// Patrick Louis

Internet: Medium For Communication, Medium For Narrative Control

The Artifacts And Spaces: Defining and Understanding Propaganda, Influence, And Persuasion

Descartes compared the creation of pictures of memory in the brain with the traces left by needles in fabric

  • Internet: Medium For Communication, Medium For Narrative Control
  • Part 1 — The Artifacts and Spaces
  • Section 1 — Defining and Understanding Propaganda, Influence, And Persuasion
Table Of Content
  • Communication
  • Influence
  • Persuasion
  • Propaganda
  • Types Of Propaganda
  • Administering
  • Reinforcement, Anchor, Hook, Imagery
  • Ethics And Issues Of Identification

Our journey begins with three terms: propaganda, influence, and persuasion. To most, they sound like synonyms but each convey a different concept. Like any form of communication the internet can be used as a channel for them. What does communication consist of?

The very broad domain of communication studies — with multiple sub-disciplines such as journalism, film critic, public relation, and political science — often use a simple reductionist model called the Shannon–Weaver model of communication.

Shannon-Weaver's Model Of Communication Diagram

The model has 7 different concepts: Information source, Encoder, Channel, Decoder, Destination, and Noise. In our case, the internet is used as the pipe that conducts the signal, the transmitter and receiver are the chosen form of media (video, text, audio), and the information source and destination are the people and algorithms at both ends.
This model is not complete as it does not take into consideration the personalities of the persons involved, nor context, history, time, or any other clues that make communication complex. Moreover, it is limited to one-to-one scenarios and doesn’t cover one-to-many.
Regardless of these flaws, the model gives a generic picture of what communication is: It is about sharing meaning — a message — through the exchange of information via symbols that have perceived meanings on both ends.
The Shannon-Weaver model is a great starting point to see what needs to be done so that the conduct becomes more reliable, reducing uncertainty. That is, we need to keep in mind the qualities of context, sender, intent, message, channel, audience, and response. Concretely, the more the exchange the less the ambiguity, both parties converging towards a common point, common interest, or focus.

All this to say that the internet is a medium for transporting information. Just like the printing press lead to novelties, change in thoughts, and brought doctrines to the public like never before, the internet has its own characteristics but can only be defined by what we use it for.
For now, let’s pause and go back to what propaganda, influence, and persuasion are.

Influence is a generic word to convey that someone’s decisions have been affected by something. Influence is passive, the person makes the decision themselves unconsciously. It can happen with or without any direct communication (verbal or nonverbal). It is a spontaneous mix of inner motivations and environment. Consequently, it is rarely, if ever, controlled by another entity’s will unless this entity has full control over the environment.
The nudge theory argues that an entity can influence people through positive or negative reinforcement, indirect suggestions. However, the long term effects of these suggestions are highly contested as they get mixed with other environmental factors like peer pressure and social norms.
An example of influence is product placement, where a product is desired based on its indirect association with a portrayed lifestyle that the viewer would, in theory, like to obtain.

Persuasion, on the other hand, is based on a two-way interaction. It is often used in negotiation when one party or many parties want to take over the other, imposing their point. The difference with negotiation is that the core of the message never changes, it is not about resolving a common conflict but gradually convincing someone.
Persuasion is thus transactional and voluntary. The party that wants their message to come across has to bridge through the individual psychological process, to exchange ideas freely and openly so that the other will be convinced. In persuasion there is a back and forth between persuader and persuadee, the persuader adapting, shaping, reinforcing, changing the message at each iteration to make it more appealing depending on the persuadee’s responses.
If the persuasion succeeds, it should result in a reaction such as “I never saw it that way before”.

Persuasion can be verbal or nonverbal. It can either look like a consensual dialogue to reach an understanding, or look like strategic information or awareness campaigns that appear one-way but are still using a feedback mechanism to hone the message. This former is called Organized Persuasive Communication (OPC), and refers to all organized persuasion activities (advertising, marketing, public relations, organizational communication), but the term can also refer to more manipulative means.
In both these cases there is a free flow of information and the persuadee is fully aware of what is happening.

