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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Hidden Persuaders

A landmark book written in the late 1950’s by author Vance Packard, Hidden Persuaders, offered a shocking insight into the world of motivational research and its use in advertising. By incorporating subtle, often unconscious cues in the language and images employed, advertising had become a form of psychological manipulation playing on the fears and desires of the public according to Packard. Following these revelations, Packard advanced an even more prescient insight in his 1964 book, The Naked Society. He argued that advertisers’ unrestricted access to private information was more than an invasion of privacy, its use in crafting campaign messages was nothing short of an immoral assault on the political process.

It might seem like old news today to jaded consumers and a cynical electorate, but Packard’s thesis is more pertinent than ever. In fact, Americans are so acutely aware that advertising, and by extension, political advertising are a form of theater calculated to play on bias and emotional triggers that the conditions were ripe for an all-out assault on all forms of media. The genius of the attack on unwelcome information as “Fake News” while a foreseeable consequence of the denial of reality practiced by both governments and individual politicians has been wildly successful, casting doubt on easily proven, demonstrably factual events. It is no longer absurd to watch members of Congress, current and past leaders categorically contradict or deny statements and actions that occurred mere months and sometimes days in the past, taped, photographed, and documented in every possible way. Any contradiction is dismissed as fake, and the media outlets bold enough to attempt objective reporting are labeled corrupt.

We can readily observe this process occurring in the current coverage of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Outright repression of footage showing the consequences of Russia’s attack in Russia, China and a few allied nations is to be expected, but it does not stop there. As we saw during the 2016 and 2020 elections, Russian and Chinese agents have harnessed social media, the one form of influence and propaganda that fake news adherents regard as credible, to feed misinformation and dissension to the conspiracists and outliers who are only too hungry for proof that their particular form of irrationality is the truth. It is a stunning bit of perversity to view traditional media outlets as universally false, while crediting anonymously sourced fictions as the truth. Worse yet, some media amplify these manipulations on air by innuendo and repetition with virtually no effort expended to verify or authenticate the assertions of propagandists posing as journalists.

The irony should not be lost on us. The Internet lauded a decade ago as the long sought agent of change that would lift the fog of mis and disinformation has become the chief tool harnessed by not only foreign governments but domestic instigators to sow dissent and raise havoc around every controversial issue from climate change to vaccines, child trafficking and so much more. What is more astounding is that indeed, the Internet actually does offer the tools to question the claims made by the peddlers of disunion, but few will take the time to do so, or seek out only those sources which agree with their assertions, regardless of their validity. The scriptural idiom, there are none so blind as will not see,” is an apt summation of the current state of affairs. The successful discrediting of facts we do not wish to acknowledge, and blind acceptance of those which resonate with our pre-existing bias is of course a sadly human trait, and not unique to the present era. What is exceptional is the cognitive dissonance that attends every claim. We disavow the treason of emotion that betrays rationality.

It would be wrong to lay blame entirely at the feet of the manipulators. They are not especially gifted and most certainly not subtle in their attempts to misdirect. It is we who must bear responsibility for blind acceptance, for unquestioning assertions and for the triumph of fiction over fact. Faced with dueling interpretations and a firehose of information from which to choose, we would sooner parse the truth from YouTube videos and Facebook memes than a medical journal, investigative journalist, or the Library of Congress. If we conclude that this message is true and that false on no other basis than agreement with our own views we are culpable for the decline of our social, economic and political fortunes. We will have become victims of our own ignorance and opinion and our decisions in the voting booth no more sacred than our choice of breakfast cereal. The drafters of the Constitution are perhaps guilty of a conceit, that a free people would always choose to be informed, to listen and judge with a critical eye and ear. Were they mistaken?

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