12 thoughts from Propaganda (1965) by Jacques Ellul

You’ll never look at news the same way again…

1. Breaking news is brainwashing you. Ellul: “To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection.” When everything is urgent, you are forced to “remain on the surface of the event.” 

2. Jacques Ellul predicted echo chambers: “Those who read the press of their group and listen to the radio of their group are constantly reinforced in their allegiance. We see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself.”

3. Modern man can “never stop to reflect.” He’s not allowed to synthesise his information. Rather, Ellul writes: “One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones.”

4. Clear thought has been replaced by vague feeling: “Modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but be does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them.”

5. Ellul on how the modern man lacks a centre of gravity: “Lacking landmarks, he follows all currents.” His soul is “discontinuous and fragmented.” Life reduced to unconnected moments…

6. Everyone can read but not everyone can think. This makes propaganda more, not less, common. Ellul: “The vast majority of people, perhaps 90 percent, know how to read, but do not exercise their intelligence beyond this. They attribute authority and eminent value to the printed word…they are precisely on the level at which the printed word can seize and convince them without opposition.”

7. Once a person is compromised…once they’ve acted out a lie…they are yours forever. Ellul: “He who acts in obedience to propaganda can never go back. He is now obliged to believe in that propaganda because of his past action. He is obliged to receive from it his justification and authority, without which his action will seem to him absurd or unjust, which would be intolerable.”

8. Propaganda works by channelling the energies of a society’s “fundamentals myths.” These are the central stories operating inside the collective mind: “The myth of happiness, the myth of progress, the myth of the nation.” A skilled propagandist will always borrow from, and build on, the “current beliefs and symbols” of a society.

9. Propagandists set up “psychological levers.” They ensure that “certain words, signs or symbols” start provoking certain reflex actions…and then they wait. The levers can now be turned when and how needed.

10. Indirect propaganda works best. Aggressive attempts at manipulation will fail as people’s defences will go up. But give a man plausible deniability, feed him convenient information, make him feel that he’s “obeying reason” as he follows your command, and you have him where you want him.

11. Lonely, depressed people are the easiest victims of propaganda. Jacques Ellul: “An individual can be influenced by forces such as propaganda only when he is cut off from membership in local groups because such groups are organic and have a well-structured material, spiritual and emotional life; they are not easily penetrated by propaganda.”

12. The conditions of modernity are actually the conditions of unprecedented propaganda: “The permanent uncertainty, the social mobility, the absence of sociological protection and of traditional frames of reference — all these inevitably provide propaganda with a malleable environment that can be conditioned at will. The individual left to himself is defenceless…”


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