People are reluctant to change and so to convince them the persuader has to shape the message in a relatable way to something the persuadee already believes, or use lies and tactics morphing the facts.
This means persuasion can take a manipulative form, which may or may not be consensual. For example when someone is persuaded under false pretences, incentivized via promises, provided extra benefits, or coerced through threats or actual infliction of costs (including withdrawal of benefits).

Propaganda goes in that manipulative direction. It is exclusively a one-to-many massive persuasive strategy that is deliberately trying to shape perceptions, cognitions, and the direct behavior to achieve the desired intent of the propagandist.

Historically, propaganda didn’t have the same meaning it has today. It meant “to propagate” or “to disseminate”, but the term has changed over time as it got attached with the dissemination of information by governments for particular purposes.
Purpose is what differentiate propaganda. It is always meant to be targeted at a specific group, category of people, or society with the goal to push them in the desired direction. This objective is often linked to institutional ideologies, that is why we call propaganda activated ideology.
This means it is inherently advantageous to the propagandists, and their ideological fellows, but not necessarily the recipients. In some cases, it is arguable, and depends on the viewer, if the message is propaganda or education.

Propaganda doesn’t shy away from using whatever means available to inculcate the message. It isn’t based on mutual understanding, omits or hides information, uses deception, uses manipulation, frames issues, coerces or deceptively coerces, distorts, lies, overemphasizes, and misdirects. Anything goes, as long as the goal is reached.
The message is crafted in a deliberate way to support a viewpoint, a narrative, a goal of an ideology.
This is why propagandist consultants are often called “spin doctors” or “spinmeisters”, reinterpreting the events under a particular perspective.

The corollary of propaganda is censorship. The entity that wants to control the perception of its ideology silences any message that doesn’t fit. It achieves the same purpose by, not filing people’s mind with approved information, but preventing them from being confronted with opposing points of view.

That is why propagandists require control of information flow so that they can manufacture it. This allows them to select the current agenda — telling the public what is important and what isn’t. Or to frame problems, influencing how the public pictures a situation, creating the images and opinions that go along the ideological goal. The propagandists try to control the media as a source of information distribution and to present distorted information from what appears to be credible sources.
Indeed, it is also imperative that the message should be packaged in ways that conceal its manipulative persuasive purpose, as we’ll see later.

Another interesting typical aspect of propaganda as communication is its heavy use of symbols and association. That is in direct relation to its institutional and ideological root. For instance: justice, liberty, devotion to a country, etc..
Symbolism is also heavily employed in advertising propaganda to sell products as ideologies and ways of living.

Wherever you look and ask, all domains of research and work that touch propaganda dismiss their association with it. Public relation dismisses it as consensual and not manipulative, and the same in the advertising industry. The studies of propaganda are filled with euphemism, diverting attention, using the techniques they are themselves describing.

The historian Zbyněk Zeman categorizes propaganda as either white, grey or black, but there are other categorizations too.

White propaganda is when the message is sent from an official source and the intent is more or less clear. For example, a message on TV by the president of a country.

Black propaganda is when the message conceals the source and intent by making it seem as if it emerged from the same people, group, or organization it is targeting. Obscuring the identity of the originator is done to make the message more credible, giving the impression it comes from the people it’s trying to discredit or manipulate. It is also used for diplomatic reasons to hide government involvement.
For the propagandist, this is the type that is safer and has greater persuasiveness.

Grey propaganda lives in between, it is a message coming from an ambiguous or non-disclosed source, and the intent isn’t known. This could be a rumor or a message based on unnamed insider’s info.

Counter-propaganda is the reaction to propaganda. It differs from it in how it is defensive, based on facts and truth, clear (understood by everyone), calling out logical fallacies. It is most often administered as a white propaganda.
Propaganda can only be countered effectively if the counter-propaganda acts quickly to overcome its damage. Propaganda uses an anchor, as we’ll see, and it needs to be dismantled as soon as possible. That means the older the propaganda the more it will be deeply rooted in people’s mind.

Self-propaganda is a type of propaganda where someone deliberately tries to convince themselves of something, even if irrational. This is akin to a Stockholm syndrome in some cases.

