Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Propaganda: A battle for our hearts and minds?

World War 1  Propaganda and the public mind

As you will be aware, it is now 100 years since Britain entered World War 1. It was a war, as period propaganda claimed, “To end all wars”; we now know how false that claim was. It was also portrayed as a war to protect freedom and to safeguard democracy.

History tells us that propaganda had an enormous impact on the events and outcomes of WW1. Noam Chomsky suggests that one legacy of the ‘Great War’ is that it brought into focus just how effectively the “public mind” could be manipulated by propaganda; thus undermining a basic principle of democracy: the “consent of the governed”. [1]

In the modern world where we live immersed in a sea of information, misinformation and downright deception – vying for our attention and compliance – I wonder if we run the risk of being so acclimatised to its presence that we fail to see its impact on shaping: how we think; the opinions and values we hold; what we do; our ability to make free and reasoned choices and even on how we see and understand ourselves. In one sense we are of course inseparable from the society in which we live, but this still raises the question: how free are we in a 'free society'? And what are the impacts on our health?

A battle for our minds  can we simply walk away?

I think you will agree that our minds are open to suggestion and deception at many levels and from all sides – through TV, newspapers, social networking sites, advergames, through our letter boxes, adverts on bill boards or popping up everywhere on the internet – even within respectable medical journals. This constant stream or torrent of propaganda, persuasion, exploitation and deception – sometimes in our faces, at other times more covert – all in an effort to manipulate what we think, do, and how we spend our money: we are perpetually being told how we should look, what foods to eat, where to shop, what to wear, the fashion to follow, products to buy, the best holiday deals, the pills to perk us up, the perfect cream to prevent wrinkles…

But of course it goes deeper than that.

A society hungry for at least the-appearance-of-science

Perhaps some of the most subtle (and perhaps powerful) influences on our thinking are the oft repeated everyday discourses that have infiltrated our lives and assumed an air of authority way beyond their truth value – I’m thinking of dominant discourses that have set an established or acceptable way of viewing things and govern attitudes and public opinion on health, mental health, democracy, gender, ethnicity, body image, education and the like – that are often reinforced by the repeated, uncritical and careless acceptance of the media and any with vested interests. These attitudes and beliefs then become a fertile ground for manipulation by those with political and/or financial interests. 

More specifically, in the arena of mental health, dominant discourses are fed by a broad diet, including: ‘pop psychology’ and also its overlap with the self-help industry; the deceptive use of medical and/or scientific terminology; the creation and perpetuation of unsubstantiated claims as if they are fact by mental health agencies and professional bodies – often using misleading metaphors that carry popular appeal; direct marketing and misinformation (sometimes downright deceit) by drug companies; and increasingly the misleading use of pseudo-neuroscience lingo, imaging and claims (what Prof Raymond Tallis refers to as “neuromythology” and “neurotrash”) – all in all, a diet that seems to feed and possibly mislead a society hungry for at least the-appearance-of-science to explain and address life’s uncertainties, pain and mysteries.

Media savvy, clever branding, celebrity endorsements and pretty charts

At one time it was the large corporations, the media, and governments that had the greater means to shape and manipulate our thinking; yet today, in the social media age, everyone has the means to promote their ideas. But sincerity and truth can become clouded in a world where news is infused with advertising and the boundaries between good will and the manipulation of others becomes blurred. It worries me when I see groups (including charities) fire out tweets supposedly showing concern for others, but who seem motivated by a need to meet targets; where web chats hosted by "experts" can have the ulterior purpose of drawing in customers (this happens in mental health); and where misleading (out of date and subjective) statistics are frequently circulated to drum up support for particular causes (I see this a lot with children's mental health): this is self-serving, sensationalism and scaremongering. I sometimes wonder if media savvy, clever branding, celebrity endorsements and pretty charts have superseded wisdom and integrity.

The appearance of freedom  consent without consent

This potential for deception and exploitation in the modern world leads me to wonder how free we really are in a so-called free society and to what extent this battle for our minds shapes how we understand ourselves, impacts upon our ‘mental’ health and well-being, and on how we see our place or purpose in society: essentially, who I am and why I am here.

