Islamic terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) have proved quite adept at manipulating the mass media to their advantage. They use a combination of technical savvy and ancient techniques for changing minds. This efforts went into high gear in the 1990s because, since the 1980s there has been an unprecedented proliferation of news media. First came round-the-clock TV news that was available worldwide. As that continued to spread in the 1990s the Internet appeared and the proliferation of news outlets accelerated. While it was nice to have news round-the-clock and with the help of the Internet, from anywhere on the planet, often in real time, there were some downsides. Major problems were created by the fierce competition for audience. That led to a ruthless approach to presenting the news. It became more important to “attract eyeballs” than reporting the news accurately. That also led to more propaganda as governments and special interest groups found that if their message were packaged the right way lies would be more convincing than the truth.
All this was more evolution than revolution because starting in the late 19th century a growing number of powerful propaganda methods and techniques for controlling public opinion were developed. Many of these techniques are actually ancient but never before have they been used so intensively, persistently, and in greater variety to such a large audience.
This sort of thing goes back a long way. Two thousand years ago the ancient Romans saw schools of rhetoric and oratory as the best place to send bright young men with potential to be leaders. There schools taught the use of rhetoric, logic and persuasion to make a point and convince people. Public speaking (or dictating speeches to a scribe) were the way you got your persuasive ideas into circulation. Some of the techniques those students used are still studied and many of these ancient methods evolved and mutated into modern propaganda and media spin. The schools at Rhodes were, for well-off ancient Romans, sort of a university education because these institutions were, for centuries, excellent at teaching rhetoric and oratory.
Ancient leaders understood propaganda and spin. Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great controlled what version of events was distributed as official, or even unofficial, news. And in ancient Egypt, where a permanent record of government achievements was painted or carved into the walls of government structures, archeologists have only recently discovered that many of those official records were subject to a lot of spin. Many of those ancient records, it turned out, were lies, told in order to influence public opinion. In the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte tightly controlled the distribution of news in France and his conquered territories. And that trend just kept going, especially once the radical socialist movements (especially fascism and Russian communism) got hold of it in the early 20th century.
There came to be a body of techniques that are most effective. Here they are and if you spend any time at all consuming mass media, you will find these techniques familiar. That, in itself, is scary but you decide.
Guilt-By-Association is used to discredit someone by associating them with an unattractive person, idea, or organization. It doesn't matter if there is an actual association or not. The simplest technique is to call people you don’t like a fascist, racist, infidel, bigot, terrorist, or whatever suits your situation. In ancient times you were accused of being a fan of Carthage or Persia. But this is too simple. To do real damage you want to link others to vile organizations or ideas and this takes a little more effort, and you may have to use some of the other techniques listed here.
Then there is the ancient and still useful “backstroke”. This means systematically criticizing and demeaning whatever you are trying to discredit. None of these snide or critical remarks may, by themselves, inflict much damage, but if you keep doing it some real damage is done and the position, person, or situation you don’t like loses popularity.
Another ancient favorite is misinformation. This works best if you are subtle but the main idea is to twist information to your own ends. A common use of this is in movie advertising, where if the movie is a real dog, publicists can selectively take positive comments from bad reviews and create the illusion that the film is better than it actually is. This sort of thing can land you in court with well-financed reviewers but twisting information to better suit your goals works if you can do it convincingly and not get caught by publicists or lawyers.
Another tactic that goes in and out of style is over-Humanization. Including a sympathetic personal story is often effective, no matter how odious the reality is. For example, during the war in Iraq the Sunni minority (20 percent of the population) had exploited and terrorized the majority (Shia, Kurds, and Christians) for centuries. The Sunni were rich because they took most of the oil revenue as well. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown by a U.S. led invasion in 2003, those who opposed this operation had no trouble finding Sunni families (who were now poor and not powerful at all) who could tell sad stories of fathers and brothers killed by the Americans and the family reduced to poverty and oppression. Not revealed was that the lost menfolk were often members of the security services that had been killing and terrorizing Iraqis for years and grabbing most of the oil wealth. The Sunni Arab Iraqis were also the best educated segment of the population and often spoke English and other foreign languages. Journalists looking for sympathetic victims always had Sunni Arabs ready to step up and give the human side. What was rarely mentioned was that most of the terrorism in Iraq (that killed over 50,000 Iraqis in five years) was carried out by the Sunni Arab minority, who felt it was their right to rule and get most of the oil income. No one tried to humanize that angle. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), founded and run by these same Iraqis, is killing even more people.
Name calling is officially the oldest trick in the book. It is cheap and easy. Just calling someone a nasty term doesn’t work so well anymore because of overuse. So you have to be more subtle and clever. A variation on name calling is “He Said, She Said”. This is a technique whereby you can say something you know isn't true, or isn't fair, but want to say it anyway. To do that simply attribute the comment to someone else, preferably someone highly respected who says a lot of things. With Internet and search engine skills you can quickly find something a better person said that can be twisted to your ends. By invoking someone more respected to do your lying for you it’s possible to win some immediate advantage.
Another ancient favorite, even in the age of search engines, is unproven "Facts". This is used when you are frantic to prove a position that is weak (or outright false). Cite impressive sounding "studies", "reports", and "experts" as "proving" your point. The key here is to never mention the study's name, location, where copies can be found, or the conditions specific to the experiments. Again, the Internet cuts both ways and this technique is short term. In the past you could get a lot farther with convincing but false facts.
