The Thirteen Commandments of Propaganda: Its Construction, Dissemination, and Internalization


Definition of propaganda and the purpose of this article

Are the chances better that you’d read this article if I called it The Ten Commandments of Propaganda? The author of the book The Ten Commandments of Propaganda thinks so because you have deep collective associations with the Ten Commandments because of the centuries of propaganda by the Catholic and Protestant Churches. Because this article is rhetoric and not propaganda, I will take my chances, identifying thirteen commandments of propaganda.

In my last article, Speaking with Forked Tongues, I defined propaganda as the deliberate, systematic and often covert attempt by institutional elites to control perceptions, cognitions, emotions and behavior while censoring, hiding, restricting distorting and exaggerating the claims of their opposition. Propaganda can be found in economics textbooks, political campaigns, religious recruiting, news reporting, advertising campaigns, movies, sports and even educational textbooks.

A little less than two years ago I wrote an article called Jacques Ellul: Controversies in Propaganda. The purpose of this article is to explicate the theory of propaganda of Brian Anse Patrick in The Ten Commandments of Propaganda. Secondly and briefly, it will be to compare his theory to that of Ellul.

Most Provocative Points of Ellul’s Propaganda Theory

  • Unlike other theorists, Ellul argued that propaganda served boththe upper classes and the lower classes for different reasons.
  • Unlike other theorists, he understood propaganda as inevitable in modern societies. There is no getting around this.
  • Unlike most other theorists, he saw masses of people as complicit in their own subordination. He saw them neither as victims of circumstance nor as heroic masses.
  • He distinguished between hard and fast political propagandaand soft and slow sociological  He called political propaganda “agitation”. Education is not outside propaganda. It is part of sociological propaganda.
  • He identified two techniques of propagandizing the masses. The first kind is mithridatizationwhich acts like a sedative and sensibilization which is about riling people up.
  • Unlike most other theorists of propaganda, Ellul followed Joseph Goebbels and said that the best propaganda is based on facts.It becomes propaganda with the interpretation of facts. Propaganda based on lies is a sign of weakness.
  • Most propaganda theorists thought the working class was most impacted by propaganda. Ellul argued that it is the upper-middle classes that create the propaganda and are most likely to believe it.
  • Ellul distinguished horizontal propaganda,which was made inside the group, from vertical propaganda, which uses centralized power. An example of horizontal propaganda was the re-educational groups of Yankee soldiers organized by the Chinese communists during Yankee imprisonment.
  • For Ellul, propaganda does not come from the ruling class, but from the upper-middle class.
  • Industrialist capitalist “democracies” need propagandabecause they depend on public opinion, which is disorganized. It requires propaganda to compete with socialist societies.
  • Unlike other theorists, Ellul makes a distinction between ideology and myth and argues that myth is more powerful.
  • His concept of crystallization claims that the individual has latent drives and stereotypes which are vague (based on the work of Karen Horney), and they then become the foundation of propaganda.
  • Unlike other schools of propaganda, Ellul argues that quantitative study of propaganda isn’t effective. One cannot tell how many people are reached and how effective white vs black propaganda is. At what point do you say it failed? At what point does the payoff justify the cost?
  • According to Ellul, psychological propaganda in foreign countries does not work. Propagandists are too ignorant of the attitudes, centers of interest, presuppositions and suspicions of the foreign population.

Thirteen Commandments of Propaganda

  1. Control the information flow by becoming a source or distributor of information

This includes creating news events, press releases, town hall meetings, scientific reports, op-ed pieces, direct mail appeals, talk show appearances, books, think tanks and commissions. It means creating novelties and hiring screen writers for movies. Many ideas are testing out the public by creating focus groups to see how people respond. This was shown in Parts I and II of Adam Curtis documentary The Century of the Self. Another technique was in the creating of Gallup polls which surveyed the opinions of Mordor’s citizens about sociological and political hot topics to see what floats and what doesn’t.

  1. Use black and white absolutes

This was included in my previous article Speaking in Tongues in that it used loaded language, specifically virtue and vice words. Propaganda does not seem to work well when there seem to exist only many shades of gray. It is successful when it paints in broad, bold brushstrokes complicated social reality into a melodramatic, dichotomous struggle between good guys and bad guys. Nazi’s terms such as Jewish “bacillus” (parasites) to define the Jews helped the extermination process. Once the Jews were officially defined as the “parasitic nation of Judea” it became easier to do horrible things to them. The same is true with what was done to Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. Conspiracy theories are perfect frameworks for black and white thinking.