We have perhaps merely the appearance of freedom where our personal decision-making can be little more than “consent without consent”[2] – a term originally used by sociologist Franklin Giddings in the 20th century – whereby we are erroneously led to believe that we are freely making choices [3].

But for a moment, let’s return to the First World War, as in one sense, the seeds of the widespread propaganda and manipulation of our minds today were propagated through those fields of death and decay – the very battles fought to protect our freedom and to safeguard democracy. What I mean by this will soon be clear.

Lured to war – the power of propaganda

Though World War 1 was well well before my time, I did come close to this war for just a moment some years back: I had been asked to help sort through an old suitcase packed full of correspondence; as I sifted through these letters and post cards I realised they had been written by a soldier fighting on the front lines in France during the ‘Great War’. Time seemed to fade as I read them and as I held a small yellow wild flower, still almost as bright as the day it was picked, that he had taken from the Somme – placed carefully in a folded letter – and then posted home to his wife here in England. I now know that there were large patches of Wild Mustard (Yellow Charlock) at the Somme.[4]

There are many amazing things about WW1; not least, that so many young men volunteered to go to the killing fields to be mown down by artillery or gassed to their death – with, for example, nearly 20,000 British deaths (and many more wounded and maimed) on just day one of the Battle of the Somme.

But the soldier I mentioned did survive the Battle of the Somme; in fact, he survived the war and lived to old age. His wife, though, held on to those memories with his letters and flower as she outlived him. A few years after his death, now bedridden, she was helped from her bedroom; noticeably, her husband’s clothes were still across the bottom of their bed as if he had never gone.

Behind the scenes: a battle for minds & hearts – not just a conspiracy theory

News of the loss of husbands, brothers, colleagues and friends did not derail the war recruitment campaign which drew nearly 2½ million volunteers to the theatre of war (what a misleading euphemism that is) prior to conscription in 1916: that propaganda ‘machine’ – driven in part by the covertly set up War Propaganda Bureau here in the UK – churned out many thousands of posters and leaflets to drum up support and sway public opinion. 

This war was not just a battle of tactics, brute force and barbarism on the battlefields but also a battle for peoples’ hearts and minds. Misinformation proved to be a powerful force; indeed, the amazing power to manipulate the minds of people and nations to such a great effect got one man, among others, thinking. If propaganda could change the course of war among nations, it could surely manipulate a nation in peace time too: meet Eddie Bernays – the “father of spin”.

Edward Bernays (1891-1995 yes, that’s correct, he lived to 103), nephew to Sigmund Freud, was familiar with the power of spin as he was a member of the US Creel Commission that was instrumental, through its propaganda campaign, in swaying US public opinion to support their entry into WW1. He had also noted how effective propaganda was for the British during the war.

Puppets on a string

I mention Bernays as his 1928 public relations manual – Propaganda: the Public Mind in the Making – seems to describe so clearly the manipulation and deception that is now so typical of aspects of business and politics in our democracy, where a minority hold most of the wealth and decision-making power. Ironically, his manual reads more like a blue print for a more totalitarian society rather than for the democratic society we would hope for. You can read the full text – over 150 pages – here.

But here the cat is out the bag: we can see the makings of an unequal and divided society that is modelled on a top-down rather than genuine participatory democracy – with a cocktail of capitalist-consumerist thinking blended in; and ‘the public’, that's you and me, viewed as mere puppets on a string. You can get a taste from some quotes in the graphic below.


Shaping what we eat and our thinking around food

The food and drinks industry is a clear example of Bernays' model in practice. Over the past 50 years the industry's advertising has lured countless millions, from cradle to grave (literally), into eating poor quality, processed, and adulterated food; meanwhile, a few major companies have become fat on the profits and wield enormous power and influence (see image below) – and let's not forget the McDonalds-type fast food chains and the targeting of children through games, gifts, gimmicks, advergames and the like – appearing to offer choice whilst manipulating the minds and habits of our children too. This is, to coin a phrase in the tradition of Big Pharma: 'Big Foodma'. I'm no scaremonger, but this battle by Big Foodma can of course lead to all manner of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes (potentially causing blindness and other severe disabilities) and early death.


