Language and Logic: Deconstructing Political Discourse (II)

(Read the initial article here.)

An interesting ramification of communication and persuasion science is the line of study concerned with manipulation strategies and manufacturing consent. The study of media manipulation, persuasion, and propaganda has several theorists, of which Noam Chomsky – the great MIT linguist – is perhaps the best known.

Media manipulation often uses a combination of tactics such as logical fallacies, psychological inclinations, and propaganda techniques. It can range from flat-out deception (hoaxes) and demagogy, to spin and guerrilla marketing. It also includes things like indoctrination, generating compliance, gatekeeping, and consumer psychology.

There is of course a difference between manipulation and legitimate influence. While influence and persuasion are normal components of daily human interactions, manipulation often implies vicious intent and lack of scruples (or a Machiavellian “the end justifies the means” kind of thinking.) In other words, the identifying features of manipulation are self-serving premeditation, and a disregard for truth and for the well-being of others.

According to psychologists (such as Dr. R. Cialdini), persuasion rests on 6 main pillars of influence:

  • social proof (peer pressure or consensus),
  • reciprocity,
  • consistency,
  • scarcity,
  • liking, and
  • authority. (For more on this, please see this older post.)

Influence tactics in communication, decision-making, and negotiation include: availability of vivid, salient information, deliberate framing of issues (framing as a GAIN usually encourages risk-averse response, framing as a LOSS generates more risk-seeking behavior), and anchoring of information (be the first to name a number, for instance).

Propaganda on the other hand is the systematic distribution of  specific, intentionally biased narratives to trigger emotional responses, preferred interpretations and prearranged reactions. Chomsky calls it “opinion engineering” and “selective perception”. Manipulation tactics often have little use for facts, or they twist facts beyond recognition. Propaganda techniques may include (without being limited to): “appeals to fear, statements of prejudice, black-and-white fallacies, disinformation, demonizing the enemy, flag waving, intentional vagueness, oversimplification, and scapegoating. (See also

Below is a summarized list of media manipulation strategies attributed to Chomsky and circulated widely on the Internet. While Chomsky did touch upon many of these topics in his writings (see his book Media Control, for instance), you’ll be surprised to know the list is not his baby. In other words, what’s interesting about this list is the fact that (surprise, surprise…) it is itself… a hoax!

  1. Distraction (diverting attention from important issues by keeping the audience busy and by flooding it with non-essentials; Chomsky calls this “spectator democracy”)
  2. Creating (fake) problems, then offering the solution (problem-reaction-solution or problem-agitate-solution)
  3. The gradual strategy (implementing little by little things that would not be acceptable all at once)
  4. Deferring (presenting a solution as painful but necessary to gain public acceptance for future application; buy-now-pay-later strategy)
  5. Infantilization of information (or, in Transaction Analysis terms, addressing the person in their child self, from a parent position)
  6. Emotionalization of the issue rather than using rational reflection
  7. Encouraging self-blame
  8. Getting to know the individuals better than they know themselves, etc.

As Chomsky put it – reflection, questioning, and “intellectual self-defense” are essential in protecting ourselves from manipulation and propaganda.