broad categories—mobsters, warlords, and oligarchs.
Those enemies of democracy have many long-term goals for eroding strong democratic states that are duty bound to control and regulate their actions.
The distortion and erosion is in their interests in the same way that terror and chaos are in the interests of ideologues who are challenged by the “order” hard won, leading to the obedience to the rule and the spirit of law.
To understand what institutions can be eroded, consider some of the more common ideals of democracy.
Concepts that we promote—critical thinking, transparency, and an informed electorate—are antithesis to those who thrive in an anti-intellectual theatre of fraud.
History is unfortunately replete with examples of political campaigns that used some and all of the techniques of propaganda to not so jokingly answer the old cartoon question, “What’s Democracy?” And the student raises her hand. “Democracy is the freedom to elect our own Dictators.” In history, that is not uncommon.
Students of mass communication and propaganda know that “the brain follows the eye” and that public relations practitioners managing the consumption of messages are ethically responsible for the consequences of changing a population’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours.
Some other people using the same communication tools can exploit human nature with manipulative intent, the open gullibilitdy of people a constant target.
People want to believe and often accept what they hear and see. The phrase attributed to conmen, gamblers, and specically the great American showman of the mid-19th Century, P. T. Barnum, sums it up: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Knowing some of the techniques is part of the antidote. Here are the more common forms of propaganda used in advertising and in political campaigns.
High praises for people or products, wrapping them with words of patriotism, love, and other emotive imagery
Commonly known as talking trash, simplistically denigrating or belittling a rival
A respected and otherwise famous person associated with the product or person (The opposite would be guilt by association.)
Appealing to normal folk, the regular people with common values of family, health, and service
Get on board and be part of the group. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that movement?
Overt information manipulation to embellish a product or person by unfair comparison or distorting or omitting facts
Diverting attention away from a critically important issue by imposing an interesting yet trivial concept for public focus. Exploiting a population self-enamoured by the latest technology can also be considered an effective use of distraction.
All the above and many more techniques of propaganda are used daily in the blending international realms of marketing, advertising, business, and politics.
Distraction alone does not bode well for an institution reliant on an informed electorate.
What might seem an innocent misstatement by an academic, economic, religious, or political leader at rst can be accepted or dismissed by a naïve public unaware of that leader’s desired consequences.
A politician’s goal may not be to win the election but to weaken the voters’ resolve to even participate in democracy.
When fewer people participate in democracy, vested interests— many of them corrupt—benefit.
It is our duty to stay awake to the accuracy of the information we consume. Society swims in a sea of propaganda. In that rising deluge, by consuming vast quantities of deliberate distraction, public ability to discern is quickly eroding.
As well, when the values associated with greed are sold to people and become dominant in a society, rights and regulations governed through democratic institutions corrode, thereby making the road ahead easier for mobsters, warlords, and oligarchs. They hate the voice of an educated, well-informed, and reasoned people, just as they do a functioning democracy.
It pays to be vigilant, suspicious of vested interests, to question everything and to be aware of the consequences of losing the values and traditions we hold dear.
Education and experience can thwart those who thrive in the imagery of manufactured intellectual fraud. It pays to teach our children how to spot a scoundrel in their midst, as well as on an international stage.
Intellectual discernment through critical thinking, applying the tools for determining the moral fitness of a decision, the ongoing study and practice of ethics, professional development in our chosen fields, and becoming more widely read in the classics, and participating in community events are all part of fighting fraud, all part of nurturing our great democracies.
Nigel Atkin teaches the Evolution of Public Relations course through the Public Relations Diploma Program at Continuing Studies at UVic. He offers on-site communications workshops to leverage human capital and exploit the multiplier effect of becoming better communicators.
* This artlicle was originally published in The Scrivener (Fall 2016 Issue) and is reproduced here with permission.