Sub-propaganda refers to anything that isn’t direct propaganda but to ways to keep the door open for future opportunities of propaganda.
Within this category we find promotional culture that is used in marketing and other domains. It consists of promoting commodities, celebrities, politics, civil society, social cultural traditions, economic ways, etc.. It is the salesmanship of a culture and thus cobbled with direct and indirect marketing means.

Computational propaganda is, according to Phil Howard, “the assemblage of social media platforms, autonomous agents, and big data tasked with the manipulation of public opinion.”
Computational propaganda can be directed by agendas or not. It could passively happen because of the incentive of the algorithms on the platforms — usually social media and thus views and clicks as we’ll see in other sections.
Propaganda, like any other type of communication, depends heavily on the environment and context in which it is moving.

Another related concept is persuasive technology, whenever a digital platform has full control of the environment of a user and attempts to change their attitudes through social influence and persuasion techniques. This consists in creating an environment that guides the person to perform certain actions and not others, inciting them through different means like social feedback, extrinsic or intrinsic motivations, and positive and negative reinforcement..

When it comes to administering persuasion and propaganda, the process is intuitive: Choose the target group and message to transmit. Choose the media form, the media shell, depending on how easily it can spread. Pack the message material in the shell, and send it towards either the mass/group, or towards specific individuals that could spread it further. If an opinion leader spread it then their credibility, expertise, trustworthiness, and attractiveness with respect to the target group should be analyzed to match the message.
Then ensues a series of iterations to polish the message through reinforcement, repetition, targeting opinion leaders through indoctrination, and the addition of new psychological techniques, manipulation of the message, emotions, and logical fallacies appropriate to the target audience.

If the propagandists’ or persuaders’ goal go to the contrary of the habits of the audience, it will be difficult to achieve and will require awareness and information related to behavioral change and predictors of behavior of the target audience.
That is, the message, to have its effect, will need to be adapted and employ tactics to resonate with the audience.

The message shouldn’t be imposed, instead the recipient should feel it flow effortlessly within themselves. Any propaganda shouldn’t look like propaganda to the target audience. “Propaganda is most effective when it is least noticeable”. The change will need to be self-imposed. This is similar to the nudge theory of reinforcement, it should appear as influence and not propaganda.
For that, the message should seem to give expression to the recipient’s own concerns, tensions, aspirations, and hopes. It must identify with them, this is what we call the anchor.

This anchor activates the ideology of the propagandist by tying down new attitudes or behaviors along with existing ones. It is the starting point for change because it represents something already widely accepted by potential persuadees — it is the path of least resistance.

These anchors can be categorized as either belief, value, attitude, behavior, and group norms.
An anchor of belief is one of the best anchor, and the stronger the belief of a receiver, the more likely they will attach to the propaganda goal.
A value is a kind of long-term belief that is not likely to change. It is hard to use as anchor because these are unwavering and so might conflict with the propagandist goal.
An attitude is the readiness to respond to an idea, object, or course of action. It is a predisposition that already resides within the receiver. The propagandist can activate the predisposition to further achieve the goal.
A behavior or behavioral pattern is a clear indication of how receivers are currently acting and often predicts future behaviors.
Group norms are beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors derived from the membership of the receiver in a group. The propagandist can use this tendency to conformity to make the message organically move laterally within the group.

A concept similar to the anchor is called the hook. It differs from the anchor in that it is based on a unique event or idea that is constantly repeated to amplify its effect.
The hook is generally a story which central element makes it newsworthy and evokes strong emotional responses, making it stick to memory. It could be fabricated (such as deep fake), misleading and creating doubts, or real, but most importantly it should spread quickly and inundate all conversations on a topic. The hook is then attached with whatever piece of information it was packed with.

Hooks and anchors regularly use typical imagery to reach the ideological goal. For example, portraying the enemy as a baby killer.
The compaction of big ideas into small packages that can be distributed effortlessly is a must. This can be done through emotional wording, hook-like stories, symbolic images, and impactful videos. This is a form of portable philosophy created through repetition, emotions, and stories that lead to new meanings.
Notably, when using symbols, words, and images, that already live in the collective imagination, they will bring with them a baggage of feelings, concepts, and ideas. Think of all the recently rehashed tropes in media like movies, songs, images, and news. The use of strong wording will color the message, creating an association in the collective memory: genocide, patriotism, invader, victim, democracy, anarchy, enemy, confrontation, massacre, coup, radicalization, etc..

