In our last propaganda psychology episode, we looked at how propaganda can be used to gather support for a regime. Then we looked at the social and cognitive psychology behind that. In this episode, we need to look at how propaganda can be used to disunities and confuse the opposition to a regime or creator of propaganda. This is a great political psychology episode you don’t want to miss!
This episode has been sponsored by Social Psychology: A Guide To Social and Cultural Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
How Does Propaganda Work Against The Opposition?
In addition to gathering support for a regime, propaganda is very effective at incapacitating opposition, both within and outside a country. All because of a very key insight about collective action. Such as people protesting in the street against a regime and in other countries people protesting against them too.
However, this all requires a critical component.
This all requires successful coordination. As well as this is one of the reasons why during the Arab Spring Tunisia was the only country that become a democracy afterwards.
And during the past few months (as I write this) we have all thought, asked or heard “why don’t Russians protest or revolt?” Whilst we answered these questions to some extent in the last episode, there are other reasons too.
Due to the intuition seems compelling enough. If your government is doing war crimes, bombing maternity hospitals and children, then you protest and try to stop them. After all if you had thousands of people protesting, it is very hard to stop them or crackdown on them.
Even though modern states try to.
However, as Westerners it is very easy for us to say “why don’t they protest” because we live in liberal, free countries where even though our governments occasionally make massive mistakes. We can protest with minimal risk, but people who live under authoritarian regimes don’t have that luxury.
Since if these people protest they could be arrested, beaten, tortured and probably disappear for good.
Therefore, whilst massive protests can be effective, smaller protests can be extremely costly for individuals.
Leading to opponents facing a coordination problem because if a person is confident that others will protest, then they believe they should protest. If they aren’t confident, then they may decide protesting is too risky.
Overall, within a country, propaganda can be used to cause a coordination problem. Since if the propaganda makes people believe others aren’t protesting. Then people may decide that protesting is too risky, leading them not to protest.
How Does Propaganda Work Against International Opposition?
In addition, international opposition needs to coordinate too. Due to sanctions need coordination and they’re very costly to different countries. For example, in the UK, we’re already starting to fill the cost of the Russian sanctions as they’re a factor in the increased cost of living crisis according to Sky News and Government sources.
And this is before we consider all the dirty Russian money in the UK and more specifically London.
Also countries like Germany and Italy rely heavily on Russian gas and oil more than other countries. So many sanctions made against Russian imports would hit them harder than other countries.
As a result, sanctions require a very high level of consensus to be effective either because they’re decided collectively (like at EU level) or because they need a lot of countries to participate for them to be effective.
For example, if you’re going to sanction Russian Oligarchs. Then you need to make sure a number of countries sanction them so they simply can’t move their money from one western country to another. The more countries that sanction them, the less options they have to move their money around. Hence making life a lot harder for them.
As well as with countries facing different costs for implementing these sanctions, they have different criteria for deciding whether to join in the enforcing or not.
Therefore, because opponents of a regime need to coordinate their needs, propaganda can be used to make their coordination more difficult. With propaganda’s aim always being to confuse, divide and incapacitate all possible opponents.
How Does Propaganda Cause Confusion?
With propaganda creating lots of fake narratives, it can help a regime to reduce the certainty of an opposition’s public opinion within the country and others about the truth. All because it is hard to be angry and want to take action if people aren’t sure whether something is actually happening or not.
Furthermore, the World War 2 war criminal, Hannah Arendt famously said that the ideal citizen of a totalitarian regime is someone for whom the barrier between truth and false no longer exists.
Within a country where a regime controls public communications, this confusion works at an even more subtle level since even if you don’t believe in the propaganda. You may fear that others may believe it. Resulting in you opting not to protest because you fear not enough other people would.
In the bitter end, even if large numbers of people wanted to protest against a regime, very few might choose to. All because the propaganda convinced them other people wouldn’t protest. In a way, propaganda helps to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How Does propaganda Cause Division?
Propaganda doesn’t only confuse people but it divides them.
Due to whether it is a group of protesters within a country or a group of countries considering sanctions, there will always be various levels of disagreement. So the propaganda uses this to stunning effect since these opponents can be facilitated by propaganda to engage in motivated reasoning in favour of the regime. Which allows the regime to peel away subgroups from an otherwise cohesive whole.
For example, if the UK, Germany or Italy believed sanctioning Russian oil and gas imports would be too costly. Then propaganda could deepen their divides and make these governments believes these sanctions would be a lot more costly than they actually would do. So they abandon plans to sanction these imports.
Overall, this is why international unity is so critical.
How Does propaganda Incapacitate Opposition?
As I preluded to in the section above, when opposition is confused and divided, there is only one outcome. The opposition becomes incapacitated.
Be it thousands of people decide not to protest within a country, or the international community decides not to sanction a regime due to the leaders and public opinion are too divided and making it too risky to move against a country.
This is probably why before (and even now) the reason Russian ambassadors are appearing on all Western TV channels and even at the United Nations trying to spread their lies. All they’re trying to do is confuse the west, the public and leaders into being incapitated.
Finally, this is why false-flag operations are so effective because they blame the victims of the attack as the aggressors, so the domestic and international opposition becomes confused and cannot understand what’s actually going on. Hence, they become confused and this greatly limits their ability to take a clear stance.
Personally, I’ve really enjoyed these past two to political psychology episodes on propaganda. It’s a great topic that is so critical to understand in these troubling times.
So to wrap up, it is a great shame that propaganda can be very effective at both weakening opposition by making the line between truth and lies so blurry. And gathering support for a regime because the people want to believe it.
However, there is great hope because the thing that makes propaganda so effective and predictable is also what makes it fail. When people stop thinking the regime is good for them, propaganda progressively falls on deaf ears and then it stops working.
And what’s currently happening in Ukraine is no exception. At some point the propaganda will fail and then what happens next will be interesting.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s political psychology podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Social Psychology: A Guide To Social and Cultural Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Have a great day!
Political Psychology and Social Psychology Reference:
Mercier, H., 2020. Not born yesterday. Princeton University Press.
Epley, N. and Gilovich, T., 2016. The mechanics of motivated reasoning. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30(3), pp.133-40.
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