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ICG Risk Blog - [ "Congregation for Propagating the Faith" to agitprop to oppo research; four centuries of manipulating public opinion, foreign and domestic ]

"Congregation for Propagating the Faith" to agitprop to oppo research; four centuries of manipulating public opinion, foreign and domestic


Such manipulation has, of course, a far greater span and has worn many masks, e.g., the work of Livy were considered masterpieces of Roman state propaganda. In our era, the codification of "that which ought to be spread" got underway in earnest with Roman Catholic "pontifical administration charged with the spread of Catholicism and with the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs in non-Catholic countries." Propaganda fide for short, was not originally intended to refer to misleading information. It entered secular space about WW I, turning pejorative between the wars.

Scientific propaganda rose in the US with Walter Lippman, journalist, and Edward Bernays, psychologist, who proceeded to create intense anti-German sentiment in favor of joining the British in WW I. Everyone, from public relations to Goebbels, took notice. Whereas English used a single term propaganda, the Russian Bolsheviks distinguished propaganda ("dissemination of revolutionary ideas, teachings of Marxism, and basic economical knowledge, theoretical and factual") from agitation ("forming public opinion and stirring up political unrest").

Social psychology offers the means to create logical fallacies that are persuasive, yet false. "Information dissemination strategies only become propaganda strategies when coupled with propagandistic messages. Identifying these propaganda messages is a necessary prerequisite to studying the methods by which those messages are spread." Readers will recognize this stout list globally, nationally, and locally:

  • Appeal to fear
  • Appeal to authority
  • Bandwagon
  • Obtain disapproval
  • Glittering generalities
  • Rationalization
  • Intentional vagueness
  • Transfer
  • Oversimplification
  • Common man/"plain folks" approach
  • Testimonial/damaging quotation
  • Stereotyping or Labeling
  • Scapegoating
  • Virtue words
  • Slogans

My concern that a US electorate could withstand such tools was palpable in Imperial Rome became Italy; de Tocqueville's America becomes what?, a landscape that appears to struggle under:

  • Arbitrary electoral outcomes carried by "slogans, misinformation, "fire alarms," "October surprises," random personal associations, and "gotchas.""
  • Democracies as oligarchies with a populist face in which competing elites hold sway.
  • Popular use of shortcuts, or "low-information rationality," to reach judgments about political candidates.

Rising in this environment is a sophisticated blend of tools called opposition research or "oppo" for short. A BBC Panorama documentary filmed in 2000 but never aired in the US described the skill of Republican researchers who bested all comers (Democrats included) in discrediting Al Gore. The transcript is worth the read.

An interesting recognition of, and use of, oppo research in deflecting Tim Russert's Meet the Press, noted that "Russert frustrates the candidates by knowing their positions on issues better than they do" and then lays out five rules that I must say are more practiced by Fox news anchors:

  1. Prepare for a Hostile Interrogation
  2. Anticipate Russert's Research
  3. Put Russert on the Defensive
  4. If That Doesn't Work, Concede the Point. Then Make Yours
  5. Interrupt Him. Interrupt Again. And Again

Democrats are waking up to Republican success. Rob Stein, a Democratic adviser, "wanted Democrats to know what they were up against, [wanted] them to stop thinking about politics only as a succession of elections [,to] start making long-term investments in their political ideas [and see that] the era of the all-powerful party was coming to an end, and political innovation [would] come from private-sector pioneers who were willing to take risks." Stein began to make the rounds with a short "presentation that laid out [in a] series of diagrams a ninth-grader could understand, how conservatives, over a period of 30 years, had managed to build a ''message machine'' that today spends more than $300 million annually to promote its agenda." Stein presents a "capacity gap" between the conservative and liberal infrastructures, details how conservative contributions flow to a web of think tanks, advocacy groups, media, and how the Leadership Institute trains young conservatives. One listener remarked, ''Man, that's all it took to buy the country?''

Expect a sophisticated, partisan no-holds-barred contest more among equals in 2008.

Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy
NY Times
July 25, 2004

Digging the Dirt October 22 2000
Peter Marshall
BBC, 20 October, 2000 UK

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  


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