To spread further and faster, the anchors, hooks, and imageries must all interpolate and abuse our own confused cultural code. They work by exploiting issues we haven’t adequately addressed as a society. That is why people show strong responses to messages that are linked to injustice, outrage, partisanship à la we-vs-them, and controversies. We are more likely to react to things we don’t agree with.
From economic inequalities, race, nationalism, gender roles, sexual norms, etc.. It doesn’t matter which side of the issue people are on, the message will be spread and will provoke a reaction — if this is the goal of the propagandist. It could also be fabricated controversies, seeding doubt on purpose, making it seem like we’re still on the fence, ignorant (the domain of agnotology). The propagandist expertly triggers hope, satisfaction, pride, enthusiasm, but also fear, anxiety, anger, outrage, and disgust.

Let’s take a look at how Robert Cialdini details 6 principles of persuasion:

  • Reciprocity: People feel the need to give back to someone who provided a product, service, or information.
  • Scarcity: People want items that they believe are in short supply.
  • Authority: People are swayed by a credible expert on a particular topic.
  • Consistency: People strive to be consistent in their beliefs and behaviors.
  • Likability: People are influenced by those who are similar, complimentary, and cooperative.
  • Consensus: People tend to make choices that seem popular among others.

These go hand in hand with what we described so far and also reminds us of the conveyor of the packed message. We should pay attention to the credibility of the source, if the source is revealed.
Yet, a trick in propaganda is to keep confirming what you said, to never argue and assume the truth. Our mind is wired to accept and believe what others say as true, especially if not contradicting with any prior belief or value.

The rule of thumb is that the message shouldn’t create any cognitive dissonance but instead build a world that feels real to the recipient. To create a cohesive cosmology of meanings, to sell a coherent memorable story.
However, propaganda still denies the distance between the source and audience because it puts the ideology first.

We’ll dive in the psychological aspects in another part. For now, this should have created a strong foundation to understand influence, persuasion, and propaganda.

The exact identification of what can and should be considered propaganda is debatable and extremely hard to do. Some researchers have attempted to create a framework to discern manipulative persuasion from consensual informational and dialogical ones, but this is hardly applicable to the real world. And, as we said, propaganda could be considered education in the eye of some people.

When it comes to ethics, the subject of children indoctrination comes to mind. Children are the most vulnerable targets of propaganda as they haven’t built strong defenses against them. They are the least prepared for critical reasoning and contextual comprehension and thus are impressionable. Their mental world is in the process of being built and is easier to mold. There is no strong forces to oppose the propagandist goal.

On that note, it is subjective whether certain types of persuasions and propagandas are ethical or not. Propagandists are driven by ideologies, and consequently strongly believe that all means are necessary. As with anything related to ethics and moral, it differs based on personal judgement of the actions. For some people, it is ethically wrong to employ any subterfuge or tactics to reach a goal. For others, it is not about the tactics but whether the goal itself is right or wrong.
There’s a lot to be said on the black and white division of ethics, but we’ll leave it at that because the world is inherently nebulous.

This concludes our review of propaganda, influence, and persuasion. We’ve taken a look at the basic idea of communication, the packing of a message. We’ve then defined influence, persuasion, and propaganda, with propaganda being a type of persuasion that is one-to-many, manipulative, and driven by ideology. We’ve seen different types of propaganda and their definitions such as black, white, grey, self-, and others. Then we’ve seen how this package can be administered effectively through the person or channel carrying it and the actual shell of the message. This message will be successful if it doesn’t conflict with the receiver, if it is reinforced, uses an anchor, a hook, or strong imagery. The message will spread further and faster if it triggers strong emotional responses, especially something people feel they have to stand against. Finally, we’ve glanced at the issue of identification and the ethics concerning propaganda and the most vulnerable.

Table Of Content


Attributions: René Descartes, Traité de l’homme

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