The Propaganda System
How semantic propaganda
works & and how to undo it
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Language can have "hypnotic" or
"propagandistic" effects. But with
the right knowledge we can resist. This article
uses Bush and Blair quotes as
examples of propagandistic language.
We list below several types
of language "distortions" which are
often used for hypnotic or propagandistic effect.
These are divided into two categories: semantic
and cognitive. (For short, we'll lump
them all together under the term "Cognitive-Semantic
Distortions", or "CSD".)
If we regard language as a map of the
territory of reality, it follows that
the more CSD in language, the more inaccurately
the map represents the territory.
CSD can occur "naturally" in everyday
communication (often causing misinterpretations,
communication breakdowns, arguments, hostility,
etc), but propaganda intentionally loads
language with CSD to induce "hypnotic"
effects. This normally works by the "map"
so inadequately representing the "territory",
that the audience has to "fill in the gaps"
in their own minds. This process of "going
inside" one's mind to fill in the gaps
of the "map" corresponds to "hypnotic
(When professional hypnotists perform hypnotic
inductions, they try to avoid using jarring
language by letting the patient fill in the
gaps. They do this by being non-specific. For
example, they might say, "...you feel
pleasant feelings in your body...".
The hypnotist doesn't say what the pleasant
feelings are that's left to the patient
to fill in. Being more specific runs the risk
of jarring the patient into resistance.)
Rabble-rousers do the same thing. For example,
they might talk of "defending our deeply-held
values", and each audience member experiences
a different personal interpretation of "deeply-held
values" according to their own inner maps.
Most propaganda tends to be more subtle than
this. In fact, it sounds indistinguishable from
"respectable" political speech. Probably
the only difference is that propaganda
(according to our definition) is designed,
whereas most political speech contains CSD due
to an institutionalised habit (going
back centuries) of minimising content likely
to alienate voters or offend power interests.
(This results in extremely banal communication,
which nevertheless has propagandistic and hypnotic
qualities.) The higher the level of political
speech, the more likely that the speech-writers
design the speech to have a propagandistic
When Tony Blair says: own interpretation
of "extreme" onto their map of the
campaigners. "Extreme", to most people,
undoubtedly means lunacy and/or destructive
tendencies. We resist this simply by asking:
"How, exactly, does Blair define 'extreme'?"
, most people probably fill in the gap
by projecting their
Or, when Blair says:own understanding of what "necessary"
means. Alternatively, we can resist this "hypnotism"
by asking: "According to whose
criteria is it necessary? By what standard
is it necessary?" We'd then be attempting
to obtain a more accurate map of the territory,
rather than "lazily" falling back
on our preconceived maps.
most people probably fill in the gap by projecting
(Many people naively think that by disliking
or disagreeing with someone like Blair,
they are immune to his propaganda. But effective
propaganda already takes "disagreement"
into account. Better to "deconstruct"
It only takes a slight change in focus to shift
from an essentially passive, hypnotised state
(hypnotised by your own reactions to language),
to an active, semantically discriminating state.
No work or effort, just a little knowledge and
The "Meta-Model of Language" (which
originated in NLP) is a useful way to categorise
distortions in language. The main categories
it uses are: Deletions, Generalisations
and Distortions, with subcategories as
For example, consider the following "Blairisms"
(Tony Blair quoted or paraphrased
) in terms of Meta-Model categories:
1. Simple Deletion
"People" refers to whom exactly? We
don't know it's deleted/excluded. Used
in the context of criticising anti-war campaigners,
the effect of this deletion is to associate
campaigners in general with anti-Americanism.
2. Unspecified Adjective (sub-category
Extreme in what way? The speaker's definition
of the adjective "extreme" is deleted/excluded.
3. Simple Generalisation
Never? Does all progress depend on threat
4. Modal Operator (sub-category of
Terms like "have to" and "must"
express internal rules of the speaker's modus
operandi for functioning in the world. The
speaker generalises that these rules apply to
5. Simple Distortion
A basic cause-effect distortion. A war
is averted by the aggressors deciding not to
attack. Such a decision can be caused by many
things eg a preference for avoiding mass
6. Complex Equivalence (sub-category
How does criticism of a President equate with
hatred of a country? The equivalence of the
two statements appears complex and is unstated
by the speaker.
7. Lost Performative (sub-category of
These phrases assert a type of judgement
(eg "necessary", "inevitable",
"unavoidable") without taking
responsibility for that judgement. Who
evaluates it as unavoidable? According to whose
criteria is it inevitable?
According to what standard is it necessary?
These questions identify the "performative"
(performer or source) of the evaluations,
thereby exposing the statements as someone's
opinion rather than unquestionable
A presupposition is a silent assumption or unspoken
paradigm (either a sub-category of Distortion,
or a category in its own right). Such "paradigmatic"
assumptions need to be questioned: "How
do you know that knowledge of Saddam's
brutality would cause people to stop asking
Propaganda is like Cognitive
Therapy in reverse. Cognitive Therapy is
a psychological technique for curing irrational
fear, hatred, anger, etc. It dissolves cognitive
distortions by restructuring the language that
led to those distortions.
Propaganda works in the reverse way: it uses
language to induce cognitive distortions, often
leading to irrational fear, hatred and anger,
which is then used to justify an action (eg
bombing a country).
The following is a list of cognitive distortions
identified by Cognitive Therapy. Examples of
corresponding propaganda are given ( ):
(George W Bush).
(seen on a newsgroup).
2. All-or-Nothing Thinking (eg
black-and-white, either/or thinking; polarising
(George W Bush).
3. Labelling (eg repetitive name-calling;
dismissing something via label, or emotional
4. Mind-reading (eg projections/assumptions
about someone's thoughts).
(George W Bush).
(Michael Kelly, Washington Post).
5. Emotionalising (eg valuing emotions
over objective information).
(George W Bush).
6. Should-ing (eg Putting pressure on
people to conform to "divine" rules.
Statements containing "should", "must",
"need to", "have to").
(George W Bush).
(two examples in one sentence, heard on a
BBC Radio 4 interview).
7. Filtering (Over-focusing on one aspect
of something to the exclusion of everything
Eg: focus on military solutions / exclusion
of non-military solutions.
8. Can't-ing (Imposing linguistic and
semantic limits on oneself and others using
the "can't" or "cannot"