It is perhaps easy to forget, amid the constant barrage of food advertising, especially on TV, that the building blocks for the neurotransmitters in our brains – the nerve pathways that the drug companies tell us need modifying through 'mood stabilisers' and 'antidepressants' and the like – are formed and maintained through a nutritious diet. So for our brains to produce serotonin, for example, we need the amino acids L-tryptophan and 5-HTP in our diet. In addition, a nutritious diet provides us with the necessary vitamins and other micro-nutrients essential for mental and physiological health, including hormonal balance.

That's not of course to say that all answers to life's woes come in the form of food (or drink!). And let's not assume that natural automatically means healthy or that the health food and supplement industries are not there for mega bucks either.

A sad casualty of the propaganda model of the food & drinks industry is that many of us fail to realise the extent that foods have on our thinking, moods, behaviour, and mental stability – as well as on our physical health. If this were a book, the impact of diet on our mental well-being would be a chapter.

A propaganda model of health  where our health is the casualty

The fact that boundaries between health and sickness are often really quite arbitrary leaves the door open for exploitation; thus, many aspects of our everyday lives are misleadingly being portrayed as ill-health. This may be good for the drug industry but it may not be good for our health. We get this with, for example, childhood behaviour problems, bereavement, and the ageing process. Simply tweaking a threshold, as was done with osteoporosis (the thinning of bones) led to an 85% increase in patients overnight [5]. The problem is, there is a strong cultural expectation that healthcare decisions are usually in our best interests, when this is not necessarily true. As Dr Iona Heath says, it is “in the interests of pharmaceutical companies to extend the range of the abnormal so that the market for treatments is proportionately enlarged.”[6]

We get a similar pattern in mental health.  As Dr Allen Frances writes: “There's been a rapid diagnostic inflation over the course of the last 35 years, turning problems of everyday life into mental disorders resulting in excessive treatment with medication. Pretty soon everyone's going to have a mental disorder or two or three, and it's time we reconsider how we want to define this and whether the definitions should be in the hands of the drug companies, which is very much what's happened in recent years.”

And if you think I exaggerate, please look to the drug company business plans – here, for example, one company’s projection is that “The Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) therapeutics market value will rise from $6.9 billion in 2013 to $9.9 billion by 2020, with broadening diagnostic criteria a key driver of growth”. That’s hot off the press, August 2014, and here’s their more in depth “reasons to buy”. And let’s not forget, this is about making money out of the attention and behavioural struggles of growing children. I write about ‘ADHD’ here, and comment on the medications here.

We have, says Prof Leemon McHenry, “a propaganda model of medical research” in which “drug promotion masquerades as scientific research” and one in which “Pharmaceutical companies have become the patrons of medicine” [4].


So devious is the drug industry track record that medical researcher Prof Peter Gøtzsche of the Cochrane Collaboration goes as far as to say: “Remind yourself constantly that we cannot believe a word of what drug companies tell us, neither in their research nor in their marketing or information to patients.”[7] What is beyond dispute is the wake of multibillion dollar legal fines following misconduct and illegal practices by the drug companies across the globe. Here are some of the big ones; I’ll leave you to do the maths.

“Yes, we are big, racking up $300 million in sales every day” says Pharma CEO

We really do need to be on our toes as the drug companies seek to infiltrate and manipulate so many aspects of our lives through: behind the scenes lobbying of government ministers here in the UK, creating front groups, funding patient groups (for say, ‘Bipolar Disorder’, ‘ADHD’) that the public expect to be unbiased, having their say surreptitiously in parenting web sites, getting people to complete online questionnaires that then indicate a particular disorder and treatment, influencing the scripts in TV soaps, having vested interests in many health web sites – the very places that are becoming the first place to look for health information. This is the "engineering of consent" (Bernays, 1947).

Pharma is much smarter and further ahead of the game than most people realise. What’s more, they have the profit power to do this. As one Pharma CEO boasts, their revenues for last year were $78 billion, and “yes, we are big, racking up $300 million in sales every day”. It's not that drugs are necessarily bad, but that our freedom to make informed choices is dependent on the honest and free availability of industry-independent analysis of the data – and it is this open access and transparency that drug companies so often resist.