Expect that as Mordor revs up its propaganda machine against China, Chinese images will appear, just like the image at the beginning of this article. Here the Chinese are wallowing in opium dens making them seem like a decadent culture. What is absent from the propaganda poster is the story of how the British brought opium to China to begin with.

  1. Crafting the message so it resonates with what is already in people’s heads in terms of their values and beliefs

One of the two most common misunderstandings about propaganda is that propagandists want to introduce something new. Propagandists cannot afford to risk time, effort and resources on messages that might not fly. They need to work with the beliefs and commitments that people already have and just interpret the meaning differently. All a propagandist has to do to create negative propaganda is use propaganda which violates these values in order to drum up hostility among the natives against their supposed enemy. In psychological warfare, predictably, the CIA trots out its tired old list of atrocity stories of the enemy – eating babies, various betrayals to family and any of the violations of evolutionary psychology to work people up into supporting the latest war.

Neither is it true that propaganda is filled with lies. It is true that black propaganda does this, but the use of black propaganda is a sign that propaganda’s messages come out of weakness rather than strength. Following Goebbels, Patrick says propaganda must be factual. It in the interpretation of the facts that propaganda makes its move. In addition to facts, there must be something inexorable about the interpretation as if it could not be any other way. It also must seem necessary, as if any other interpretation would lead to a disaster. Finally, the message must seem to have legitimacy, with the weight of the authorities and the ages behind it.

  1. Address psychological, spiritual and social needs of the population

 Over two thousand years ago Patrick points out, Aristotle identified what made people happy. He included security, the independent enjoyment of goods, health, wealth, friendship, good children, good birth and pleasant old age. Patrick says these are the same values American politicians draw from. The differences between people in different cultures is the order of these values, not the values themselves. In addition, what is important to people will draw their attention. Lastly, the biological need for food, sex and economic survival is sure to draw people out.

Today Patrick says modern mass society the media person is a strange hybrid of neurotic insecurity and solipsistic egomania. A mass individual is socialized to think himself unique and inviolable in his opinion and in his voting. Propaganda must appeal to this.

Propaganda must appeal to the individual’s identity, his ego, his power and his efficacy. The person must feel like he belongs somewhere, that he is wanted and useful. Lastly, propaganda must give the individual a sense of understanding the world, where it is going along with addressing the political anxiety that develops because of an absence of reassurance about direction. It also helps for the propaganda to have the appearance of hidden underground knowledge that is revealed only to superior beings.

  1. Censoring stories or contrary information

Even if you control the content and sources of information, even if you hammer your message into dualistic opposites and even if you appeal to the beliefs and values of the audience, the message of propaganda will be weakened if the beliefs, values, movements, parties and programs of its opposition are allowed to be aired publicly. Propaganda must actively suppress its opposition. Patrick’s most blatant example of this is Britain’s cutting the transatlantic cable from Germany during the World War I. A weaker version of this is to make sure that stories that run against propaganda never get to the public through the press. For over two decades an organization called Project Censored comes out with a book which, among other things, contains 25 of the top censored stories every year. In the 2022 edition, here are some of the stories:

  1. Prescription Drug Costs Set to Become a Leading Cause of Death for Elderly Americans
  2. Journalists investigating the Financial Crimes Threatened by Elites
  3. Historic Wave of Wildcat Strikes for Worker Rights
  4. Google’s Union-Busting Methods Revealed
  5. Police Use of Dogs as Instruments of Violence Targets People of Color
  6. Corporate Media Sideline Health Experts during Pandemic
  7. US Factory Farming a Breeding Ground for Next Pandemic
  8. New Wave of Independent News Sources Demonized by Google-Owned You Tube
  9. Conservative Christian Groups Spend Globally to Promote Anti-LGBTQ Campaigns
  1. Use of group pressure to horizontally shape beliefs and behaviors

