THE BLOG
04/19/2012 12:27 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2012

Citizen's Watch

For all practical purposes, it's game on between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Get ready for an unprecedented deluge of TV ads and other media storms persisting right up to the first Tuesday of the 11th month, brought to you by your friendly neighborhood Super-PAC. Thanks to a Supreme Court decision that makes corporations people, there will be at least twice as much money involved as in the last general election. Unless you plan not to watch (other than public) television, not listen to (other than public) radio, or not go online for the next seven months, you won't be able to avoid it.

So are we helpless in the face of this onslaught?

Not necessarily. In thinking about this, Thomas Jefferson's admonition that "an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people" came to mind. It's our best defense against the truth-twisters descending on us like Great Plains tornadoes.

Then I remembered one of the most useful courses I ever took -- and that in public high school: Mr. Itzkowitz's Persuasion and Propaganda, where I learned that (m)ad-men and spin-doctors have drawn from techniques identified back when "propaganda" as a word was earning its now-sinister reputation. In 1937, Edward Filene, Clyde Miller, and other pioneers in the business established the short-lived Institute of Propaganda Analysis (brought down by the U.S. government in World War II because it was as effective in analyzing American propaganda as much as the enemy's). The IPA's original intent was to educate the American public about the nature of propaganda, in the new era of mass media, and how to recognize its now highly refined techniques.

Although the IPA no longer exists, its legacy lives on, if only in having identified the tricks of the trade. Some, like "name-calling," "glittering generalities," and euphemisms involve word play. Then there is the false logic of "transfer" and testimonials," while the most effective include "plain-folks," the "bandwagon," and good old-fashioned fearmongering. While their applications greatly vary, what they all have in common is their greater appeal to emotion than reason. So that should be your first warning sign.

Aaron Delwich's propagandacritic.com website keeps the lamp of vigilance lit in explaining these techniques and providing contemporary examples of their use, as well as proposes strategies of mental self-defense (antigens in today's body politic) to guard against undue media influence in decisions on everything from what cereal to buy to who should be the next president.

Here is a breakdown of the more named techniques:

Name Calling: Propagandists employ this tactic to create fear and arouse prejudice by using negative words (like "liberal," "socialist," or "government takeover") to create an unfavorable opinion or hatred against a group, beliefs, ideas or institutions. Like many techniques, it calls for a conclusion without examining the evidence. Name-calling is a way to cover not having anything good to say about yourself by focusing greater attention on how bad the other guy is. It is often employed using sarcasm and ridicule -- a favorite among attack ads and negative campaigners. When confronted with name-calling, ask yourself: What does the name really mean? Is there a real connection between the idea and the name being used? What are the merits of the proposed idea if I leave the name out?

Glittering Generalities: These are vague, sweeping statements (often slogans or simple catchphrases) using language associated with deeply held values and beliefs without providing supporting information or reason. They appeal to such notions as honor, glory, love of country, desire for peace, freedom, and family values. This is a favorite, notes propagandacritic.com, for people like Newt Gingrich. It cannot be proved true or false because it really says little or nothing at all. Questions to ask include: What does the virtue phrase really mean? Does the real idea being peddled have a legitimate connection with the real meaning of the word? Am I being "sold" an idea I really don't like through a name that I do like?

Transfer: Transfer is a technique used to carry over the authority and approval of something we respect and revere to something the propagandist would have us accept something which otherwise we might reject (or reject something we might otherwise accept, such as with the current debate on the health care law -- polls show most Americans are against it while approving most of its provisions). Transfer often employs symbols or use of glittering generalities or name-calling (e.g., waving the flag, religious rights, "In God we trust," etc.) to stir our emotions and win approval. Questions to ask include: What is the speaker trying to pitch? Is there a legitimate connection between the pitch being made and the person or product? Is there merit in the product by itself?

Testimonial: This tactic associates a well-known or respected person or someone with experience to endorse a product or cause by giving it their stamp of approval hoping that the intended audience will follow their example. Americans in particular are suckers for celebrities championing causes (think George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Bono, or Sean Penn) or the appeal to "experts" (the plethora of pundits and talking heads) in political discussions. Questions to ask include: Why regard this person as an expert or trust their testimony? What's the merit of the idea, position or product without the testimony?

Plain Folks: This approach tries to convince the audience that the spokesperson is from humble origins, therefore someone they can trust and who has their interests at heart. This is why someone folksy like Sarah Palin appeals to so many Americans -- who are inherently anti-intellectual -- rather than many liberals. Look for ordinary language and mannerisms to form a connection. Mitt Romney (who wears jeans a lot) will no doubt work this one hard, as has President Obama. Some questions include: Why is this person saying it this way? If the person is trying to cover up something or close a gap, then why?

Bandwagon: This technique simply tries to persuade you to follow the crowd by creating the impression of widespread support, reinforcing the human desire to be on the winning side. It also plays on feelings of loneliness and isolation, encouraging us to join in a mass movement while simultaneously reassuring those on (or partially on) should stay on-board. Bandwagoning can also take on a negative twist in trying to convince you to join or be left out. Questions to ask include: What is the real program here? What is the evidence for and against it? Even though others are supporting it, why should I?

Card Stacking: This is one not mentioned at propagandacritic.com, but is a current favorite. It tries to make the best case possible for one side and the worst for the other by carefully using only those facts that support one side of the argument while attempting to lead the audience into accepting the facts as representative of the whole truth. In other words, the propagandist stacks the deck of cards against the truth. Quoting out of context, as Fox often does and NBC's recent gaffe on the Travon Martin case demonstrated, will be rife in this year's political ads. Card-stacking is the most difficult tactic to detect because it leaves out all of the information necessary to make an informed decision. You have to decide what's missing, first asking yourself: Are facts being distorted or omitted here? What other arguments exist to support these assertions?

So why doesn't the fourth estate inform us more about these propaganda techniques, as a public service? Because they are among their greatest practitioners, selling what they want us to think is information-based news, rather than just opinions supported by some facts. If we were more immune to these practices, then the standards (and thus the costs) of journalism would have to go up substantially, forcing them to change their business model.

As you heard me say before: If we want responsible governance, we need to provide responsible citizenship. So if you're waiting for someone else defend you against all this media madness, then you're waiting in vain.

The good news is that we have more at our fingertips to educate ourselves -- at little to no cost -- through the power of the internet and social media. We could even make a game of it, in this case, by printing out the list of these techniques when watching the set, especially with the kids, and asking them to identify them in commercials or the news -- heck, award them points and see who comes out on top by bedtime. In a fun way, we can teach our kids to become better political consumers than we have been, because our world now demands it and we can no longer afford our ignorance.

Jefferson's warning makes even more sense at a time when national security has become everyone's business. Education -- which comes in many forms -- does more than lead to good jobs. It ultimately helps us to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

And that's not just the job of the government.