The sinking of NHS Illustrious

It is also alarming that private health care firms with close ties to Tory donors (more details here) are being awarded vast sums under ‘health care reforms’ as the NHS – the envy of many a nation – is being dismantled and disabled by back-door creeping privatisation through misguided (and misleading) government policies and agendas. Yet again, this is not about the publics’ interests, but the profits of the privileged few.

The illusion of freedom in a free society – winners and losers

In Britain the gap between the rich and poor seems to be widening; in addition, a relatively small group of people still hold disproportionately high levels of wealth, power and influence. We also know that social deprivation, social inequality and income inequality are a significant predictor of mental and emotional problems in a person’s life. This isn't the hard won democracy (lit people + rule), the rule of the people that many have given their lives for. Sadly, something really isn't working is it? But this is not simply about propaganda or even misinformation, but like any battle, it is also about power, and power struggles too.

Inevitably a class-divided society becomes increasing volatile as deceit and manipulation lead to oppression. There are winners and losers, and in a society where the increase between those who have and those who have little continues to rise, we can expect not only a rise in social unrest and civil disorder, but also widespread mental, emotional and social problems. The idea that so-called ‘mental illness’ happens (and/or can be treated) outside of a social and interpersonal context is a misleading one. 

More and more I am realising that conventional responses to personal concerns are not sufficient and leave people still looking for answers or feeling lost and abandoned. We have to get way beyond thinking in terms of anxiety, depression, mood disorders and the like as if they were specific entities or diseases that match predetermined treatments. The personal problems encountered are so often rooted in peoples' experiences of a society with contradictory messages and values – and these are destructive.

In a highly competitive power-seeking society, bombarded as we are from all sides – with unlimited information, propaganda, suggestion and deception – it's not easy to form authentic opinions or even a clear enough sense of who we are and a personal sense of meaningfulness or purpose. This needs much careful consideration in the stillness, if we can find it, aside from the competing 'voices' all around us that are fighting for our attention and obedience.

I am finding that people often experience liberation through being able to see more clearly – on a personal, interpersonal, and societal level. I believe a crude reductionist and simplistic category-defined approach to personal concerns is a ‘convenient’ product of our times that can hinder our insight. To a significant degree we are being shaped and miss-shaped by a society that is ripe with contradictions and tensions: purporting to advocate freedom while ensnaring the majority, and where essential values of human decency can so often be suppressed by the drive and rule of profit-power serving motives at large.

“But, by my love and hope I entreat you: do not reject your love and hope!"
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

© Mick Bramham 2014



References/Bibliography

[1] Chomsky, N. (2001) Propaganda and the Public Mind. Pluto Press, London; Chomsky, N. (2003) Understanding Power. Vintage Press, London; Chomsky, N. & Herman, D. (1994) Manufacturing Consent. Vintage Press, London.
[2] Chomsky, N. (1998) Profit over People. Seven Stories Press. New York.
[3] Democracy and Empire by Franklin Giggings. Review by Evander Bradley McGilvary. Duke University Press. See here.
[4] Hill, A. W. (1917) The Flora of the Somme Battlefield. Kew Bull. Misc. Information, Nos. 9 and 10, pp. 297-300.
[5] Welch, H.G. (2011) Over-diagnosed: Making people sick in the pursuit of health. Massachussets: Beacon Press.
[6] Heath, I. Combating disease mongering: Daunting but nonetheless essential. PLoS Medicine April 2006 Vol 3 Issue 4
[7] Gøtzsche, P. (2013). Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare. Radcliffe Publishing. London/New York

Answer to earlier question: Spoof!

Mick Bramham is an Existential Psychotherapist based in Dorset, UK.
He has a particular interest in ethical issues and also in how our lives are shaped by the society, circumstances and culture in which we live.
Mick was Executive Director of a crisis response and mental health charity for over 20 years - working in partnership with social care and health - in support of socially marginalised (including those homeless) people.
He has an ongoing interest in the theory, practice, and policy-making in regard to what is generally referred to as 'mental health'.
You can read more about his work and find his contact details here.
Follow Mick on Twitter @MickBramham

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