Les Sillars – Resist the lure of propaganda


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, December 30th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

AUDIO: [Fanfare]

In World War II Frank Capra produced a series of movies for the U.S. Army. He called the series Why We Fight.

AUDIO: Why are we Americans on the march?

They were intended to motivate new recruits by showing how the Allied cause was just and the Axis powers were not.

AUDIO: What are these two worlds of which Mr. Wallace spoke, the free, and the slave?

REICHARD: WORLD commentator Les Sillars says the films themselves are interesting. But as a journalism professor, he says the important thing is the research that later came out about propaganda.

LES SILLARS, COMMENTATOR: When the U.S. government commissioned Capra, people believed propaganda was very powerful. Patriot newspapers supposedly turned loyal British colonists into radical American revolutionaries. World War One had the first large-scale use of propaganda posters and films. So in World War II…

AUDIO: But before striking, a preliminary step was necessary. From Berlin, from Rome, from Tokyo, the campaign started. Propaganda, to confuse, divide, soften their intended victim.

But very few researchers had examined whether propaganda actually works. So in a famous set of experiments, social scientist Carl Hovland showed the movies to thousands of recruits. His team discovered that the movies had little effect on soldiers’ attitudes.

Hovland was  among the first to conclude that the effects of mass media messages are small and depend on many factors. The perceived power of propaganda plummeted almost overnight, at least among social scientists.

Over the next several decades, researchers realized that mass media messages do influence people in significant ways. But it’s complex and the effects aren’t universal.

I provide my students this history of mass media effects research as a bit of perspective. Journalists can’t just tell people what to think, I say. The social scientists assure us it doesn’t work like that.

Then again, we’ve all heard of people who have been radicalized in our polarized political climate. They’ve been stuck at home during the pandemic watching hours of Fox or CNN or Facebook videos. Now a casual comment about presidential politics or masks or racism is like challenging them to a duel.

Perhaps propaganda is more pervasive and more influential than we realize. French sociologist Jacques Ellul, a Christian, argued in his 1962 book Propaganda that most people are easy prey for propagandists.

People want to adjust themselves to fit the patterns of their societies. Through technology they absorb huge amounts of incoherent, secondhand, and unverifiable information. Then, disconnected from key social groups like churches and families, they look for someone to explain how it all fits together. So, as Ellul explained, the propagandist offers them a reason to exist, participation in important events, and a sense of righteousness. They drink it in and ask for more.

Ellul described this in 1962, when Americans had four channels on TV. Today he’d say we’ve all been propagandized. We’re all online. We all try to fit ourselves to the patterns of our friend groups, our churches’ expectations, or our culture. We’re all looking for someone to help us make sense of a chaotic world.

But Christians are not supposed to be of the world. Just in it. Don’t be conformed to the pattern of this world, as the Apostle Paul commanded. Don’t let yourself be propagandized. Rather, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

I’m Les Sillars.


(Photo/Frank Capra)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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