Many, many people imagine propaganda works like the spokes of a wheel. In the center is the propagandist sending out information to separate the spokes. The relationship between the spokes has nothing to do with propaganda. But Patrick rightly claims horizontal propaganda (relationships between groups) is perhaps the most effective way yet of sustaining a propaganda message. It extends, supplements and complements centralized, authoritative bureaucratic propaganda. In the case of the Milgram experiment, the “teachers” obeyed the authorities not just because the authorities seemed legitimate, but because other members of the group were also shocking people. Maoist Chinese communists relied on hammering their propaganda in a centralized way. But they also wisely held writing contests for groups in which the winner of the essay would be the one that most successfully denounced US imperialism. These essays were then discussed in a groupsetting where the content of the essays reinforced the propaganda of the communists. In a text I used to use in teaching my Brainwashing, Propaganda and Rhetoric class, the author pointed out that when Yankee soldiers were asked why they stuck out horrendous situations, it wasn’t because of obedience to their officers and the propaganda of patriotism. It was because they didn’t want to let their comrades down.

In cults, the central propaganda comes from the cult leader. But the cult leader by themselves is not strong enough to break the bond between the recruit and their family and friends. However, the propaganda is sustained by fellow cult members, especially when they are living together. The pressure of horizontal propaganda has often been strong enough to break the loyalty of the recruit to their own family. This is why families hire cult counselors to intervene to get their children out of the cult.

A less heavy-headed approach can be seen in AA groups. The centralized propaganda of Alcoholics Anonymous are the twelve steps. But when a person declares that they are ready to graduate from AA, even the best sponsor will not be as successful in pressuring the person leaving to stay as much as having to face the group at one of their meetings. Similar processes are in place in the horizontal sustaining of propaganda in DARE and in Amway groups.

When propagandists bombard a mass population, they never know how it will be perceived. There will always be people who are apathetic, recalcitrant or openly rebellious and are invisible to the vertical propagandists. However, once propaganda becomes horizontalized, groups have a far better record of winning the recruit to their side and for marginalizing or driving out deviants.

Propagandists also have ways of controlling groups by spouting an ideology that seems to be the opposite of the propagandists’ attempts at control. Some of these include “Team” management; “Democratization” of the workplace; “quality” circles; “shared” governance. Once groups have begun implementing the ideology, it only becomes stronger and more difficult for people to recognize that team management hides the old authority; that democracy in the workplace is still controlled by managers; quality circles rarely result in higher pay for workers and shared governance still has the same bosses at the top. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  1. Cognitively penetrate and stick

How does the propagandist get attention in an age of attention deficit? How do they sustain the attention once it has been noticed? Two means of being noticed are novelty and humor. In the case of humor, from what I am told, there are an extraordinary number commercials during the Superbowl which are dominated by humor. A person is more likely to remember a brand when a commercial made them laugh.

In order to sustain a person’s attention, the propagandist has to compete with many other propagandists from the fields of advertising, politics, economics and sports. An essential strategy is to burrow a hole into the consciousness by repeating the message. In addition, these messages must be simple and easy to understand, filled with slogans and with accompanying images. Popular music is a great example. I still remember the lyrics of rock and roll songs from 50 years ago because the verses were repeated, the music was simple (think of Motown) and there were the accompanying images of the musicians. For two thousand years the discipline of rhetoric has studied the ways in which people can have their minds and actions changed. Rhetorical devices – metaphors, acronyms, alliteration, and  rhyme – make language memorable, dramatic and visual.

  1. Personalize events

Many years ago, I  worked as a counselor for an organization called Men Overcoming Violence. It was a 40-week program for men who were violent with their partners. Our job was to teach them better communication skills. Periodically we would hire outside speakers to give talks for the public that was related to our work. One time we had two presenters, each taking the opposite stance about the extent that violence was inevitable in men. The first presenter approached the problem statistically. He presented research from Darwinian evolutionary psychology. He also presented cross-cultural research claiming that men were nine times more likely to be violent than women. The second presenter took the case study approach. They brought up a man who had successfully graduated from our program. He told the audience the story of how he was once violent with his wife, but thanks to our program he had changed. Then he called on the man’s wife who testified about how much he had changed. There was not a dry eye in the house. After the two talks we asked the audience via secret ballot whether they thought men could ever be no more violent than woman. Guess who won? The personal story won out over the statistics.