Another ancient standby is lying sometimes (rather than all the time). If you can lie convincingly (few people can) you have an edge here. As the old saying about Hollywood goes, “Sincerity is everything, if you can fake that you’ve got it made.” But you must use this sparingly lest you be tagged a frequent liar. A variation is telling the truth, for a while anyway. If the buildup in your argument is true, you build confidence in your honesty that can then be betrayed with a useful (to yourself) lie or misrepresentation.
A popular conversational gambit is not talking at all about something and it can be very useful in Information War. This selective ignorance is a favorite technique of state controlled media. Thus, in the old Soviet Union you never heard about large scale disasters, serial killers, or areas suffering from pollution. This all came out after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and was demoralizing for many Russians, who always felt their police state was a better place to live in than it actually was. Governments still try to “control the message” and suppress bad news. What you don’t hear about doesn’t exist (until you become one of the victims). The Internet has made this technique much more difficult, which is why so many countries spend a lot of money to censor the Internet. If little lies don’t work try the “one-one punch”. This is where you pretend to represent two sides but one side gets a couple of great lines, the other side gets a lame line. A variation on the old “damning with faint praise” technique.
Another selective presentation technique is the use of subtle inaccuracies or a dismissive tone. This often involves misstating a topic, often a serious one, and pretending any objections or concerns about that are silly, unrealistic, or just not necessary. The current debate over climate change brings out a lot of this because many climate professionals are not in agreement with the “consensus” on just what is changing and why. This has led to more and more embarrassments for proponents as the experts eventually get enough people to take a look at the facts. Examples are the old “hockey stick” prediction of historical temperature that tried to ignore the well documented “little ice age” that lasted from the 13th to the 19th century. There were also false reports of glacial melting that did not match reality but were believed for a while because of too much propaganda and not enough facts. In the last decade a lot of people have lost faith in the “consensus,” which goes to show you that all the techniques here tend to have short shelf lives.
Selective presentation is often used in conjunction with “volume” and “coordination”. Volume is merely a deluge of the same story line everywhere, until it becomes dominant, and the media's view of it becomes the dominant view. The mass media loves this one because it can make any story “true” even if it isn’t. The mass media tend to follow each other and you will often find that all the "news" stories about a given current event seem to draw a similar conclusion about it. When you notice this, just ask yourself if it's probable that, in a nation of nearly 320 million, no one has a legitimate opposing opinion. This is why the traditional mass media does not like the Internet, where convincing facts or opinions that contradict the mass media truth can get into circulation. Police states (like China) particularly hate this.
Coordination occurs when a number of likeminded journalists all report the same angle at about the same time. This really doesn't require a conspiracy, there are so few "journalists" and they can easily see what their buddies' takes are on issues, then parrot the same line. This also occurs in any large organization (corporation, university, government bureaucracy). Some cultures are more into this than others. In Japan there is a saying that, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
If all else fails you can try fogging an issue. This is often called the total nonsense gambit. Sometimes certain groups have an interest in making sure that as few people pay attention to an issue as possible. A good propagandist can write a long, nonsensical article for the purpose of confusing the majority of readers, who themselves work hard all day. It doesn't take much for them to see a catchy headline, then begin to dig into a long rambling article, then throw their hands up and say "I don't have the extra energy to decipher this!" The reader is correct, the fault is with the propagandist. The fog is often reinforced by distracting or absurd statistics. With this technique the writer attempts to drag the reader into a debate about what the reader is even seeing. This is usually used when the propagandist is falling behind and must hurry to destroy correct understanding of events.
Some very simple techniques continue to be effective. One of these is the 2,3,4 Technique. Mentioning only one side of an issue two, three, or four times in an article, each time pretending you are about to present the opposing side but you never do. Then the article suddenly ends and the reader feels bombarded, outnumbered, and alone. Even if the opposing view is held by many people, the author need merely refuse to present that side of the argument. A variation on “2,3,4” is shock and awe. This is when the writer "attacks" the reader viciously at the very outset of the article with the "acceptable" view of the topic. The writer tries to "beat it into" the reader without any regard to other views.
Another sneaky, but basic tactic is simply framing the debate. Setting an argument around two "alternatives" which you would prefer, rather than the true alternatives. A variation on that is “token equal time”. Sometimes a weak, tiny understatement is added to a propaganda piece, apparently so the writer can pretend they had been fair. This technique is quite common, it consists of an article written with entirely one point of view, then at the end a meager statement from the opposing view is printed, it is immediately refuted, then the article either ends or continues on with the preferred point of view.
Framing the debate is often complemented by efforts to "interpret" A Statement. Have you ever seen a writer say that someone said something, then what the person said followed even though it didn't look anything like what the writer claimed was meant? Selective presentation of information by misinterpretation is as good as an outright lie. A variation on that is withholding Information. Is it the same as lying? Some in the media might not want to answer that question.
There are many other techniques, as the last century has been a golden age for this sort of duplicity. The Internet has accelerated the development of new techniques because the web tends to shorten the useful life of these media scams. Now even religious zealots and mass murderers like ISIL are using these tools to get what they want.