When we hear of mass shootings in the news are we presented with statistics on how many the police have killed in the course of the year? No. We are presented with the personal stories of either the victim or the slayer. Patrick points out that when a lawyer defends a multiple slayer to the jury, he is likely to lead with “my client made a mistake”. Everyone makes mistakes, right? It could have been you. Switching to cinema, whatever the movie you’re watching, you can be sure part of the trailer line will be “one man’s quest…to overcome adversity”. Heroes and villains – not sociology – dominate the popular imagination. What propagandists fear most is masses of people responding against the propagandists in a collective manner. In making the problem personal and psychological, collective responses are less likely.

  1. Bureaucratize events

The flip side of personalizing events is to bureaucratize them, that is to convey the message that there is nothing that can be done to combat the propaganda. It removes the question of responsibility. To speak in a bureaucratic passive voice depersonalizes decisions which are ugly, stupid and arbitrary. Political scientist Edelman says the main function of modern mass political language is to sharpen the pointless to show some interest and blunt the too sharply pointed.

In their book Bureaucratic Propaganda, David Altheide and John Johnson say that bureaucratic propaganda is used in how newsrooms use records; how tv ratings are constructed and interpreted and how religious movements count souls. Bureaucratic propaganda also includes keeping a transmission of records about what an organization does, how the police magnify or minimize its reports and how the military counts its casualties. Patrick points out:

Military censors or media relations personnel avoid news images that show the caskets for the people on their side of the conflict, especially in quantity. In the first World War, despite nearly a million United Kingdom military dead, no British newspaper reputedly even showed a photography of a dead British soldier. Seeing actual bodies shocks and reduces morale. (148)

In the political context, with competition for scarce funds, prestige and continued political support make records creation a self-serving activity. The capitalist state fudges rate of unemployment, the gross national product, the rate of inflation and the number of Covid cases to reassure the public that it has everything under control.

With bureaucratic propaganda the public gets what Goffman called the “front” part of the organization and never the back side. Unlike traditional propaganda, bureaucratic propaganda does not try to reinforce deeply held beliefs, but instead the legitimacy of an existing organization through painting a contrived, managed and decontextualized picture. The appeal of bureaucratic propaganda is not to economic, political or advertising forces, but to the scientific validity, rationality and objectivity of an organization which will hopefully not be investigated. Officials are encouraged along with their subordinates to use two or more sets of records. One for the inspection of other officials and organizations and one for the privacy of insiders only.

At the same time, bureaucratic propaganda can be used for political purposes while hiding under the cloak of dispensing information.

In its nearly half century of official existence, the US Information Agency employed several thousand persons, mainly for “informing people” in foreign countries (especially the Soviet bloc) via news, education and entertainment broadcasts. (175)

Op-ed pieces are another way of introducing scientific sub-propaganda to an unaware public. Gallup polls supposedly do a “need assessment” for social services or political programs and lo and behind, the bureaucratic organization is found to support public needs. On the other hand, if a research proposal contradicts the purpose of the bureaucratic organization it is not favorably reviewed or funded.

Why people accept bureaucratic propaganda is partly because of the reasons Weber gave in his description of a bureaucracy. There are rational rules which govern an office (not capacious); people compete for their roles (vs nepotism) and are trained in the roles they play. They receive a regular salary and work is supervised. There are records kept of their work.

  1. Demonstrate good ethics

Patrick points out that in Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle, ethos was the most important element in persuasion. Though propaganda is different than rhetoric in many ways, including that it is impersonal, mass produced and standardized, it is still worth keeping in mind. One of the myths of propaganda is that it does not try to be moral. On the contrary, there is a need for conspicuous displays of ethics and morals in propaganda. One instance of political propaganda is Kipling’s justification for British colonialism as “The White Man’s Burden”.

Patrick points out that a triumph of British and American propaganda during the 20th century was the successful attachment during both World Wars to the label of propaganda solely to Germans. For many, propaganda is associated forever with Joseph Goebbels. When one says propaganda people quickly think of jackboots and swastikas, but these are a direct result of Anglo-American propaganda. Later on, the same thing was done to the Soviet Union and Japan.

The truth was that it was British and Americans who were best at propaganda. It was Bernays who first called propaganda by its real name. He then wisely switched it to “public relations” when he realized propaganda had some nasty political implications which would expose what he was actually doing. Americans disguised their propaganda efforts under euphemistic organizations such as the Committee of Public Information in World War I.  In World War II there was The Office of Wartime Information.

Good ethics in propaganda means keeping control at all times and showing poise in difficult circumstances. Losing control in public with displays of anger show there might be conflicts between elites or a lack of confidence in propaganda. Secondly, propagandists want to appear as moderates, not as “extremists”. Third, propagandists must be dressed in a respectable manner, be in good shape physically and attractive. Further, other signs  of good ethics is that people are open and capable of handling disagreement. Being closed and defensive draws suspicion. Lastly, propagandists should have ethical codes of conduct, mission and vision statements which elevate propagandistic activities to the level of the broader social services.

  1. Dispense selective interpretation of facts

As much as possible propagandists start with facts. What they do then is interpret the facts in a particular way. What the propagandist doesn’t tell you is that there may be four or five other ways of interpreting the facts and connecting the dots that are suppressed. For example, a Freudian propagandist may tell an audience at a psychoanalytic conference that depression is repressed anger. A graduate student may be very impressed. But what the Freudian propagandist will not discuss is that there are cognitive, behavioral, physiological theories of depression as well, and some of the better follow-up results than Freudians.

  1. Distance the propaganda from its source by using front groups like foundations, think tanks, and research patronage

Propagandists rarely go to the public directly. They mediate their message through intermediate organizations such as universities, foundations, think tanks, policydiscussion group, and other organizations I’ll discuss shortly. This gives the propagandist credibility – or the benefit of the doubt that goes with organizations that appear to be just disinterested third parties.

Political sociologist G. William Domhoff in his great book The Powers That Be, lays out a political funnel through which propaganda is disseminated. He starts out by saying the three most powerful economic organizations in Mordor are the Council of Foreign Relations, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Round Table. It is through these three organizations that all conservative and liberal propaganda is spun. The first level of dissemination is through the board of trustees of universities and through grants that come from foundations. These organizations then set up think tanks. Centrist think tanks are the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institute. There are lots of right-wing think tanks including the American Enterprise Institute; the Heritage Foundation; the Cato Institute; The Center for Strategic and International Studies; the Hoover Institute and the Manhattan Project.

The only liberal Think Tank is the Ford Foundation. Johnny-come-lately social democratic think tanks are the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

The third level down are policy discussion groups from which testimonies, reports, books and editorials flow. The fourth level is the result of these policy discussion groups that go through mass media newscasts along with the Chambers of Commerce.

All these filters peddle the same conservative-liberal propagandistic line. Willingness to toe the line determines which political candidates are chosen from either party.

The Republicans and Democrats reproduce the same frameworks that were built at the university and foundation level. It doesn’t matter whether these candidates understand upper levels or not. In fact, it is more convincing if they don’t understand what they are doing because it appears that they are making up their own minds in what they say.

  1. Accommodate informational needs and habits of professionals

Aiming propaganda at a mass audience is often wastefully ineffective.  It is a shotgun approach because the cynical Patrick says the masses are more likely to be apathetic and inattentive to anything other than sex and food. As Jacques Ellul has revealed, it is not the ruling class that creates propaganda. It is the upper-middle classes that are the explainers of capitalism to the rest of the population. That means that propagandists have to create, package and distributute propaganda in ways that suit the informational requirements and professional routines of journalists, editors, script writers, interest groups, voluntary associations, churches, trade associations, blogs,  and news media.

For the past 100 years since the development of modern mass media, propagandists have provided pre-written news articles for use of journalists known as “press releases which benefit media organizations because fewer journalists are needed to process stories. (123)

Most quotes from officials found in press releases are simply made up by the propagandists who write the releases. (124)

What Would Jacques Ellul Say?

Personalizing events

One of the things that would have surprised Ellul is the power that personalization has in moving people. France is less individualistic than Mordor’s ideology  and people living in Mordor have become more individualistic in the past sixty years since Ellul wrote his book.

Propaganda in black and white

Ellul was more interested in the subtleties of propaganda. While he did make a distinction between propaganda designed to rile people up (which he called sensibilization) and to cool people out (which he called mithridatization), he was more interested in propaganda that pacified people.

Horizontal propaganda

Ellul did have room for horizontal propaganda in his system but he might have been surprised by the extent it has been developed in adding members of cults and AAA to the mix.


About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

View all posts by Bruce Lerro →

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